Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Terry's kids

This year has been a tough one at Watkins, with a debilitating series of events in which controversial student art precipitated an organizational crisis that led to the end of Terry Glispin’s term as chair of the Fine Arts Department. I wish you could look at what has gone on this year and say that Watkins comes out of the conflicts a stronger institution, but that would just be too pat a response to what is clearly a difficult situation with troubling implications.

<>If this year has involved a reckoning and ultimately a rejection by the institution of Glispin’s leadership, the test of his impact and success with this new-born program will be the work and success of the students who have completed the program. The last round of senior shows just went up from this year’s class of graduates, providing the material to start that evaluation. <>

Like anything, one’s assessment of the work by these students depends on your tastes and aesthetic allegiances. For someone committed to the idea of contemporary art that acknowledges and reflects the history of art leading to this point and responds honestly to the society and culture surrounding it, the art these students made is very strong. For anyone attached to dreams of aesthetic restoration, their output constitutes an embrace of what is evil in contemporaneity and an affont to traditionalist values. <>

I may write about the work by individuals at more length in separate posts. As a general overview, this exhibit shows a number of people who have defined distinctive, psychologically-attuned voices, often straining the edges of comfort. They employ different media, strategies and techniques, but most make sense within the context of one of the threads of contemporary art as practiced by younger artists today. Their work seems to keep pace with what you might see in other cities. For all their individuality, there are points of shared interest and cross-pollination within a group of people who have bonded as a community and developed organizational structures like the Secret Show series that extend outside the insular world of studios and classrooms. <>

The biggest surprise to me was Heather Spriggs-Thompson. I’ve seen several things by her over the last few months and was not sure where she was headed. Her work here is rawer than I expected, a set of messy, baroque clothing-objects that are artifacts from performances. You see Matthew Barney’s influence in the presentation, but she creates something more concrete, less mythopoetic and grandiose. Her voice is feminine and ferocious. <>

I wouldn’t say Will ClenDening represents an opposite pole to Spriggs-Thompson, but he does contrast in significant respects. He works along three paths: sculptural objects, machines, and videos. So far I’m not crazy about the videos, but he seems to have a real eye for sculptural form and a keen grasp of process. What strikes me most is his ability to make something out of the most minimal gesture or signal, which shows up in this show in an elaborately rigged automatic drawing machine. <>

Other artists in the class pick up similar subjects and qualities. Issues of gender identity pervade the work of Kristen Burton-Work and Jason Driskill, who have also collaborated on one video and who seem to be drawing off of each other, although to different purposes using different media. The power of stillness and small gestures comes out in Derek Gibson’s suite of videos of everyday, incidental spaces, although the tone of his work is solemn where ClenDening is wry. <>

For all their willingness to absorb the range of media available, the students do not seem to feel obliged to work in video, installation, or performance. Reflecting trends in the current art world, drawing, painting, and other 2D forms are definitely in the mix. Brett Smithson makes finely drawn surreal fantasies very much in tune with the sort of drawing by young artists that is getting attention in New York. Cherry Smith-Bell’s silhouettes of African-American figures clearly received inspiration from Kara Walker, but she uses the form in a more observational, realist way. It is a body of work that raises interesting questions about influence. <>

I’m not sure any one of the artists in these senior exhibitions rises to the level Shaun Slifer achieved in his Watkins senior show last year. By the time he left Watkins, Slifer had emerged as a compelling installation artist committed to a clear set of intellectual and political positions and with the architectural instinct to deliver them visually. To be fair, he also was given more room to work with in a show that took over the entire gallery space and annexed a part of the back parking lot. However, to my eye the pieces that have been on display the last 3 months make a clear case for the educational work of Glispin and his faculty colleagues. In next to no time, they created a degree program that generates artists who can create work that is coherent, substantial, effective, and challenging, and able to keep up with the broader cultural environment. I think the pedagogical strength of what has gone on at Watkins the last few years will only become clearer as these students develop and display more of their work and go on to graduate school or other career paths. If some of them stay around Nashville, we will see the effect.


  • I must complement you sir in directing significant credit to Terry and his fellow faculty. So much criticism has been directed toward them from various sources recently, it is refreshing to read an objective appraisal of what they have accomplished.

    By Blogger Derek Gibson, at 7:29 PM  

  • I am encouraged and flattered to see that someone offers, so articulately, objective critical analysis about my work and the work of my peers.

    It honors me to attribute any success in the continuing development of my artwork to Terry Glispin and Barbara Yontz. They have together challenged, inspired and nurtured me, even through some of my toughest personal doldrums. I am pleased beyond expression that the impact of their efforts has been recognized (through their students' works, no less) by someone outside the school.

    By Anonymous Jason Driskill, at 11:38 PM  

  • Derek, I see that you've set yourself up with a blog. Let me know when you start the posts going!

    I've been thinking about putting a bunch of web links for Nashville artists and art orgs on this site, but I haven't decided how comprehensive I want to be. Maybe it makes some sense to start with just the sites that are interactive: blogs or bulletin boards. There would Derek's blog, the Secret Shows review forum. Do you guys know about any other interactive sites with a Nashville focus?

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 10:40 AM  

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