In many ways, much abstract art and contemporary art is “Off The Beaten Track.” When people don’t immediately recognize an object, they are pushed from their comfort zones. Some people hate contemporary art, others love it, and yet even more people feel baffled by it. Abstract art makes us more curious and forces us to wander beyond the traditional path.
Within Chattanooga, we have a fairly wide variety of galleries. I have not written about any of them in the past because I assumed many residents are familiar with Gallery 1401, In-Town Gallery, The River Gallery, Area 61 and others. However, amongst these galleries, there are distinct differences. Some carry more abstract work, others representational and others only local works.
Most recently I went to Stove Works and wondered if yet again I would be perplexed by the contemporary exhibits. On arrival, I came to the receptionist with platinum blonde hair and a pink sweater who seemed to be snoozing on the job. I immediately relaxed. If an overtired teenager was sleeping on the job, I need not worry about being out of my element. I clearly was more on my game than she was.
BUT I WAS NOT. With a soft voice, I asked for her help. Nothing. I wondered if I should tap her on the shoulder. Would I be rude? I kept my distance. I had to respect social distancing. Finally, I used a loud voice. Nothing. Then I realized the joke was on me; I had been trying to communicate with a manikin! Smiling, I led myself into the main exhibit hall, which was like nothing I have seen in Chattanooga. This venture was be fun.
The main exhibit hall features 26 pieces, and many, if not most of them, had me asking questions. My first stop, Dylan Spaysky’s “Gringo,” was a 7-foot assemblage of wicker, frame and sunglasses. Playful and thought provoking, the work brought forth memories of the happy go lucky scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz.” While turning from “Gringo,” I nearly tripped over Johanna Keefe’s “A Vehicle for Butter,” an oversized cooked lobster carrying a stick of butter on his back. Then I looked up to see Rose Nestler’s oversize torso of a woman in a violet collared jacket with irregularly shaped orchid breasts resembling the horns of a bull. The whimsy, playfulness, boldness and creative energy of so many works lightened my heart. I felt a bit as if I was in a “fun house.”
Not all the work was uplifting. In a side room, the “Duality” exhibit provided several somber works. One piece, by artist Rondell Crier, was a long sort of mobile extending over the length of the room. From individual strings, he had hung separate gravestones with the names of homicide victims in Chattanooga. Glass pendants between the stones separated the victims by the year of death. The graves had little maps indicating the location of the murder. Crier’s impactful work reminded me of a somber version of Matthew Dutton’s “Mumurations” piece at the Edwin Hotel. Feeling cheered from the main exhibit, I immediately closed in on my thoughts with the Duality exhibit. The work defines the word dumbfounding.
Stove Works is not just a gallery or a workspace for residential artists. It is not in the business of selling art as much as it in providing opportunities for new artists. As director and founder Charlotte Caldwell explained, “We are not motivated by the sale of work but rather the conversation that drives the piece.” While the atmosphere in some art galleries tend to be accompanied by hushed voices, Stove Works encourages a different and refreshing new dialogue.
For the neophyte art appreciator, Stove Works is a wonderful start. Clearly open to new ideas and welcoming a dynamic process, everyone and anyone is free to engage with the work. If perplexed by a supposed inability to appreciate art, one needs to go to Stove Works. Abstract art aficionados and those lacking any training are equally welcome. Go to Stove Works. You might laugh or you might cry, but you will not be disappointed.
Stove Works is located at 250 E. 13th Street, Chattanooga, TN 37408. Open 12-6:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, it is open to the public and free of charge.
by Robin Howe