Collecting art is no less individual than creating it. Like many appreciators of fine art, I am both insatiably curious and admittedly intimidated by contemporary art. My latest breakthrough on the contemporary art front is that I am overthinking it! Going back to the words of my Painting 101 professor at the Memphis College of Art, “Let go, and lighten up!” Art is about exploration, not definition.
This conclusion is based on advice I recently received from David Lusk, who is well-known in Memphis for his extensive gallery collection of Southern and contemporary art. As of this month, David has two galleries: David Lusk Gallery (DLG) opened its doors to the Nashville community on March 1 in the burgeoning Wedgewood/Houston neighborhood.
Watching as David and his team installed the first show in Nashville, Opening, I noticed the unlimited features of contemporary art. There are works in a wide variety of media and techniques by 23 multigenerational artists (13 of whom are Tennesseans). Opening is exemplary of my original point: When it comes to contemporary art, don’t insist on a definition. Simply explore. (Opening will be at DLG Nashville through March 29.)
Here are five characteristics of contemporary art with examples of each, courtesy of DLG, to help us interact with this challenging art genre.
1. Contemporary art comes in all shapes and sizes.
Tad Lauritzen Wright is a game player who creates art in all shapes and sizes. He hopes, through his art — one-line drawings, word finds, instructions, shuffleboard tables, skateboards, paint-by-number collages, appropriation imagery and the like — that viewers will spend quality time with his works, not just take a cursory look.
Artist Greely Myatt’s work takes on a multitude of forms. He says: “Art is a verb! That’s the way I look at it. So it’s about doing. I generally start with an idea and then try to find materials and processes that best reflect that idea. Working always gives me ten more ideas, and then the biggest problem is finding the time to do them. So I start, try to pay attention to what the work is telling me, and then get out of the way.”
2. Contemporary art can be playful or have a more a serious tone.
A life-changing experience provided Kathleen Holder with her quest of expressing the energy, intuition and forces that shape individual lives into her work. Layer upon layer of pastel color is built up and burnished by hand into what Holder has called psychic, abstract landscapes. Each piece, while exceedingly minimal in tone and composition, has great depth of both color and form and, as we are observing today, emits a serious tone.
Leslie Holt captures not only the playful tone of a child’s birthday party, but also the complex feelings of a party coming to an end in her most recent body of work, “Help Yourself.” The depiction of highly texturized hunks of cake, frosting and cake crumbs are intensified by a thick application of paint.
3. Contemporary art reflects the present time, addressing issues relevant to our daily lives.
A recent move back to her childhood home in Nashville provided artist Mary Addison Hackett with a fresh take on her career as a painter. Hackett tells of her return to Tennessee from the West Coast in a painter’s terms: “Abstraction seemed inadequate as I began opening closets and drawers that contained ready-made vignettes from the past, and gradually the work became a direct response to my surroundings.”
In a review in the Memphis Commercial Appeal about Maysey Craddock’s work, Fredric Koeppel wrote: “Craddock tells us that what is natural is not always pleasant, and that nature’s courses may be hideously destructive, or reach ‘the sublime’ where beauty, awe and terror are equally mixed.”
4. Contemporary art is usually a representation of the artist’s personal experiences.
Hamlett Dobbins’ elaborate weaving of shapes and forms results from his intense scrutiny and emotional attachment to the people who inspire each painting. Although each painting is “Untitled,” each also bears a series of initials (i.e. “for D.A.L./T.F.”), which is shorthand acknowledging the person or experience that initiated the artwork. (A Hamlett Dobbins’ solo exhibition at David Lusk Gallery Memphis, The Attendant, is on display through April 19.)
In an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Andria Lisle described Jared Small’s captivating approach as similar to the mysterious obsession with the vernacular of the South. She wrote, “Small’s impetus to find beauty in the dilapidation is, likewise, a purely Southern sentiment that’s most often manifested in photographs of kudzu-overtaken barns and rusted tractors.”
5. Contemporary art is often a study of pure shape and form.
Artist Kelly S. Williams prefers her work to speak for itself — as curious domestic spaces and rich landscapes that are left open to the viewer’s interpretation. “I’m notoriously ‘anti-description.’ I suppose it’s because I feel my paintings are pretty easy to read (and I like that).”
Masking tape, rulers and X-acto blades are only a few of the tools that Mark Bradley-Shoup uses to create his works on paper and canvas. Photographs of urban and rural landscapes are deconstructed to build up texture and emphasize certain angles and colors. The result is a work void of any photorealistic qualities — that effectively plays with negative space and flat geometric shapes to infer issues of our economic culture.
These five off-the-cuff characteristics are simple guidelines for navigating contemporary art. If you hope to start or build on a collection, or just want to bring color and texture into your home with a meaningful piece of artwork, jot this list down for your next contemporary art exploration. Lighten up and enjoy!
While it is no replacement for a live viewing at the David Lusk Gallery in Memphis, and now in Nashville, too, take a preliminary tour of the curated collections at DLG here: davidluskgallery.com