Oracle by Merrilee Challiss

Art of the Week

Among the more popular forms of visual art, representation is, in a way, everything. Paintings and sculptures are generally formed to represent something the viewer can (consciously or unconsciously) relate to — a feeling, a figure, a place. But how does that dynamic change when a visual artist works with the real thing? Rather than represent a figure through visual materials, what if they apply those materials to the actual figure itself?

It’s a challenging and engrossing question that’s answered in the latest exhibition at WeHo’s Julia Martin Gallery, “In the Key of Moon” by Merrilee Challiss, running until January 25, 2020.

The show features a range of sculpture and painting by Challiss, a multimedia artist who lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama. Perhaps most notably, it features work from Challiss’ “spirit animal taxidermy” collection, a process in which she adorns stuffed deer with sequins and costume jewelry to create pieces that seem to be coming through gallery walls from another realm entirely. The pieces ultimately convey something that the artist can feel as she works with actual animal remains: the living spirit of their former selves.

“As I ‘remake’ the animals into fantastical creatures, my hands in contact with the fur and skin, I am often overwhelmed with feelings for the creatures, for what their life was like and what their life, and death, represent in my hands,” as Challiss put it on her website. “I am interested in metamorphosis, transformation and evolution. The deer are in the act of becoming something else — a dragon, a bird, a lizard, a serpent, for example — transforming alchemically into other beings.”

Orcale provides a clear example of this alchemy. Instead of the more traditional mounting used for taxidermy, the heavily-adorned version Challiss has created appears more like a portal, an entry or exit point through which the figure is transforming — an effect that is accentuated with the use of colored lighting. The deer itself is decorated with mosaic patterns and reflective shards, elements that appear to reinterpret natural coloration and symmetries in a cosmically touched way.

The elaborate spangling is a process for the artist that may speak to the effect the work will ultimately have on viewers. As Challiss creates a spirt animal, the reverence and thankfulness she feels is clear in the elevation and celebration apparent in the final product.

“The act of asking animals for forgiveness has become a meditation in my work, and is meant for the deer as well as for all the animals of the world,” she wrote. “I believe we must all do this spiritual remediation work here in our lifetime on earth, say we are sorry, ask for forgiveness, to begin to heal our rift with mother nature.”

Challiss holds a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her work has been exhibited throughout the Southeast, including at Art Basel, and throughout the country since the early 2000s.

“In the Key of Moon” will be accompanied by a simultaneous exhibition of drawings and pages from Kevin Reilly’s graphic novel Birthplace of the Saints and the gallery will also host a selection of pieces from jewelry designer Ruby Jack.

Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys Street in WeHo.

Walk Across Water By Scott E. Hill

Art of the Week

A guiding impetus for centuries of painting has been the attempt to represent sheer forces of nature, in all of their power and overwhelming glory. It’s an edict that has inspired countless landscape paintings — not to mention poems, novels and more — and one that remains just as compelling today as it was in the 19th century.

For proof, look no further than Scott E. Hill’s latest work on display at Bennett Galleries in Green Hills, Walk Across Water. While it echoes the legacy of Romantic landscapes, it does so with some thoroughly contemporary sensibilities.

“The work of artist Scott E. Hill is at once old-fashioned and sophisticated,” according to a statement provided by the gallery. “His paintings are reminiscent of a long-gone style found in the brooding landscapes of 16th century Spanish artists and the shadowy, gilt-framed works of 19th century Romanticism.”

Though the tempest in Walk Across Water harkens to the somber, overwhelming landscapes of centuries-old art movements, Hill balances this legacy force with a gentle and magical figure in the foreground. In one interpretation, this glittering insertion of fantasy may speak to the work’s underlying balance — the weight and power of landscape painting as a history raging in the background while an undaunted manifestation of contemporary imagination glides before it.

