Imagine an exhibition that features 100 pieces by more than 80 artists working in Memphis from 2001 to the present. Imagine that this show touches many contemporary genres, including painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography and video and installation art.
Then imagine that this exhibition fills the neoclassical galleries of Dixon Gallery and Gardens, including the refined rooms of The Residence, as the stately mansion of the late museum benefactors, Hugo and Margaret Dixon is called.
That show, "Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now," opens Sunday, with a panel discussion, "The Anti-Lecture: A Conversation about an Art Community," at 2 p.m. The exhibition will be displayed through April 14.
The idea for "Present Tense" began with an absence, that is, with the prospect that the Dixon's permanent collection would be touring for the first eight months of 2013, thus freeing the museum's labyrinth of galleries for an ambitious project.
"I'm intensely interested in Memphis," said Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon since 2007. "I know something about the art ... of the city, but I wanted to dig deeper for the context. You could say that the exhibition was born out of my interest in this time and place."
Sharp hired local arts advocate John Weeden to be the show's curator. Weeden's credentials include his stints as founding director of the old Lantana Projects, assistant director of Rhodes College's Center for Outreach in the Development of the Visual Arts (CODA) and executive director of UrbanArt Commission. He is now the principal of Vita Brevis Art Bureau.
"Kevin and I had been discussing an exhibition like this for several years," Weeden said, "and we came to understand that we both had a love of contemporary art, especially by living artists. Around that time I made the transition from UrbanArt, and Kevin met John Meeks, and we all started talking." Meeks is the managing partner of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, the show's sponsor.
"The point was to feature work made in the city from 2001 to the present," Weeden said. "Not just emerging artists, not just established artists, but to show the complexity and depth that's here."
Developing the exhibition called for a great deal of what Weeden called "doing the research, asking the questions, sleuthing, library work" to come up with artists who were not only active in Memphis but who had some influence on the art community. The intention was to be inclusive, but as Weeden said, "I was astonished at the range and volume of work that existed in Memphis." And even though it would be impossible to mount an encyclopedic show, Weeden's first submission to Sharp consisted of over 1,000 works by 300 artists.
"I understood that," said Sharp, "that's the way I work. I have a tendency to throw everything in the pot and then subtract."
And subtract they did, down to more than 100 pieces by 81 artists.
Still, "it's a big story we're telling," said the museum's assistant curator Julie Pierotti. That big story includes the many networks of teachers and students that derive from the city's institutions of higher learning — University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Memphis College of Art — and even extending back to Central High School and the enormously influential teacher Bill Hicks.
"Tracking all that down," said Pierotti, "who taught when and who was the student of whom, that was really something different for us."
The process of winnowing, which Weeden called "painful, especially letting a piece go after all the work of hunting it down," produced a show that probably anyone familiar with the local visual art community will regard with pleasure yet find some quibbles with. People who have watched the development of emerging artists or the success of mid-career artists or who know the old school figures among the college and university faculties will certainly be able to number artists who they think should have been included or excluded.
"That's very true," said Weeden, "but the exhibition is about as extensive now as it could be. And many pieces just turned out to be impossible. A piece may have been too large or was in a private collection that didn't want to lend or was no longer extant. "
"Present Tense" is arranged in chronological order, so all the works from a particular year, 2001 through 2012, are, when appropriate, displayed in proximity. That means that artists who have more than one piece in the show will see those works hung in different galleries or areas if they were created in different years.
'Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001 – Now'
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, today through April 14.
Call 901-761-5250, or visit dixon.org.
There will be a panel discussion, "The Anti-Lecture: A Conversation about an Art Community," at 2 p.m. Sunday. Panel members include John Weeden, guest curator of the exhibition; David McCarthy, professor of art history, Rhodes College; Carissa Hussong, executive director, National Ornamental metal Museum; Fredric Koeppel, art writer, The Commercial Appeal; and artists Hamlett Dobbins, NJ Woods and Melissa Dunn. Regular Dixon admission applies.
Here are the Memphis artists whose works are a part of "Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now," at Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Mary Catherine Floyd
Joyce GingoldEli Gold
Nikki S. Lee
Jerry and Terry Lynn
Kong Wee Pang
Veda ReedRobert Riseling
Frank D. Robinson
Andrew James Williams
Tad Lauritzen Wright