10 October 2012
Let My People Go, seventy eight by seventy two inches of inspiring talent; the life-size oil-on-canvas painting is impossible to miss. The first painting to be seen, it hangs in the center of the art gallery. Vibrant colors and intricate detail fill the large canvas from corner to corner. Dressed in what looks like a tribal costume, an abnormally large individual occupies the majority of the surface. He is not alone in the painting; several other characters stand below his towering beast-like stature. Taking an intimidating stance over the other men wearing armor and carrying shields, the focal character conveys the power he has over them. With one man screaming in his enormous right hand and a trigger in his left, something is perceived to have exploded in the background. A white cloud of smoke and orange fiery explosion is painted in the bottom right corner. This burst of color floods into a baby blue sky across the remainder of the picture.
The giant character wears a bronze colored helmet covering his face down to his neck. Using the same bronze color, the artist added a wide necklace that hangs far down the torso of this beast. Two elaborate, silver faces hang from the necklace; these are the details that so strongly drew me into this piece. The complex texture and 3-D look incorporated into every aspect of the faces, stands out from the rest of the painting. The depths of these ornaments seem to come off of the canvas. I felt as if I could have reached out and grabbed them in my hand.
I encountered this piece of art, by artist Kajahl Benes, when I made my first visit to the art gallery in the Cultural Arts Building at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This painting told a story. All the elements that Benes used to create this piece allowed the characters to really come to life. Realizing the inspiration I found in the gallery and the aspirations I had to learn more about it, I spoke with the gallery director, Ms. Courtney Johnson. “I have only worked here for two years,” she informed me towards the beginning of our conversation. However, she was nowhere near an amateur in the art business itself. She works in a group with three other faculty members to bring featured artists to the gallery. The current artist presented in the gallery, Kajahl Benes, is one that Johnson first recognized two years ago at an exhibition in New York. “I noticed that he was an interesting artist. I knew he was going to be doing interesting things.” Sure enough, after a full year of planning, she has brought his artwork to her gallery.
“He was so young and could relate to students,” Johnson said when describing her initial enthusiasm about Kajahl Benes. His artwork is tailored to a younger audience. It is unique and could almost be described as cartoon-like, containing mythical creatures and radiant colors. The details, along with the well thought out title of the piece, Let My People Go, a viewer is able to form a slight understanding of what is supposed to be interpreted. The theme of dominance and violence is clearly presented through the images of the painting. However, there is room for personal imagination; room for a viewer to create their own form of the story that is presented on the canvas.
This small, rectangular sized gallery located on a college campus, is hardly the size of a normal classroom. However, it holds artwork in an organized fashion; each piece has its own space to hang. “It’s nice to be surrounded by art all the time,” Johnson said when describing the passion she has for her job. The art gallery clearly serves that purpose for her and many others. It is a place for people to be enclosed in a space that focuses on the talent presented, displayed on the walls. Featuring just one artist at a time, the art gallery is currently filled with Benes’s ten similar pieces creating the total exhibition titled, Kajahl Benes: Recent Work. Each oil-on-canvas painting shares a parallel theme containing African tribal costumes and unique creatures.
When asked what is something she would change about the gallery, one of the few things Johnson mentioned was the exit sign. “On a more superficial note, the door and emergency exit sign in the back of the gallery is a bit of an eye sore.” The exit sign has a plastic covering taped over top of it to help reduce the brightness of the red glowing she commented on that takes away from the artwork. Despite the small size and a few flaws, the art gallery is used to its fullest ability and does contain aspects that add to the many showcases presented.
Plain white paint coats each wall, enclosing a light wooded floor. These subtle, cooling colors add to the bright and inviting feel when first walking into the room. The lighting is clearly directed toward each individual painting. There are eight circular lights embedded in the ceiling, to help light the room. The majority of the light comes from a total of twenty-four spotlights hanging from the ceiling; one or more directed over a single painting. All of these positive qualities of the gallery did not come about by themselves. “A lot of cleaning!” Johnson added when describing the process that goes into preparing exhibitions. She has an intern and two student workers that help her in all the steps of preparation. Unwrapping the art, measuring, hanging, taking out nails, spackling, and painting, “Lots of very technical things.” Those tasks are just a start to the long list of things that fill up their time on the weekends in-between shows.
