Last fall, Memphis, Tenn., held a retrospective of sculptor Greely Myatt, who for two decades has been on the faculty of the University of Memphis. Myatt is also a beloved fixture of the wider Memphis art scene, so “Greely Myatt and exactly Twenty Years, 1989-2009” spread like kudzu from large exhibitions at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM) and Rhodes College’s Clough-Hansen Gallery to seven other venues, some mounting micro-shows of one or two (very large) pieces.
Evoking the hardscrabble rural existence often associated with the Delta region, Myatt, a Mississippi native, constructs rugs and oversized washboards using rustic broom and mop handles. Intricately patterned quilts are also a frequent motif, taking the form of large panels fashioned from aluminum and steel or of objects of reclaimed wood surrealistically “draped” over a piece of found furniture, as in Windmill on a Cot (1993).
A retrospective on this scale allows viewers to see how an artist’s treatment of themes evolves with time and experience; spread over several spaces, it also highlights the relationship between site and installation. Myatt’s Sweetwater (2001)—roots of cotton plants arranged as a grid on adjacent walls, with a rusted tiller adhered to one and a weathered push-mower that looks as if it is cutting a swath on the other—seemed much more haunting as part of an installation spanning two small rooms at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art than in an abridged form tucked into a corner at AMUM.
Myatt’s whimsical side is evident in his many Oldenburg-esque interpretations of desserts. Scoops (2008), a wall piece in which four walnut wood cones are piled high with plaster shaped and painted to resemble vanilla and chocolate ice cream, is a prequel of sorts to Dammit (2007), a bronze ice cream cone turned on its head as though dropped—in this case into a fountain at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Dixon was also the alfresco setting for Icing without the Cake (2007), two slabs of thick, hyper-realistic, bondo-over-wood “chocolate frosting” (48 and 72 inches tall). An earlier series included the cake layers.
Other imagery found often in Myatt’s work include lightbulbs (functioning or spent, real or fabricated), rough-hewn logs, and kinetic-looking sculptures reminiscent of liquor-brewing stills and replete with references to René Magritte and Philip Guston. Motifs from Guston paintings are almost literally re-made in 3D, as in the four-part installation Mr. LP (1990), with its oversize cigar-smoking head, lightbulb, empty frame and discarded beer bottle. Speech balloons are another of Myatt’s signature forms, constructed out of false eyelashes (I’swear, 1996), vintage cookie tins (Roulette, 2006) or reclaimed wooden signage (Talking, 2006-09). Each version is a riff on a different genre or style, from folk and Outsider art to Surrealism and Pop.
Photo: View of Greely Myatt’s Sweetwater, 2001, cotton roots, alabaster, sugar, found objects, mixed mediums; at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.