Hill grew up in Northwest Georgia and his memories there serve as inspiration for much of his work. Many of his pieces employ a technique called glazing — one that was, perhaps, most famously leveraged by Vermeer — which involves brushing oil or varnish over a layer of paint and allowing the colors below to bleed through. This adds a richly aged element to the paintings, further emphasizing the parallels between Hill’s work and the history of visual art.

However, much like the dual elements in Walk Across Water, Hill’s larger oeuvre contrasts a penchant for art history with contemporary experimentation.

“Although he works primarily with oil, Hill also experiments with watercolors, coffee stains and oil pastels, and has an impressive body of graphite drawings as well,” per Bennett Galleries. “Regardless of medium, a limited palette and a skilled hand convey a certain mood … much the same as that sense of tranquility that follows a summer storm, as well as the quiet violence that precedes it.”

Bennett Galleries is located at 2104 Crestmoor Road in Green Hills.

Rose by Dylan Moss

Art of the Week

Levity and absurdity can be more poignant lenses for exploring the human condition than overly self-serious avenues. Visual art in particular articulates this dichotomy, at once undercutting themes as complex as mortality and the passing of time while also interpreting them in valuable and thought-provoking ways (see: surrealism).

Adding to this legacy is Dylan Moss and his current show at Elephant Gallery, “Infinite Goof,” the title of which alludes to novelist David Foster Wallace’s own subversive, high/low epic exploration of life’s greatest mysteries. The show, Moss’ first solo exhibition, includes illustration, large-scale airbrush and acrylic paintings in which he wrestles with significant philosophies in unconventional ways. It runs until December 30, 2019.

“A native of Baltimore, Moss settled in Nashville in 2017 and immediately attracted attention with his unique, trippy line and subject matter ranging from social justice and consumerism to the oddity of being a human being in this insane world,” according to a release from the gallery.

Rose, a large-scale airbrush painting, for instance, puts an obvious focus on one of our most overly-symbolized blooms. But through airbrushing and emphasis on the flower’s thorns, the piece seems to beckon more toward tattooing or black light posters than it does toward, say, a Monet. The large safety pin and cartoonish hummingbird engulfed in the tangled, winding flower seem also to add to the “trippyness,” subversion and overt symbolism.

This is not the first time Elephant Gallery has put the spotlight on art’s ability to be both comedic and dramatic, perhaps even cynical, simultaneously. Its recent production of “Smoke Show” featured artists from around the country elevating one of life’s most maligned simple pleasures in original and interesting ways. The approach is becoming something of a trademark for the North Nashville curators.

Moss has exhibited previously at OZ Arts.

Elephant Gallery is located at 1411 Buchanan St.

Redskin by Omari Booker

Art of the Week

Those who follow the art scene in Nashville are likely familiar with Omari Booker. He’s a graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy and Tennessee State University; a visual artist whose work is regularly exhibited in the area; and he has served as a local curator, instructor and founder of the Jefferson Street Art Crawl.

Booker’s work often reflects issues of race and class in America, usually through a lens that is unique to his experience in Nashville. He ‘s framed portraits of African Americans using salvaged wood from demolished houses in Germantown and North Nashville and reflected on discriminatory lending practices in a local mural art project. The latest exhibition of his work here, a solo show called “Red Line” on view at Channel To Channel gallery until December 14, 2019, again elevates an issue of social justice that touches much of the country, including his hometown.

“The name [of the show] refers to the federal government’s creation of color-coded maps from the 1930s seeking to expand homeownership in America’s metropolitan areas,” according to a press release shared by the gallery. “The maps delineated areas preferred for investment based on racial and ethnic populations. Those deemed suitable for investment were outlined in blue or green while areas less desirable or considered hazardous were outlined in red.”

A historical map showing designations from the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation between 1935 and 1940 illustrates 48 percent of Nashville in red, including its northern and eastern neighborhoods.

Booker’s work for “Red Line” includes oil portraits on wood, outlined with red razor wire. It’s a material he used to accentuate societal barriers in a mural for Frist Art Museum’s “Murals of North Nashville Now” exhibition. In a historical context, the intention might be plain — figures of historic segregation literally oppressed by violent material. But, as he often does, Booker has also made a salient point about contemporary society that may be more uncomfortable and critical to grapple with.

