You Need to Pay Attention to Nashville's Thriving, Weirdo Art Scene
It's way cooler than country music and bachelorette parties.
Elephant Gallery's Ellie Caudill with Garfield memorabilia. Photo by Heidi Ross
Somebody brought a pan of black lasagna to a Garfield-themed potluck I went to one night in late March. Pitch-black. Like soot layered between melted vinyl records. Topping it with glistening sheets of gold leaf made the black lasagna seem less grotesque, but there was still a Fear Factor element to taking a bite.
Anybody who says Nashville, Tennessee, doesn't have an interesting art scene definitely hasn't gone to a gallery party where there’s black lasagna.
Elephant Gallery, one of the most exciting creative hubs in Nashville, was showing an exhibition of huge Howard Finster-meets-David Salle paintings by Harry Kagan, who also happens to be the frontman for Music Band. Kagan’s got a thing for the little orange bastard, hence the lasagna bake-off and trove of Garfield collectibles displayed amid the art.
“I moved here with my band right after college,” Kagan told me, echoing the reason a lot of his friends migrated South. The music industry in Nashville is akin to the movie business in LA—everybody goes there looking to make it big, or at least to get to play.
If you want to annoy a local, mention that New York Times article that dubbed Nashville the nation’s new “it” city, joining the ranks of Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, in 2013. People who live here are well-acquainted with the tourist appeal of their city’s music scene. But what travel writers and economists miss is that a vibrant music community holds a load of potential for other creative forces to emerge.
It is no surprise, then, that a tribe of weirdo visual artists has gained traction in Nashville, and one of the best places to see them in their natural habitat is at Elephant Gallery. A party there is like the laid-back cousin of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, with inclusivity and a lack of pretension that makes it even more fun.
Elephant Gallery is owned by artist Alex Lockwood, who makes brightly colored sculptures of sad—and sometimes disemboweled—men out of industrial parts and has collections of everything from abandoned sunglasses lenses to discarded lottery tickets. (“Their worthlessness is important to me, but I don’t fully know why,” he told me.)
Originally from Seattle, Lockwood moved to Nashville by way of Brooklyn, and he began showing his art at local galleries Coop and Zeitgeist. In early 2017, he started Elephant with a balls-out exhibition of concrete and papier-mâché sculptures by Brett Douglas Hunter, an artist who then began working out of a studio in the back of the gallery. Almost immediately, a tribe of like-minded artists began to swarm around the space.
For the inaugural exhibit, video artist Mike Kluge constructed a complicated dual-camera, dual-monitor live-video manipulation that was shown in the space, just for fun. Kluge works with Nashville juggernauts Paramore on the band’s live shows. He’s also opened shows for the Flaming Lips and made videos for local garage rock heroes JEFF the Brotherhood.
“Some people don't like stuffy art culture,” Kluge said, “but I do! I love going to galleries with a heady, academic exhibition. But it's also great to go to a place with an art party vibe—and that's Elephant.”
At the party for Kagan’s show, Jessica Cheatham and Meghan Wood gathered in the hallway, which was painted bright yellow and stocked with Garfield paraphernalia like stuffed animals and two different kinds of plastic telephones. They each keep their studios inside Elephant Gallery’s sizable two-story space.
Cheatham runs Salt Ceramics and has just put the finishing touches on a new series of mugs that feature a red-lipped open-mouthed smile and a single gold tooth. Wood, who owns a hand-painted sign company called I Saw the Sign, is responsible for Elephant’s block-lettered façade. On any given afternoon, their studios are filled with the sounds of a potter’s wheel buzzing and deep cuts from Joan Armatrading. And it almost always smells like turpentine and stale beer.
Ellie Caudill came on as Elephant Gallery’s director after she and Lockwood collaborated on a few exhibitions and found their ideas about art really vibed. “We like to be fun and accessible, but with art that definitely has a deeper meaning, even a darker meaning,” she said. “Whether it’s contemporary or folk, but something that’s rougher around the edges, usually.”
In other words, Elephant shows art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it's made by people who consider living outside of a major art hub to be something to take advantage of instead of apologize for. They see the value in a community potluck.
While the space has a communal vibe, that doesn't mean it isn't wild. Calling Elephant Gallery's approach over-the-top is an understatement. Here, the art making and the art consuming is rowdy, irreverent, and infectious. Want to make a mural of dancing dogs in the style of Keith Haring on a city street corner? A concrete sculpture of a polka-dot Minotaur with a huge, hard cock? A giant plastic dude whose intestines spilling out all over the floor? This is the place for you. An upcoming solo show by Brandon Donahue will turn the gallery into an airbrush shop like the one he worked at as a kid growing up in Memphis, complete with neon signs and a shingled awning. A recent group show of “ugly” ceramic art featured wall-to-wall pink carpet.
Caudill, Lockwood, and their friends are part of a generation of artists and musicians who grew up when Yo La Tengo was recording albums in Nashville, and when Be Your Own Pet was playing Coachella and getting signed by Thurston Moore. To these creatives, nobody ever had to explain that Nashville was more than country music. The rhinestones-and-cowboy-boots cliché is as far removed from their experience of Nashville as Saturday Night Fever's white suits and wide lapels is to Brooklyn. Nashville is still Music City, but now it's Bully and Soccer Mommy, not just Reba and Hank.
“Nashville is so community-oriented,” Caudill explained. “In New York, it's much more competitive. That's what separates Nashville and why it’s so exciting that the art scene's finally popping off. Because having that community can push you further and connect you in such a breadth of different areas.”
“Creative people use the other creative people in the community,” seamstress (and Caudill's boyfriend) Elliott Weaver added with laid-back swagger that would make you swear he’s a native Southerner. “Not only to support what they're making themselves, but to support what the other people are making. It's cool, any shows—music shows and art shows—are filled with the same group of cool people who want to make stuff and see their friends make stuff. And it's less of a 'look at me' vibe than 'let's talk about ideas and see what happens.' It's more about supporting the whole collective scene instead of a singular person.”
“When we talk about music and art merging,” Caudill said with practiced patience, her hand in a bowl of pastel-colored Easter candy, “that's definitely a huge part of my scene and friends. But music has had the spotlight for such a long time—I'm ready for art to be at the forefront.”
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