CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — Jiha Moon was one of several artists the critic John Yau would like to have seen at the Whitney Biennial this year and didn’t. She was curated, instead, by Nandini Makrandi, at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga. On view now is the third regional invitational the museum has hosted to feature significant works being made in its proximity. The artists are Jan Chanoweth, Alicia Henry, Phillip Andrew Lewis, Jiha Moon, Jeffrey Morton, Greg Pond, Martha Whittington, and Jered Sprecher.
Why do people like “foreign stuff” so much, Moon asks in her artist statement — and doesn’t necessarily answer for me in her work. In fact, people like me could easily be the subject of her work because I’m trapped in her question, helplessly liking the foreign things her art blends so fluidly. In “Masqueraders” (2013), for example, R2-D2 from Star Wars is in the lower right, amidst clouds you might find in a Japanese woodblock print from the Edo period. R2-D2 is hiding behind geometric ornamentation, but with less guile than the Angry Bird to the upper left wearing a Mexican wrestling mask. This ink, acrylic, and embroidery patch piece on Korean Hanji paper (at 36 inches tall by 65 wide), with holes cut out that work as watchful eyes, is one of six unframed paintings installed directly on the wall, orbiting her intricate installation of goofball ceramics that allude to anything from Georgia peaches to bonsai trees.
These collisions of cultural artifacts threaten the viewer’s own sense of place. It’s dizzying to jump through time and space this way. We’re adrift. Locating the self is more easily done with iPhone apps than, say, introspection, guided only by the coordinates of memory. Even before the days of ‘personal computing,’ novelist Walker Percy was asking why it is possible, in ten minutes, to know more about Crab Nebula, which is several thousand light years away, than to know about yourself.
Landscape painter Jeffery Morton studies displacement, but from the outside in. He was born in Pennsylvania, where he still visits his parents, and spent time painting in Japan. He now teaches on Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where the Confederate army once lost to Union forces partly because canons can’t shoot downhill. The subject he paints, obsessively, is the Kudzu vine (also called Japanese arrowroot), which was introduced to the United States through Philadelphia in 1876, and has now overtaken the South. He draws it meticulously from direct observation, recreates it in square format paintings, and lets it flow gesturally in charcoal on paper. Morton seeks a place for himself in this weird land, assuming one is there. “Oxygen” (2014), an oil on canvas, 36 inches square, is a silent combat that ends up parsing the impossible, a few thousand Kudzu leaves pulled into an atmospheric space, within which the artist can move and breathe.
Phillip Andrew Lewis was once trapped in a cult, living in an unmarked building for two years. Verbal commands now shout from the museum’s darkened room where his 19 minute video piece “Columns” (2013) focuses on twelve boys from an ROTC drill team getting bossed about. From 1989 to 1991, Lewis was unwillingly placed in the Synanon experimental rehabilitation program where mental manipulation and alarming abuse – such as sensory deprivation – keep the “patients” in order. The twelve boys in “Columns,” in undergoing their own real life military training, parallel the past life of Lewis and his peers. They aren’t acting. By virtue of this, the video triggers competing impulses in the viewer; one wishes for the boys to break free of what appears to be an oppressive authority, while the other recognizes their own self-assigned goals to become choreographed in perfect symmetry. Placing our own third-party judgment on the events at hand is troublesome and uncomfortable, which makes the work resonate longer in the mind.
The work of Jered Sprecher is the most difficult for me, so much so I once invited myself into his studios in Knoxville, Tennessee to investigate the matter. Several works I saw then now hang on the museum’s walls, accompanied by a new piece so large and intense, and so full of punches, I had to take it in rounds. “A Plane is a Pocket in the Corners of the Mind” (2014) is 8 feet tall and 20 feet wide. What keeps me on edge with his work is a kind visual freedom I’d otherwise dismiss as arbitrariness, as if it’s turtles all the way down, an infinite regress of contingencies. Is that the way the world is? But the work — all of it and at every scale — is persistent in impact, leaving me with the impression that what I think and how I think, about what it is I see, is beside the point. This I believe is what happens in the presence of challenging art. And I think I like it. Maybe Jiha Moon, who has known Sprecher since graduate school, would say it’s me just liking foreign stuff.
The Third Hunter Invitational continues at the Hunter Museum of American Art (10 Bluff View Ave, Chattanooga) through October 19.