By Casey Fletcher
The fourth incarnation of the Hunter Invitational at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga was sold to me by a close friend as one of the more engaging exhibits that the museum has run in some time. The collection of eight working artists invited by the Hunter’s contemporary curator and UTC art history professor Nandini Makrandi was on display September 12 through December 30, 2018. On a dreary Saturday in December, I made the trip up to the second-floor gallery space to take a look.
At the entrance to the gallery space is a warm-up of sorts with several earth-tone paintings by Chattanooga-based artist Amanda Brazier. The paintings of cross-hatched lines made from pigments that she collects from the land around her home reference weaving techniques and – combined with their hypnotic, quiet, labored surfaces – the paintings have a monastic quality to them. Next to Brazier’s is the work of Johnson City’s own Mindy Herrin that carry more religious undertones. Her sculptures and drawings on the struggles of womanhood, such as Saint Sebastian in a wall-mounted sculpture and overized rings that echo Catholic reliquaries, utilize biblical motifs and appear to create their own symbology and mythical canon. They have a redemptive quality too: the flesh-meets-steel aesthetic parallels the work of HR Geiger but subverts and elevates S&M sexual pain into a reflection of the pain of one’s sex.
Across the room from Herrin is Andrew Scott Ross, whose work deals with the structure of modern museums through a floor installation and behind it a separate wall installation, both using copy paper and newsprint to suppose what a museum could look like in an alternate timeline. The floor installation has such painstakingly made intricacies it’s a shame for it to be overshadowed by the bright and boisterous salon-style arrangement directly behind it. Next to this are the fabric assemblages of Nashville artist Vadis Turner who, like Herrin’s and Brazier’s, deals with issues relating to womanhood. Of the three dealing overtly with said theme Turner’s handling of it feels recycled and inelegant by comparison. Herrin’s delicate 8”x10” graphite drawings say much more with less, depicting figures so softly rendered and fragile in their posture that you’d think twice before breathing on them. There’s also an admirable restraint in Brazier’s line paintings that summons the same feelings as an Agnes Martin that the 127” Object Heirloom misses.
Walking into the next room, off to the left there are five paintings by Charles Ladson from Macon, GA. Along with Brazier’s muted brown palette and Herrin’s southern-gothic imagery, they contribute to a Southern-Americana tone felt throughout the show. The paintings show signs of labor, with layers of palette knife scraped marks, mature colors, and thoughtful composition. They are markedly flat, and this – combined with surfaces that are made to look cracked and weathered – appear almost like early icon paintings. The three largest works especially have this icon quality to them with their channeling of the surreal through skewed proportions of scale and space. Further down in the back-left corner is a portfolio of sorts by Chattanooga graphic designer and graphic novelist Tara Hamilton. Hung in a salon style, similar to Ross, Hamilton exhibits slice-of-life editorial illustrations and work from a collaborative post-apocalyptic graphic novel titled ARRO. The work feels youthful and nostalgic, for better or worse, and I suspect would be well received among those who can appreciate the skate-art of someone like Ed Templeton or a screening of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Hamilton is less concerned with heady conceptual trappings and more interested in creating clear narratives through clean and fashionable imagery. It works almost entirely, except for the decision to include a TV showcasing more artwork from the ARRO series, which in and of itself is fine, but it’s paired with a soundtrack set to a volume that cannot be unheard once walking away to other parts of the gallery.
The soundtrack feels particularly intrusive while viewing the kinetic sculpture of Knoxville artist John Douglas Powers on the other side of the room. His piece Tumulus consists of three groupings of dozens of 3D-printed strands of varying shades of green, each moving in rhythmic back-and-forth motion. Each cluster is powered by its own electric motor attached to an exposed cam-shaft which, if isolated from the music in Hamilton’s corner, would be an entirely hypnotic drone. Even still, the piece is impossible not to spend time with. It has a distinctly southern component in its handling of artifice, depicting a contrived and curated nature scene that lives in the uncomfortable uncanny valley between nature and pageantry.
Bookending the space, a hundred feet opposite of Ross’s work are three monumental paintings by Sisavanh Phouthavong. At first glance the work seems to have just as little to do with Southern issues, and to a point that’s true. Her work recounts the destruction and chaos of Secret War in Laos that spilled over from the war in Vietnam from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Like a more contemporary and colorful Guernica they elicit the sublime wonder and horror of aerial bombardment and – intentional or otherwise – the humming of Power’s motors contributes to the sense of bombers gradually approaching. Then one notices the paintings are made up of several smaller canvases for ease of transport which is speaking to the circumstances facing migrants and refugees. Phouthavong’s use of graffiti-like mark-making certainly speak to the poverty, displacement, and dissent of refugee life, but at the same time relay the suspicion and perceived threat of the other held by a more secure and comfortable population.
Despite some curatorial hiccups, the show is hung smartly overall with thematic and formal threads smoothly connecting the individual bodies of work. It feels distinctly southern with so much work carrying mystical qualities and with so little cynicism. It doesn’t feel particularly challenging, maybe to some who aren’t as concerned with contemporary art as those of us spending our waking hours reading or writing for this publication, but that’s fine. The exhibit is more concerned with celebrating a year of hard-working, capable artists and feels appropriately celebratory.
Casey Fletcher is an artist, writer, fabricator, and machinist currently living in Chattanooga, TN.