Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today
April 21–August 20, 2023

Laura E. Partain. Chris Scruggs and the Stone Fox Five at American Legion Post 82, July 2017. Courtesy of the artist. © Laura E. Partain
Lance Conzett. Alabama Shakes at Ascend Amphitheater, April 21, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. © Lance Conzett

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (March 1, 2023)—The Frist Art Museum presents Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today, a group photography exhibition that celebrates the diversity and energy of Nashville’s music scene through images of guitar players performing in venues across the city and elsewhere. Featuring work by ten Nashville-based photographers, the exhibition will be on view in the always-free Conte Community Arts Gallery from April 21 through August 20, 2023. It is presented in conjunction with Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art, on view in the Ingram Gallery from May 26 through August 13, 2023.

“Within the complex cultural landscape of Music City, it is hard to imagine a subsidiary nickname more applicable than ‘Guitar Town’,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Within our vast ecosystem of guitarists, collectors, luthiers, and venues are the music journalists and photographers who inform us about happenings around town. This exhibition allows us to honor their creativity.”

Highlighting a variety of musical styles and attitudes, the photographers in this exhibition employ dramatic angles, surprising cropping, and hair-trigger responses as they capture essential moments in each performance. Guitar Town features the work of Angelina Castillo, Lance Conzett, Steven Cross, Emma Delevante, H.N. James, John Jo, Laura E. Partain, John Partipilo, Jenni Starr, and Diana Lee Zadlo. Their work has been published both locally and nationally in outlets including the Nashville Scene, The New York Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and the Tennessean.

Through images of musicians including Ariel Bui, Sierra Ferrell, Brittany Howard, Peter One and Jess Sah Bi, Marty Stuart, William Tyler, Adia Victoria, David Rawlings, and Jack White, the exhibition demonstrates how the performers’ self-presentations—clothing, hair, stance, and facial expressions—provide visual links to the music they are making, bringing viewers into the room with the audience to share a visceral experience. While viewing the exhibition, guests will be able to listen to a playlist of the performers’ music on their own devices with headphones via a QR code in the gallery. 

Commenting on the diversity of artists and venues he’s photographed over the years, Steven Cross stated, “I enjoy the mental dance of watching a performer and learning their performance style so that I can anticipate their movements and expressions, because it’s all about capturing those fleeting moments that will make the viewer feel what it was like to be there.” This sense of immediacy—and ephemerality—is particularly acute in photographs from intimate venues like Drkmttr, Exit/In, Fond Object, and Mercy Lounge, some of which have closed or changed management in recent years. Such losses have raised questions about the city’s capacity to remain a haven for small clubs and independent musicians.

“The photographs capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment,’ that split-second shot that reveals so much—in this case, about the music being played and its effect in the room,” writes Scala. “In describing atmospheres of sound, light, and emotional intensity, these images show the joyful rapport between musicians and audiences.” Laura E. Partain elaborates on the connection in her artist statement: “An ideal portrait is the trading of someone’s vulnerability and offering back dignity and strength.”

Some of the photographs approach the visual equivalent of music, evoking the synesthetic idea that you can “see” sound and “hear” colors. A perfect example of this is Angelina Castillo’s nearly abstract six-exposure depiction of pedal steel master Luke Schneider, in which glowing light panels give off a colorful, otherworldly aura that matches Schneider’s aesthetic.

 Angelina Castillo. Luke Schneider and his Light Panels, August 2019. Courtesy of the artist. © Angelina Castillo

Included in the exhibition are artists from out of town or even out of the country—an enchanting image by Lance Conzett shows Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar playing at Fond Object, an informal venue once in East Nashville. In another, Ivory Coast musicians Peter One (now living in Nashville) and Jess Sah Bi showcase their distinctive hybrid of African country at The Basement. Some of the musicians have passed on but have left an indelible mark on the music community. “Angelina Castillo’s image of Jessi Zazu nails the passion of the artist and activist who was the lead singer of Those Darlins,” writes Scala. “Together with Partipilo’s shadowy portrayal of existentialist troubadour David Olney, we see these artists baring their souls, sharing their rage and care with those privileged to be in the audience.”

Even amid constant change and emotional upheaval, this exhibition celebrates a community of photographers and musicians that continues to be dynamic and diverse, mutually supportive, and ever adaptable. Nashville—Guitar Town—remains a place where music of all types is played, enjoyed, and creatively depicted.

Exhibition Credit

Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today was organized by Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala and curatorial intern Sydney Stewart.

Supporter Acknowledgment

Presenting Sponsor: HCA Healthcare/TriStar Health

Supported in part by our O’Keeffe Circle

The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by The Frist Foundation, Metro Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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