Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Options 2005

If there was ever a Washington, DC based curated art show that could used the descriptors "poisoned well" and "a no win situation," it was the current Options 2005 WPA/C show at the former Staples store on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (All images courtesy Ding Ren).

And now that the show is finally up, like any big group show, it offers up a diverse array of results, and if I can reach into the trite bag of descriptors again, Ubercurator Libby Lumpkin has delivered a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Dr. Libby LumpkinLumpkin has been (unfairly I think) pounded in both the mainstream press and the online art critics and observers, taking blasts from every side and quarter. And the show itself has been similarly diminished in nearly all published accounts so far.

A bit of history: since 1981 the Options show have been focused on attempting to showcase the best emerging artists in the region; that is, artists that are not represented by any commercial fine arts gallery. Many of the past artists selected for earlier Options have gone on to become well-known and some have gone on to exhibit in even more controversial and highly attacked group shows like the Whitney Biennial.

For the 2005 version, savvy DC art collector Philip Barlow was initially selected, and almost just as quickly fired by the WPA/C because of his decision to exclude from his selection process all artists who had participated in the Panda public art project. Barlow felt that artists who had made this decision had erred in their artistic path and he felt that he would use this as a culling factor in the set of emerging artists that he would start with.

Although many of us disagreed with Barlow’s perspective, we all supported his right as a curator to choose whatever means and views he chose as a way to select a show. The WPA/C didn’t and he was fired, and a firestorm of online protesting erupted, and when Dr. Lumpkin was selected to replace Barlow, we all settled down gloomily to await her show.

And thanks to the power of the web, we were able to follow Lumpkin’s progress as she visited studios and universities and homes. Seldom has a curator been under such a magnifying glass for a regional show. And seldom has an "outsider" curator delivered such a... how shall I put this? Expected show and still deliver a couple of discoveries.

In Dr. Lumpkin’s defense, let me say that it is not easy to put together a group show full of successes; in fact it is impossible. And considering the hand that she was dealt before she was even selected as the replacement curator for Barlow, she has delivered more than an interesting show, with a couple of really good finds and a handful of really surprising choices for such an elite member of the West coast art mafia.

Suzanna Fields

Stepping into the former Staples store in Georgetown, two things occurred to me: first in my head was the thought of what a great permanent space for the WPA/C this venue would be. Second was Suzanna Fields’ 3-D acrylic sculptural drips, which face towards the entrance to the gallery.

It seems to me that suddenly Fields is everywhere; if there ever was an emerging artist that has suddenly popped into the region’s visual arts cognizance, it is this talented artist.

And Options 2005 gives us a bipolar or perhaps a hybrid Fields. First we see what can best be described as colorful acrylic drips, shaped into circular shapes, with solid lines of paint stacked delicately atop each other to deliver "flowery" looking pieces that project into three dimensions. They are interesting and colorful; my problem with them is that I’ve seen dozens and dozens of this generic type of work, nearly identical in fact (except for the color of the paint used), at most outdoor art shows around the nation.

This is fragile ground: the fact that I’ve seen this kind of work (with paint used this way), over and over and over, at the Annual Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach, or Arts in the Park in Richmond or wherever, doesn’t make it "bad," but it makes it sort of "common" and more "crafty" that "fine arts" in my mind, and somewhat surprising that this work was selected. Perhaps Lumpkin doesn’t venture into the plebian member of the art scene that is represented in the minds of some by an outdoor art show.

The "other" Suzanna Fields in the show is a more elegant and minimalist artist, and I particularly liked the black drawing-like pieces that show surprising texture on close examination. This is definately an artist to keep an eye on.

Lindsay Rogers

Drawing by RogersAnd next we come to the best work in the show: Lindsay Rogers’ amazing and vastly overpriced black pastel drawings.

I use the adjective "amazing" because, regardless of high fallutin’ art critics’ continued attempts to dismiss realism as a leading "contemporary" member of today’s dialogue of art, it keeps staying ahead of them and the rest of the words in that dialogue (witness Richter and Hirst’s recent successes).

Rogers’ work steals the show, because this being a large group show, size and subject matter, duh... matter! And Rogers’ choice of subject matter are rather common subjects (friends and fellow students I assume), elevated by her mastery of the medium, and the size of that presentation, to a sublime state. Furthermore, in using black pastel (rather than charcoal or graphite), she offers the blackest of black in her presentation, which allows the drawings to reveal a surprising range of tones, delivering the always pleasing illusion of reality on a two dimensional plane.

Anne Benolken

I first saw Anne Benolken’s mixed media boxes at Art-O-Matic a while back, but I must admit that I saw them in a new light here, and perhaps it was because I saw them more “clearly” and outside of the beautiful cacophony of art that Art-O-Matic delivers. And Benolken tore at my feelings when I read the little book that allows one to read each individual box’s title(s) all in sequence. And with titles like "Kali realizes she’ll never get her ducks in a row," one gets an insight into the frailties and insecurities and tender areas of Benolken’s life and being. By the end of my examination of her works, I wanted to give Benolken a hug.

This is highly personal work that will rarely find commercial success, unless it is preceded by curatorial exposure, as this sort of personal work always seems to find a soft spot in the eyes of museum curators. Benolken has been creating this Kali series for fifteen years, and she should find fertile ground to continue to exhibit its progress in the future in universities, museums and non profit art venues.

Jorge Benitez

Jorge Benitez's ArchMy next pleasant discovery were the superbly technical drawings by Jorge Benitez, whose work I’ve never seen before. At first sight, they’re a bit of a head scratcher, as they appear to be blueprints for buildings and planes, etc. But once we read the titles, they are reconfigured in our vision in a whole new light. And now the design for a massive arch titled "Victory in Iraq Triumphal Arch" takes on a new, political meaning; and delivers to artists everywhere the immense power of a title associated with a work of art, and the resulting psychological change that it has on the viewer.

