Art and utility are strange, but inextricable, bedfellows. How artists and curators deal with their relationship is usually interesting, whether in a natural history museum's display of ornately decorated tools, a magazine's glossy pages of features that are really ads or in an art museum or gallery's show of aesthetically compelling anthropological, commercial or industrial work.
I meandered through three Chapel Hill shows this past weekend that tested the parameters of art's use and value.
I started at UNC's Ackland Museum to see two new exhibits. The first, The Oldest Paintings in America: Utah's Rock Art Photographed by Goodloe Suttler, a small but intense collection of Goodloe Suttler's rock art photographs, drew me in immediately. Dated to around 3,500 years ago, these anthropomorphic drawings were made by peoples native to the canyons of Utah's Colorado Plateau, near Moab and the Canyonlands National Park. Some of the images have been enhanced with NASA imaging technology in order to clarify the figures, which seems unnecessary, as the distended humanoid and animal shapes are clearly visible. And since the enhancement gives a psychedelic rainbow tint to the stone surfaces—as if through a Carlos Castaneda camera filter—it detracts from the startling otherness of the images.
Many of these pictures recall alien iconography: distended figures without torsos, legs starting from their necks and hands hanging down to their feet; limbless, obelisk-shaped figures witnessing one's presence with huge circular eyes; angelic or bat-headed groups, blessing or menacing. I lost track of time staring at a figure with moth antennae, holding a snake, with a constellation around its head of suns or comets, fluttering birds or insects, and a tiny turtle or legless being. The photographs gave me a temporary agnosia: Everything was something or something else.
Occupying the narrow hallway gallery, this show made me want to see more images—as well as some anthropological explication of them—but then again, the show ended up feeling large because it rewarded really looking into the images. I wanted to piece together their story or purpose, even though I knew that my civilization's narrative and pictorial conventions simply weren't in play when these images were created. Perhaps Suttler's gallery talk on March 9 will fill in some of the evocative unknowns.
I crossed the lobby to the pottery show, Tradition in Clay: Two Centuries of Classic North Carolina Pots, and returned to a reality that I recognized after a minute or so, particularly since these jugs, churns and pots share both physical contours and utilitarian origins with the extraterrestrial forms from ancient Utah.
While not at all "Jugtown for Dummies," the pottery show nonetheless offers a well-organized retrospective of the last 150 or so years of clay work in North Carolina. It is condensed into two rooms, which delineate the utilitarian, pre-Industrial Revolution era from the Arts and Crafts movement that leads into the current state of the medium.
The first room contains the familiar brown and dun pieces dating from roughly 1820–1940. These simple forms—from the elegantly detailed pots of the Fox and Seagle families to almost hewn, unattributed churns formed solely out of the need for a churn—give an overview of the flat, salt-fired Seagrove work and the shinier, more variegated alkaline-fired works from the Catawba Valley area.
The effect of entering the second room is like the advent of Technicolor in the film industry. Deep cobalt blues, warm greens and reds, baked oranges, sometimes swimming together like sunsets or molten popsicles, glow from almost every piece, the result of potters' restoration of lead glazes to their repertoire, allowing for almost any color.
As industrial manufacturing took over production of household objects, potters drifted toward art with their craft. The consequential 1921 founding of Jugtown in Seagrove by Jacques and Juliana Busbee was a watershed event, not just in North Carolina but in the American Arts and Crafts movement. Combining traditions and methods already entrenched in the region, the Busbees and other potters brought Oriental influences into the mix. Benjamin Wade Owen's frogskin-glazed "Sung Jar" from the 1960s recalls a lantern; his "Fox" jug, nearly spherical, has four sets of four thin lines of latitude, an understated balance of form and ornament.
Second-generation Catawba Valley work from the 1990s shows how some potters have moved wholly into the art world. Daniel Johnston's gigantic black "Big Jar Project #64" from 2010—a laterally ridged alien pod with a stout brown neck atop it—could not be used for anything but perhaps a studio apartment.
I strolled down Franklin Street to the Chapel Hill Underground bar (beneath Bub O'Malley's at the corner of Rosemary and Henderson streets) to see Libby Lynn's show of new work titled RE/DEpression: Sex Workers and Our Great Recession.
Lynn's portraits of sex workers—from strippers and prostitutes to booth attendants and porn journalists—are human, colorful and mostly PG-13. Based on pictures that Lynn took or the subjects took of themselves, the images radiate life despite their photographic flatness.
Lynn uses a Renaissance-era technique of applying layers of transparent oil glaze to create an impression of depth and warmth. This is most successful in the central work in the show, "@StripperTweets Assvatar," a large, glowing landscape shot of a woman's rear end in a yellow bikini bottom as she crouches on the back of a couch, one white stiletto heel pointing out.
This isn't an airbrushed Cosmo ass, posture or perspective. It's arousing and real, made beautiful for the eye while remaining exactly what it is. Leaning against the bar, the bartenders and I talked through the image over a bourbon. We agreed there was a process of reactions, a vacillation. Our initial impression was, unanimously, with eyebrows slightly raised: "nice ass." We kept looking at it because we could—it's a painting, and you get to hold your gaze upon paintings without shame. Through that gaze, we came to an aesthetic reaction, touching upon shadow and brushstroke, admiring composition and execution. And that technical discussion led us right back to where we started—talking about the way shadow conveys the tapered tuck of a buttock as the musculature of a leg joins it. As we were relishing it, it became sensual and real again.
Sex workers and artists have trafficked together (Picasso's models weren't exactly supervised interns from the Sorbonne). Stern medieval nudes signify death and sins of the flesh, Renaissance nudes idealize sensual beauty, and modern nudes convey a disarming reality, as often harsh as sexy. These are the interpretations that art history maintains. In all eras, nudes are also a way for people (usually men) to look long and hard at unclothed and often hot people (usually women), a notion not far from definitions of pornography.
Talking to the guys at the bar, I was sorry I'd missed what sounded like a hilarious opening the night before, during which Lynn raffled off sex toys and adult videos beneath the gazes of her portraits. The bartenders tossed a pile of leftover DVDs on the bar with the motion of an old railroader shoveling coal into the hopper of a locomotive. It gave me a third way of thinking about the Assvatar painting: as a picture of someone at work.
Lynn, who's worked as a marketer for an adult products company, reinforced this reading in an e-mail about the changing business. "The possibility of two-way interaction between sex workers and people who put money in their wallets has begun to change civilian attitudes towards sex workers." She's seen the industry's decline from both the recession and the availability of free porn online. Not to mention the erosion of meaning from all those mouse-clicks.
Clay jars become useless, and then priceless, as different economies of production shift their contexts. Cave paintings, cut off from their contexts by the passage of time, accrue value from their difference. A painting of a yellow-bikinied ass reclaims it value and relevance from millions of images of asses across the Internet. Lynn's paintings and these two Ackland shows are fascinating historical documents, and they sum to an indictment of how fragile our notions of social and artistic value really are.