Aside from the art hanging in the gallery, the only other thing in the room is a small clear stand in the front right corner directly as you walk through the door. Pamphlets and flyers are stacked in organization, along with some business cards. There are two stacks of cards, one for Johnson and one for the chair professor of art, Ms. Ann Conner. A black binder lay open with a pen sitting on top. Information about the artist and exhibition is printed in sleeve protectors at the front of the binder. It lay open on a page with the words ‘Visitor Book’ at the very top. A chart is printed on several pages that allows space for visitors to write in their name, email address and any comments they may have. Not everyone had written a comment, but the ones that were written were very positive and uplifting. “Words cannot express,” “Ground breaking,” “I love the texture and unique look,” “Artistic amazement!” These comments are not just words written down on paper; they are meaningful proof of the impact that has been felt by visitors of the gallery.
The inviting feel of walking into the art gallery is not only from the brightly lit space, but also the glass front differentiating it from any other room. One of the glass doors is propped open, welcoming visitors inside. Printed on the closed door is the artist name and title of the exhibition, ‘KAJAHL BENES: RECENT WORK.’ Printed on the glass to the right of the open door is the room number, gallery hours, and a notice of 24-hour surveillance. A double sided, contemporary, silver sign hung over top of the doors; it could be read from inside or outside of the room. In black lettering the sign read ‘ART GALLERY’ in all capital letters.
“Trying to make people aware of our presence,” is a big concern for Johnson. The small art gallery is one of many on campus and one of even more areas used in the Cultural Arts Building. “We try to have an artist lecture,” she said. This is one of the differences that this gallery possesses in relation to the others. The free public reception is a part of their unique mission statement, as she stated, “Each gallery has a slightly different mission statement.” The artist variety is one distinct difference contained in their mission statement. They showcase national and international students and faculty exhibits throughout the year.
The building in which the gallery is located, is enormous in relation to it. A long cement walkway leads directly to an art structure encircled by a beautiful landscape outside. Six white pillars stand tall in front of the all-glass entrance with brick siding along the remainder of the building. From just looking at the outside, one would not even know that the gallery is present inside. This is one of the struggles that Johnson has to deal with. “I would love to have more people attend the exhibition openings and more foot traffic during the exhibitions. That is the primary issue we’re working on with the gallery,” she said. Increasing advertisements in the newspaper and having students chalk sidewalks are two of the resources she is using to get the word out about the gallery. The energy that Johnson puts into the gallery is strongly focused on advertisement and involvement. She is always looking for fresh ideas to incorporate into her work; she even asked me to inform her of any possible suggestions I may have. In addition to the time and effort she applies to finding artists to display and informing the community about the exhibitions, Johnson’s personal artwork, featuring underwater photographs, is scheduled to be on put display at the beginning of the new year.
The art gallery is not just used as a space to store artwork, but a location for students and the community to gather and appreciate the beauty of art. “Our primary focus is fine art and educating the community and students,” Johnson said. The importance of the gallery to her is very evident through her dedication to her job. The process of choosing artists to display is the “physical form of a blog,” in Johnson’s eyes. However, this connection she feels is not present for everyone; but that is where her goal comes into play. Educating the community and students about the gallery will allow them the option to visit it for themselves. This opportunity they are given could be just another quick tour of art for some, but for others it could be much more. Visiting the gallery could possibly be an inspiring and eye opening moment, as it was for me the first time I walked in the gallery. I not only recognized the exquisite artwork displayed but also the structured arrangement of the area. Johnson devotes her time in working toward gathering more people into the inspirational space.
Benes, Kajahl. Let My People Go. 2012. The University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington.
Johnson, Courtney. Personal interview. 17 Sept. 2012.
UNC Wilmington exhibition schedules for the Art Gallery at the Cultural Arts Building.
Wilmington: University of North Carolina Wilmington, 2012. Print.