Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Aesthetic Fun House

After spending admittedly a short time viewing Ryan McGinness Aesthetic Comfort, I feel I spent part of my afternoon at an amusement park instead of an art museum. This may have something to do with having to navigate through the holiday crowds at the Cincinnati Art Museum or the fact that I brought my four year old son to see these paintings. But I’ve visited many crowded museums and have taken both of my children to art galleries from the time they were six months old so I think the vibrant if not psychotic energy in the gallery rests with McGinness’ paintings.

More than a fun house, the gallery filled with fluorescent designs spilling from various canvasses onto the walls and glowing under a black light recalls the psychedelic aesthetic of the 60s and 70s. Though most writers instead link McGinness to Warhol because of his use of commercial symbols and other motifs from everyday life. I suppose I recognized this, or would have if I was an Urban Outfitters consumer. (Is it me or am I showing my age with every sentence?)

But I did immediately notice the overlapping of imagery associated with the influence of the information age. This layering and linking of images that seemed random yet articulately patterned on various shaped canvasses reminded me of the Karla Hackenmiller’s Liminal Series I reviewed here a little over a week ago. McGuinness reveals in recognizable symbols the non-linear thought processes Hackenmiller explores in her Liminal Series.

I’m not sure how comfortable I am with what appears to be a shift in aesthetics, but I am enjoying watching artists explore it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

University of Kentucky: A new “local” art stop?

This morning I was surprised to see two stories about art exhibited at the University of Kentucky, since I’m not an alumna nor do I tend to set my sites much further south than NKU when reviewing happenings in the local art scene.

On January 11, 2009, The Art Museum of the University of Kentucky will open an exhibition of prints by Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns. The second story is about the installation of a new sculpture, Coal Pot by El Anatsui, on the campus.

With the New Year approaching, I am making a list of things I would like to accomplish this year, including keeping my blog current. I may have to add the University of Kentucky on my list of places to watch in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

“Liminal” Art

In recent exhibitions, I’ve noticed many examples of works depicting oddly juxtaposed images and even eerie scenes hanging in the local galleries. Since I am not a huge fan of Dali, I tend to walk pass these dreamlike works. Perhaps they are simply too eerie so make me uncomfortable with which to spend time. One of the current shows at Manifest Gallery, Contemporary Printmaking, forced me to realize I cannot easily ignore what seems to be a Surrealist trend emerging in the local arts scene.

These artists do not refer to themselves as Surrealists, but the incredibly detailed etchings of Andrew Au and Craig Fisher’s Rights of Spring as well as many others in the show reveal odd combinations with sometimes nightmarish results. Even Angela Katona-Batchelor's Curiosity, the show's only sculptural piece, brings together etched butterfly wings, a milkweed pod, and and a vial. Perhaps these artists are making obvious connections in imagery or simply plays on words. I certainly hope the work of the artists in the Manifest Gallery show is not as simple as this. This is not to say the art making is simple. Printmaking is not. Furthermore, the process does not seem to allow for the automatic and free association characteristic of Surrealism that painting seems to better serve. So what is this eerie trend?

Karla Hackenmiller’s Liminal Deploy included in the show is most interesting to me. One of the smallest of the pieces in the show and certainly the most abstract, her etching depicts a network of tiny lines and shapes of incredible detail that seems to expand and bubble from a single point. With the artist’s Liminal Series, Hackenmiller explores the human thought process and the relationship between brain activity and abstract results. As Liminal Deploy illustrates, her interest is in non-linear thought processes. While this is a pure line etching, it reveals an organic set of forms. Hackenmiller remarks in her artist statement about our cultural interest in the World Wide Web, especially open-source applications that encourage if not rely on an investigation of cognitive creative brain functions.

The more I consider Hackenmiller’s Liminal Series, the more I think she has answered the questions I have had about the works in this and many other shows I’ve seen recently visited. Surrealism was a cultural movement of the 1920’s. In this new century of art Hackenmiller’s “Liminal” may be more fitting.

Friday, December 12, 2008

One Artist, An Array of Media

I’ve always enjoyed the work of Lynda Benglis though never had much of an opportunity with which to spend time as a student or teacher of art history. Lynda Benglis As Printmaker, which closes this weekend at the Carl Solway Gallery gave me that rare chance to see her work as more than just one example of Post-Minimalist work.

Her Bounce and Contraband from the late 1960s were always my favorites of the organic pieces common to Post-Minimalism that both rely on and impose themselves on the gallery space. These two pieces are not part of this retrospective, but walking into the Carl Solway Gallery this morning was met with a brilliance of color that similarly oozes from the white walls.

While at least one local reviewer tried to classify Benglis’ style, we quickly find that this show proves the task difficult. As with most Post Minimalist works, the media perhaps even more than the artist is the subject of a retrospective. Benglis’ ability to fully exploit the range of the media allows her to refuse being classified.

I've said it before, single artist shows prove more challenging for the viewer. And Benglis shows an artist retrospective can be more dynamic as well. I look forward to seeing such exhibitions at the Carl Solway Gallery in the future.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Simply Sol

For the past couple of days I’ve been hearing about the excited reception of Sol LeWitt’s near permanent installation at Mass MoCA, Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective. While I’ve always been pretty fascinated with conceptual art and particularly interested in LeWitt’s wall drawings (or to be more precise, his instructions for the wall drawings), I’ve never heard anyone share this interest. In fact, most people interested in understanding LeWitt’s work and who have asked me to explain it respond by shaking their heads. Okay, perhaps this says more about my explanation than it does about LeWitt. But the truth remains so many people are willing to celebrate artists like Rubens who employed a number of artists to complete his commissions, yet LeWitt’s practice of the same is often met with disdain.

