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Darkness at the Edge of the Pool: Kell Black offers a different vision of spending the summer at the local Y

Note: This review of Professor of Art Kell Blacks recent Black Water exhibit, written by David Maddox, was published in The Nashville Scenes Sept. 23-29 edition. We reprint it here with permission from the writer and the newspaper.
Note: This review of Professor of Art Kell Black's recent “Black Water” exhibit, written by David Maddox, was published in The Nashville Scene's Sept. 23-29 edition. We reprint it here with permission from the writer and the newspaper.

Kell Black is probably best known for his trompe l'oeil paper constructions, such as the box of black bugs in last year's "Art of Tennessee" show. However, he also uses paper in the more conventional way as a surface for drawing, and that's what he did this summer in Clarksville. His "Black Water" suite of drawings, currently on display at the Trahern Gallery at Austin Peay State University (where Black teaches in the art department), depicts nighttime scenes of the indoor pool at the Clarksville YMCA. He transforms this mundane space with a moody tone of transition, anticipation and mortality.

Some of the images depict the empty pool room or objects in it, like life vests; others catch young women engaged in minimal acts of waiting, preparation or careful activity. Blackness dominates the pictures, surrounding the models or objects, which generally stand in isolated pools of light that give the illusion of an internally generated glow. The dominant darkness makes the pictures in part an extended pun on the artist's name, and stark contrasts place the images in a tradition of the dramatic use of light developed by Baroque painters like Caravaggio and De La Tour and carried through into the work of modern painters like Edward Hopper.

Intimations of death and mortal peril course through these quiet pictures. The simple drawings of life vests bring to mind the drowning they protect us from. The lifeguard sits on her high chair holding emergency floats and staring idly to the side while she waits for disaster. In another picture, the chair stands empty, the absent guard hinting at off-scene danger or the loss of the guard herself.

In several images, the models take poses that could be those of deada girl lays on her back in the water, swimming a backstroke so slowly that she barely disturbs the water, close enough to motionless to resemble a floating but inert body. In another, one girl stands in the water and holds her hands under another girl who is floating on her back with her arms stretched out to her sides. The standing girl is helping the other stay afloat, of course, but you can imagine that she holds up a dead body like Mary cradling Christ in a pieta.

Other pictures show moments of transition: a girl climbs out of the pool in one image, in the next puts her foot in the water, and in others waits to dive in. The two models are young women at a point between childhood and adulthood, waiting for adulthood to happen, and many of their poses put them in an analogous position of waiting or moving carefully between states. Black also sees past their youth and health to the prospect of death and risk that surrounds them, the black water they swim in. These pictures serve in the classic role of memento mori.

In a couple of the drawings, one of the models stands in the water. The part of her body above water is fairly clearly rendered, but her reflection in the water is vague and spectral, as are the parts of her body underwater, which the water distorts and shortens. The young women in these images fade away before our eyes. In a way, they are disappearing throughout the series, thanks to the accumulation of images that foreshadow inevitable extinction.

Black's work engages in classicism of the best sort. He uses a basic medium and draws on classical stylistic tropes and themes, but he imbues these with the contemporary specificity that marks much great art. The images of the pool room capture the concrete details of that place, such as the fluorescent panel lighting that trails away in the background. His models are familiar and contemporary in a recognizable setting, but he uses stagecraft and the power of his own rendering to bring out spiritual dimensions like looming mortality. Baudelaire and Delacroix believed great art pursued images that attain the "surnatural," the "more than natural." Kell Black achieves that in these rich drawings.
—Written by David Maddox, reprinted with his permission.