NASHVILLE, TN: Selections from the National Gallery, an exhibition of history-inspired works by Nashville artist Lain York, will be on view in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery from January 31 through May 11, 2014. Employing a colorful visual shorthand, Mr. York invites viewers to think about the creative connections that shape our understanding of the continuing impact of American history.
The exhibition features a recent series of works relating to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and a 2012 series of vignettes inspired by David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 biography of Founding Father and second president of the United States John Adams. The works do not illustrate the book so much as provide a cryptic visual shorthand that defines the artist’s sense of the captions’ meanings and emotional resonance.
Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala says, “Each body of works relates to the often combative circumstances that have marked partisan governance in the past, making more than a passing allusion to our current political dissonances.”
An avid reader of history, Mr. York is particularly interested in the notion of past as prologue. While reading the Adams biography during the 2012 presidential campaign, he was struck by the connection between the past and present. Mr. York comments:
“The underlying narrative of history, or the untold story that actually sets future events in motion, has been a consistent theme in my work. I have no wish to personally comment one way or the other, so I use the platform of an official archive—which in most cases is anything but objective—to reinforce the thought of something larger than ourselves influencing the chains of events.”
The exhibition title Selections from the National Gallery is itself a reference to an ostensibly official museum record. To create his works, Mr. York relies on source material such as eighteenth-and nineteenth-century documents, newspaper articles and engravings. His silhouetted figures wear period garb and pose in stiff pantomime. Titles such as Trashed in the Press, Battle on the Floor of Congress, and An XYZ Affair refer to political conflicts in which the artist perceives contemporary relevance. Yet his choice of stick-on vinyl—a cheap, elastic graphic material—as the primary medium, slyly counters the pomposity often contained in traditional history painting. “The works have a nonchalant sensibility,” says Mr. Scala. “The vinyl is often wrinkled or hangs loose, lending a quality of ephemerality, a lightening of the sense of dignity and scale that often marks history paintings as important.”
Known for creating works that hover between abstraction and representation, Mr. York is as concerned with figure-ground relationships, conversations in color and economy of form as he is with political ideas. He says:
“I really like the idea of giving the viewer a narrative source for abstraction. The hope is to draw the viewer in with imagery that might be recognizable with the added pay-off of specific references to American or European history sparking a conversation. I hope it helps to break down the conception that abstraction requires a working knowledge of the medium.”
The works of Selections from the National Gallery do not intend to teach lessons of the past, but rather remind us of the deep-rooted contentious nature of our democracy. “Beneath known histories are ghostly layers of triggering events and influential people that will never fully materialize even through a historian’s pen, and may only be brought into hazy view by an artist’s imagination,” says Mr. Scala.
Recognized as a vital member of and tireless advocate for the Nashville visual arts community, Lain York has been active as an artist since the 1990s. He was a member of the Fugitive cooperative, which brought groundbreaking shows to Nashville, and introduced cutting edge work already being done here to the art-loving public. As current director of the Zeitgeist Gallery, he continues to influence the Nashville art scene. He is represented by Zeitgeist Gallery.
This exhibition was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.