So why is everyone so excited about Sol LeWitt now? Can it only be that he died so recently? Perhaps his recent death has spurned a host of LeWitt shows (there were two in Cincinnati earlier this year), but expressions of beauty linked to LeWitt’s work leaves me dumbfounded. Since when has his wall drawings been viewed as beautiful?

The review of the current retrospective by Holland Cotter in the NY Times seems to offer a hint as to why LeWitt’s work is now appealing to the masses. In this review Cotter says about LeWitt’s wall drawings on display at Mass MoCA,
“They aren’t populist in that way; they were meant for the great indoors. But neither do they depend on elite settings — museums or galleries — to make sense. They are abstract, not arcane. Their visual effects can be complex, but their language is plain: lines, colors, clean surfaces, the basics of grade-school art class. No wonder they feel welcoming; they take us back to the past before they take us somewhere else.”

So we enjoy LeWitt’s work because we don’t have to think about it? It is beautiful because it is “grade school” easy? Beauty and Conceptual Art are not mutually exclusive are they? Perhaps I need to work on my explanations so I can convince more that beauty does rest in the concept so fewer will shake their heads in disdain.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Re-viewing History

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here. I suppose I could blame the holidays or my work on the Obama campaign, both of which have kept me from spending time in a gallery or thinking about the local art scene in any serious way. So to renew some inspiration to continue blogging, I visited my old stomping grounds at the Cleveland Museum of Art and found it wonderfully new.

I feel so fortunate to have been introduced to art by this museum, ranked in the top 5 of the world. While teaching in the Cleveland area, I gained a special appreciation for assigning my students to tour the galleries at least once or twice during their semester with me. This is truly one of the best resources with which to teach and learn about art.

While visiting most museums, I struggle to spend more than an hour per visit. Taking in so much information during a museum visit usually taxes my brain. But my recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, my first since it reopened last spring, filled me with such a sense of awe that for the first time ever I didn’t want to leave.

This return to Cleveland for the holiday and to revisit my own history of art was so fitting a homecoming. The museum’s first phase re-opens the original 1916 building so entering the museum brought for me a recognizable comfort. For any art museum, a comfortable entrance is a major accomplishment. For the CMA to manage this while in the throes of construction is truly a feat recognized immediately. In fact I was so at ease that I headed up the familiar stairs near the entrance almost faster than someone could stop and redirect me to the appropriate path towards the galleries.

As most know, the CMA collection is one of the best in the world. It was difficult for me to imagine how viewing it could be made any better. Well, the galleries of the 1916 Building truly celebrate this collection in ways I’ve never seen in any museum or gallery before. (see the panoramic shots, here) As most everyone has recognized, the architect Rafael Viñoly has done an exceptional job of preserving the museum as an historical landmark in Cleveland. As we eagerly await the new jewel that is the expansion to the 1916 Building, we are comforted to know that CMA is in wonderful hands and the beauty that is the collection will be what shines ever brighter in Cleveland.

To reopen the Cleveland Museum of Art with this phase, one that celebrates the original museum (rather than the architect as is all too common to do) is a true gift to the city as well as to the collection. As we in Cincinnati look to a remodeling of the Cincinnati Art Museum, we can look to our north to such an undertaking that can be a tremendous success as long as the collection, the local community, and the museum’s history remain the focus.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Web of Possibilities

Spiders, ghosts, ravens, webs, and skulls are all part of the language of either Halloween or Day of The Dead, making Carlos Amorales: Discarded Spider a seasonally timed show at the CAC. Though fortunately, this current exhibition will remain on view into March. Because most interesting, what look like large spider webs and references to ghosts have little to do with the supernatural at all.

In this exhibition, Amorales pulls together many of artistic media and genres. Furthermore, his vector drawings rely as much on the sciences and mathematics as it does on the world of art. These digital silhouettes or "ghosts" have their foundations in rotoscopy, an early animation technique. With this, Amorales investigates the fundamentals of drawing and their role in other media like video, computer graphics, performance, sculpture, and through his Psicofonias, musical compositions. It is this last musical component that impressed me most. I am always excited to follow artists on their explorations of various media, but Amorales' translation of vector points into the music rolls of a digital player piano exhibits an artistic depth seen only in single artist shows. Instead of a Halloween decoration, the spider web then is a metaphor for interconnectedness of disciplines and media as well as for the organic gallery space that defines and is defined by the art.

CAC Director, Raphaela Platow does a wonderful curatorial job of utilizing the web metaphor through programming. Intertwining this exhibition with the “Bite Me” Ball on Halloween and the Cincinnati Ballet performance of Dracula and a film series is certain to lure museum patrons into the gallery for this one-person show. Rather than frightening, the "ghosts" are enlightening.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Zaha Hadid Strikes Again

Since the opening of Cincinnati’s new Contemporary Art Center, I’ve heard only criticism of Hadid’s design. It seems as though everyone struggles not with the exhibitions at the CAC as much as with the building. Hadid’s structure upstages and so interferes with the exhibitions so people complain. Perhaps because I do not visit the CAC too often, I simply accept these critiques without question. Admittedly, I’m no architect, nor am I well versed in architectural style. Yet, I cannot help but to note a certain anti-art architecture criticism that I see reappearing with her latest structure, the Chanel Pavilion in New York’s Central Park.

Here, Hadid has designed a temporary exhibition space to house works influence by Chanel. I am in complete agreement with Nicolai Ourourssoff’s review in the NY Times. The economic timeliness of this exhibit could not be much worse. Yet what is more troubling is the fact that it took Christo and Jean-Claude over 25 years to gain permission to erect The Gates in Central Park. The resistance was based mostly on the risk of commercializing and physically harming this green space. Christo and Jean Claude are two artists who have devoted their work to the environment and can safely claim each of their pieces, including The Gates, is a celebration of the space in which they temporarily reside. I can't help but wonder if Chanel was audacious enough to mention The Gates in their proposal to erect Hadid's capsule in the park.

