If the assault of Mitch McConnell ads has you thinking Kentucky must be the most hopelessly unprogressive state ever, a FotoFocus Biennial-related lecture last Sunday provided another take on the Bluegrass State.
The speaker, who also presented slides, was the veteran Lexington photographer Guy Mendes, who with Carey Gough has the exhibition Blue Roots and Uncommon Wealth: The Kentucky Photographs at Over-the-Rhine’s Iris BookCafe, 1331 Main St., through Jan. 25. His presentation, organized by Iris’ photography curator William Messer, was at Mr. Pitiful’s bar, close to Iris.
Mendes, active in Kentucky arts, public television production and higher education since the late 1960s, has been collected by Ashley Judd, Willie Nelson, Maker’s Mark (he’s very proud of that) and the New Orleans and Cincinnati art museums, among others. At Mr. Pitiful’s, he made a compelling case for Lexington as a center for progressive creative thought — in photography, especially — that has had a broad influence on our times.
As a college town (University of Kentucky), Lexington maybe has been better known for its basketball than its radicalism, but Mendes made it seem like it could hold its own with Berkeley, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., or Madison, Wis., in any history of counter-cultural hotspots.
His presentation focused on a group he became part of in the late 1960s, the Lexington Camera Club, active from the 1950s to the early 1970s (and recently revived). While, like other camera clubs it attracted its share of hobbyists, it also had stalwart support from open-minded professionals with an experimentalist bent.
Mendes mentioned and showed slides of work from the Camera Club’s first golden era. The accomplishments of these now-deceased members was impressive — Van Deren Coke (who went on to become director of the George Eastman House); Robert May, who specialized in multiple exposures; James Baker Hall, a poet (and former state Poet Laureate) and photographer whose haunting series of images featuring collaged family photos may have been a way to deal with his mother’s suicide when he was a child.
One Camera Club photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, has become recognized since his 1972 death as one of America’s most memorable — and spookiest. His black-and-white shots of children and adults wearing masks in strange settings are still unsettling.
Lexington was restive in the anti-Vietnam War days, and Mendes published an underground newspaper called Blue-Tail Fly and was involved in protests. And as he became friends with local writers Wendell Berry and Ed McClanahan, his literary and photographic worlds began to merge. (Both still are active today.)
In Mendes’ show at Iris, those two figures are in probably the two most striking photographs. One is a 2012 portrait of Berry, on a farm in Henry County, with his horses Nip and Jed grazing behind him. It’s sheer happenstance, but the horses’ placement is such as to create the illusion is that their heads extend from his shoulders. Messer refers to them as “horse angel wings,” and it’s a great tribute to Berry, an environmentalist as well as a writer. The photo gives the elderly man a heavenly glow.
McClanahan is involved in the weirdest photograph in the show — 1972’s “The Fabulous Little Enis & Go Go Girls of Boots Bar.” This photo (in a tarted-up version) accompanied McClanahan’s article about this colorful musician in Playboy. It depicts the left-handed, backwards-holding guitarist Little Enis and a chorus line of scantily clad women outside the bar.
The late Carlos Toadvine’s stage name “Enis,” Mendes told his audience, was a play on the nickname given to Elvis Presley as “Elvis the Pelvis” — you get the point. Mendes said Enis was a fabulous guitarist but the working-class Boots Bar was a tough place for scruffy, hippy-looking artists like McClanahan and himself in 1972. On their first visit there, McClanahan and Mendes, were greeted by a flying beer bottle. (On the Internet, there is a photo of long-haired college-age young men admiring Little Enis’ act, so maybe the bar got a little safer with time.)
The Iris show also features color photographs of Kentucky music-related sites by Gough, who considers Mendes a mentor.
Lexington’s impact on the arts is fascinating in other ways, too. The writer Bobbie Ann Mason attended UK, as did the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton. (There is now a film festival there in his honor.) Walter Tevis based his novel The Hustler on a pool hall there. Punk icon Richard Hell was born and raised there, as was Cincinnati artist/composer Jay Bolotin.
There must be something in the bluegrass. It’s captured in Mendes’ photographs.
Two that I highly recommend, and that I’m afraid might be overlooked because of bigger museum shows, are Emily Hanako Momohara’s Heirloom — at Downtown’s Weston Art Gallery — and David Benjamin Sherry’s Western Romance at a temporary space at 1500 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine. Momohara’s show is up through Nov. 30 but Sherry’s ends Nov. 1.
Both use color wonderfully to make you focus on objects and/or landscapes close-up — so close-up they have a transporting, transcendent effect if you can spend enough time with them.
