Had Patrick Vincent taken a different academic path, the Clarksville-based printmaking professor would have made a hell of a philosopher. As a visual artist, he tackles heavy ideas like environmental calamity and creation myths, but he does it with the confidence of someone so grounded in intellect that he can wander away from the serious and cerebral into a decidedly weirder terrain.
“I became an artist because I was interested in cultural theory,” he says. “And to me, art is a way of talking about culture — how culture moves us and how we move culture — in visual terms.”
A primary example of Vincent's art as a vehicle for culture is in his treatment of turtles. The animal inhabits much of the artists work in Austin Peay's Vanishing Islands exhibit, existing as a repeated image that forms its own kind of language — the beast that carries the world on its back, the wise reptile that seems to be a holdover from paleolithic times, a wild creature trapped and kept as a first pet by so many children. In the artist's work, the creature is almost unrecognizable, and Vincent isn't concerned with specificity — his turtles look more like wheels, another weighty symbol for creative power.
The work in Vanishing Islands, Vincent says, is “conceptually tied to the idea of a turtle as symbol for the world falling apart.”
“It's kind of imagining the myth that the world sits on the top of a turtle's back. But if you took away the interior of the turtle and left the skeletal frame of the turtle's shell, and then left these human hands dangling down, it's a commentary on ecological collapse and human industry changing the world.”
If it sounds like Vincent is pessimistic about the planet's future, that's not entirely true.
“If I didn't think there was something that could be changed,” he says, “there'd be no point in even making this work to begin with. Besides, my entire worldview is wrapped in a certain level of pragmatic optimism because I chose to be a teacher.”
As a printmaking professor at Austin Peay, Vincent describes himself as “a purveyor of jurassic technology.” That is, printmaking has been eclipsed by its digital progeny, and its place in contemporary society belongs in the same category as stenographer's shorthand or travel agencies. Still, the appeal of the print remains — and it's that conflict that interests Vincent.
“Why bother making something that's clearly outmoded? For me, the answer is that there's a democracy in the art form — you can share images more than you can if it's just a drawing. When there's a drawing there's just one of them and it sits in a room, but when you have prints they can be in lots of different places. A lot of my artwork has to do with social ideas, political ideas — things that have to be shared.”
His paper sculptures are made from Tyvec, a synthetic paper produced by DuPont that's used in a variety of familiar ways — like the protective barrier that lines houses during construction, or those particularly hard-to-open mailing envelopes. Even when they have the appearance of traditional pulp-based paper, it's important to Vincent that the materials he uses are plastic, because plastic is a more honest example of where our society is. “If we were to go a million years in the future,” he explains, “and take a core sample of the Earth where we are now, part of our sedimentary layer would just be plastic. So I use that material because it's just so much a part of where we're at.”
The materials Vincent prefers are also meaningful because they're mass-produced. Similar to the work of sculptor Tara Donovan, who makes work from everyday materials, it's important to Vincent that the materials he's using speak to the democratic ideas he espouses. The material is so ordinary that he's able to create fantastic, mind-bending images that remain grounded in the everyday.
For Vanishing Islands, Vincent has created a paper sculpture that functions as a post-climate-change wall map, as if the gallery were a classroom in a dark, apocalyptic future. The central shape is a skeleton of a turtle shell and two long limbs falling limply to the ground, surrounded by small maps of continents that are made unfamiliar, their shorelines impacted by climate change.
“The laser-cut shapes of the continents are projections,” says Vincent, “of a 60-meter sea level rise. The maps have this Swiss-cheese quality that shows where lakes and shorelines are retracted.”
The Tyvec paper here is black, almost like carbon paper, and at first glance looks like big flakes of soot. It's an ominous work, like something out of a Japanese horror film. Environmentalism, in Vincent's hands, can be as insistent as cinema.
One of the centerpieces of the exhibit is a participatory artwork of turtle miniatures, which Vincent encourages visitors to take along with them. “But I'm not going to replenish them,” he explains, “so as they take them, the pile will shrink. It will change the environment.”
This work owes a lot to Felix Gonzalez-Torres' candy spills, such as “Untitled (Portrait of Ross),” which is a pile of candy wrapped in colorful plastic. The piece starts out with an amount that matches the weight of Gonzalez-Torres' lover Ross when he was healthy, and as the pile depletes you can imagine the body growing thinner as the result of HIV/AIDS, until eventually there's nothing left. That depiction of heavy, hard-to-comprehend issues is made palatable, and Vincent's turtle pile treats environmental catastrophe with the same velvet hammer approach.
“What I like about the Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece,” Vincent explains, “is that as you remove the duplication, you are seeing what happens when that repeated object expands and contracts — you're seeing it as a whole and you see it as a deficit.”
“What I like about printmaking as a vehicle for sculpture,” he says, “is that you have a multiple. Often when you see a print, you see one and you kind of know in the back of your mind that there's a duplicate that someone else out there has, but as a sculptural tool you see the duplication as its own kind of structure.”
One of the prints in the exhibit, “Ocean's Bones,” is like a surreal nature illustration — as if John James Audubon had dropped acid. An empty turtle shell carries various organisms from the ocean floor on its back, with skeletal arms reaching forward into space. The color palate is much more muted here than in Vanishing Islands, with a sprig of pastel pink flora topping the turtle like a crown. Behind this main image, blue organisms float without any sort of implied weight to ground them, and the effect is that the figure is taking its passengers into another realm, whether underwater or into space.
“The images I've been looking at in preparation for this,” Vincent says, “have been architectural drawings and maps. So there's this concrete, hard-edged, graphic quality that I've been leaning toward, because that's just what I'm looking at. It's just responding to what my resources are.”
The turtle is an important part of the exhibit, and Vincent chose carefully as a way to represent his ideas without relying too heavily on other people's interpretation of it. It's important to Vincent that his artworks represent his own ideas and not anyone else's.
“I didn't want to be too specific to a cultural mythology that isn't mine, and so I really thought of [the turtle] as a starting point, but not a complete appropriation.”
The images of turtles that Vincent uses often aren't even true turtles — at least not in the modern sense. They're more similar to the prehistoric archelon, a sea turtle that lived around 70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period. Those animals often grew to be as big as buses, and their shells have the more segmented quality that appeals to Vincent. But he's aware of the animal's many cultural incarnations — from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to Sturgill Simpson's 2014 song “Turtles All the Way Down.”
“In Hindu mythology,” Vincent says, “the world is on an elephant and the elephant is on a turtle and there are layers, with the idea being that there's always something bigger — some sort of singularity that we can't see or describe — and the turtle is a way to describe that.
“It's a convenient way of describing the indescribable,” he says. “Of describing something that is so beyond our physical comprehension that we have to have a metaphor. The turtle is a metaphor for the world beyond what we can see.”
Laura Hutson Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, curator and art advisor, and host of Artists Talk, a weekly art talk show on WXNA.
You can find her writing in the Nashville Scene, where she worked as the arts editor for the better half of a decade. She also writes for VICE and Art in America. Her style is categorized as non-academic intellectual writing — She loves bringing big ideas down to earth.
As an independent curator and art advisor, She's interested in exhibiting contemporary art from emerging and under-the-radar artists. She's curated a three-person art show about sex magick called Triple Fantasy at Third Man Records, and co-curated Selvage, an exhibit about textile-based art, with her friend Jodi Hays at Tennessee State University.
Hunter graduated from New York University with the individualized major of Art History and Cultural Anthropology. She's lived in East Tennessee and East Africa. She has a deep familiarity with Nashville-based artists combined with an expertise in contemporary art — and no shortage of opinions.