That a mere donation to the Central Park Conservatory permits Hadid and Chanel to sleep well at night is further testament to a displaced idealism. Another example of anti-art architecture.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Manifest Gallery Doubles Down

As an art historian, I am guilty of quickly categorizing each work of art I see into a neat historical framework. Though with each gallery visit, I hope the works exhibited force (not merely invite) me to venture beyond these boundaries. My visit to Manifest Gallery this week did just that. The art of both Petra Kralickova and Kathy A. Moore caught me off guard as they both challenged the classical dichotomies of geometric versus organic, private versus public spaces, and stability versus theatricality.

Immediately upon walking into the red-tinted gallery I was drawn to Inquietude. Kralickova’s three “cages” of black fabric, thread, and beautiful bead work gracefully hang from the ceiling. The black strands of thread of each of these cages meet a perfect circle of black sand on the floor below. While the work is tactile, Kralickova seems to display a resistance to the spontaneous for which Post-Minimalism is known. Instead her work seems more intentional; retaining geometric form and classic analytical lines. The combination of red fabric that drapes the windows of the gallery and the black “cages” along with the need for the viewer to carefully move around these pieces so as not to disturb the sand offers a sense of unease. Though the temptation of their elegance; the sparkle of the sand mirroring the glimmer of the bead work above was almost irresistible to touch. Only my desire to keep from harming these perfect forms allowed me to keep my hands to myself. It is this conflict of being confined outside of Kralickova’s cages that is most intriguing.

Kathy A. Moore’s Still Lifes From My Perspective also focuses on presenting spacial ambiguities in her drawings of her studio. Unlike Kralickova, Moore works with the more classical media of drawing and visual language of line, light, and perspective. Even the still life is a more traditional genre choice. Yet while her linear approach to space seems to contradict the organic forms in Inquietude, looking at Moore’s drawings offers no less stability. In each still life, the artist changes not always the objects, but forces a new and different angle or perspective that imposes movement that is almost dizzying. Her emphasis on light (though perhaps more obvious in her paintings) equals that of Kralickova. This focus on light allows both artists to define spaces; the studio or the gallery as equally dramatic.

A very quick look at the works of these two artists immediately reveals opposing artistic styles: classical drawings of still lifes against a Post-Minimalist installation. Yet by devoting the galleries to two artists and only two works Manifest allows the viewer to recognize and perhaps even wrestle with their similarities.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Marriage of Form and Content

It has been weeks since my visit to NYC and my last post. Like many in Cincinnati, I’ve been recovering from the storm, but mostly, I’ve been reviewing many of the works I saw on my trip. Unlike most visits, this time I devoted a couple of days to the Chelsea galleries.

Up until last year, I’ve spent most of my time working as an historian so would more likely venture into museums, so my visit to Chelsea caught me off guard. The number of galleries truly surprised me and I was not sure where to start. Because I was not in the city on a Thursday, I was unable to take advantage of the gallery openings that are normally scheduled that evening. But the handful I did visit proved there are incredibly interesting discussions in the art world from social, political, to formal that challenge.

At Stefan Stux Gallery I was confronted by Aaron Johnson’s large paintings that make up the show Star-Crossed. Many were humorous and yet others were frightening as the artist combines a comedic style to very serious subjects that implicate the current American culture. His subjects include the linking of church and state, patriotism, and the current wars. But it is not these themes that are as interesting as Johnson’s reverse painted acrylic polymer peel method. He paints completely in reverse onto plastic film building multiple layers of acrylic polymer. Then he applies these directly onto American flags peeling away the plastic. These frightening images on the American flag indict our patriotism. Johnson's painting method captures best his political message.

I’m not sure Cincinnati’s average gallery hopper would be comfortable walking into a gallery filled with Johnson’s work, but I am certain Cincinnati’s artists would lap it up. Not just content, but the focus on form, style, and medium as integral to the work is what filled the galleries I visited in NYC. I think this recognition of the marriage of form and content is what is missing in many local exhibitions. Cincinnati's arts calendar is filled with thematic shows and exhibitions centered around medium, but I seldom see works that recognize both as integral to the whole. This is what I hope to see in the coming season.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Art memory

Teaching art history for a few years and studying for much longer, I feel pretty confident about my ability to notice certain visual details in art. And happy to have introduced so many to the same. Those who have taken art history classes know the challenge of sitting in a dark classroom being fed slide after slide of images with the hope that enough detail is retained for the essay exam or that awful art identification quiz.

My current visit to NYC museums and galleries including The Met and MoMA has taught me that no matter how well we can identify works of art or even analyze these works, seeing them in person refreshes our eye for detail. I've often shown students J.M.W. Turner's emphasis on light in his history landscape paintings as a technique pointing towards the Impressionists. But my visit this week to the Turner show reminded me that seeing Turner's later works in person is no match for the digital slides I showed in class. The later paintings by Turner that make up the end of the exhibition are almost indistinguishable from Monet's well-known landscapes. Every gallery I have visited in New York this week reminded me of the same point. No matter how well versed we are in the arts, we must remember to resist relying on digital reproductions of works of art and insist on seeing them in person as often as possible.

In the coming days I will write more about the importance of visiting museums and galleries as an exercise in engaging art honestly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

To things lost

I really did not expect to be moved by the 350 or so dresser drawers that make up Jana Napoli’s Floodwall: A Katrina Memorial currently on display at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center here in Cincinnati, OH. Though, I was immediately surprised by the grandness in scale of the wall. These drawers of various sizes and styles and clearly tattered are arranged in a grid over 8 feet high and 96 ft long that almost eerily evokes stability. It is this blending of strength in form and the fragility of loss that left me a bit unsettled.

The interactive nature of the show is what excites me most about Napoli’s tribute. The viewer can touch and even carefully open and close the drawers. We find in the drawers expected dirt and debris and in one instance, I found a lone sock. Viewers are also encouraged to leave a note in any of the drawers with a promise from the artist delivery to its former owner effectively personalizing the memorial.

