art criticism

Black Artists Respond to Confederate Flag Imagery in Artwork in Nashville Scene

Laura Hutson, arts editor for Nashville Scene is publishing interviews with Black artists from the region. She asks them to respond to the controversy around Sheila B.’s “Southern Motel” painting, which was taken down at Acme Feed & Seed two weeks ago.

First, she talks to Donna Woodley, a Memphis-born, Nashville-based artist who is currently pursuing an MFA in Boston. Hutson asks Woodley what she would say to Sheila B. if she could attend Friday’s forum. “If she were there,” Woodley says, “I would like to think that she’d give a little about her background. I would like to know what the Confederate flag as a symbol meant for her growing up. Just to kind of get an idea of where her head is as far as including the image in her work. I would really listen closely to that.”

(Hutson also reports that Sheila B. will not be attending the forum, as she will be out of town.)

John Sims',

John Sims’, “The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag” at Schmucker Gallery, Gettysburg.

Hutson will be publishing interviews with John Sims and Brandon Donahue soon, so keep checking in with her on Country Life. Sims is a fascinating artist; check out his Recoloration Proclamation, in which he re-colors the Confederate flag and others. Sims is bold and meticulous. According to Stephen Tragreser of the Scene, he used Dred Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? piece from the 80s as a springboard for a new work called The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag. Sims hung it from a gallows with a noose. Once you start looking, examples of Black artists using the flag to make statements about racial strife in America abound. I hope this will be part of the discussion at Friday’s forum.

This evening, a few of my friends posted an essay on social media called “I, Racist” by John Metta. Metta delivered the essay to a white congregation at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ on Sunday, June 28th. If I could name a required reading for the forum on Confederate flag imagery in artwork, this would be it! Metta breaks down white privilege and white fragility so simply, even for us thick-headed white folks who don’t spend much time considering ways that we’ve benefited from the oppression of people of color in America. Metta’s sermon hits its crest with this point:

“Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.”

This calling of white America has been happening for years. Black people have been telling us this our whole lives, but we haven’t listened. Let’s stop being offended and start listening. Props to Laura Hutson for her contributions to the conversation.

Julia Martin Moves Discussion to Larger Space to Accommodate All + Thoughts on Art Criticism

Lots of great news here. Julia Martin has planned a panel discussion for Friday, as I wrote about last week. Martin wrote to her mailing list yesterday:

What was initially planned as an intimate open forum discussion, with members of our local arts community coming together to discuss the How’s and Why’s behind the removal of a painting by a prominent local artist from a prominent local business, has taken on a life of its own. And rightly so considering the current social climate.

She announced today that the talk will be held at White Avenue Studio: 2517 White Ave, Nashville, Tennessee 37204 at 5:30 pm. 

Also, Martin has asked Stephanie Pruitt to moderate the discussion. Stephanie is an established poet and artist from Nashville. She is also an advocate for artists and a public speaker, and she’s been helping Nashville artists learn how to be self-sustaining with their work.

Martin has sought out a larger venue to accommodate all who would like to gather and discuss racially charged imagery in art. In my opinion, Martin is acting as a leader in our artistic community. It takes courage to pull off something like this, as well as to take criticism as well as she has. Hope to see some of you there.

I think this opens up a different debate that I’d like to engage as well (later on.) We have some wonderful arts writers in this town. Laura Hutson’s art reviews in the Scene get better and deeper every week. Sara Estes is bringing serious art criticism to the Tennessean and providing her crazy art knowledge in her column over at BURNAWAY. Joe Nolan is a tireless foot soldier who helps us all connect more with the art around us. Megan Kelley’s insights have shaken me to my core. Tony Youngblood’s column in Nashville Arts shines light on arts organizations and initiatives that would otherwise not be in the public eye. There are others, too.

