Young at art

Exploring Louisville's off-gallery art scene

A convention hall lined with zombie comic book authors and vinyl collectibles might seem like an odd place to find artists whose work doesn’t grace the pages of science fiction or fill up video game screens, but neither Melody Dennison nor Robby Davis are strangers to a quirky scene. At last month’s Derby City Comic Con, both rented tables and sold their artwork alongside fantasy franchises and superhero displays.


Dennison and Davis are part of Louisville’s pop art subculture, populated with self-taught DIY mavens, graphic designers and tattoo artists, working just outside of the visual arts mainstream in a scene characterized by accessible (in terms of both subject and environment) and affordable visual art with a decidedly youthful appeal.

Davis is a graphic designer by day whose cute yet creepy illustrations have cropped up steadily around town and beyond. An avid participant in non-traditional shows, Davis has shown at The Late Seating at Actors Theatre and at budget sales like the annual A Very Portland Christmas show, in addition to his increasingly prolific magazine work.

“I think my work is nontraditional, so a nontraditional space seems more fitting and comfortable to me,” Davis says. “Subculture artists are trying to create something different and push the boundaries of what is considered art by the mainstream. They tend to have an anti-authority mentality and thrive on being individuals. The benefits of being part of this subculture is that it’s very accepting, open-minded and non-judgmental. It welcomes absurdity and doesn’t frown upon it. The drawback is you probably won’t get rich.”

Indeed, if one way a city’s culture is defined is by a healthy subculture, Louisville’s visual art scene is thriving. If you’ve grabbed a cup of coffee in the Highlands in the last few years, chances are you’ve seen Dennison’s work — those stenciled faces of iconic sad clowns like Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield, boldly rendered in negative space yet delicately featured, capturing the ebullient and melancholy duality of men who make other people laugh for a living.

Even outside of the museum and highbrow gallery mainstream, we’re surrounded by art — at every independent coffee shop, at restaurants like Nancy’s Bagel Grounds and Dragon King’s Daughter, at Derby City Chop Shop and Liberty Tattoo & Art Parlor, at boutiques like Hey Tiger and the Dandy Lion. And more often than not, the work is by young artists like Dennison, meaning you can buy local — your latté and your art — all in one place.

“They’re running in herds together and influencing each other. There’s a tribe of tattoo artists who are influencing each other, and they have their side projects. There are lots of little groups of people working together and inspiring each other,” says Frances Ward, whose new art magazine, Pure Uncut Candy (subtitled “Louisville’s All-Inclusive Art Browser”), showcases emerging artists alongside more established talent. “The tattoo artists can influence the custom auto guys, and the artist who does really great sculpture can also influence photographers.”

A generation ago, a young professional decorating her first apartment might hang a mass-market Monet print over the couch in a nod to that art history course her liberal arts degree required, but today, thanks to the post-postmodern Gen X/Y pop culture landscape, a painting of a chainsaw-toting Pac-Man has earned just as prominent a place on the gallery wall as a traditional landscape.

Dennison, whose work is inspired by pop culture and graffiti artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Claw, never aspired to the wine-and-cheese scene herself, eschewing an art school pedigree in favor of a good old-fashioned street education.

“I hung out with kids who did graffiti in high school — that’s how I got into spray paint,” she explained as we sat outside of Highland Coffee, where her current show was hanging. “People doing graffiti were making it for themselves. It was beautiful and it was going to be gone in a day, and they didn’t care. I liked that underground scene.”

Dennison had just wrapped a long weekend of displaying and selling artwork at Comic Con and a full day at work at a senior assisted-living facility. Though Dennison’s work isn’t as cartoon-inspired as many in Louisville, the one-day pop culture festival attracted a fan base naturally sympathetic to a portrait of Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” If you’re trying to sell to art collectors, Comic Con might be a strange choice to set up shop for the day, but artists like Dennison go where their peers are, following a certain sensibility rather than the traditional gallery or museum path.

Though each intricate stencil takes a not-insignificant amount of time and skill, Dennison is still surprised and grateful when her artwork sells. Most of her original pieces can be purchased for less than $100, because Dennison sets her modest prices with her ideal client in mind — herself.

“The kind of art I make is really targeted at people my age, and nobody has hundreds of dollars to just give away,” she says. “Nobody rich would like the stuff I make, like Donkey Kong riding Yoshi. I don’t think people who like that stuff would have hundreds of dollars to spare.”

But Banksy’s work has sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was nominated for an Academy Award. Fairey was well known for his “Obey Giant” series even before he got Obama elected. If Dennison’s self-described “lowbrow” work is outside the mainstream, it still speaks the insider language of pop culture, whose aficionados include folks with pockets deep and shallow alike. But making the leap to the big leagues might mean leaving Louisville, a city she loves for both its vibrant energy and comfort. Dennison is grateful for the city’s culture of support, in which participation in thematic group shows is de rigueur and art swaps are common, saying that it makes it “just so easy” to be an artist in Louisville.

