By Catherine Rush
“It just feels gross,” says Stephanie Loggans, one of the six members of the VERSA team, with a shrug turning to Dylan Pew, another VERSA member. The two sit across the booth from me at San Marcos, a Guatemalan restaurant in Chattanooga. Dylan nods along. “Gross,” is their shared sentiment in response to my question, do you or will you ever show your own work at VERSA? “We would rather promote artists,” Stephanie continues carefully, “and be nurturing that, than doing self-promotion.”
Loggans and Pew, along with Dana Ortega, Anne Daniels, Chloë George, and Alesha Lee, launched their first show as VERSA Gallery, an artist-run collective and gallery within the radical Presbyterian interfaith center Mercy Junction, in March of this year. The six members met in art school at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and came together, Pew tells me, with the shared goal of growing “some kind of community after graduation.” Leaning into the Latin root, vers/vert meaning turn, as in vice versa, VERSA aims to challenge “the relationship between curator and artist…mixing up the hierarchy,” Loggans explains.
Residing in a 320-square-foot room, VERSA takes no commission from art sales and, although their rent is low, currently share expenses out-of-pocket. The gallery encourages experimentation and prioritizes collaboration with artists and cross-disciplinary exchange, keeping all openings free and public. Before landing the room at Mercy Junction, they planned to get a box truck and make a traveling gallery. VERSA may stay in Mercy Junction for a while, if the space itself survives, or it may end up at satellites in Chattanooga. “VERSA is us,” Loggans clarifies, “it’s more us than Mercy Junction.”
Pew and Loggans lead me into the dingy but colorful Mercy Junction. Vintage clothes on hangers adorn the street side sign. I glance downstairs where renovations are underway in time to catch a small rat scuttling around a bend. Mercy Junction houses many different organizations and groups, including an adult daycare and a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Stray dogs seek refuge in an outdoor clearing in the center of the building. Upstairs the smell of still-fresh paint lingers. VERSA Gallery, tucked behind a spacious conference room, exudes a kind of warmth, alight with the pastel and florescent hues, thick textures, and amorphous, abstracted shapes of Kirby Miles and Alyssa Klauer’s canvases and panels.
Miles attended UTC with VERSA and, when contacted regarding showing her work, suggested that Klauer, who currently attends Cranbrook Academy of Art, exhibit work with Miles. The artists selected the title, reversing to nowhere. Re-turning to vers/vert, what is it to turn back (reverse) to nowhere?
Miles’s work implies excavation, negotiating the intersection between the verbal and the visual. In a Sea of Blood peels back layers, laying bare the scratched-out letters JUST BREAKING BONES arising out of a stagnant vat of green. Two Walls and But I Gave in Filled with Holes, featuring the respective titles carved into panel, carry a sense of stripping back, fragments flirting with impulses of abandon, disillusion, entrapment, within a kind of comforting, etsy-esque whimsy. Similarly, For Those Who Understand Crying in the Shower presents a cut up text, peeking out beneath layers, alluding to a moment of isolated agitation and overflow. In contrast, The Fleshy Middle builds out, bulbous and with a fabricated drip. Vaguely sexual, this fleshy middle may be a soft stomach, genitals, or an imagined area otherwise vulnerable and potent. You Ruined my Birthday alternately presents a redacted text, something smoothed over with a thick layer of cake batter and sprinkles.
Klauer’s three pieces in the show contemplate a feminine form twisted into various still life scenarios. Bust #4 inverts a bust, the head as base sinking into the neck and supporting a wing-like body, the face’s gaze spun off in a kind of anxiety, boredom, or uncertainty. The Ultimate Skoopski arranges a Dali-esque landscape, reminiscent of artists like Robert Jessup. A face with glazed-over eyes stares off over a crystalline structure and a yonic, wavy, shell-like arrangement. The punch of the piece comes from the single smiling frozen french fry face, centered. Limb-like clouds hang overhead, contributing to the feeling of indulgent, maybe even problematic, sensuality.
Birthday Suit, to me the most striking piece in the show, turns the recurring feminine face directly out, addressing the viewer. White-gloved fingers crossed before an owl mask, the painting has me recalling the climax of The Story of O, when O, having submitted to everyone within the secret society to which her lover belongs, is led out before the party, naked except for an owl mask and leash linked to her labial piercing. Often considered a story of the ultimate objectification of a feminine form, in the context of Klauer’s painting, the body is altered into such a twisted object that both the potential subjectivity AND objectivity of it, as such, are compromised. The crossed fingers and straightforward gaze complicate the submission of the object, implying not only choice but also a kind of duplicitous, trickster enjoyment.
Miles and Klauer’s work side by side in reversing into nowhere stirs a re-turning back to a reflexive, imagined space, but where? A nowhere of the feminine body, a nowhere of the materiality of the language of emotional exhaustion and joy, an embrace of immanence based out of embodied transcendence, a transcendence transferred also into hammered, harrowed language?
A terrific pairing of artists in a space wrought organically from a web of friendships and mutuality, VERSA’s presentation of Kirby Miles and Alyssa Klauer in reversing into nowhere heralds an exciting turning point within a turning point, symbolic yet literal, flexing into faux-flesh and true wonder, a soft space, a creative matrix of high potential.
Catherine Rush is a writer, organizer, and performer currently living in Atlanta,