For years, Reuben Kadish lived in the periphery of famous, successful artists, struggling to achieve his own success, but eventually becoming a footnote in others' lives. "Reuben Kadish: Witness," the UK Art Museum's newest exhibit, seeks to celebrate the artist for who he was.
Witness showcases 45 years of Kadish’s work, both in sculpture and print, in a variety of sizes and materials.
The sculpture is rough and physical, with an abstract style informed by Kadish's later work as a successful dairy farmer.
"It’s super-expressive," said museum director Stuart Horodner.
For Horodner, the exhibit is a chance to bring the work of an under-appreciated artist, defined for much of his career by the work of more successful friends such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, to Lexington, where many who may never have heard of Kadish could find something to relate to.
"He’s not as well-known as he should be," said Horodner, calling Kadish, "An artist who has been underseen over many years.
"It seemed to me that this work would speak to a history of artists in the state working with ceramics."
It's also an opportunity for the museum to showcase obscure art with dark, potentially upsetting themes. After leaving the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression because his art proved too radical for the organization, Kadish worked during World War II with the U.S. Army’s Artist Unit, documenting the war through art.
It was a time that deeply affected him. Images of skeletal, starving figures in India and Burma doubled over hang next to sculpted heads with bulging eyes, inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were made in the 1980s, near the end of Kadish's life.
"It’s extremely filled with a kind of anxiety and disgust for man’s capacity for horrible behavior," Horodner said.
But Kadish also created figures of life. Witness features several female nudes, inspired by "earth mother" figures with indistinct forms, celebrating fertility.
Although Kadish did much of his work in the mid-20th century, Horodner said he feels that the work echoes the same themes of contemporary issues. The heads, created to symbolize the horrors of World War II, could be applied to the ongoing Palestinian conflict, he said, while the nudes echo the ongoing #MeToo movement.
"Art of this kind is always relevant," said Horodner. "This was a show we felt was an eye-opener."
Witness's companion show, "Frankensteinian," celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Mary Shelley novel, and adds to the general themes of figure and the body.
"Frankensteinian" showcases some pieces from the museum's permanent collection, some items borrowed from Transylvania University's medical library, a first-edition printing of the novel itself, and two large pieces meant to embody the grotesqueness and isolation of the story.
Georgia Henkel's "Love Letter from a Dark Tourist," which was created specifically for the exhibit, features a seated, larger-than-life figure stuffed with and surrounded by small personal items: "1940's Army blanket that swaddled multitudes," "Aunt Jessie Lou's oriental rug that was walked on by alligators," "83 single socks screaming for a second life as puppets" and others.
Other large pieces were selected for the theme. Brandon Smith's 2016 piece "Failing," a painted papier-mâché form protrudes from the wall like a tumor, while Robert Morgan's "Ancestral Head #3" combines broken toys and everyday objects to create a composite head, just as Frankenstein's monster is brought together using found materials.
"I wanted to put you into the realm of the novel,” Horodner said of the collection.
If you go
"Witness" and "Frankensteinian"
When: through July 22
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri. and noon-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Where: University of Kentucky Art Museum, inside the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.