“Booker believes current development, though no longer driven by redlining, still follows in the spirit of segregation,” Nashville’s News Channel 5 reported. “Especially when the development involves brand new modern homes popping up in historically black neighborhoods.”

In Redskin, for instance, the history of segregation against Indigenous Americans comes quickly to mind. But Booker’s portrait for the piece is nearly identical to the logo of the Washington Redskins, a professional football team that has maintained the same controversial moniker since 1933. In this piece, it’s clear that the segregating practices that were once commonplace in the country have left a lasting legacy to still be addressed.

“As [my work for the show] progressed, I investigated how division based on race has affected nearly every aspect of society in the United States,” Booker explained in a statement provided by the gallery.

Channel to Channel is located at 507 Hagan Street in We-Ho.

June Carter by Wayne White

Art of the Week

As any Nashvillian knows, it’s fairly common for interpretations of country music and its associated icons to emphasize the commercial and cliché. Take a walk down Broadway, for instance, and you’ll see the Johnny Cash gift shop and hear countless honky-tonk covers of Jolene.

But in “Bacon Grease & The Lost Song,” the exhibition on view at Julia Martin Gallery until November 30, 2019, the history of country music is interpreted in a way that is all too rare: as fine art.

In roughly 30 mixed media pieces from artists Jon Langford and Wayne White, figures like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and George Jones are rendered in intimate, personal and thought-provoking ways.

“Jon and Wayne are working to preserve these artists’ legacy, by bringing it to a medium not often associated with country music, fine art,” guest curator Daniel Lonow said in an statement provided by the gallery. “The goal of this exhibit is to honor the heroes who made this city what it is, by showing the work of two of my favorite artists.”

That goal is quickly achieved when assessing nearly any piece in the show.

Death of Country Music, a 2008 acrylic and mixed media piece on wood by Langford, portrays a skeletal country crooner in cowboy boots and hat, strumming a guitar, surrounded by the lyrics of the Waco Brother’s eponymous song. It creates a visual memento mori to match, underscore and elevate the (perhaps surprisingly) intense country music ballad.

June Carter, a 2019 mixed media piece on paper by White, presents the subject in colorful yet limited fashion, perhaps to emphasize her fleeting place in memory. Carter appears in mid-dance step, the fringes of her figure fading into a stark white background. Scrawled text floats at the top of the frame. It at once diminishes Carter’s persona as a legend of country music, one who may more regularly be portrayed in larger-than-life fashion, while adding new depth and intimacy to a viewer’s relationship with her.

“I’ve been a disciple of old ’40s, ’50s and ’60s country music since I was in high school,” White told The Tennessean. “I love illustrating the intimate, looked-over human moments. The small scale draws you in. I do it as an excuse to experiment with line and color, with looking and interpreting. I also do it out of love for these musicians.”

White is originally from Chattanooga and is now based in Los Angeles. He’s worked as an illustrator for The New York Times and Village Voice, a designer for the television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and as an art director for award-winning music videos. He is perhaps best known for his “word paintings,” which stylize massive text in otherwise traditional landscapes.

Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys Street in WeHo.

Birds in Flight by Jon Carsman

Art of the Week

After touring its acres of manicured grounds, artfully arranged botanicals, outdoor installations and historic mansion, it can be surprising to realize that the Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Belle Meade also has a modern wing housing visual art. Even more impressive is to find that when this section is not occupied by a traveling exhibition, it is filled with astounding selections from the Cheekwood Permanent Collection of Fine Art, including historically significant examples of American impressionism, abstract expressionism, pop art and more.