Some people have pointed out that it’s not the role of the art critic to discuss social issues like these. If we believe art is necessary to experiencing the full range of human emotion, that artists should seek to further their skills and conceptual basis, and that an arts community includes dialogue about the art itself, then arts writers should feel a calling to comment on social issues. When we begin perceiving art in a vacuum, we miss the point. Or rather, there is no point. Without the human experience, we have nothing to say. It’s the lived experiences of human beings that contextualizes art objects and makes us feel, when looking at a painting by Sheila B. or Khalo or de Kooning, that there is a greater story to tell than our own, that we exist in a continuum of voices, and that we are not alone. I will continue asking questions of myself and others that enrich my human experience and create a more just and equitable city, and I ask my colleagues to continue doing the same. We are producing good work in Nashville. Let’s keep at it and be even better.

Field Notes on Paddy Johnson’s Talk at Seed Space Event

Yesterday, Paddy Johnson gave a talk at Nashville Public Library as part of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! series. Johnson is the founding editor of the New York arts blog Art F City. She’s a sharp, pull-no-punches critic, and the blog is smart, hip, and bold. The talk comes on the heels of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! talk with Hyperalleric editor Hrag Vartanian. Here’s what Holland Collins had to say about both in NYT:

“Regular gigs in mainstream print journalism have all but dried up, but the Internet offers ambitious options in a growing number of blogazines including Art F City (edited by Paddy Johnson) and Hyperallergic (edited by Hrag Vartanian), which combine criticism, reporting, political activism and gossip on an almost-24-hour news cycle.

“And although both are based in New York, they include national coverage and in a feisty mix of voices, a welcome alternative to the one-personality blog of yore. That mix would probably be even more varied, and transcultural, if a few forward-thinking, art-minded investors would infuse some serious capital into such enterprises so they could pay writers a living wage and make online freelance writing a viable way of life.”

Johnson began Art F City as a single author blog ten years ago. She opened the talk by describing these humble origins, admitting off the bat that in the beginning, she feared being discovered as a fraud. “When you talk sometimes it is from a point of ignorance.” You have to do the research, and sometimes, it’s on an entirely new subject or artist. She added that there is still agency in that, and that it’s not all that unusual. “Ignorance takes courage,” she said, and her courage has paid off. When reading Johnson, I’ve always pegged her as a formidable expert on all things art, and all things culture, for that matter. But she does the legwork like anyone else and has trained her eye over the past decade.

Nashville arts writer Sara Estes commented that while she sometimes researches an artist deeply before writing a review, other times she wants to write from a blank place, allowing the work to work on her without prior conceptions. Johnson stressed understanding the context of an artwork; yes, she reads the artist statement and press releases. Yes, she tries to see if the artist’s intentions match the output. “Understanding art is understanding context,” she said. She also noted that learning about art does change your taste, and a way to get sharp at writing criticism is to practice in comments sections and on social media. Engaging in discussions teaches you how to think.

Mainly, I appreciated Johnson talking about the vulnerability in writing about art. I think that we (rightly) see that in artists themselves: putting out work that is important to you, that is in fact an extension of you, is hugely courageous. But just as courageous is writing about art in a way that “adds something more and better,” as Gilda Williams writes in How to Write About Contemporary Art. Nashville arts writers get knocked all the time for not dissing work enough. A Watkins student was just complaining about Scene coverage at Johnson’s workshop for the NFA program. But there are very few writers here and a lot to cover, and sometimes, it’s more useful to cover the stuff that’s worthy of consideration and let the rest be at peace in the shadows. This can totally change, as so much else has, but I love hearing successful critics talk because it makes us realize that excellent art criticism is a craft in itself that is difficult and scary, takes constant honing and practice, and requires natural talent. Kind of like making art, right? (So artists, give us a break.)

Art F City is funded in part by ads, mostly through grants, and through an annual benefit and silent auction. (Tickets are on sale now!) It was an inspiring talk, and like her writing, Johnson was honest and forthright. Laura Hutson has more takeaways on Country Life. Nashville artist, writer, and maker Megan Kelley has been documenting artist talks and events in her sketchbook, and she gave me permission to post her notes from the talk here. I’m glad Kelley is documenting what’s been happening in contemporary art in Nashville. Check out her notes from Hrag Vartanian’s talk as well, in case you  missed it. 10985033_10101990674749052_8084869732963067557_n