“Tools as Art: Work & Play” at the KMA

Cyclops, Key Francis, Arman, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Step Ladder with Paint Can and Brushes, Pier Gustafson, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer and relatively recent Knoxville transplant Luke Frazier.)

Expectations are a wicked curse, and the way they get wrapped up in the past is a big part of the problem. Sure, they come in different sizes, and the ones you might hold up against loved ones are potentially more troublesome than wondering if the new restaurant is going to live up to the hype. When it comes to art, though, the danger of expectations is a dampening of curiosity. Last Fall I was in Barcelona and almost skipped the Picasso Museum because I’m not a huge fan of Cubism. But of course, Picasso is so much more, and I was glad I went.

Similarly, when I heard that the summer exhibition (now through August 4) at the Knoxville Museum of Art was called Tools as Art: Work & Play I wasn’t immediately thrilled. First, I’m not a tool guy and pretty much mechanically disinclined. It’s my wife who stocks the toolbox in my house and the one time I replaced a broken taillight I was inordinately proud for days (and don’t even get me started on my bathroom sink drain unclogging victory back in 2020). Second, if something is billed with “as Art” it means there’s a redefinition in process somewhere, and my natural contrariness reacts with “Oh yea? We’ll see about that.” I resist easy labels even as I celebrate simplicity. It’s a fine line in the art world. I believe grappling across multiple dimensions of meaning isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to experiencing art.

Ultimately, though, I’m all for accessible art themes and do battle with my own pretentions on a regular basis. The fact remains that I expected to be underwhelmed by this kind of show. Instead, I was surprised and delighted. The sheer range of mediums, sculptural surprises, and metaphorical meanderings made it a worthwhile visit, probably to be repeated.

Kotoko, Melvin Edwards,, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

The exhibition is composed of pieces from the Hechinger Collection and toured by International Arts & Artists. John W. Hechinger was a member of a Washington D.C. family who turned a neighborhood hardware store into a hugely successful chain of family-named home-improvement centers across the Mid-Atlantic. John and his wife June were also lifelong philanthropists and art lovers and built a collection of artworks honoring and celebrating tools.

From the KMA end, Curator Stephen Wicks explained via email how the exhibit ended up in Knoxville. “Our curatorial team was looking for an engaging, accessible summer exhibition and Tools as Art offered our audiences a focused subject expressed in a fascinating variety of media and narrative angles.  We also liked the fact that it included works by internationally known artists represented in the KMA collection as well as compelling examples by artists unfamiliar to us.” Exhibitions Manager Natalie McLaurin elaborated by noting its strong connection to KMA’s miniature diorama in the Thorne Rooms and pieces by Jim Dine.

Tool Dictionary, Colleen Barry-Wilson, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Tool Dictionary, Colleen Barry-Wilson, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

That range of media includes pastel on paper, oil on linen, screen prints, woodcuts, lithographs, welded steel, etchings, gelatin silver prints, wire mesh sculpture, handmade paper and hardware, glass, found objects, and a sculptural stepladder that Curator Wicks rightfully points out has an “alternate identity as a pen and ink drawing.”

That Pier Gustafson piece, Step Ladder with Can and Brushes, is one highlight. It is made of folded paper but sits there as true as the step ladder that was shoved against the wall in the garage at my old house. It’s not just that it passes as a “real thing,” it’s that it plays with the idea of Duchamp’s Readymades and what art means. In a show about common tools, the detail embedded in this unique piece raises the stakes of references and holds its own. In the accompanying note Gustafson is said to believe that the more you look at this kind of piece the more inaccurate it will seem, “…and the more pronounced the uncanny, slightly jarring, effect will be on the viewer.”

In general, the sculptural pieces resonated the most for me.  Melvin Edwards’ piece Kotoko is made of welded steel, found objects, and paint. It’s dense with rebar, railroad spikes, a piece of a hammer, and some chain links. It’s part of his “Lynch Fragments” series he started 60 years ago during the Civil Rights struggles and Edwards is reportedly inspired by African traditions and jazz. It was one of those pieces that drew me as soon as I entered the space and fits the multiple dimensions of meaning mentioned earlier. The note mentions that Edwards’ sculptures are often compared to African masks or faces, and that his work, “… gives a powerful voice to personal, racial, and cultural memory.”

In a much different way, Colleen Barry-Wilson’s Tool Dictionary posits the cultural reality of tools in a sculpture of handmade paper that literally contains its definitions. It’s fun and confrontational, one of those unexpected moments where one can admire the construction behind the idea and the ultimate folly of its execution.

Tools Help Build the Whole World, Howard Finster, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Mountains of People Use Tools, Howard Finster, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Also along a joyful continuum are Howard Finster’s Tools Help Build the Whole World (cover & saw) and Mountains of People use Tools. I always dig Finster’s enthusiastic proclamations and deeply inviting depictions of his personal world presented in universal terms. On a standard Stanley saw he created a mountain of faces, people who use tools and settled America. Finster declares that tools came first but that we belong together with them. You can spend a lot of time scanning Finster’s work and just smiling.  Exhibits Manager McLaurin identified this as her favorite, as it reminded her of Finster’s work on a Talking Heads album cover in 1985, which was the first piece of art she remembered loving as a small child.

Ship of Tools, Richard Bronk, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Drifting in the middle of the exhibit space is the gorgeous Ship of Tools by Richard Bronk. This wood and metal piece is direct in its execution and seems to speak of the use of tools as setting a course or direction; a purpose-driven launch to the far shore of I’m here to fix it. Something I can only admire from afar but certainly appreciate in a good mechanic or carpenter.

Jaws, Arman, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Jaws, Arman, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

The last sculpture I’ll mention is Jaws by the artist Arman, who was born Armand Fernandez but dropped the “d” and his entire last name to emulate Vincent Van Gogh. Impressive in size and scope for sure, Arman was part of the New Realist movement in France and a favorite of Hechinger’s.

Cyclops, Key Francis, Arman, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Eeire Grotto? Okini, William T. Wiley, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Non-sculptural pieces that jumped out included Cyclops by Ke Francis, a woodcut on pigmented handmade paper. The process to achieve the wildly arresting color combinations is complex and I won’t try to summarize it here. The final image is rich and rewarding. Eeire Grotto? Okini by William T. Wiley is another woodcut on handmade paper. Evidently 26 cherry wood blocks were inked 85 times, and the result is soothingly busy.

Pandora’s Box, Christopher Pelley, Tools as Art: Work and Play, Knoxville Museum of Art, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Finally, I must mention the oil on linen and found objects piece by Christopher Pelley called Pandora’s Box. It depicts a mess of tools seemingly exploded from a standard red toolbox. It upends the familiar Pandora myth but reinforces the nagging fear of at least some home handy persons who get in over their heads: once you start messing around with that (pipe, sink, shower, cabinet, flooring, window frame, whatever) you never know what could happen. The only thing left in the box is hopefully a list of reputable contractors.

For KMA curator Stephen Wicks, there is much to take away from the show. “I hope visitors appreciate the variety of ways in which 20th century artists used tools as versatile and potent symbols: as extensions of the body, objects of pure beauty, and motifs hinting at a work-obsessed world, to name a few.” One of my takeaways is to remember to leave expectations alone.