T E N
“I am fortunate to have a group of good friends who are some of the most amazing contemporary artists. Some of the best, really, and I believe they represent the next wave of great American art. The ten artists that I have chosen for this show are not only highly respected by their peers for the dedication and success, they are also some of the nicest people you could ever meet. I am honored not only to show you their work but also to call them friends.”
story by Elizabeth Leighton Jones
rom the front lawn of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, a songbird carols from the top of the steel bust of Phineas Gage*. Forged and fabricated out of found objects, the whimsical industrial sculpture by metal artist Gordon Chandler bears a striking resemblance to See-Threepio’s much larger, much rustier country cousin.
Phineas Gage’s quixotic eyes focus contemplatively on a granite sculpture by Maria Artemis (Kairos, 2009), and nearby, Andrew Crawford’s enormous stainless steel Scissors open wide as if to cut a pattern from the lawn. The three large sculptures are part of T E N -- a stunning exhibit of American contemporary art that includes paintings, works in graphite and colored pencil, collage, a video montage, sculpture, and a variety of mixed media artwork. Conceived and curated by local sculptor and Morgan County resident Thomas Prochnow, the exhibit displays a fascinating and diverse body of work by 10 nationally and internationally renowned artists, all of whom call Georgia home.
On this fine day, small groups of jean-clad fifth graders are streaming past the watchful gaze of Phineas Gage and up the stairs of the cultural center. The nine and ten-year old students have walked across town to tour the regional history museum, the reproduction 1895 classroom and the exhibition of T E N, which is installed in three galleries on the second floor of the building.
Though they only have a few short minutes in the galleries, the children immediately respond to the various paintings and mixed media pieces on display. In Gallery II Crush (2009), one of Rocio Rodriguez’ abstract paintings -- a 72”x109” acrylic full of controlled energy, motion and color -- generates a slew of comments. The fifth graders vie with one another to point out the elements that the painting calls to mind: an explosion, a large city, an amusement park, a fire reflected in a lake, a flying car.
The docent warns the children that the gallery is a “no touch zone” but the children automatically move into the artwork’s “personal” space as if drawn by a magnet. It’s as if the children are coming face to face with a living, breathing entity. Rocio’s paintings, Gordon Chandler’s charming and somehow regal Kimono’s made from steel drums, Richard Sudden’s loose canvas “Life Form” paintings and Don Cooper’s mesmerizing concentric circles in shades-of-gray -- all find an enthusiastic audience.
Next door in Gallery I, Maria Artemis’ artwork and video installation create a furor of interest when the docent asks the group to describe what they are seeing and experiencing. Her question jump-starts a dialogue between the lively and receptive fifth graders and the art – one that is whimsical, fascinating, often surprising, and over far too soon, as they are called down the hall to the next presentation on the graded school and civil war history.
Scope for the Imagination
Jasmine Lietch lags behind her classmates. The slender, talkative young girl doesn’t know that the artwork tucked into these three galleries have been created by contemporary artists whose work can be found in prestigious museums, metropolitan green spaces, office buildings, restaurants, botanical gardens, and in private collections around the world. But something in the art speaks to her and she listens. Jasmine especially likes the work of Gary Hudson, a Madison native son (deceased 2009) and the longer she stands in front of the two large panels in Gallery III, the more she sees. When asked if she likes the paintings, she nods emphatically.
But, contemporary art isn’t always so well received. In the eyes of one viewer, Julie Jones Boulee’s oil paintings are “just big black circles surrounded by a bunch of color” – seen as simplistic, unattractive, perhaps even inscrutable. Still, for Jasmine and other lovers of abstract expressionism, the art form is a pair of canvas wings that can launch them outside the box of realism. It is scope for the imagination and the spirit that is exhilarating and challenging.
Abstract expressionism has the ability to shatter perceptions and evoke primal emotions. It can be the force that drives strong feelings or challenging thoughts like a tamping rod through our heads – with explosive results sometimes. And while it can certainly evoke humor, wonder, antipathy or confusion; it can also evoke stronger and less benign reactions such as anxiety, fear or even horror.
Something in the Room
A lone woman has hastened out of Gallery III mumbling about a malignant spirit in the room. The room is empty but for the art, static, unmoving, and yet the woman has fled as if a wolf was on her heels. It is clear she has encountered the work of Benjamin Jones.
