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Contemporary art emerges from the remnants of Nashville's industrial past at the Fugitive Art Center



We all had so much fun. We'd be there in the winter, and everybody would be sick, everybody had the flu, and people were just taking turns crashing out on the couches, drinking NyQuil with dust masks on." That's the way Lain York fondly remembers the group effort that went into carving the Fugitive Art Center studio and gallery complex out of raw industrial space in the winter of 1998-99. Five years later, the Fugitive has become an essential part of Nashville's art scene.

The Fugitive's studios and exhibit space occupy an old warehouse on Houston Street, just off Chestnut Street behind Greer Stadium and the Nashville City Cemetery. The group runs this large, raw space on a cooperative basis, with the goal of showing art that would not otherwise be seen in this town and making the building available to young artists and locals.

After five years, the Fugitive can point to a steady series of good shows, but that's only part of the group's significance to Nashville. Its 12-person board provides a cross-section of the city's art scene, which can claim some real liveliness these days. Nashville isn't New York yet, and maybe we can all agree it never will be. However, for a moderately sized city, the art scene here has a lot of energy. The artists involved with the Fugitive are some of the people most responsible for making that happen.

The Fugitive sprang from the cross-fertilization of newcomers and artists with long Tennessee ties. It started when Greg Pond moved to town in the fall of 1998 fresh out of the MFA program at the University of Georgia (UGA). He was staying at Marathon Village, getting ready for an exhibit at the University of the South in Sewanee, and looking for studio space. He ran into another tenant at Marathon, Dallas Austin, who was also looking for new space. Soon after that, Pond attended a meeting of the Untitled group, where he met painter and poet Bryan Hunter, who joined the conversation about options for space. At that meeting he also met Lain York and Richard Mitchell, who knew about a building on Houston Street. The initial trio of Pond, Hunter and Austin came to an agreement with the warehouse's owner and started work on building out studios, with York, Mitchell and others joining in.

One of the original planners, Austin, dropped out before work really got started and new participants came in, like painter Bob Durham. They worked feverously (not entirely flu-related), added gallery space and opened up in February 1999 with the Untitled Glow Show, followed in March with an exhibit of work by everyone who had a hand in the project. After this, the Fugitive mounted its first solo show, featuring work by a friend of Pond's from UGA, Terry Glispin. Around the same time, Pond convinced Glispin to move to Nashville when an adjunct spot opened up at Watkins College of Art and Design. A year later, a reorganization opened up the chair of the Fine Arts department, and Glispin got that job after a national search.

Today the Fugitive board includes a core of UGA-trained artists (Pond, Glispin and Jack Dingo Ryan), several people with deep Tennessee ties (Hunter, York, Durham, Patrick DeGuira and Carol Mode), and others who have come to Nashville more recently, mostly to take teaching positions (Lesley Patterson and Julie Roberts of Watkins, Mark Hosford from Vanderbilt, and Iwonka Waskowski, who is a student at Watkins).

Art in Tennessee has always depended on transplants. Fisk brought Aaron Douglas to Nashville, John Wood Dodge came from New York. Transplantation continues today and appears to be accelerating with the proliferation of BFA and MFA programs nationwide and rising costs in the major cities. Urban bohemianism becomes increasingly unsustainable in centers like New York, where real estate markets clamor for every bit of space. Or as York puts it, "The major cities are filling up," pushing artists to towns like Nashville in search of support and space. Lesley Patterson points out that there is "more time for art" in Nashville because you don't have to hold down two jobs to keep an apartment. The city certainly has new employment opportunities for MFA-trained artists with Watkins' transformation into a full-fledged art school. Homegrown artists have a strong role as well, and this will likely increase as students from Watkins' new BFA program start to hit the streets and join the ones already coming from MTSU, Austin Peay and farther afield.