Sherry, an L.A. artist recently featured on The New York Times Magazine’s cover, uses color in a psychedelic way, achieving the effect he wants during processing. It gives his Western mountain and desert landscapes a glaze — a “purple haze,” in the case of “Putting Grapes Back on the Vine” — that turns physical geography into a state of mind. There are also in the show black-and-white prints by masters of Western photography — Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins — to acknowledge Sherry’s debt and also proclaim a change.
Momohara, who taught photography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati but now is relocating to China, is using Heirloom to explore ideas about her Okinawan and Japanese ancestry. These distinctive still photographs and photograph-like videos isolate and deeply contemplate objects related to or inspired by that.
The vertically formatted pieces — like the fantastic “Gathering” video, which looks at luminescent, open-mouthed koi as they crowd around the water’s surface — seem to be moving forward a grand narrative, like scrollwork. And the more horizontal pieces, like “Mask #1,” revel in mystery through the way illuminated objects occupy space in an otherwise dark ground.
To me, these two shows are among FotoFocus’ very best — and I especially hope Momohara returns at some point with something much more extensive.
Comic musical duo Igudesman & Joo performs at the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Mayerson Theater tonight, presented by the Constella Festival. Korean-British pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo and Russian violinist Aleksey Igudesman mix Classical music with other popular genres and humor for a wholly entertaining performance. Check out this popular performance (which has more than 7 million YouTube views):
CityBeat writer Anne Arenstein spoke to Joo about the duo's unique spin on performing the classics.
It was hate at first sight when Igudesman and Joo met. There’s a hilarious account of what brought them together on their website, but according to Joo, the moment of truth came a couple of months later.
“We shared the notion that the Classical music world which we loved so much was taking itself way too seriously,” Joo says. “Going to concerts was like going to a funeral.”
“We were young and we didn’t know much but we knew Classical music was full of life,” he continues. “Through our own projects and the music we wrote, we could at least create events that we would want to go to.”
Go here to read the full interview.
"An Evening with Igudesman and Joo" takes place at 8 p.m. tonight at SCPA’s Mayerson Theater, 108 W. Central Parkway, Over-the-Rhine. More information and tickets: 513-549-7175 or constellafestival.org.
The centerpiece of the FotoFocus Biennial’s programming was its five days of events at Memorial Hall — films, panel discussions, lectures and a Saturday-night performance of This Filthy World by John Waters.
As the Wednesday-Sunday events coincided with other key FotoFocus events — the excellent Screenings exhibit of short art films curated by the biennial’s artistic director, Kevin Moore, was at Lightborne Studios during the same period — it was hard to attend everything.
But what I did attend was really rewarding — thought-provoking discussions about photography that centered on ideas and thus were of interest to everyone. In fact, that’s a point I think needs to be made about FotoFocus as it seeks to grow its following: It isn’t a narrow-focused event for photography professionals; it’s for anyone who likes the visual arts. That should be everyone.
Here are some of the highlights of what I was able to attend:
A panel discussion on FotoFocus’ Vivian Maier: A Quiet Pursuit exhibition, about the secretive Chicago street photographer whose work has only recently been discovered since her death. One guest was Howard Greenberg, the New York fine-art photography dealer who represents John Maloof, the Chicago owner of much of Maier’s archives of unpublished work. Regarding a current dispute with another party over who has the right to print and sell her work, Greenberg said he and Maloof were close to an agreement with the city of Chicago-appointed attorney for the Maier estate to let sales of prints resume while the dispute proceeds, since the income would benefit the estate.
A conversation with photographer Elena Dorfman, whose recent Empire Falling project documented old Rust Belt quarries but then manipulated the images into something slightly ethereal, offered stimulating ideas about how post-industrial ruins have become melancholy pilgrimage sites — accidental earthworks to rival “Spiral Jetty” or “Lightning Field.”
Friday night’s keynote lecture on “Shadow and Substance: Photography and the Civil War,” by Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was fantastically involving. He was an engaged and engaging speaker. For instance, he explained why there are so few actual photographs of battles – with both sides blasting away, sometimes imprecisely, at each other on battlefields, few photographers wanted to set up their cumbersome equipment along the dangerous sides to capture the action. But once a battle was over, it wasn’t so difficult to document the bodies on the ground.
A panel discussion on the growth of Instagram, tied to a FotoFocus-sponsored “Fotogram” project for which Instagram photos were fed into a screen at the temporary ArtHub structure in Washington Park, had food for thought. Jose Garcia, the ArtHub’s architect, somewhat jokingly characterized Instagram selfies as “a cry for help.” And Nion McEvoy, chairman and CEO of San Francisco’s Chronicle Books, observed that new technology — with its emphasis on swiftly delivered virtual transmissions rather than carefully crafted physical objects — has been met with a healthy, growing counter-movement encompassing vinyl records, locavore-oriented slow foods, letterpress printing and more. And, he said, Chronicle Books’ main business is still print.