This incredibly reclusive artist has achieved world-wide critical acclaim. He is the winner of the highly coveted Tiffany fellowship. His pieces are part of the permanent collections in the Whitney Museum and MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City, among many others. And, beyond a shadow of a doubt, his artwork evokes the hair-raising feeling of something in the room. If Steven King drew graphic novels, Benjamin Jones’s perfectly disturbed, childishly frightful, gorgeously wounded images would haunt the panels.
Most of the 11 graffito-like pieces are in graphite and colored pencil, some stark in black and white, some shouting with color. They have titles such as “Night Visitor”, “Death of a Playmate”, “Lost Connection”, and “Exile.” And it’s easy to see why one might flee from the small, brilliant representations that reflect parts of the human soul that are anxious, terrified, wounded, disturbed, or troubled.
In the same gallery, Todd Murphy’s three mixed media paintings also bring something into the room – often by incorporating a very physical collage element(s) onto the canvas. Murphy’s paintings, which include a silver dress, an owl, and a stag, are the most representational art in the exhibit, but they have an surreal sensibility as well, with their stark monochrome backgrounds and multi-dimensional components. The images, which appear photographic in their realism, seem to hover in the room as if they were holographic or 3-D. The dress shimmers into the room as if worn by an invisible dancer. The branch the owl sits upon stands off the canvas and casts a sinewy shadow alongside its painted twin. The stag appears ready to leap out of the black night, one real horn jutting out of the canvas as it turns to face the viewer.
Todd Murphy’s work hangs next to Benjamin Jones’ intensely graphic work, which shares wall and floor space with fellow artists Julie Jones Boulee, Gary Hudson, and Andrew T. Crawford. And they in turn share the exhibition with Richard Sudden, Gordon Chandler, Maria Artemis, Rocio Rodriguez and Don Cooper. Ten artists, each one bringing something unique, something new into the room, yet for all of that, they are wildly diverse. What is the common element?
The invisible eleventh element in the room, the connection point that brought this remarkable and influential group of contemporary artists together is Thomas Prochnow.
XI “Tommy Boy”
Most of the artists represented by T E N have achieved financial success, critical acclaim, or both. They have moved well past the point of doing group shows, or small gallery exhibitions, in fact, the show is almost a downsize. Yet every artist enthusiastically agreed to participate, and all but two attended the jam-packed reception on opening night – the highest attended reception in MMCC’s history.
Each artist said yes for one compelling reason: Thomas Prochnow. Thomas was not just the curator of T E N, he was a fellow artist, and more importantly, a good friend. Benjamin Jones affectionately calls him “Tommy Boy”.
Though his own sculptures are not a part of the exhibit, Thomas is the quiet mover, the invisible “XI” and the connection point that brought together this remarkable cadre of Georgia-based artists to Madison.
Stroll through the galleries and you’ll see something unusual: informal placards written by Thomas for each artist and installed alongside their art. They are his own personal reflections on his friend’s work. Sit down outside Gallery III and you will follow Thomas into each artist’s studio space during the process of selection. The result is like being given a golden ticket that lets you into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory, or in this case into the magical, mystical and often noisy creative work spaces of each artist. It is the element of friendship that gives this exhibit such a marked degree of intimacy, connectedness and warmth.
T E N is Thomas’s curatorial debut, and by his own admission, he loved it from start to finish, from inception, selection and installation all the way through to opening night, “I have these amazing friends. Some of the strongest artists in this region. I thought: we can do a great show. There’s no theme, they’re just my friends and they are incredibly talented artists. Hardly any of them needed to bring work to Madison. But, because they are my friends, they said, yes.” The result of that magnificent “yes” is T E N.
Take a walk across the lawn and through the galleries of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center before the exhibition ends on June 11th ** Phineas Gage is waiting.
Admission to the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center is $3 for adults, $2 for students and $2.50 for seniors. Children under 6 are free.
For more information on T E N go to http://www.mmcc-arts.org
* For the fascinating history of the real medical phenomenon Phineas Gage go to http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Phineas_Gage
T E N is slated to close June 11, but may be extended due to the overwhelming response. To contact the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center call 706.342.4743 • or 877.233.0598 (Toll free)
Printed in the June 9, 2011 edition