The Fugitive board members say their goal in picking shows is to spotlight art that would not normally get a viewing in Nashville because it takes a form (such as installation) unsuitable for commercial galleries, or the style and content are too jarring for those spaces. The shows tend to feature, as Pond puts it, "young, very energetic work" from people who have not yet achieved national recognition—"mid-level artists" in Mark Hosford's words. The result is something like the Whitney Biennial, which focuses on identifying leading emerging artists, but presented sequentially with a regional focus. The board members quickly point out that some other local spaces show similar work, especially Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center (which opened the same year as the Fugitive).

In the view of several board members, one artist who really hit the marks of what the Fugitive wants to achieve was David Holland. He set up an installation in the gallery, then walled it in with drywall. At the opening, everyone gathered in the hallway and Holland sawed holes in the drywall, invited everyone in and took video of them peering through the holes. This was one of the few exhibits that had a performance aspect. Several artists have chosen to construct installations, such as Shaun Slifer's take on suburban development. He hauled in dirt to cover the gallery floor, planted property stakes in it, and from the ceiling suspended photos of the entrance signs from subdivisions near Memphis. This installation fully transformed the space, with the dirt and rows of stakes reminding some people of a cemetery.

The Fugitive also puts on plenty of shows that present a series of paintings, drawings or sculpture, in exhibition format similar to what one would find at any gallery. The difference, when there is a difference, from conventional commercial galleries lies in the content of the works. Krista Hoefle's show last fall consisted of sculptures and wall-mounted paintings constructed from unconventional materials like cosmetics and toxic-looking plastic. The pieces built up from globs of black, melted plastic were too brutal and pointed to bring to mind eager buyers and sellers in a gallery, and seemed like they could have come straight from the industrial surroundings, byproducts of the manufacturing process. Other pieces used bright, girly cosmetics, but in an excessive way that pounced from the wall. One piece projected out into the room, breast shapes built up from lipstick that over time drooped and dripped onto the floor below, joining the other substances that had stained the floor during its long life. Even shows that consist of paintings can push into uncomfortable zones. Jason Lahr pulled pictures from Boy Scout manuals and combined them with images of car crashes, mutilation and dismemberment, all of it accompanied by text describing acts of violence or their onset or aftermath. The words on the canvas asked viewers for a different kind of attention, to become readers as well as lookers, and the image combinations spoiled wholesome reminiscences of boyhood.

The group has expressed an interest in serving as a venue for work outside the visual arts, but so far activity has been limited. The Fugitive has presented programming in poetry, music, film and dance, but only on occasion. Several artists have used sound, but only a few included performance elements.

The informal, grassroots quality of the Fugitive limits some of its choices. The group does not have any money for shipping art, so artists have to bring the work to Nashville themselves or pay for shipping. The space has no air conditioning and crude climate control, which scares off some artists. Forget about insurance, and of course there's no question of paying for materials. In spite of all these things, many artists want to show at the Fugitive. "They actually spend a significant amount of their own money because they've heard of the Fugitive, they've heard it's a good time," is how Ryan explains the group's successes so far in finding good artists willing to exhibit on these terms. However, the group surely could get bigger names if it could promise more support.

The board members have a tough time with the question of whether the Fugitive has an aesthetic. The responses range from "no" to a perceived preference for work by men emphasizing cartoon-like images, hard lines and flat colors. From an outside observer's perspective, the work at the Fugitive does seem to fall in with important trends in art today. While some critics, notably Arthur Danto, argue that we are in an era of no schools and no central narrative, where anything goes, there's a good case to be made that there is always a central trend; it just may be hard to see. I think we are on the other side of a watershed in which art has fully embraced the concepts of minimalism and conceptual art in a way that can make use of any visual means, including unconventional materials or traditional imagistic painting and drawing. This period might be labeled post-minimalist or post-conceptual.

In this era, an artwork should be treated as an object and experience as well as an image: the work cannot be considered outside of the context it establishes with the viewer. Installation pieces become the most emblematic means of expression. One evaluates art in terms of what problems it poses and how much pleasure it delivers in the way it works out those problems. The artist can use any number of techniques or presentations and does not need to be constrained by minimalism's visual austerity. But this creative freedom carries an extremely high threshold for quality, since it is no longer enough for art to look nice or be well-crafted—the ideas and experience of a piece must be engaging.

