Present Tense

The Art of Memphis, 2001-Now

The Exhibition > Curator's Essay

Present Tense: The Art of Memphis, from 2001-Now

John WeedenEssay by John Weeden

Memphis is a mercurial place. Composed of equal parts grace and grit, it is ultra-modern in one moment, old fashioned in the next. Its eccentricities, contradictions, and aspirations compose a crucible of cultural production known the world over for its uninhibited creative authenticity. Present Tense offers a selection of contemporary artists that have contributed to this exceptional condition through their various practices. In doing so, the exhibition seeks to inspire the city's broader public, its cultural supporters, and civic policy makers to realize and embrace the fact that art matters not only for the enlightenment of the individual viewer, but the enlivenment of an entire city.

More so than any other form, visual art has the potential to establish Memphis as a cultural capitol on the world stage in the 21st century. The sheer diversity of stylistic approaches, ideas, motivations, and compositional articulations inherent within the field make it the perfect agent for communicating this city's infinite possibility to the rest of the world. Proudly individual and passionate in their practices, the artists of Memphis are wary of too many definitions that might codify their efforts and output into categories, as a general rule.

There is no one monolithic movement, mass trend, or uniform breed of artist that chooses to call this city home. The absurdity of such a proposition becomes quickly evident to anyone who takes up the challenge of excavating the myriad layers of work created over the span of a decade and more. Artists that seek out Memphis, create on their own terms. They are all working in their own mode, planning how to remake the world over in the manner that matches the visions in their heads, like so many purposeful dreamers before them have done in this most magic of cities.

From bronze sculpture and oil painting, to photography, video, and environmental installations, the pieces selected for this exhibition demonstrate the incredible range of artistic production active in this city. There have been countless artists arrive during this period to learn for themselves what incredible circumstances combine to make Memphis such a fertile environment for new ideas, new adventures, and new art. Those that have moved away maintain their ties and continue to show in exhibitions here. Often, they return and put down roots, choosing to build their lives in the community that has nurtured them.

Current conditions make ours the most advantageous time for art making the city has seen in generations, if not ever. The period from 2001 to the present day saw major events transpire along with myriad series of smaller actions that cultivated this state of affairs. In brief, it took innumerable self-motivated people devoted to doing what they loved in order to get to the point today where art-driven creativity is valued not only as a social good, but an imperative.

Robert McGowan's efforts to establish a Memphis Center for Contemporary Art in South Main during the late 1980s and early 1990s did not result in a long lasting institution, but his ideas kindled dialog about the kind of new possibilities for art engagement that have influenced scores of cultural arbiters since. James Patterson and the impact of Delta Axis as an engine for contemporary art production cannot be emphasized enough. Coordinating the Power House gallery from 2003-2009 was their most visible highlight, bringing internationally significant artists to make new work that has since been experienced by thousands in institutions around the world. Leslie Leubbers at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis has been a remarkable curator and cultural presenter. Her partnership with Delta Axis to produce the MAX Biennial series of exhibitions produced dynamic displays of the region's cultural vibrancy for several years, and her work has consistently resulted in some of the best art offerings in the region. Likewise, Marina Pacini's tenure as curator at the Brooks Museum has elevated an engagement with contemporary art in this city that simply would not have otherwise occurred. Memphis College of Art continues to be the most vital and prolific crucible for visual art production this city has ever known. The increased visibility of public art in the city cultivated by the non-profit UrbanArt Commission has further enriched the cultural vibrancy of the city with large-scale murals and sculptures throughout the public realm. Of course, no account of contemporary art in Memphis of this period would be complete without crediting the role of private gallerists, primary among them David Lusk and Linda Ross. Others whose efforts have raised the bar include Jay Etkin, Robert Bain, David Perry Smith, Ephraim Urevbu, David Simmons, and the late Lisa Kurts.

Critical voices in the print media such as Fredric Koeppel, Carol Knowles, David Hall, and Cory Dugan not only informed audiences of what was happening where, but why certain works were compelling and why others failed to inspire. The rise of the blogosphere during this period further proliferated the awareness of art happenings, with impromptu commentators like Dwayne Butcher and his widely read Art Butcher and Visual Memphis web-journals. His staging of small art shows and poetry readings at the P&H Café also became a vital outlet for artists in need of a communal gathering point for conversation about living the art life and the conditions affecting the art climate of the city. The efforts of Christopher Reyes and Sarah Fleming with Live From Memphis's daily coverage of the creative output of the community brought national attention, with Memphis being named as one of the best places in the world for artists to live in 2010 by the Flavorpill online magazine of contemporary culture.

Various artists' collectives and alternative spaces over the years have been instrumental in producing a palpable sense of creative energy dating back to the Art Workers Union and the Plan B Gallery in Cooper Young with Mark Beagle, Brian Bishop, and Colin McLain. Although often short-lived, the activities of Lantana Projects, NIA, Art Farm, and others infused a certain earnest enthusiasm into the atmosphere of the art scene at critical junctures. The Rozelle Arts Guild's annual sketchbook exhibition continues to draw large crowds, Artist's Link provides a network to local artists interested in developing their skills, and Marshall Arts gallery led by Pinkney Herbert remains a mainstay in the art community with its calendar of exhibitions and complex of artists' studios. Hamlett Dobbins is the living definition of the contemporary cultural arbiter: artist with work in private and corporate collections, curator of the excellent Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College, and proprietor of Material Art Space in the Broad Avenue Art District. Institutionally, the ongoing Brooks Museum's 'Brooks Introduces' and the Dixon's own 'Mallory at Wurtzburger' series of exhibitions featuring local living artists has made an indelible mark on the character of the contemporary art landscape, providing access to new art and platforms for critical discourse.

Present Tense proposes that it is the creative output of this city's artists that will make Memphis known the world over for the caliber and character of its culture in the coming decades. The works of art curated in this exhibition demonstrate the degree of skill, savvy, imagination, and ingenuity of those that chose to call this amazing place home. In the history of Memphis creativity the time for the visual arts to lead the cultural vanguard is now.

Dixon Gallery and GardensNorthwestern Mutual