If there is a cutting edge to the local art scene, it resides -- this month, at least -- inside Power House Memphis, where two concurrent exhibits echo with big ideas and an even bigger visual punch.
The main show, "Everywhere, Nowhere, Somewhere...," is the first director's choice group exhibition by new gallery/Delta Axis executive director Rehema C. Barber, who put together an intentional mix of Bluff City artists with national and international talent in the 11 artists she selected from more than 100 submissions (the featured locals are Jonathan and Mary Postal, Tam Tran, Dwayne Butcher and Joel Parsons).
"I want the Power House to be a place where, yes, you can see nationally-known and internationally-known artists but also where we contextualize our talent and say we're playing on the same playing field,"' says Barber. "And this is a great opportunity to do so."
The show also gives Power House a chance to flirt with art categories, says gallery coordinator Lester Merriweather, who notes that much of the selected work blurs the use of traditionally exclusive media. Indeed, the exhibit as a whole transcends its conceptualist framework with an expressivity and freedom of frame well-suited to the open spaces of the gallery.
Yet despite the often wildly disparate choices -- multi-media presentations, video installments, photography -- there is a real fluidity to the show, one held together by notions of cultural identity, especially the appeal of the exotic "other" and the new multiculturalism offered by the global impact of pop conventions.
A series of portraits by Danish artist Marie Irmgard, for example, include one of a young girl with Elvis Presley looming behind her, he an uncomfortable idol made all the more awkward next to the expectations of the girl and her euphoric smile. The title? "If nobody loves you you can always count on Elvis."
Another work, Mary and Jonathan Postal's "Vulcan Forging Wings," is something of a cross between the social realism of the 1930s and the sexually-charged photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. In it, a black male forges wings intended not for himself but for others in what can be seen as a potent metaphor for African American labor from the plantation system to the industrialized re-centering that took place during the Great Migration.
The exhibit's art is also arranged in a way that allows rich dialog with itself. Jack Ryan's "Blood and Guts Forever" -- hundreds of polyurethane ears among two light switches noticeably turned off -- shares wall space with Keith Anderson's "As Africa Turns," a charred and broken vinyl record that is arguably the single most profound piece of the show, suggesting as it does myriad ideas on the fragmented "song" of African and Afrodiasporic history and the appropriation of that song in the creation of the modern music industry.
These pieces in turn comment on Charles Huntley Nelson's "RNDD: Tupac," an acrylic rendering of the car in which Tupac Shakur was killed juxtaposed by Polaroids of people taken in front of the canvas as if it were a tourist destination. The total effect of all three pieces becomes a stunning discourse on the life struggles and tragedies of black people reduced to "entertainment" by mainstream America.
Themes of identity and self-definition carry over into "Girls, Grillz, and Dolls," a mini-exhibit of a dozen chromogenic prints by Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright, who dissects male and female standards of beauty in two interrelated series. "Gold Rush II" presents images of Memphis men wearing prosthetic gold teeth but posed in a way that counters the usual negative stereotyping of "grills" through portraits of masculine confidence, self-esteem, and pride.
"Plastic Bodies," on the other hand, morphs real bodies with plastic dolls in such a seamless fashion, you can't tell where one begins and the other ends. Western consumerist ideals of female beauty are unavoidable the world over, Bright seems to say, especially once Barbie has been outsourced -- as one photo reads -- to Indonesia.
Barber will give an exhibit lecture on Thursday from 6:30 to 7:15 p.m., and tonight will introduce a new series, "Midnight Matinees," with the screening of the 1970 Melvin Van Peebles film, "Watermelon Man." The screening will be preceded by chef/author Bryant Terry ("Vegan Soul Kitchen") making watermelon martinis at 10:30 p.m. ($5; free for members).
Group exhibit "Everywhere, Nowhere, Somewhere...," and "Girls, Grillz, and Dolls" by Sheila Pree Bright
Both on display at Power House Memphis, 45 G.E. Patterson, through Aug. 10. Call 578-5545 or go to powerhousememphis.org.