Casey Pierce's studio is the front room of a house he shares with his roommate David Hellams, also an artist. For a different tenant, this might serve as the living room, a high-ceilinged space inside what Pierce describes as "the slope-iest house in Nashville." It's one of those old homes whose foundations have settled, resulting in uneven floors and long cracks in the walls. It's almost like a hilly landscape within the edifice, with funhouse angles as absurd as Being John Malkovich's low-overhead office space. A small coffee table is stacked with ArtForum back issues, and enormous canvases rest against every wall. The whole place smells like turpentine.
Pierce has shown his work at both Rymer Gallery and the just-closed Estel. But his most recent exhibitions have been in non-gallery spaces such as Fido this summer (a dual exhibit with Hellams that won him a Scene Best of Nashville award). And this month, one of his pieces is featured on the men's fashion website Park & Bond, in a section curated by local fashion design store Imogene + Willie. The decision to show art in a nontraditional setting was a no-brainer to Pierce. "It's not a matter of gallery versus non-gallery," he explains. "It's only a matter of how many people see it."
Expanding Nashville's creative community is a goal Pierce has had ever since he moved here six years ago. Being an artist has been a constant in his life since he first began painting with oils just 10 years ago. "Something clicked. I could find a rhythm," Pierce says.
For Pierce, the meditative quality of painting is therapeutic. "When I'm out of the studio for more than a week, I get grumpy," Pierce says with a grin. Still, he briefly toyed with giving it up when Rabbit, a small magazine he founded as a sort of art community-building exercise, was really picking up steam. "I could dedicate myself to the magazine, or to painting. I chose painting."
Rabbit covered everything from tattoo studios to local artists to Scientology, but its biggest success, Pierce says, was as a forum for meeting people. "We put out six issues in two and a half years, and threw parties with every issue launch," he says, adding that the magazine is more often remembered for its parties than its publications. Still, the experience helped introduce Casey to Nashville, and he considers its short run a success.
Like a multitude of other artists and musicians in Nashville, Pierce has a day job in a coffee shop, working as the manager of Fiddle Cakes on 10th Avenue, right across from Cummins Station. He manages a staff of five, makes people coffee, and closes up shop by 4 p.m. every evening.
"If I could spend six hours a day at the studio rather than a coffee shop, the work would be better," he says with a shrug.
Pierce's paintings are enormous — in both scale and ambition. He often begins with photographs, sometimes tweaking them digitally before painting the images onto canvas. The result is an almost plastic hyper-realism, like James Rosenquist or David Salle, with unnaturally perfect colors and cinematic cropping. A recent painting, for example, shows a close-up of a girl's pants being unzipped. A small triangle of lace-trimmed blue panties and pink skin gives the otherwise straightforward piece a sexiness that is so blatant it almost seems subtle, and the upside-down orientation of the piece — the button of the gray cords is at the bottom of the canvas, and the zipper goes up from there — recalls the dizzying grandeur of moments like these while simultaneously trimming it down to its smallest components.
He's considered moving away, perhaps even to Berlin, with his fiancée Heidi Feek. (The couple are planning a wedding in May.) In Germany, the cost of living is about the same as in Nashville, and Pierce says there's a rich art scene, but perhaps more opportunities for education.
For Pierce, it's all about balancing desires. You get the feeling that's a topic of frequent conversation in the house, which is filled with Thomas Pynchon novels, New Yorker magazines and paperback editions of classic literature. In a conversation that moves from Freudian psychoanalysis to the local music scene — Pierce just finished a design project with Nashville band Colorfeels — Pierce asks if I've ever read Art/Work, a book by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber that he says should be required reading for everyone involved in the arts. "It's about taking yourself seriously as an artist, and building your life around that."
Before I leave, Pierce says he wants to show me a painting he's taken a break from that's now hanging in his bedroom. The canvas is as vast as a building-side mural, and it covers the entire wall, with jagged edges squished up against the high ceiling and down to the floor. The massive work is based on Géricault's "Raft of the Medusa," an iconic piece of French romanticism that famously relied on cadavers as models for the dead and dying passengers of a shipwrecked crew. Pierce has reimagined the work, and he points out figures in the local art community who sat for the painting — Hellams is at the raft's helm, and Feek lies across the bottom. A self-portrait of the artist as "the half-dead guy" is central to the work, and he is surrounded by super-realistic representations of friends like Edwin O'Brien, Bo Brannon, Gary and Eva Oglander, and Joe Nolan.
Pierce says the painting is a metaphor for the artistic struggle — that we're all waiting to be picked up in some way. He's aware of the grandiosity of such a statement, as if the painting itself is so ambitious, literally larger than life, that it needs to be spoken of with a degree of levity: The life of an artist — in Nashville, Berlin, or anywhere else — is uncertain and scary, and requires vigilance and luck.
There are several spaces of nearly empty canvas where other figures have yet to be painted. "I almost don't want to finish it, because then it's an admission that we're all on this dinky raft at sea," Pierce says with a serious tone. "I don't think I'm ready to concede."