Walking behind the wall, I saw the artist had addressed each drawer. These addresses and the show’s map marking the sites each drawer Napoli collected seem to recall home. But perhaps because I’ve never visited New Orleans, this information does not really touch my sense of place. Not until I watched the accompanying video clips of different parts of the city. These videos are displayed on four separate screens labeled according to the part of city and Katrina’s flood level at that location. They appear to be home movies depicting everyday life, life before the flood. That the videos are black and white and grainy, I think is meant to offer a sense of nostalgia. Though, that may be a bit heavy handed on the artist’s part since the flood did not occur that long ago.

Finally, it was Norma Jackson’s story that put me over the edge. I remember hearing many stories like hers. Stories of those who did not evacuate when warned so were stranded for far too long. While watching her tell her story videotaped for the exhibition, I along with a couple of other visitors shook my head. I was reminded of the embarrassing failure of response to those who needed help. A week after visiting the show, I am still haunted by Ms. Jackson saying, “after 3 days, we ran out of ice.” Three days?!

Forced to exit the show through the main gallery I tried unsuccessfully to avoid the sight of the massive wall of drawers Napoli constructed. I was saddened, embarrassed, and even angered by the unnecessarily great loss of life after Katrina. This large collection of drawers, which the artists suggests represents what we the viewers “hold to be precious and sacred,” pointed out to me instead a wall of things that were rescued. In Napoli’s attempt to humanize the loss through the displaying of everyday objects as treasured items, she dehumanizes us. And I think this is a well-deserved implication of the loss.

Friday, August 29, 2008

“Education” is boring?

In this week’s City Beat cover story we are introduced to a few local art education coordinators. Each tells of the challenges of introducing the arts and growing diverse audiences for our various art institutions. These challenges are well known and have been discussed so often they almost seem cliché. But it is true; the arts seem to be inaccessible. Most art administrators respond to this concern with innovative educational programming.

But not Cincinnati Art Museum’s Emily Holtrop. When asked about why her title was switched from Curator of Education to Curator of Learning and Interpretation, she said “education” is boring. Actually, what she claimed was people (which people, I don’t know) hear the word education and it’s boring. So she, presumably with the approval of the museum director, Aaron Betsky, changed the title. This is yet another reaction to the tired claim against a perceived stuffiness. Instead of making art more accessible through education, Holtrop simply removes “education.”

But it is not just a mere changing of her title. She goes on to say, “I’m not so concerned about whether we’re educating people….” I thought Holtrop was the art administrator responsible for supporting local school teachers and their curriculum. This means, our teachers who do care about educating their students are left to rely on someone who admits no concern for the same. Holtrop seems proud to claim “we took out ‘education’ and now we learn from you how you want to learn from the museum.” She should have learned how to learn while she herself was in school.

Holtrop and the art museum need to recognize that patrons young and old visit the museum to learn, not to teach. Teaching is a core mission of most museums and Holtrop has effectively removed education as a part of hers.

Friday, August 22, 2008

“It should not be missed”

People generally look to restaurant, book, film, and art reviews, to determine whether they should spend the time or money to entertain or be entertained. The media recognize that although so many deny relying on what some stranger has to say, the reviewer has the power to secure patrons. Understandably, non-profit art galleries and museums specifically rely heavily on reviewers to help swell their attendance.

Spending the last couple of years reading reviews of local art exhibitions I have found most to be informative rather than critical. As an advocate for the arts who encourages large audiences of every age for art, information that entices viewers is good. Such information, much of which is lifted from the press packet or the gallery website, functions as a nice primer before I make my own judgment. As an art historian, I don’t really need a reviewer to encourage me to see an exhibition. Though there have been reviews that have kept me home. If I hadn’t gone to the opening of ArtWorks Paper Chasers, Matt Morris’ review in City Beat would have been one of those reviews.

While it is clear that Morris is a friend of the artist/curator and I admire his support of her work, his attempt to laud the current exhibition with art theory does nothing more than force the average art patron to quickly dismiss the show and turn the page. With phrases like, “…a substantial constant that calls attention to the unique solutions each artist extricates from the broader continuum of connotations…” Morris’ review reads like what my former grad school colleagues referred to our own scholarship as intellectual masturbation. This is not for your eyes.

And if that is not damaging enough to the attempt to encourage people to see the show, Morris goes on to suggest reading Jacques Derrida. Derrida? Is he kidding? Art theory should perhaps be required reading to create a show like Paper Chasers, but not to view it. Morris’ reading suggestion only intimidates and discourages.

At the end of his review Morris seems to find his way back to his recognized reviewer’s voice. Finally, he insists clearly we should see the show. Because Morris spends too much time beating his chest and our heads with art theory only to come to a plea to see his friend’s show, he, ArtWorks, and the rest of us are left to rely on City Beat’s red “Critic’s Pick” that graces the review. Morris’ review thus risks not only alienating loyal art patrons, but reducing the role of the reviewer to a mere editor’s stamp.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

“Starts with Community”

This is the title of Emily Holt’s work in “The Neighborhood Is Our World,” now on view at Kennedy Heights Arts Center. This is a black and white photograph of the bottom of a sign that reads “community” in black letters. The rest of the sign extends up past the picture plane indicating there was more to read. Holt’s shot focuses on the last word while her title reminds us the idea should remain first.

