Alex Lockwood’s Elephant Gallery Serves Realness With a Side of Weird
MAY 11, 2017
Found and Incidental Collections opens this weekend at the North Nashville gallery
By Laura Hutson - MAY 11, 2017
The stretch of Buchanan Street approaching Elephant Gallery would be a visual candyland even if it weren’t for the enormous cartoon beaver. The day care across the street has hand-painted signs of toddlers in tasseled mortarboard hats, and the corner store is painted neon green. There’s a killer Jay Jenkins wall painting of a woman whose hair seems to stretch into an entire continent. But come on, a mural of a frenzied beaver gnawing at a spiraled wooden stick like some rabid minor character from Watership Down? That’s going to stand out, no matter where you’re at. And Alex Lockwood, who opened Elephant Gallery in February, is counting on it.
At first blush, some might view the gallery’s visibility on Buchanan Street, part of the important historically black neighborhood of North Nashville, as a move toward gentrification, since Lockwood is both white and a transplant from the Pacific Northwest. But Lockwood has conceived a gallery that’s more visionary than anyone could have expected, and involves the community without sacrificing integrity. How’s he doing that, exactly? By keeping it really weird.
The mural, called “Boomtown Beaver,” is the brainchild of Paul Collins, an artist and professor at Austin Peay. Collins injects themes of ecology, gentrification, industry and loneliness into something that is singularly goofy and smart. That’s high praise in an era when the success of an artwork is often equated with how many people post selfies with it on Instagram, and public murals are often designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. But even with a title like “Boomtown Beaver,” Collins’ mural isn’t dumbing anything down.
Collins envisioned the piece as an extension of his studio practice — an exhibit of his drawings and paintings called Soft Bark at Zeitgeist Gallery a year ago proved to be a bit of foreshadowing for the ambitious mural — but it expanded into much more of a community collaboration almost as soon as he began. “Working in public view was intriguing,” Collins tells the Scene. “I really appreciated talking with and getting feedback from folks walking by.” Some of the children who helped Collins were painted into the background — small figures in the edge of the woods right where the paint darkens from blue to purple.
If Collins’ mural, which will remain on the building’s side for a year, functions like the gallery’s dynamic cover art, Elephant’s opening exhibition earlier this year, Brett Douglas Hunter’s Aminals, was its ambitious opening track. The artist took over the space like he was Red Grooms on acid, filling it with large-scale cement and papier-mâché creatures that looked like candy-colored versions of the sculptures Catherine O’Hara’s character made in Beetlejuice. With the gallery’s current exhibit, Lockwood is uncovering another layer of Elephant Gallery’s intention.
Like last year’s The Keeper exhibit at the New Museum in New York, Found Collections brings the idea of iconophilia — the worship of images — into public discourse.
Lockwood set out the parameters: The collections must be only objects found discarded in public or acquired for free from personal use. Found and Incidental Collections’ centerpiece will likely be Lockwood’s collection of plastic cigarette lighters, items he has found in gravel lots and gutters over the course of a lifetime.
Arranged like a rainbow in a color-coded spectrum, Lockwood’s lighter collection is the visual art version of the Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud song structure — it’s so repetitive that it can overwhelm you with the slightest push. Found and Incidental Collections will also feature a collection of discarded dime bags found by Bryan Zimmerman, hospital ID bracelets collected by Jessi Zazu, and cat whiskers assembled by Lynda Herdelin. Other collections include paint chips, photographs of men on toilets in the ’90s and more.
When I first met Lockwood in 2013, I took note of his affinity for creating collections, writing, “They remind me of that famously short short story about unused baby shoes: Sometimes inanimate objects can carry an enormous impact that’s like an emotional Trojan horse — you let it in because of its familiarity, and it wrecks you.” You can count on that same subtext to permeate the gallery’s future — if he’s smart, Lockwood will lean into the bizarre groundwork he’s laid and take risks with art and artists who are as unexpected as the bright red beaver.
And who knows? Elephant Gallery might not be the art-scene-changing institution that Nashville has been waiting for, the driving force behind the city’s storied potential as a cultural juggernaut. But it might be its Trojan horse.