Greely Myatt Takes On Memphis

In mid-September, Greely Myatt was the focus of a citywide, 8-venue exhibit celebrating his twenty years of service teaching sculpture at the University of Memphis. More recently Myatt exhibited at Mississippi State University, a school he briefly attended on athletic scholarship in the 70’s. After the accompanying panel discussion, I had a brief  chat with Greely. Among other things, we discussed our mutual admiration for Dave Hickey’s essays and pondered what Hickey would think of Damien Hirst for working over the art market, rather than letting it work him (conclusion: Hickey would love it).

Greely grew up in tiny Aberdeen, Mississippi in the 50’s and 60’s. There was little exposure to “art,” but there were Biblical illustrations, paintings in History textbooks and best of all, comic books. His childhood sounds idyllic: jigsaw puzzles, erector sets, homemade tree houses and go-carts, laying the foundation for a lifetime of making things.

Clever and subtly humorous, Greely’s work is a dialogue between esoteric allusions and “simple” vernacular methods. Maybe it’s even an example of high-art being subverted by folk (low-brow) art. His work is made from found objects that reference the narrative of daily southern life (broomsticks, road-signs, decorative food tins) but it makes sophisticated statements about canonical art. Essentially, Greely is critiquing art as institution both from within the institution—the public university and the museums—and from outside the institution, as a rural southerner and a vernacular artist. While remaining generous and genuine, his work comments on how vernacular art functions (dismissively) in the academic canon and how this canon has come to define how we think about art.

But you don’t have to get the joke to get the art. Greely has a genuine respect for his materials, for their history and connotation, and for his own geography. If you’re seeped in southern culture, even if you know nothing about art, Greely’s work is touching and validating to your daily experience. A scholar will see one thing, a casual observer another, but both will get something from of the experience—and something different from what Greely, in his perpetual quest to amuse himself, is getting.

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