"Material Issue" at Louisville's Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft

by Arden Cone

After a year of renovations to its historic downtown Louisville building, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) has filled its exhibition spaces once more. Its inaugural exhibition, featuring forty-one works by thirteen artists, is on view until September 25th, 2016. “Material Issue,” as its title suggests, favors works that treat their own materiality—or lack thereof, as the case may be—as a way of exploring topics as diverse as race, the environment, eroticism, and perceptions of wealth.

Jessica Jackson Hutchins,  Wishlist  Photo Credit: KMAC Museum

Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Wishlist Photo Credit: KMAC Museum

Until recently in human history, the materiality of our world didn’t have to be questioned. All that was precious to us we could touch, feel, see, taste, or smell with our senses at hand. Never was what we amassed formless. Nebulous. Nothingness. Never did we worry about materiality until it started slipping away with the dawn of the digital age.

Any exhibition about materiality in the twenty-teens must also reference immateriality, and, as expected, this one does. Nevertheless, I was happy to see the institution indulging in all aspects of the title. In some works, materiality hung like clothes on a mannequin, a tool for expressing a separate point. In others, materiality was the mannequin, self-referential, and wearing nothing but transparency on its sleeves. For examples, take Mike Goodlett, and Tacita Dean, respectively.

Mike Goodlett's hydrostone plaster casts

Mike Goodlett's hydrostone plaster casts

Mike Goodlett’s works treat materiality as a means of expressing the inherent eroticism present in sensual forms. His abstracted, tubular sculptures give off an airy playfulness that is not altogether innocent. They appear at first glance to be soft and fleshy, like body parts or something plush. On the contrary, they are hydro stone plaster casts, the negatives that hardened inside carefully cut and sewn spandex fabric. Names like Love Seat, and Ruff, Cuff, Muff engender readings of desire in the works’ presences and absences, holes and casts.

Tacita Dean takes a different approach to materiality, keeping it as a crucial part of her subject matter. Her film, Kodak, documents the production of the last roll of 16mm film made at a Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saone, France. Adding to the significance of this work is the fact that it is filmed using the very same media it depicts. The short film, as it rolls, is effectually watching its own death.

Tacita Dean,  Kodak,  Photo Credit: tate.org.uk

Tacita Dean, Kodak, Photo Credit: tate.org.uk

The selected artists use their own works’ materiality as a metaphor for the issues they address. Sara Briland and Ben Durham think about how materials can record human and natural activity. Briland’s solid, almost coral-like sculptures are beautiful and sad and appear as though they want to be fossils, specimens of what existed eons ago underneath the ocean. But the works were not born of Mother Nature’s beauty. The sculptures are actually polyurethane casts of goods manufactured by humans, bubble wrap and foam mattresses, to be precise. Even knowing this, their oceanic quality doesn’t go away. They still seem preserved for eternity, but now as detritus, perhaps twirling around some Pacific trash vortex ten thousand miles wide.

Sara Briland,  Problematica (Foam Rock)  Photo Credit: KMAC Museum

Sara Briland, Problematica (Foam Rock) Photo Credit: KMAC Museum

The KMAC has reopened with a powerful start. Its two curators, Aldy Miliken and Joey Yates have gathered a great sampling of well-respected artists from the United States and abroad, all on view at KMAC free of charge. While Yates is here to see the exhibition through to the end, Miliken is away for the summer: he was one of only thirty-six candidates from across the globe to be accepted to the Getty Leadership Institute’s prestigious education program for museum leaders. With this under his belt, Miliken will be set to bring even more to KMAC and the Louisville community.