That Holt created this work as a student of KHAC’s own summer photography camp is no surprise. It is a testament to the art center’s focus on the neighborhood and the work of teaching artists like Natalie Hager who help their students honestly engage the world around them. Traveling exhibitions like “The Neighborhood Is Our World,” which will show in various venues throughout the Kennedy Heights area is the type if community arts programming that I have not yet seen here in Cincinnati. With this one exhibition, the Center celebrates local art students, established guild artists and the community. What’s more KHAC is able to begin moving beyond the “make and take” arts programming on which even the Cincinnati Art Museum still relies for membership. There is an immediate need to retire such stale programming that I’ve argued can actually stifle creativity. KHAC sees the value in inviting their students, adults and children, to see their work displayed alongside local working artists. Also with such innovative programming, the guild artists at KHAC are given the opportunity to hone their crafts through teaching and further expand their own portfolios while mentoring future Cincinnati artists. I hope to see art centers follow suit by implementing similarly fresh programs.

The Kennedy Heights Arts Center has taken the lead as a community arts center that puts community first while providing a wonderful home for artists to focus on not just selling but making art and possibly mentoring. Emily Holt’s Starts With Community is not only my favorite work currently exhibited in the galleries, but the KHAC and each of Cincinnati’s community arts centers should really consider purchasing a copy of the photograph as a reminding emblem of what a community arts center should be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Scrap it

Grand ideas or themes for exhibitions have the promise to present new ideas by providing an element of freedom to the artists. ArtWorks Paper Chasers seems to attempt to do just this. But just as KHAC’s Fire last month, the downtown gallery is currently exhibiting works that share a single oversized idea that lacks solid curatorial parameters. Certainly, there were some pieces that seem to focus on paper, such as Lauren Clay’s cut paper capsules and Stacza Lipinsky’s cascading paper cuttings welcoming us into the gallery space. Yet there were others like Liz Kauffman’s series of self-portraits I especially enjoyed, though have no idea why they are included in this show other than they are drawings on paper. Then there is the mixed media piece by Ryan Mulligan that begs to be read as something more than a paper chase.

While I think it is important to have such shows that provide a certain creative freedom, with this comes the responsibility of the curator. Without clearly defined exhibition parameters that celebrate the artists’ creativity, interesting works like those by Kauffman or smartly comical installations like Mulligan’s risk being diluted to merely paper objects that fill the space.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

“So beautiful, I cried.”

The aesthetic moment that brings one to tears. I’ve heard of this before and certainly can imagine being drawn to a work of art through an emotive power that seems impossible to describe. Rothko claimed his all-over paintings successfully drew viewers to tears. I would sometimes joke about this instance in my classes. Then after a class during which I introduced the passion of Rothko and Newman’s “zips,” one of my students approached me in tears telling me she got it, she felt it…the aesthetic moment. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy to have introduced a student to this moment or jealous.

As much as I am passionate about art, I had never seen anything so beautiful that it brought me to tears. Then yesterday, at the Cincinnati Art Museum when I casually drifted into Gregory Crewdson: Beneath the Roses I got it. This was the first time I had ever seen Crewdson’s photography in person. It is not only the large scale and wonderful detail of these photographs that mesmerizes, but the subject of American suburban stories that drew me in. To capture these rather gritty scenes with a lushness that is more often reserved for pristine landscapes or nature photography is wonderfully brain twisting.

I caught myself a few times trying to gain some stability by recalling Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Edward Hopper; a classifying habit that is the bane of the art historian. Though in the end pushed away those artists and their influential works and simply enjoyed Crewdson’s compositions, refusing to fight back the tears.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

De-Flowering the Artist

There are generally two approaches to feminist art. One recognizes the absence of female artists in museums and galleries. This approach also sees the designation of certain media, such as needlework and ceramics as specifically feminine. The second approach instead addresses the way women have been or are portrayed in art and the media. These portrayals, it is argued, create a feminine social construct to which women are restricted. Both artistic approaches investigate Western notions of beauty and explore women’s historical role as the object of this beauty. Works by two emerging artists currently showing separately in Cincinnati are stepping into the feminist art debate with different results.

Gayle Shaw Clark’s two stoneware pieces are currently on view as part of Manifest Gallery’s Master Pieces. The large sculpted flowers are part of a series of 15 that depict the stages of life, birth to death, of this flower. For the artist, the flower is the symbol an inherent beauty at every stage of a woman’s life. Clark cites art historians Linda Nochlin and Nancy Friday who have written about societal constructs of beauty to which women are expected to adhere. And like many women, Clark can cite numerous anecdotes revealing women’s frustration with societal expectations. So why flowers? Doesn’t Clark risk perpetuating the societal construct of feminine beauty she claims frustrates her? Furthermore, the flower Clark chooses is phallic. She doesn’t name the flower, but it resembles the infamous Corpse Flower. This is not a flower known for its beauty, but for its horrible odor. Of course this last detail opens up a whole other can of....well, you know.

The multi-media work of Jennifer Acus-Smith was exhibited at The Gathering in Over-the Rhine during Final Friday. Acus-Smith quite easily adopts the visual language of well-known feminist artists as she engages the questions of feminine beauty in the fashion industry. For example, the more recent work of Cindy Sherman, photos of dismembered (and re-membered?) mannequins, echoes in Acus-Smith’s digital prints. These present what look like collages made of magazine images of female body parts reconfigured to illustrate a contorted sense of feminine beauty. Consumer excesses directed to adorning the female body is a focus in the Acus-Smith’s work. Though as with Clark’s work, flowers find a way in Acus-Smith’s paintings. Here, the influence of Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers is impossible to ignore. Instead of the corpse flower, emphasized vulvar forms are present Acus-Smith’s work.