In its current exhibition from the collection, running until January 5, 2020, visitors will find work by renowned founders of the Ashcan School William Glackens and John Sloan, Nashville native and pop art trailblazer Red Grooms and postwar abstractionist Helen Frankenthaler. All together, it is more than enough to make the Cheekwood collection one of the most critical and impressive assemblages of 20th century American art anywhere in the world. And when a particular selection is on display, as it is now, it’s enough to make visitors wonder just how many more gems are still in storage.

In addition to about 600 paintings, the Cheekwood Permanent Collection of Fine Art includes thousands of prints, drawings, photographs and sculptures, most of which were created by American artists between 1910 and 1970. The collection was founded in 1959 when the Nashville Museum of Art turned over its holdings and, through millions of dollars in new acquisitions, has been growing ever since.

And, even among the incredibly historic and well-known paintings currently on display, Jon Carsman’s Birds in Flight stand out. At more than 5-foot tall and 4-foot wide, the work from 1974 draws attention from the brightly-colored impressions and large-scale abstractions of its colleagues — not least because of the stark contrast of shadow and color and thickly-rendered outlines of Carsman’s style.

“Carsman isolates strong areas of color in juxtaposition with dark outline, the colors become crystallized motifs with a sparkling, jewel-like quality,” as auction house RoGallery explained. “Color is the greatest emotional factor in painting and Carsman uses this device very successfully. Carsman paints broad areas of vivid high-key tones with a surprising effect that creates a dynamic interplay of light and shadow.”

Born among the Appalachian Mountain Range in Pennsylvania, Carsman is best known for depictions of natural and rural scenes in his trademark thickly-outlined style. In good company with Cheekwood’s other samples of distinctly American painting, Birds in Flight is recognized for its contemporary take on realism and working class sensibility, attitudes that reflect the moment in which it was painted and Carsman’s larger influence on American art at the time.

Carsman’s work was widely exhibited in the ’60s and ’70s, featured at Brooklyn College, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Coventry Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, among other places. Today, his work resides in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among others. He passed away in 1987.

The Cheekwood Estate & Gardens are located in Belle Meade, 1200 Forrest Park Drive.

Dolly Parton by Jim McGuire

Art of the Week

Portraiture is one of the most prevalent forms of visual art, but also one of the most difficult to parse. Particularly in an age when the average photograph taken is most likely a selfie, it’s easy to forget how personal, dramatic and affecting a portrait can really be.

Jim McGuire, a local photographer with a near-50 year career of creating portraits, reminds us of the artistic value that can come from placing a subject in front of the camera and clicking the shutter-release button. In “The Nashville Portraits,” an exhibition of his work on view at Belmont University’s Leu Art Gallery through December 6, 2019, one can find intimate and touching studies of some iconic subjects.

“From a young age, McGuire was drawn to hillbilly music, to the sounds, the emotion, the honesty, and then of course to the people who made it,” according to a release from Belmont. “Discovering country music changed his life in ways he couldn’t have dreamed. Over the past thirty-five years, he has had the good fortune to have met, photographed and befriended many of his musical heroes.”

This reverence for and firsthand intimacy with his subjects is perhaps what elevates the 1974 print Dolly Parton beyond a mere photograph and into the more intentional realm of a “portrait.” Parton is presented in much of her well-known “girl next door” glory — with a gentle smile, crossed legs and cradling her guitar. But the monochromatic lighting is also dramatic, offering a glow that seems to emanate directly from Parton. The piece achieves perhaps the loftiest goal that a portrait can: creating an immortal image of its subject that subtly, but definitively, articulates their individuality.

McGuire has been making photographs in Nashville since the early ’70s, creating portraits of regional royalty like Waylon Jennings and Barbara Mandrell. But in addition to creating intimate portraits of country music legends, McGuire has created photographs of live concerts, of dramatically staged scenes and of seemingly candid moments. His work has been featured on hundreds of album covers and collected in a “Nashville Portraits” book.

“Most of us have a drawer full of snapshots that remind us of the good times,” McGuire has said of the collection. “These are some of mine.”

Belmont University’s Leu Art Gallery is located in the Lila D. Bunch Library, 1907 Belmont Boulevard.