Art might be universal, especially the kind that grips imaginations for generations, even centuries. But sometimes, it is the specific limits of a place and time that elicits powerful work.
Such is the case with Lexington Art League's KY.7 Biennial exhibit, contemporary art by artists from Kentucky and its seven surrounding states — Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
This is the second installment of what the art league says will be a regular event every two years (the first KY.7 was in 2008). The exhibit, which opened last month and runs through Oct. 23, showcases forward-thinking regional artists whose methods embody professional innovation and whose content engages themes and ideas that are culturally, politically and socially relevant to the region.
"Art relies so much on context," says Becky Allen, the art league's exhibitions and programs, "so things like where it was made and where it is seen are really important factors in what the work ultimately communicates to an audience. A regional show such as KY.7 offers a really interesting framework for understanding issues important to our region and our community."
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The art league cast a wide net in soliciting work for this exhibit, receiving more than 800 entries. Alley was one of three jurors, along with Jason Franz, executive director and chief curator at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati; and John Begley, director and coordinator of critical and curatorial Studies at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville. They pared down the exhibit to 55 works by 36 artists. The works are as diverse as the pool of applicants, representing techniques including installation, video, charcoal drawings and photography.
The wide range of methodologies of the KY.7 Biennial artists reflects the complexity of the issues and themes each work engages. Some artists are working toward more literal concepts; others are delving deeply into the figurative outposts of the imagination.
West Virginia photographer Aaron Blum wrote in his artist's statement that he hopes to convey his impression and experience with Appalachian identity in his work.
"Outsiders have long since fictionalized the narrative that has surrounded Appalachia," Blum wrote. "The sentiments of this region are factual and fabricated. As a resident of West Virginia, I have always commingled the invented West Virginia with the existent."
Blum plays with the accurate and misleading portrayals of the Appalachian experience in his work, aiming to create "imagery of the region that sometimes borders on otherworldly," he wrote.
Other regional artists are less focused on identity and more on deeper phenomena of the human experience.
Mike Calway-Fagen is an installation artist and Tennessee native who explores difficult-to-capture experiences such as nostalgia and futility, using materials and an attention to process that is connective and correlative.
"I inundate the gallery with suites of works that lack divisional space; the work needs to touch one another, have connections that explode from the point of contact," he says in his statement.
Visually presenting such a smorgasbord of works and themes was a kind of artistic exercise in itself for Alley and the art league's new executive director, Stephanie Pevec.
"We spent about two to three hours leaning pieces against the wall and shuffling them from room to room until it just felt right," Alley says. "Inevitably what happens, and this is always really interesting, is that the works relate to each other. The colors in one piece are echoed in another, or a certain approach to content is reiterated from one piece to another. It just proves how dynamic art is."