Perhaps my response to Clark’s work is not so much cerebral as instinctual. To accept two large white stoneware phallic flowers as symbolic of feminine beauty threatens a small but powerful fit of hysterics (yes, I said this) from this viewer. Is mine an old feminist rage sounding “after how far we’ve come…?” Perhaps. But as an art historian, I am more confident about an artist who references the work of past artists who are established participants in the discussion. For this reason I look forward to watching Acus-Smith as she continues to develop her unique visual language in the feminist art debate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Artistic Narratives

The works in the current exhibition at Manifest Gallery, Master Pieces present some long lasting trends like portraiture and nudes, the requisite sculpture, photography, and conceptual work. Though in this wonderfully interesting mix I noticed what seems to be a newer theme or interest. Alongside of feminist inquiries and contemplations of memory, we find in this current exhibition an interest in narrative constructs. Art, particularly painting and sculpture has always been a storytelling tool. The power of these media as conduits of realism went unquestioned throughout much of history. Photography enjoyed such persuasive powers at its birth until about the middle of the 20th century. We now know that one does not take a picture, but instead makes one.

Fittingly, photography is the medium of choice for both Thea Augustina Eck and Svala Olafsdottir whose works are part of the Master Pieces show. Both artists pay special attention to the constructs of narratives, historical and mythological. Eck’s It Is Never Tomorrow series is made of 24 photographs (two are at Manifest Gallery) that explore the work of Early British Arctic Explorers. Photography allows Eck to present this series as a record of historical fact, yet as an artist, she fully recognizes her freedom to interpret history and re-present the historical narrative. There is no way her beautiful photographs that monumentalize figures in the arctic landscape could have been taken during the historical period she presents. It is this flux between fact and fiction that is a fundamental element of the historical narrative she exposes.

Svala Olafsdottir also works in photography and inspired by the past. From Iceland, much of her work is grounded in Icelandic mythology and fables. Though this is her source, Svala claims not to be a storyteller herself. Instead she is interested in what she calls non-linear narratives. Her Untitled #2, a photograph on canvas presents what looks like a person’s face underwater, perhaps drowning. While this viewer is not familiar with Icelandic folklore, seaside Norse history makes me somewhat confident about the setting. Despite what may be an eerie image of death or dying, the lush colors, light and rippling water provide a mesmerizing effect that is inviting. Lifting scenes from otherwise well-known fables allows the viewer (even those familiar with these specific stories) to re-view the stories outside of their linear constructs.

Both artists recognize the role of stories and histories in our cultures. It is refreshing to see artists making such self-referential statements presenting the role of the storyteller, the media, and the implication of the reader.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Refitting the Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibition, Long Time No See sets to pitch the need for an expansion that will include additional gallery space. As with many such exhibitions, it is designed as a bit of teaser for what is to come; a P.R. push to open a capital campaign that will kick-start the museum’s expansion. The show claims to capture the “soul of the Cincinnati Art Museum.” The museum seems to speak of itself in corporeal terms. The “soul” is the inner cavity of the building in which these objects have been held for 10 or more years. Thus the focus of the show is the body of the museum rather than the body of work.

The exhibition does display some wonderful pieces from various cultures and periods. As I walked through the galleries there were many times I wondered almost aloud why some of these pieces have not been rotating out of storage. A Gauguin, a handful of wonderful paintings by Degas and a beautifully whimsical piece by Mark Fox, Congregation, 2005 can almost certainly find room in the current galleries. For others like a Japanese screen, more room means simply more storage since the age and delicacy of the screen may allow only rare viewings no matter how much gallery space is added.

There are those pieces in the exhibition that easily demand to be pulled out of storage that are simply breathtaking. These include African and Asian works as well as a Mesopotamian floor mosaic. The Cincinnati Art Museum has always been deficient in space dedicated to “other” art histories, reserving these collections for the underbellies of stairwells. I hope the expansion will correct this embarrassing problem.

Finally, the show presents the model for the expansion. As expected, many have criticisms and praises for the look of the building’s exterior or its body. But it is its interior; how we reveal that which resides in the "soul" of the museum that is most important.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ohio Arts Icon, Dr. Sherman Lee Dies

The former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art died this week. He served as director from 1958 until 1983 and is certainly responsible for the museum's admirable standing in the art world. Few realize that the CMA has been ranked in the top 5 art museums in the world.

Personally I am grateful to him for instilling in me an absolute love of Asian Art. It was his text, A History of Far Eastern Art, that I poured over and happily toted (though so heavy!) for a semester. It was through Dr. Lee's eye that I saw the beauty in the act of the painter's stroke. And it is because of him we have one of the greatest art institutions in the world here in Ohio.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Toy Stories

Radiohead’s Thom York says: "The reason 'Fitter Happier' exists is 'cos of mental background noise. Some days you're in a disturbed state and it moves to the front." Cincinnati artist Stephen Smith seems to present this movement from back to front (and back again?) in the 6 panels that make up his Fitter, Happier, More Productive currently on view at Red Tree Gallery in Oakley. Approaching these panels in the gallery from right to left start from more abstract blurs toward focused images. Is this blur the disturbed state to which York refers? Or perhaps it is the image of what look like Playmobil toys that represent this state. It is the presence of recognizable toys in Smith’s work that got me thinking about the role of toys in our culture as conduits of pop themes.

For over the last generation, we have seen a number of pop cultural characters appear in the toy aisles. Most notable are comic book super heroes like Superman and Disney characters like Mickey Mouse. Now it seems as though absolutely no children’s programming will hit the airwaves unless it is paired with a toy that has marketing potential. While the pop icon as toy is such a common presence in our culture, more recently I (and no doubt you) have noticed an interesting shift to toy as pop icon.
Trying to determine the birth of this trend, I go back only to Pixar’s Toy Story. (Perhaps this can be traced back much further?) This film was cast with a number of our favorite toys such as Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, little army men, and barrel of monkeys. While I don’t want to take away from the wonderful story, the film’s success at least partly relies on our own sense of nostalgia and love of our childhood toys. Toy Story effectively revealed the impact toys have on our childhoods and Toy Story 2 revealed the exploitation of that impact.