The grand master of titling artwork remains Barnett Newman, but Benitez deserves some praise for using this often unexploited part of the art process. There is a lesson in there for all artists.

Sheila Blake

A lot of fuss has been created by the inclusion of Sheila Blake’s very traditional paintings in this show. Her inclusion is by far the biggest puzzle in my mind. What was Lumpkin thinking?

Sheila BlakeI’ve never met Sheila Blake and as far as I know I’ve never seen her work before. But as a gallerist whose gallery gets approached in one way or another by nearly 2,000 artists a year, and as a curator and juror (who recently went through a few thousand slides at the WPA/C), and who juries shows by most of our area’s art leagues and groups, and as a critic who visits a lot of galleries on a continuous basis, I have seen common, unremarkable work like her's many, many times before.

And thus I return to the fact that this kind of painting has (at least in my mind) saturated my senses so much, that its inclusion surprises me as much as including paintings of ballerinas, or kittens, would have caused.

And at the risk of stepping into a minefield and even offending Ms. Blake, although these are technically adequate paintings, they are not technically brilliant paintings.

What does that mean?

It means that Ms. Blake appears to be focused on painting a subject matter to create the illusion of reality. She does an adequate job, but while Lindsay Rogers does a spectacular job of delivering technical mastery over the subject (and it is a different subject and a much easier subject to master, and inherently easier to depict by being monochromatic), Ms. Blake still shows a technical flaw here and there, especially when her work is viewed with a total focus on such a task.

Technical mastery is hard to achieve. Even Vermeer screwed up the coathanger-shaped area formed by the maid’s arm and the bowl in his painting of the Dutch maid pouring milk.

And when you see a thousand good paintings depicting light on trees and leaves, the quality factor is raised for all of the next few hundred paints that I'll see with this subject matter.

And Blake shows several technical flaws, and my Virgo personality focuses on the fact that she fails to mix the paints properly to deliver the gray in the pots in a couple of her paintings. Making gray can be a challenge to the most virtuous of painters, but here’s a hint: gray is never just black and white paint mixed together, and Blake has attempted to discover the secret of gray in her brushwork for the pots, but fails to convince, just as the geometric arrangement of her leaves on trees or the kudzu growing on the tree trunks fails to replicate the ordered randomness of Nature.

Lynne Galluzzo

Not that technical mastery alone is a recipe for success. In fact, I submit that having technical mastery over a medium has not been a "requirement" for artistic success in a very long time, with perhaps the exception of fine art glass.

And Lynne Galluzzo is definitely a technical master of colored pencils, but again my reaction to her work is colored (pun intended) by the fact that there must be a kaleidoscope virus associated with artists who work in this genre.

Why do I say this?

I’ve been visiting the Art League’s monthly group show religiously since 1993 or so, and because of the large size of the League’s membership, in that timeframe I’ve observed the work or perhaps a dozen color pencil artists. And they all seem to have an uncommon fascination with creating beautiful color pencil drawings of kaleidoscope images. And to go back to my first observation on Suzanna Fields’ drippy acrylic pieces, a visit to any major outdoor art show will offer the viewer a choice of 2-3 color pencil artists with one thing in common: kaleidoscope drawings!

My advice to Lynne: use your exceptional technical skills to explore other subjects. Color pencil art is almost a rare thing to see in the independent fine arts commercial gallery world, and perhaps that rarified artmosphere is ready for a color pencil artist working in other subjects.

The Sculptors

When I was in art school at the University of Washington, one of my art projects involved going to the various forests around Seattle, and I would glue or duck tape a mannequin to a tree. I would then spray the mannequin with adhesive and then throw dirt and tree bark on top of the mannequin. Then I would apply individual pieces of bark all over the mannequin until the entire figure was an actual part of the tree, almost a growth from it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these (about a dozen of them) were done in the magical forest that used to be Mount St. Helen’s, and I suspect that most of them are now in art heaven.

Marc Roberge sculptureAnyway, because of this experience, I was predisposed to immediately like the works of Marc Robarge, whose sculptures appear to have morphed out of trees, since Robarge finishes them by gluing tree bark to visceral, organic, slightly threatening forms.

They are visually attractive and interesting and are by far the best sculptures in the show, especially when compared to the rather common, cookie-cutter abstractions of George Tkabladze that appear to channel a few 20th century sculptors, although I also did like the clean, elegant and minimalist paper sculptures of Randy Toy, but didn’t get the wall noses by Tim DeVoe.

The Token Videos

What would be a contemporary group art show curated by a well-known curator without a video? Unfortunately Julian Bayo Abiodun’s and Ryan Mulligan’s token videos entries join that immense mass of "yawn" videos that populate that part of the art world controlled by museum curators.post it notes

Mulligan’s video made no impression on me, and the Post-It notes do not deserve any mention, other than an image so that readers can see what I mean.

Lumpkin has written that the Bayo Abiodun video (which shows a huffing and puffing Miami Vice-dressed man running around a building rooftop in an endless loop) has created a "finely tuned, expressive metaphor for the futility of locating one’s essential identity." I would agree, except that I would replace "identity" with "interest." Interestingly enough, I quite liked Bayo Aboidum’s painting of Lance (the running character in the video).

Painting beats video... again.

Overall, and considering the hand that Lumpkin was dealt to start with, I believe that she has put together an adequate show, whose main flaws are her inexplicable choice of some artwork that exceeds the subtle adjective of "common" and begins to creep towards "wall d├ęcor." However, because of her hard work, she has also managed to find a couple of new jewels in our emerging artists pool, and for that alone both her and the WPA/C have accomplished the mission of Options 2005.