'Present Tense' has stunning moments, surprising omissions

Erin Harmon, "Candy Jar," gouache and acrylic on paper collage, 2011.

Erin Harmon, "Candy Jar," gouache and acrylic on paper collage, 2011.

Erin Harmon, "Candy Jar," gouache and acrylic on paper collage, 2011.

Erin Harmon, "Candy Jar," gouache and acrylic on paper collage, 2011.

Jay Etkin, 'Primal' series, oil alkyd, oil bar and wax on wood panel, 2009. 
  
 These are a part of the exhibition ìPresent Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001 ñ Nowî at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens 
  
 Courtesy of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Jay Etkin, "Primal" series, oil alkyd, oil bar and wax on wood panel, 2009. These are a part of the exhibition ìPresent Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001 ñ Nowî at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens Courtesy of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Ian Lemmonds, "Untitled," c-print, 2005.

open: selective color to darken blacks, then the shadow/highlight

Ian Lemmonds, "Untitled," c-print, 2005.

Photos courtesy of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens
Claire Torina, "Vision Quest," oil on canvas, 2010. The large, ambiguous and fairly terrifying work hangs over the fireplace in the Dixon residence.

Photos courtesy of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens Claire Torina, "Vision Quest," oil on canvas, 2010. The large, ambiguous and fairly terrifying work hangs over the fireplace in the Dixon residence.

Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001- Now

Through April 14 at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park. Call 901-761-5250, or visit Dixon.org.

The skillful display of "Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now," on view through April 14 at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, lends the survey of 103 works by 83 artists, presented in year-by-year format, visual luster and polished presentation.

Guest curator and local arts administrator John Weeden and the Dixon staff succeeded in mounting an exhibition that feels perfect in its spacing and rhythm.

In fact, they engineered some stunning moments, as when the visitor stands in the Wilmot Gallery and looks through the open doorway to the residence and sees, hanging over the fireplace, Clare Torina's large, ambiguous and fairly terrifying painting "Vision Quest." Or in what was the living room of the former home of Hugo and Margaret Dixon, the museum's benefactors, where the side-by-side juxtaposition of Hamlett Dobbins' huge oil on canvas "Untitled (for I.V./G.L.M./T.L.W)" and Kong Wee Pang's huge watercolor and ink "Extrovert," makes a colorful, exuberant statement.

Anyone who has kept up with local art during the first decade plus a few years of the 21st century, though, will wonder what the motivation of the exhibition is. Was the concept to present the best work produced during those years, to the extent that specific pieces or equally-as-good alternatives were available, or to offer a survey of the kind of art that was created in Memphis during those years with an eye toward inclusiveness? One has to conclude from the uneven quality of the work that the second premise is the basis for the exhibition.

"Present Tense" offers many fine works of art in many genres and styles, and in its way delivers an expansive view of local artistic activity, but the omission of some artists is not just surprising but startling, and the same can be said for some of the artists included in the show. Many of the artists in the exhibition are not represented by their best or even most typical work — Bobby Spillman and Terri Jones, in particular — while others were allowed to display two or more pieces with no explanation for that device.

Sculptor John McIntire, for example, though a venerable figure in the local art community, has not significantly changed his highly polished, abstract manner of dealing with marble for decades; why, then, give him two spaces, as it were, and eliminate another deserving artist, particularly since sculpture is the weakest element in the show? Among those who have two or more works in "Present Tense," not as part of a series, are Dobbins, Jones, Pinkney Herbert, Larry Edwards, Huger Foote, Roy Tamboli (four pieces), Veda Reed and Greely Myatt.

Not that anyone would want "Present Tense" to be bigger, but one cannot help wondering who might have been included if some of that "doubling" had not occurred.

A genre missing from "Present Tense," except for Cat Peña's environmental piece on the museum's grounds, is the installation art that made the city so artistically exciting during the 2000s. Medicine Factory, Material, Second Floor Contemporary, Marshall Arts and the Art Museum of the University of Memphis abounded with examples of installation art that ranged from ingenious to uncanny. The lack of more of those efforts gives "Present Tense" a slightly undernourished air.

"Present Tense" is an exhibition I feel close to, whatever my criticisms. I have written about or reviewed 48 of the artists in the show, and often about the very works displayed here. Going through the exhibition twice was in effect a voyage in familiarity and experience as well as an exercise in dismay. If the Dixon decides to mount another such display in 10 years, I hope it will be accomplished with more concision, discipline and rigor.

Not to seem completely like a second-guessing jerk, but here are some artists whose omission from "Present Tense" I consider grievous: Tim Crowder, Kim Beck, Mel Spillman, Jason Miller, Ryan Vanderlay, Tom Lee, Ed Rainey, Phillip Andrew Lewis and Peter Bowman.

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