The movement of toys from the store to the screen has further conflated the pop icon as toy/toy as pop icon roles in our culture. Dare I say it? The toy has gone Post-Modern on us. Today video games based on the extremely popular films that make up Star Wars and Indiana Jones not only exploit the love of the films, but like Toy Story also tap into our nostalgic love of toys, specifically Lego. These video games allow us enter the well-known plots as Lego characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Indiana Jones.

Stephen Smith’s work is notable for its representation of toys as pop icons of our culture. And in many he seems to be following the current trend of employing the toy in his exploration of universal and sometimes grand themes in popular culture. His Where I End and You Begin is another Radiohead lyric reference that again finds the image of a toy. While Smith’s work can be whimsical or even appear comical, a closer look may reveal that these are not merely children’s playthings.

Monday, July 7, 2008


“piece•work,” the sculpture of Walter Zurko currently exhibited in the Weston Art Gallery is simultaneously beautiful in its minimalist formal aesthetic and uncomfortable as a group of objects pointing towards the utility of hard labor. Almost immediately upon entering the gallery, I was struck by the harshness of the subject. The cages and yokes, easily recognizable forms, seem to present an older more rugged time as objects in a history or anthropology museum. The only thing missing are the drawings or photographs of individuals using these tools in the home or on farms. Still without such labels, these objects evoke entrapment. Even the familiarity of repetition of the bars of the cages or the inviting smoothness of the wood of the yokes does not eliminate the thought of individuals trapped or burdened in their work. I could not help but imagine individuals working with these objects, thus bearing the yokes or trapped in the cuffs that seem to decoratively hang on the gallery wall.
By moving towards more representational works, Zurko similarly traps the viewer in a need to resolve this ambiguity. How do we resolve our desire to admire the tactile aesthetic of objects that painfully hold captive workers in their craft?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Public Intimacies

An exploration of private versus public spaces is present throughout modern and contemporary art. A couple of artists whose works are currently showing in the Carnegie’s Go Figure continue this discussion. Kate Holterhoff invites the viewer into private domestic spaces while Ying Fang Shen opens the doors to a public bath or spa.

More brilliant in person, the work of Kate Holterhoff presents the wonderfully expressive qualities of painting. Her Self-Portrait fittingly portrayed in bold strokes of color shows her standing and confidently accepting the gaze. This boldness in her style however does not overshadow the intimacy shared with her subjects. Similar to well-known artist, Mary Cassatt, Holterhoff invites her viewer into domestic spaces finding friends and family. Oftentimes paintings like The Ladies at the Party, 2006 are welcoming. Here the artist seems to borrow directly from Cassatt’s Tea Party the subject of leisure and friendship. Holterhoff’s nudes are equally inviting in their beauty. Mallory is an absolutely beautiful modern “Venus” figure.

Though other times, Holterhoff’s intimate portrayals can force the viewer into an unwilling voyeur. Christy done in 2005 places the viewer in what seems to be an uncomfortable role. We find ourselves looking down at Christy as if reprimanding her. Here intimacy calls on the viewer to be a critic not of the painting, but of the subject. Continuing with the Impressionists, I look to Degas who also worked with unusual perspectives. He too allowed the viewer an uncomfortably dominant gaze.

The work of Ying Fang Shen instead dominates the viewer. Like Holterhoff, she borrows from a long artistic tradition; here, Chinese hanging scrolls. These large drawings of men bathing (there are woman too) at a public bath monumentalize the male nude not often seen in an Eastern painting tradition despite the ancient cultural tradition of the Asian bath houses. Because of this, Ying Fang Shen forces this art historian to travel both east and west through various periods of art to find an historical context for her work. It’s a great trip. What I find is an interesting hybrid of subject and style. The focus on the male body seen in the ancient west presented in a traditional eastern medium. In this way, the works make public in the west what we often deemed private.

Monday, June 30, 2008

American Images

With the launching of the NEH’s Picturing America, our public schools and libraries will have in their collections poster reproductions of 40 of America’s significant artworks. These posters are tools to be used in the classroom to help enhance core curricula as well as introduce students to America’s art history. Author, John Updike has been at the forefront of this project to bring a visual history to our classrooms. The project is unveiled to obvious criticism of the selection. While diverse in its inclusion of artists like Mary Cassatt, Romare Bearden and Joseph Stella, Picturing America is backboned by 18th and 19th Century American artists or the “dead white men” who helped architect our patriotic image. Updike’s response to criticism is, "in this age of diversity and historical revision," these "thin-lipped patriarchal persons" cannot be ignored by anyone who seeks to appreciate how artists have shaped the United States, from Colonial times to the present day.”

Updike is right. We cannot ignore John Singleton Copley, Grant Wood or Norman Rockwell. These artists play an incredibly important role in how we see ourselves and how we interpret our American history. The problem with the collection is the omission of an acknowledgment of the biased representations of a self-glorified American idealism.

Without the benefit of a critical eye for looking at art, Picturing America undermines learning rather than enhancing it. Presenting Grant Wood’s American Gothic as an example or worse proof of what the Great Depression looked like risks propagandistic results. Students must be keen to an historical context of the 18th and 19th centuries that includes celebrated colonial themes, such as “Manifest Destiny” before looking to art for answers to their questions. Our school teachers must be aware of the influences and motivations for the success of many of the works in Picturing America before employing the collection as a teaching tool.

As a former college art history instructor, I am a strong advocate for introducing art to students well before their first year in college. A more visually literate culture has always been a desire of mine. But I must admit that I am a bit conspiratorially suspicious of the unveiling of Picturing America by the NEH at a time in our history when the American image may need some airbrushing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fired Up?

Kennedy Heights Arts Center opened its exhibition, Fire last weekend to a full and excited crowd of patrons. As always, the show includes works displaying a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, pottery, and textiles. Ned Stern’s paintings for this show focus on fire disasters and rescue. Like his cityscapes, these paintings capture the appeal of the local audience with a certain civic pride. Though Old St. George In Flames easily touches a universal core of sensibilities. The blazing steeples of a church are an apocalyptic image that stuns whether you are from Clifton or England.

