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Looking for Richards on Market Square

Three art exhibits signal a shift in downtown attitude

by Heather Joyner

One recent noontime on Market Square I sensed an energy I'd not felt there in some time. More subtle than the jammin' vitality of an outdoor concert, it was hard to pinpoint. Attractive young people occupied a table, talking to passers-by and handing out Al Gore campaign paraphernalia. As is often the case, the reconstructed and improved Tomato Head restaurant had a line extending out the door. The weather was warm, the autumn sky a deep blue. But the energy I refer to seemed to extend beyond the apparent bustle.

After taking in the imaginative and beautifully executed prints of artist Richard Gere at the Tomato Head, I headed up the west side of the Square and peered into gallery and shop windows. Then it hit me. Despite uncertainty about downtown's future, there was the spark: previously empty spaces were brimming with art and inviting people in. After the controversial proposal by Worsham Watkins International to create "shoppertainment" by forcing a wholesale buy-out of private properties on the Square, change is in the air. Things are looking up for those who wish to stay put and save taxpayers a hefty bundle of cash. As Metro Pulse's mighty Joe Sullivan reported two weeks ago, Knoxville's Director of Development Doug Berry has lately asserted that the city is reconsidering its position regarding condemnation of presently healthy businesses. This, just as I was thinking we'd have to change the name of the place to Mussolini Square (now there's a lively theme—the Tomato Head would become Il Duce's Pizza and public hangings could be staged).

Says owner of downtown and Homberg area galleries Susan Key, "Even though what they're thinking about doing to the Victorian houses [on 11th Street] is a really bad idea, it's not the same thing as Market Square because those houses are city-owned property—there's only one Market Square. The heart of the matter concerning Market Square is that it's totally unique. Other than its history and its location in the center of the business district, it's unique because of the spatial relationship between public and private property. They butt right up against each other—a perfect marriage." Having first run a gallery in the Old City beginning in 1989, Key eventually relocated to 5119 Kingston Pike in order to stay afloat. She remarks that a car plowed through her Bearden building five years ago, attesting to its on Kingston Pike status, and says she prefers the new Market Square digs. Given Key's vehicular disdain and belief in the advantages of a pedestrian-friendly environment for art, that makes perfect sense.

Key asserts that the identity of and sense of community in central downtown needs to be protected. Co-chair of the Market Square Association, she says, "That's what will be lost if the Worsham Watkins plan for the Square goes forward because they will take away the public/private element that makes the Square belong to everybody." Intentionally or not, Richard Painter (Key's featured artist) has created work that resonates with the unresolved fate of the Square. The dominant theme of temporal fragility uniting his constructions is downright eerie. Gere's 18 monoprint/offset xerographs at the Tomato Head are connected to their greater surroundings as well. His juxtaposition of imposing sailing vessels and machines with things on a smaller, personal scale (images of solitary children and hands, for instance) serves to remind us that behind the most complex inventions exists a mysterious human force. Nomad, an adjacent exhibit consisting of "hand-wovens" and ethnic jewelry made by Emily Dewhirst alongside collages and paintings by Carol Minarick, rounds out the offerings. Looking as much like an unpretentious shop as it does a gallery, Nomad's setting within 31 Market Square and eclecticism is nothing if not approachable, reflecting the laid-back character of the Square itself.

The aforementioned art, however linked to Market Square, is well worth our time. Evocative color combinations and seductive surfaces found in Gere's diptychs and singular pieces are a pleasure to look at. The model plane in his "Maybe The Soul" and a twiggy dirigible inhabiting his graphic-but-not-flat "Ties That Bind" are somehow extensions of humanness—no mean feat, that warmth, when it comes to things diagrammatic and/or technological. Painter's 20-plus multimedia pieces possess both a masculine edge and a refined delicacy. Whether he's embedding dead flowers in lead or hanging ashes of what was once his artwork in bags on the wall, Painter never fails to make us think. Employing a technique that involves scorching wood and leaving certain treated areas unscathed, Painter has come up with a striking metaphor for destruction and survival. Cerebral yet visceral, his works reveal an awareness of art history and a talent for redirecting the significance of images from the past.

The two Richards deliver, in other words, and do so within close range of one another on our glorious Square. As part of a locus so important to Knoxville's sense of spirit, they should not be overlooked.

November 2, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 44
© 2000 Metro Pulse