John Waters drew a big crowd to Memorial Hall — FotoFocus had sold 200 more passes than seats (a pass was good for all Memorial Hall events, not just Waters) and was worried. Fortunately, not every passholder came to his Saturday night show — there were some empty seats on the sides. His show lived up to its This Filthy World title, as he joked about seemingly every sex act known to the human race (and maybe some known only to aliens).
But he also made humorous references to artists — he’s an art connoisseur — and some of his political observations had the kind of shocking in-your-face bite reminiscent of Lenny Bruce. For instance, on abortion, he said (and I paraphrase a little, since I didn’t take notes), “If you’re not going to love your child, don’t have him. I don’t want him to grow up to kill me."
Afterwards, he signed objects for fans and then joined a small group of FotoFocus organizers, supporters and guests for a late dinner on the Memorial Hall stage. As fate would have it, he sat next to me. Charming man.
Today starts the key stretch of FotoFocus Biennial activities at Memorial Hall, which begin at 8 p.m. with Triumph of the Wild, a show of animated firms by Martha Colburn accompanied by music from Thollem McDonas, Tatiana Berman and the four-person Constella Ensemble.
On Thursday, programming at Memorial Hall turns to the theme of Photography in Dialogue. At 1 p.m., the film Gerhard Richter Painting will be screened followed by a response from Anne Lindberg. At 3:30 p.m., FotoFocus Artistic Director Kevin Moore and Contemporary Arts Center Director Raphaela Platow will discuss the FotoFocus show at CAC, The One-Eyed Thief: Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs. And at 5 p.m., there will be a forum on another FotoFocus-sponsored show, Vivian Maier: A Quiet Pursuit.
On Friday, Memorial Hall activities center on Landscapes. At 1 p.m., the film Somewhere to Disappear, With Alec Soth screens, followed by a response from Matthew Porter. At 3 p.m. is a conversation with photographer Elena Dorfman and 21c Museum Hotel curator Alice Gray Stites. At 4:30, photographer David Benjamin Sherry — the subject of a FotoFocus show — will be in conversation with Elizabeth Siegel. And at 6 p.m., Jeff L. Rosenheim, photography curator at Metropolitan Museum, lectures on "Shadow and Substance: Photography and the American Civil War."
On Saturday, the subject is Urbanscapes and events get underway at 1 p.m. with the film Bill Cunningham New York, followed by a response from Ivan Shaw. At 3:30 is a forum on street photography with three curators — Moore, CAC's Steven Matijcio and Cincinnati Art Museum's Brian Sholis. At 5 p.m. comes a discussion on the Fotogram project at the ArtHub, which opens today in Washington Park. Participants include its architect, Jose Garcia. And the big event gets underway at 8 p.m., when John Waters presents This Filthy World.
Sunday offers three forums, starting at 1 p.m. when Jordan Tate and Aaron Cowan discuss the FotoFocus show Inpout/Output with artist Rachel de Joode. At 2:30 p.m. is a conversation with Fred and Ruth Bidwell on Bidwell Projects and Tate's Transformer Station, Cleveland art project. At 3:30 p.m., there is talk about film with Moore, Colburn and Kristen Erwin Schlotman.
Cincinnati-based design company Such + Such has been selected as one of 20 finalists for popular home furnishing retailer West Elm’s national “We Love Local Small Businesses Grant” contest. The grand prize winner will receive $25,000 and mentorship from West Elm while three runners-up will have their products featured in West Elm stores during the upcoming holiday season.
“The fact that we were chosen to move forward in this competition has blown us away,” said Alex Aeschbury, co-founder of Such + Such, in a press release. “We couldn't have gotten here without the support of Cincinnati, and it’s fitting that Cincinnati will help take our brand to the next level.” Such + Such’s founders Aeschbury and Zach Darmanian-Harris, former students at University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, have provided design and fabrication services for a variety of clients nationwide, as well as some of Cincinnati’s local favorites Neon’s Unplugged, Sloane Boutique and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Coinciding with the contest, Such + Such in August launched a product line featuring hand-crafted furniture and home decor pieces including coffee tables, stools and wall clocks. All of the pieces from this inaugural line are sustainably made from naturally felled ash wood locally sourced from the Ohio Valley.
Such + Such joins 19 other small companies from around the U.S. whose creations include pottery, hand-dyed textiles, organic soap and skincare and handmade novelty goods. These finalists will be judged based on online votes, originality, design, story, commitment to local production and depth of product assortment. Public voting is open through Oct 14, and can be done here. The winners will be announced Nov 19.
There will be a voting party hosted by PB&J, a local PR and design firm that merged with Such + Such in 2013. The party will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. tonight at the PB&J offices at 1417 Main St. 1A in Over-the-Rhine. Rhinegeist Brewery will be providing refreshments.