Biblical themes speckle the show with works by Harold Dreibelbis, Pentecost and Vision of Christ, and the inclusion of Tony Arrasmith’s The Religious Right in 1692, a photograph made for a production of The Crucible. Fire also includes a rather comedic perspective on eternal damnation with Danny R. Dean’s Hades Vent. This sculpted smokestack in the gallery wonderfully if uncomfortably redefines the space. One painting that captures your attention soon after entering the center is David Hartz’s Protection From Fire. This large-scale painting of a person engulfed in flames seems oddly titled until we realize that Hartz’s media includes fire. He is known for his performance pieces using fire. Many of his Pyrographs are also included in the show.

While Fire, as a themed show, offers quite a bit of freedom for the artists and their various styles, its broadness does not always provide an effective context for the artworks. I found myself returning to the beautiful abstract paintings of Megan Triantafillou a few times wondering why these were included in the show. Titles like Warmscape II and Warm LXXVII are not convincing and in fact seem to mock the show. The only conclusion I could come up with was her warm palette. Surely Fire could not be that broad in scope. Similarly, the inclusion of works by well-known KHAC artist Barbara Gamboa sometimes seem out of place except that we expect to see her work in the gallery.

KHAC has been the big buzz in the local art scene for nearly 5 yrs. Local art centers and community advocates view it as an example to follow. KHAC enjoys a loyal patronage and an active and supportive guild. To better serve their artists though, they need to rework their exhibition schedule. More thought-provoking themes or even more solo shows will better encourage their artists towards further exploration of ideas and developing new discussions. Their last show, Shattered Myths – Twenty-one Visions Contemplating the Actual Cost of War, seems to hint at a movement towards more challenging shows. I hope so. Patrons of the arts are not only looking for things to hang over the sofa, but also look to artists for a perspective to some of life’s questions. KHAC has the loyal audience. It is time to permit the artists to challenge it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Is the Only Good Artist a Dead Artist?

As an art historian spending time thinking about the works of Caravaggio, Louise Nevelson, Diego Rivera, or Eva Hesse, I often joke that yes, this is true. Certainly I don’t believe it. Robert Rauschenberg has been a favorite of mine well before the sad day of May 12, 2008. Though admittedly, it is sometimes much easier to study an artistic style that I can hold still for a moment rather than one that continues to change.

The NY Times published an article Sunday exploring an artist’s death not as a research convenience, but as a marketing strategy. This seems like a common story we hear in the arts. Van Gogh provides well-known an example. But the article cited more recent incidences of artists who suffered from lack of interested audiences while alive only to find their estates reaping bigger benefits. Like many before them, these artists notably refused to respond to the aesthetic demands of the gallery. Instead, they did the work they wanted to do despite their inability to sell. This is a brave artistic statement to make, especially in the 1980s (when these artists lived and worked). Some even refused to sell their work in galleries, thus maintaining their independence from the market.

Can art galleries enter after the artist dies to offer a changing of the rules? The NY Times story implicates a few galleries that admittedly thrive on these posthumous cases. While I understand and even appreciate the supply and demand argument, exploiting death for a dollar is too uncomfortable for me to contemplate for long. But my question is who is being exploited? Is it the artist or the art lover? Does it matter?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Artist Is Our Teacher

Visiting the ArtWorks Gallery for the Summer Sweat show reveals the wonderful variety of skills and styles that make up the fundamentals of this year’s ArtWorks Summer Program. Greeted almost immediately by the portraits of Scott Donaldson reminded me (and I’m sure others) of entering the Andy Warhol Museum. Kudos to Donaldson for recognizing Lily Munster as a pop icon deserving tribute. Michael Stillion’s monstrously gorgeous paintings nearby almost steal the gaze with their vibrancy. Rachel Reisert’s beautiful photographs capture the fundamentals of line, shape and color like earlier all-over paintings. Yet her images are like a still-life that calls attention to the detail of the natural world around us. Amanda Checco consciously calls us to recognize a social collective in her Universoul, just as Jarrett Jamison invites us to rethink racial stereotypes that divide in Never Been a Stranger.
The artists chosen for the ArtWorks Summer program no doubt exhibit a variety of techniques. Though it is also the awareness of the world around them, and their invitations to look at us that is teaching

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Refocused Exhibitions

A recent story in City Beat about new approaches to exhibitions at the CAC has excited my interests in the direction of local arts and artists. Focusing more on single artist shows and less on thematic exhibitions I think will have an interesting effect on our local art scene. Of course, most anything that shows at the CAC can influence artists not only here in Cincinnati but across the country. What we often forget though is the influence of the curator to present artistic ideas to the viewer. The curator determines the parameters of the artistic discussion. Raphaela Platow’s decision to refocus on the work of individual artists may be dictated by the museum space, but she no doubt sees the potential to inspire the local artists to engage their own works as well.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Budding to Bloom

"We (in Cincinnati) truly have a budding arts community."

Just yesterday, someone at Joseph-Beth Bookseller said this to me. I simply nodded in agreement as I've done every time someone in and outside of the local art scene has made this claim since my move to Cincinnati.

Six years budding.

Now I call on artists and art lovers of the Greater Cincinnati area to honestly and intellectually engage the arts. It is past time to go beyond the mere marketing of our local arts scene. We must instead invite and insist that our artists and our cultural advocates participate in an artistic discourse that is not only local, but national, and perhaps international.

This discussion will include honest thoughtful analyses of art exhibitions in our galleries and museums. We must resist the temptation to state simply, "I like this, I don't like that." We are certainly free to express our tastes, but we should require more thought. Artists learn from and thrive on honest critiques. As their creativity and discussions through their various media evolve, so do we.

It is time to bloom.