You can see this approach to art in Glispin's leadership of the Fine Arts BFA program at Watkins, where even traditional foundation courses incorporate critical elements that build students' ability to think through their work. And when he looks at art, what catches his attention are works that show "somebody has had a thought pattern and then found a way of making evidence of it."

This art does not seem well-suited for the commercial gallery system, which relies on a trade in objects, not in ideas. We may well be at one of those historical junctures when the social and economic framework for art changes. It has happened before, like when church and court patronage gave way to commercial purchases by an ascendant bourgeoisie. This does not mean that galleries will disappear, but they may become increasingly irrelevant to what is important in the visual arts, while "marginal" spaces like the Fugitive would represent the vital core. The role of commercial galleries today may be like the church in the 19th and 20th centuries: even after the rise of commercial dealers, the church continued to purchase art, but in no way was church patronage as important to art history as it had been in the 15th century.

Art life is a party

Exhibits at the Fugitive revolve around the openings on a Friday or Saturday night. A large crowd gathers, with beer and a DJ on hand. People do talk about art, but also engage in the gossip and small talk that constitute the daily bread of any community. Things may get a bit sloppy as the night wears on. It is not a typical wine and cheese art opening; that sort of event sets a tone for art as a pursuit of exquisite refinement. The feel of opening night at the Fugitive sets a different tone, perhaps an even more idealistic one that thinks that art can retain its immediacy and thrill. In Ryan's words, "The spirit of 'anything goes,' you can feel that at the opening."

Outside of opening nights, the gallery doesn't get much foot traffic—it is open on Saturdays and Sundays and by special arrangement, but regular visitors are not much part of the equation. This puts Fugitive shows on an event-oriented footing, like the one-night shows the Untitled group stages.

As individuals and as a group, the Fugitive has always attached importance to the social side of life as an artist. The core of the Fugitive consists of friends who forged strong bonds through a winter of construction work and PBR. This has led to criticism of them as a male-dominated group overly interested in entertaining themselves, and Pond admits "it sort of started out as a clubhouse." To the credit of the original members, they recognized the risks of insularity and took steps to involve new people by extending offers to join the board. Patterson was aware of their reputation, but realized as she got to know them that they were serious about art, so she accepted the invitation to join the board. However, the friendship at its core profoundly defines the organization, and it has carried the members through the many difficulties of such an underfunded enterprise.

The Fugitive's social character seems to fit Nashville, where the art community comes off as more friendly and supportive than in other places. The lack of competitiveness here in part reflects the city's small size and the lack of a resident MFA program. Ryan attributes it to the fact that "there's not really a commercial market for art" here. He and Hosford both stress Nashville's receptiveness as a factor in their decision to move here. Julie Roberts (who also writes art criticism for the Nashville Scene) came to town on the urging of a friend from Cranbrook Academy of Art who was here already. Patterson has encouraged other artists to move here. Relationships built at the Fugitive spur further migration.

This relative lack of competition leads into one of those ages-old arguments in the arts: is competition essential to quality, or does it have the opposite effect? For some people, competition inspires them to keep refining and honing their work. Others thrive in a cooperative environment where they feel encouraged to pursue their ideas, something Patterson is trying to achieve in her classes at Watkins. She thinks students need to begin by getting comfortable with each other and forming a community. "Then they can be safe, and then they can be free to be themselves, and to be honest." Without resolving whether competition or cooperation yields better art, suffice it to note that receptiveness is one thing that draws artists to Nashville.

