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.