“Supportive” is a term that’s thrown pretty loosely around the arts scene. But while institutions encourage the public to support the arts by opening their checkbooks, that level of active patronage doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the younger set. And so perhaps competition is not fierce, and maybe it’s quite easy to help a friend out and hook her up with a show, because the financial stakes are so low.

Aron Conaway has given this topic some thought. Over the last 10 years, he’s seen the younger artsy crowd transform from a music-centric subculture to being much more visual art-oriented, with the music scene’s scrappy, DIY spirit infusing the art community with its populist ethos.

“I think that right now we have a critical mass of young artists who are inspired, talented and driven — who have an open and friendly attitude,” Conaway says. “A show is always going up somewhere — usually in unexpected places like warehouses, living rooms, new bars and even out on the streets. Perhaps it’s a social scene like any other, but the volume of creativity is overwhelming and of great value to the city at large.”

Conaway, who manages the Louisville Visual Art Association’s Open Doors program, also organizes the annual A Very Portland Christmas at Nelligan Hall, a North End outpost that also features open studio space for collaborating artists and hosts a variety of events, from punk rock flea markets to live music shows. Held every December, A Very Portland Christmas offers the public a one-stop holiday shopping experience with more than 40 local artists and craft designers, with no item costing more than $50 — a crazy bargain for a public long used to St. James Art Fair prices. And so Conaway is invested in providing those accessible spaces for artists and the public to meet, but acknowledges that making a living through art can’t really be a big concern for younger artists if only their fellow starving artists are buying.

“The act of collecting art in this city is sorely lacking,” he says. “Furthermore, the small group of benefactors willing to purchase work for a collection have the more ambitious artists standing at their side, leaving little opportunity elsewhere. Being ‘supportive’ is mostly about artists patting each other on the backs and encouraging each other to keep up the good work. Fundamentally, the lack of patronage around here is a real problem.”

Connecting artists with buyers with an art budget that exceeds $50 seems to be a challenge, especially in circles that tend to be suspicious of activity that looks like selling out. Maybe there’s a greater need for mentors, especially if everything you thought you needed to know about making, buying and selling art you learned from the skater next door. How does a young artist know when she’s selling her own artwork short? And how do buyers who don’t hang out at punk rock flea markets find them?

If there’s a godfather of this scene to consult, it’s Tim Faulkner, whose eponymous East Market Street gallery has become a focal point known as much for its lively social scene as for the artwork gracing the walls of the rambling, narrow labyrinth of rooms accessed through an alley and up a flight of back stairs.

As you wind your way up the back stairs and come face to face with the skull painted on the door, you know you’re not about to enter your average art gallery. The walls are painted in a riot of bright colors, not neutral white, a perfect backdrop for rock/horror hybrid artist and Louisville native Jeff Gaither’s show, which combines the work he’s done for musicians like the Misfits and Guns N’ Roses with his large-scale pop culture-inspired paintings. Members of the Louisville Cartoonist Society have a group show up, and Gin Feldman’s subversively skewed “Voodoo Dolls” series greets visitors in the entrance.

If there’s a single sentimental equine watercolor lurking, it’s hidden way out of sight.

Tim Faulkner Gallery is open late every Friday and Saturday night — not just on the first Friday of the month, when the NuLu neighborhood brims with chardonnay-sipping gallery hoppers who don’t, as conventional wisdom goes, actually purchase much art. The intimate scene is one Faulkner and his gallery manager Margaret Archambault Spivey have cultivated by design, in part to help emerging artists connect with that elusive creature — the collector.

“We put collectors and artists in the same room and everybody’s having fun. Nobody’s talking about art, it’s ‘have a beer, do what you want, have fun,’” Faulkner says. “You’re interacting with the space, with the walls, with the paintings and sculptures, and if you want, with the artists themselves. You put all that together, and if you do it right and people get comfortable, bingo, job done.”

With his piercings and tattoos, Faulkner looks like your hip older brother, and Archambault Spivey carries herself with a slight rock ‘n’ roll vibe, like she could be the bass player of your favorite band. In other words, a cocky twentysomething wouldn’t balk at taking advice from these two. That’s good, because they have a lot to say to emerging artists.

“Louisville’s art scene is good, there’s a lot of talent here. It just needed to be pushed in a different direction,” Faulkner says. “The artists themselves had to be educated on how to be professional artists, so the clients who were here would stop leaving the city to purchase art.”

Faulkner and Archambault Spivey point to the folks they consider the godfathers of the Louisville visual art scene, like Billy Hertz at Galerie Hertz and Chuck Swanson of Swanson Reed Gallery — well-respected curators whose rosters were, for the most part, already full when Faulkner moved into his second-floor space from a smaller gallery two years ago and saw the wealth of talented young artists who weren’t receiving traditional gallery representation.

“The idea was to get this talent out of the coffee shops and bagel places and put it back on Market Street,” Faulkner explains. “Collectors aren’t necessarily going to coffee houses. You’re not teaching people how to buy art, and you’re not teaching artists how to become professional artists by constantly being in that environment.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Archambault Spivey adds. “You’re still getting your name out, you’re branding yourself.”

