The Art of Now

The Dixon pulls out all the stops for this one-of-a-kind show.

Phyllis Boger Winter Thaw, 2004, oil on canvas, 22x28” Courtesy of the artist

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Big things can happen when people share a vision. Just look at the exhibition that opened in early February at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Not only is it attracting new visitors and exposing traditional art lovers to unfamiliar genres. It’s also the largest exhibition in the museum’s 37-year-history, filling all the galleries, the original residence, and sections of the garden with contemporary works by Memphis artists.

By sending the permanent collection on tour for several months, planners have freed up plenty of space for “Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now,” which runs through April 14th. And what a range of art it covers — from watercolors, oils, drawings, and printmaking to sculpture, photography, videos, and installation art — all created by 83 artists working in Memphis since the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The seed was planted for such a show in 2007, when Kevin Sharp became director of the Dixon. “I’m always interested in the art of my own time and place,” says the Missouri native, “and I was really impressed with what I saw in Memphis.”

Just as impressed was Jim Meeks, managing partner of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, which is sponsoring the exhibition. “Jim and I came to Memphis about the same time,” says Sharp. “We had the same newcomers’ curiosity about the place and he loves contemporary art. We’d talk about artists we knew and those we liked. His office is full of Memphis art. He came on very early as supporter and sponsor of the show.”

Kong Wee Pang | Extrovert, 2010,  watercolor, ink, charcoal, acrylic, and collage on paper, 75x60”  Courtesy of the Artist

Indeed, after moving here from Louisville, Meeks sought a cultural connection to the city, and while forging a friendship with Sharp, he saw parallels between his company’s and the museum’s demographics. “It seemed a natural fit for me, Northwest Mutual, and the Dixon,” says Meeks. “We started talking about a show like this two years ago. Gradually the marriage came together and birthed ‘Present Tense.’”

Serving as guest curator of the show is John Weeden, former head of the UrbanArt Commission and now a fine-arts appraiser with Vita Brevis Arts Bureau. Though not a practicing artist himself, Weeden’s  gift lies in advocating for the arts and building an audience for “all the talented people out there.” He grew up in Memphis, graduated from Rhodes College, received a master’s in contemporary art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, and worked in curatorial positions for art organizations in New York, Paris, Scotland, and other European countries. Upon returning to Memphis in 2004, he started the blog, Weeden Arts Watch, “because I wanted people in other cities to see that here, in my hometown, we’re doing good things too.”

Approaching his role as curator, Weeden delved into archival research to answer these questions: What artists have shown consistently at a high level? Who has contributed or influenced other artists or made significant contributions to the visual arts landscape of the city? What have local writers said about the shows? Coming up with a whopping list of 1,000 works and 300 artists, Weeden then faced the task of deciding what to keep — and cull. “That was exhilarating, daunting, painful, even heartbreaking, all at once,” says Weeden. “We tried to be comprehensive in media, discipline, background, and level in the artists’ career stage. And I think we did a good job. It’s by no means an encyclopedic exhibition. It’s a curated project to show the wealth of creativity that the city possesses. I don’t think even I was prepared for such a complex, rich, and vibrantly textured show.”

Sharp echoes Weeden’s surprise and pleasure. “I knew it would be solid,” he says, “but I didn’t realize just how much we’d have. For someone like me, that’s absolutely fantastic.”

As for the artists’ connections to the city, Sharp explains that many were born and raised here, some were educated at local institutions before moving away, and others studied elsewhere and returned.  What pleases him most is that “these individuals tend to have a real stake in Memphis and in giving back.”

Recalling the era of “the surly artist” who cared only about his work and nothing else, Sharp believes that attitude has changed. “Often now, artists are laser-focused on making a difference,” he says. “Instead of self-aggrandizement or creating a commodity they can sell, they care about building a stronger community. We see that again and again in ‘Present Tense.’”

On the following pages are profiles of seven artists whose work is seen in this exhibition. We believe they show the diverse array of talent and media represented in what Sharp describes as “a primer of Memphis visual arts.”


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