Tennessee artist Benjy Russell shows his 'Soft Butch' side

This March, Open Gallery in The Arcade in Nashville will feature the work of local artist Benjy Russell in an exhibit entitled "Soft Butch." Russell has shown his work in his native state of Oklahoma on a number of occasions, at the City Arts Center in Oklahoma City and Mainsite Contemporary Art in Norman. His resume of shows is impressive, including a solo exhibition at Berlin's Pool Gallery and groups shows from Los Angeles to Brooklyn. He is currently based in Dowelltown, Tennessee.

According to Seth Lykins, one of Open Gallery's curators, the gallery is "interested in exhibiting contemporary art that challenges viewers, seeking to expand conceptions about the limits of art." Benjy Russell’s work fits that criterion to the letter. In many ways, his art defies description: from his mixing of sculptural elements, photography, collage and painting, many of his works can only be described as mixed media in the wildest sense of the word. In some cases, the juxtaposition of various media is as startling as the explicit subject matter of the art. This is clearly intentional, and crafted in order to create just this sort of cognitive dissonance that forces the audience to truly consider how the various elements conspire to evoke certain responses.

About what would Russell have us stop, startled into thinking? The exhibit's title, "Soft Butch," is telling. Beyond his esthetic philosophy, Russell's work is committed to reflecting on and extracting kernels of truth about the wider "LGBT" community, or as he put it "children of the spectrum." One of his main areas where his work collides with the world of queer social and political concerns is in questions of gender politics, in particular "masculine and feminine definitions/expectations in queer subcultures."

Russell is motivated not only by social philosophy but also by deep concern for the world our LGBT children, like previous generations, continues to grow up in. In this show he works to destabilize gendered associations, “In a sense trying to cancel them out, and creating a gender neutral world free of expectations. That concept of gendered expectations does so much damage to our children, before they're even given a chance to realize who they are."

Thus "Soft Butch" is a collection of works that defy "reality" by coming near enough to the real to be uncanny, while remaining unreal enough to expose the fiction many works of art seek to conceal. For example, one work of mixed media utilizes artifacts, such as sticks, and bright sky and water blues to create a background of the "masculine" domain of nature. In the extreme foreground, however, a figure in a fabulous blue dress with its head thrown back, neckline draped deep to expose bosom, looms large. I say figure because it is not a person, but black space, which wears the dress. What is masculine? What is feminine? And does "putting on" one preclude one from the other?

Benjy Russell's work brings us face to face with questions such as these, and many more, in a world he has constructed just for the purpose: "Soft Butch is a place of pure concentrated energy that exists between states of explosion and implosion, an alternate universe free of the binary gender system ... creating an advertisement for the children of the spectrum...."


The exhibition opens with a reception on March 1 from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. and runs through March 31.

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