But being part of a gallery, especially one as invested in giving young artists the opportunity to build community outside of their immediate circle of peers, certainly moves an artist up a level. And with that rise in visibility, of course, comes more responsibility as amateur enthusiasts begin to craft professional careers. Faulkner and Archambault Spivey find themselves mentoring their emerging artists on all the subjects they don’t necessarily teach you in art school (or that self-taught artists might not pick up from their peers) — how to put together a résumé and artist statement, proper presentation and hanging techniques, and the importance of just showing up.

“If you’re going to be involved in the gallery, be involved in the gallery,” says Archambault Spivey in a tone that suggests she does not mess around on this point. “Our artists hang out here. That’s why when you come up here on a First Friday, the balcony is packed. You’re always talking about your work, you’re part of the scene and you’re part of an environment that’s righteous about the work.”

Not to mention, she adds, “We have no shortage of people trying to get into this gallery, so if you make it in and we make space for you in here, we want to see you, we want to get to know you. How else are we supposed to sell your work?”

Alongside major exhibits, the walls at Tim Faulkner Gallery are filled in with artists who might not yet be ready for their own solo show but are working toward that goal while reaping the benefits of having small portions of their work shown in the same gallery with known artists like James Russell May and Gaither. Collectors of any budget are accommodated — work ranges in price from $25 to $25,000.

“The whole point is to get the work out of the studios and into homes and collections,” Faulkner says. “Then everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to do — the artist creates, the client or collector knows their day is much better because they walked into a room and saw the piece. The art has served its complete function at that point in time.”

That strategy has backfired on occasion — they know they’ve lost sales on pieces that, paradoxically, weren’t priced high enough, as some collectors simply aren’t interested in “affordable” art. And they see the dangers in events like budget art fairs, which Archambault Spivey says tend to devalue the work. Faulkner is quick to point out how irritating it can be to a client who buys a piece by an artist for several hundred dollars from the gallery, only to see similar work from the same person on deep discount for $20 or $30 at the end of the year.

“They think it’s the gallery that’s screwing them,” Faulkner says. “Artists need to be smart. The minute you devalue your own work, everything comes to a grinding halt. If you want to participate in these events, make art specifically for them.”

If it sounds like Faulkner’s advice on valuing their work are at odds with his insistence that young artists must stay hungry and humble to stay in the game, it’s worth noting that in art, like most industries, ambition and hard work are not mutually exclusive traits.

Matt Dobson knows. Known for his poster artwork for Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he used to work, Dobson is a fan of nontraditional exhibit spaces — his last show, “Buy a Vowel” (co-created with Tyler Deeb), was held at The Makery, the now-shuttered Highlands handmade craft and clothing shop, and he recently participated in a commissioned interpretive anniversary show for the graphic design boutique Forest Giant, with his “Forest Giant” hanging across the room from Davis’. But as far as festivals and fairs go, Dobson appreciates events like The World’s Second Most Awesome Art Market at Glassworks and the upcoming Affordable Art Show at the 930 Center in September, both of which set a tone of accessibility without naming a specific price cap for the artists.

“I think ($20 art fairs) cause a general devaluation of art in the audience and a diminished perception of value for the artists,” he says. “I think some prints and processes can be reproduced quickly with relative ease, and for some craft pieces, it makes sense, but for original art of any real quality, the price structure is just unacceptably low. Then, when people buy work at those prices, they have that as some sort of absurdly low standard for pricing — and probably a piece of mediocre art.”

And yet Dobson acknowledges he got his start locally at those same low-budget art shows, which are open to young artists who are just starting to get their work out in public. He thinks Louisville’s art scene, to which he is steadfastly devoted, is not only healthy, but full of benefits not easily found in other cities, affording a steady stream of opportunities to be part of group shows and to connect with other artists.

And he feels like effort here is rewarded. Do the work and the opportunities will follow — if you’re good, you won’t be relegated to the bargain bin forever. Dobson’s latest show will feature his work alongside Dominic Guarnaschelli and Denise Burge in “Stirring,” which opens Friday at the 930, and in April, he’ll travel to St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he will deliver a lecture to art students in tandem with a solo show.

“I am as excited about it as if it were a show in New York,” he says.

At the end of the day, as Brittney McCormick points out, young artists do have a need to be taken seriously, to have their work seen and appreciated, and so support can come in the simple form of wider exposure. McCormick operates Slutty Muffin, an online journal that profiles young musicians and visual artists. She gets just as excited about a big group art fair as a solo show, and sees the recent rise in affordable art festivals as a natural and beneficial offshoot of the “buy local” movement.

“Making that personal connection with the artist, being able to meet that person and thinking they were completely awesome, they gave me a bunch of stickers and I saw him at the bar the other night and he said hey to me, it means something, that connection you can have with people in your community,” she says.

McCormick says the artists she features on her site are grateful for the exposure, but she has her own motives for curating this particular group.

“I’m younger and I love pop culture, and I think I see something in them,” she says. “Maybe they’re not going to make a million bucks and quit their day jobs, but they have talent and deserve to be recognized.”