Knoxville Museum of Art board member, Kreis Beall, describes this growing East Tennessee city as a “contemplation,” and “the sky is the limit.” And based on the energy being poured into the museum there, as well as the surrounding community (home to the University of Tennessee), she may have her finger on the pulse of the place. On a recent trip, the national press was treated to a whirlwind tour of city highlights, the centerpiece of the visit being the unveiling of a monumental glass and metal sculpture by renowned glass artist, Richard Jolley. xxxxxx
Commissioned especially for the Museum’s newly refurbished Ann and Steve Bailey Hall, where it will remain on permanent view, Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity extends for some 100 running feet and soars to a height of 12 feet, making it one of the largest figurative glass-and-steel assemblages in the world. Fashioned of thousands of individual cast and blown-glass elements, the massive work unfolds as an epic narrative of the successive phases of life. Begun in 2009, it is the Knoxville-based artist’s most ambitious and complex undertaking to date.
The fragility, complexity, and monumental size of the sculpture—which measures approximately 105 x 30 x 12 feet and weighs over seven tons—presented enormous technical challenges, not only in the execution but in the installation of the work. Jolley created three massive undulating metal plinths—each weighing 1,500 pounds and anchored onto the wall approximately 11 feet above the terrazzo floor—to serve as a structural foundation. The artist and his studio team were assisted in the installation process, which began in December 2013, by Partners Development, the Knoxville-based firm that managed the recently completed, building-wide refurbishment of the Museum.
Spanning the entire length of the Museum’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall, Cycle of Life is a visual narrative in seven parts on the progression of life. The first six stages take place on Earth and extend around the second-floor wall of the Hall, while the seventh, suggestive of the cosmos, is dramatically suspended from the ceiling. By turns representational and abstract, the assemblage deftly combines a wide range of images and influences—from the distinctive local sense of place, to the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, to the paintings of Eugène Delacroix and other French Romantics. For example, the first section, entitled “Primordial,” features a golden moon shining on a dense forest of poplars—trees that are indigenous to the region—from whose trunks a myriad of glass-blown leaves and thistles appears to sprout.
“Emergence,” made of cast black glass in a steel armature, takes the form of a large-scale man and woman walking together. In “Flight,” the journey to adulthood is exuberantly evoked by a flock of some 135 blown-glass black birds that appear to soar skyward (above, right). Featuring a man and a woman posed in classical juxtaposition, “Desire” recalls countless imagery from around the globe—from prehistoric to contemporary—signifying the primal life force. The next section, “Tree of Life,” utilizes a well-known symbolic image for abundance and fertility that dates back to ancient Near Eastern cultures. Appearing to emerge from the floor, the 22-foot tree is festooned with thousands of glistening leaves, pomegranate blossoms, and doves (above, left).
A massive head signifies “Contemplation,” indicating a time of respite to enable quiet introspection. From certain angles, the dark glass face is bisected by a beam of light made of crystal, suggesting a state of transition. The series culminates with “Sky” (right), in which organic and figural forms give way to a dazzling constellation of geometric shapes and orbs of silvered glass suggestive of the universe and the infinite. This part of the installation hangs centrally, its distant multi-colored glow enticingly greeting viewers from the street as they approach the main entrance. Strands of blue glass spheres skirt the central form, and are evocative of DNA or celestial bubbles.
At present, Jolley’s work is represented in over 33 public collections, including the Carnegie Museum of Art; the Corning Museum of Glass; the Frederick Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles, the Knoxville Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the private collection of Sir Elton John.
Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA) director, David Butler said, “Cycle of Life is a game-changer for the Museum in a number of important ways. First, it reveals Richard’s exceptional artistic rigor and vision—an aesthetically stunning masterwork that is also an engineering marvel. Cycle of Life is also emblematic of the KMA’s commitment to art of the region and to collecting the work of contemporary artists of international repute. “We’ve had to overcome a number of challenges as we’ve worked to shape our image as a museum in a small East Tennessee town,” Butler says.
“People think of this part of the country as a cultural and artistic backwater, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you look carefully, there is a wealth of talent who either lived in this area, or spent some time here in the course of their artistic careers. Rather than trying to be some southern version of a big New York museum, we have focused our collecting and exhibition strategy on artists and work that reflect our region and culture, focusing on the rich visual traditions to be found right here in East Tennessee and beyond.”
Founded in 1961, the Knoxville Museum of Art opened in its present, 53,200 square-foot facility, designed by distinguished museum architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, in March 1990. The building was named in honor of Jim Clayton, the largest single contributor to its construction. A $6 million refurbishment took place in 2013-14, returning the facility to its pristine condition while increasing gallery space and completing the North Garden. Knoxville-based Partners Development managed the renovation and upgrade work for the KMA.
In line with that objective, the museum created Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, a permanent exhibition featuring works from the collection and loans from individuals and other institutions. As curator of the KMA, Wicks is challenged by the sometimes complicated task of planning updates and changes to their permanent exhibitions. Over the last month more than a dozen new paintings and photographs have been added to their signature exhibition, Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee.
Among the works in Higher Ground are new acquisitions by key East Tennessee artists. Smoky Mountains, by Rudolph Ingerle,represents a scenic view of East Tennessee’s rugged landscape during the 1920s by a prominent Chicago artist who became one of the leading painters of the Smokies.