After emerging from the already existing Nashville environment of easily created friendships and networks, the Fugitive has become a part of the system of integration for new artists. Patterson sees it as "the hub of the art scene." And for Nashvillians who don't happen to be artists, the Fugitive offers a taste of the gritty urban experience that makes big cities so energizing. Visiting the Fugitive is like being transported to another place, a movie version of urban bohemian life. You go to an out-of-the-way part of town filled with old warehouses that survive from the days when people actually made things in cities. Over the metal door stands a target logo that's too slick for real warehouse work, which keeps you in the post-industrial present. When you go inside, an out-of-the-Sunbelt experience hits you: rough, uneven wooden floorboards covered with yellow lines from some former industrial traffic management scheme, rooms finished out on a low budget. Wander through the building, and you pass studios and open work areas, collections of stuff that could be left over from installation pieces long gone or the previous industrial tenants. And back where you entered, there's art on the walls and often the floors. This month Nashvillian Emily Holt's miniature stage set and pop-up books line the entrance hallway, and two out-of-town artists have the main gallery: Joseph Burwell's drawings on tracing paper, delicate compositions of decorative patterns and stray marks, and Jonathan Jacquet's old-master style oils and carved wood sculptures of distressed and disfigured bodies.

Where do we go from here?

After celebrating its five-year anniversary in March, the Fugitive is now discussing its future. Gallery director Ryan leaves town this summer to take a teaching position at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; each year finds Pond getting more involved in his teaching position at Sewanee. New board members have taken on responsibilities, but it is not clear where responsibility will settle.

The board is talking about applying for formal nonprofit status as a way of getting funds to pay someone to run the place and to provide support for shows. The board would have to change and take on a more structured administration, and the members recognize the risk this entails. Hosford points out that currently the Fugitive enjoys a maximum of independence and collaboration, and that this could be lost with an NPO's demands for structure. And for whatever loss of flexibility might come, nonprofit status does not constitute a magic talisman that guarantees funding.

One idea for the Fugitive's future is to find new exhibit space in a better traveled part of town. The lack of walk-through traffic outside of opening night does seem to argue for looking for a new location. The board has discussed the Gulch, Eighth Avenue, downtown and the Neuhoff complex as possible sites. New, cleaner space with higher ceilings and climate control would also give artworks less competition from the space itself. Better space combined with better funding would position the Fugitive to handle more well-known artists. Glispin looks west and asks, "Why does Memphis get better work than we do?" and he wants to change that. Some of the board members can see eventually building the Fugitive into a major contemporary art center, capable of attracting and handling work from well-known artists, possibly with a cafe, a library and a speaker series. This idea taken to its full extent requires a lot of money, so either it lies far down the road or awaits an as yet unidentified angel.

However, should the Fugitive decide to move out of the current space, it might lose something. Nashville has many fine qualities, but newcomers often painfully feel the lack of urban adventure that comes from just this sort of ramshackle survival of the industrial past. Seeing art in this context maintains a sense of connection with the things people formerly did in the same space. In the past 20 years, Nashville has leveled much of its old industrial building stock in favor of surface parking and major event venues. We don't know what to do with the more granular, variegated urban fabric, which contains the physical traces of the city's history. So far the Fugitive has succeeded in making use of the physical past.

While the group debates nonprofit status and new space, the Fugitive is moving ahead into new areas, swapping shows with other galleries and packaging shows of Fugitive artists to send other places. After five years of bringing the world (or at least the region) to Nashville, the Fugitive wants to take Nashville to the world. This will only add to the sense that something is going on here.

The board members also recognize that not all of the shows have really taken advantage of the space; they would like more of them to transform the gallery. Julie Roberts also points out the lack of political art and social commentary in Nashville, and she would like the group to bring in more work from artists who are "really willing to push some buttons" and are "questioning what's going on in the world." As Iwonka Waskowski puts it, "The safe stuff has got its place. We're supposed to be the gallery that just screams certain things." The Fugitive has expanded the range of art seen in Nashville, but there is room to push it further.

What do these people working so hard to fill a gap in Nashville's art scene think the city needs next? They seem to be looking for the next wave of artists to step in and start their own spaces and organizations. As York sees it, "We have a unique opportunity here" to get new things going. He looks forward to a day when a bunch of new artists look at him, say, "Man, you're old," and zoom past him in pursuit of new ideas.

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