Etruscan Still Life, by Charles Rain, is a minutely-detailed canvas by a Knoxville-born artist who possessed a talent for using ordinary objects to construct mysterious, dream-like scenes rich with symbolic references. These two acquisitions were the first works by Ingerle and Rain to enter the KMA collection.
Morning Milking Time by Catherine Wiley reflects the Knoxville artist’s mastery of Impressionism, and her ability to convey through the use of vibrant color and bold brushwork the heat and light of the late morning sun on her sister’s farm in northwest Knox County. Just a year or so ago, the KMA owned only one major painting by Wiley. With the purchase of Morning Milking Time this year and Untitled (Woman and Child in a Meadow) last year, the museum now own three outstanding examples by this artistic talent.
Left: Catherine Wiley (1879-1958), ‘Morning Milking Time’ (c. 1915). Oil on canvas, 40 x 29 ¾”.
One artist whose paintings they do own in depth is Carl Sublett,but Sign Language is the first that represents his experimentation with Pop Art during the early 1960s. The artist’s son, Eric, explained how was inspired by a “See Rock City” birdhouse his father encountered during one of his regular summer trips to Maine. Other recent acquisitions on view in Higher Ground include works by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Lloyd Branson, and Walter Hollis Stevens.
Paintings borrowed from public and private collections add significant strength to the new display. Beauford Delaney’s Scattered Light is a spectacular example of the legendary Knoxville artist’s ability to distill the visual world into dabs of brilliant color in a manner reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. Helen Ross by Edward Hurst offers a strikingly candid likeness by one of Knoxville’s most recognized portrait painters. The portrait’s casual pose and loose brushwork suggest the influence of Hurst’s Art Students League mentor, George Luks. Untitled (At the Blacksmith’s Shop) reflects Gilbert Gaul’s masterful ability to construct poignant narrative scenes of everyday life.
In Early Autumn, Louis Jones applies thick dabs of paint to construct a rustic scene that likely depicts woods near his beloved Gatlinburg. Although Gaul and Jones were born outside East Tennessee, they were lured to the region by its beauty and spent significant parts of their careers here. The KMA continues to expand its Higher Ground collection due to support from lenders and donors who make possible to be constantly evaluating new works.
Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond, another permanent installation, extends the geographic and chronological parameters of Higher Ground and examines recent developments in regional, national, and international contemporary art. This rotating installation features a selection of objects from the KMA’s growing collection of works by emerging and established artists.
Giles Lyon’s Empire (1997-2009), is a vibrant canvases that record his energetic approach to painting and his reflections on the evolving relationship between nature and civilization in the Information Age. His densely layered compositions initially appear abstract. Discernible upon close examination, however, is landscape-inspired imagery addressing themes of bioterrorism, environmental collapse, and runaway urban development. The Brooklyn-based artist is a former Artist in Residence at the University of Tennessee.
Ulf Puder belongs to a renowned group of contemporary East German painters trained at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts. His, Baustopp is a richly textured canvases reflecting his love of the painting process and interest in the changing economic conditions of his homeland since the unification of Germany. As in this work, Puder’s scenes depict deserted streets and out-of-kilter buildings in ways that suggest the aftermath of some unknown disaster. Baustopp is a German word that means to impose a stop to building projects.
Right: Ulf Puder (Born 1958), “Baustopp‘ (2010). Oil on canvas.
Jered Sprecher’s A Type of Magic (2008), uses an assortment of painting methods to construct complex, layered works. Each is made up of fragmented imagery culled from sources ranging from art history books to random imagery from his immediate environment. Sprecher’s dense compositions appear to shift between abstraction and representation, and between two-dimensional form and three-dimensional space. Sprecher is a Knoxville-based artist and member of the University of Tennessee’s art faculty.
Both exhibits—their retrospective Higher Ground, and the forward-looking Currents allow viewers to consider the achievements of area artists past and present, within a global art-historical context. A series of temporary exhibitions (at the time of my visit, a series of rare Ansel Adams photographs, some from his brief visit to East Tennessee), means that visitors will have many reasons to return to the museum.
I confess to a love for small museums, whether they are academically affiliated (like the wonderful McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, at UT, with their ‘Glass of the Ancient Mediterranean’ exhibition, on loan from Yale University Art Gallery, on display during my visit); or beautifully restored early-20th century architecture, like the magnificently conceived Tennessee Theater, which—thanks to an extensive, $24 million renovation—can now regularly host Broadway shows; or the East Tennessee History Center, where I learned that the many small farms and rolling topography at that end of the state helped support northern sympathies during the Civil War.
Knoxville has a vibrant cultural community, with more than a handful of community leaders and entrepreneurs, willing to take on the task of mainstreaming the city and its institutions over the next decade, and more. The newly-expanded Knoxville Museum of Art is in capable hands, believing in its mission as a regional multicultural resource for an increasingly diversified audience, who are eager to explore what it, and the community, have to offer. Now that the imposing and incongruous signage of a pair of staring eyes (Caucasian, blue-colored) have finally been removed from high atop the building’s refurbished façade, staff seem prepared to face the challenges of all museums in a changing demographic marketplace. There is an age-old adage: art is where you find it; and world class art and its proponents can certainly be found in Knoxville, Tennessee.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
The Knoxville Museum of Art reaches over 60,000 annually through museum visits, special events, concerts, and off-site school programs. KMA is free and open to the public six days a week. An excellent new film highlights the creation and installation of the Richard Jolley installation, “Cycle of Life.” For more information on the KMA and its programs visit www.knoxart.org.