Sunday, September 19, 2010

Vanity Galleries

A vanity gallery is an art gallery that "rents" its space to artists in order for the artist to have a show. Thus, the main driver in having a show at a vanity gallery is not necessarily the quality of the artwork, but the artist's ability to pay the gallery to host his/her artwork.
I wrote this article on vanity galleries over six years ago and it is still getting new comments and an interesting argument between gallery dealers and artists. Read it and comment here.

Dr. Claudia Rousseau on Myth and Transformations

Myth & Transformations opens Thursday, September 23, 5:00 – 7:30 pm. The show is at the School of Art & Design at Montgomery College's King Street Gallery, located in the beautiful Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center at 930 King Street in the Montgomery College, Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. Here is the essay about the show by its curator, Dr. Claudia Rousseau:

Myth and Transformations

As I was thinking about organizing this exhibition, I was inspired by the work of the four artists who so graciously accepted the invitation to show their work together here. These are Leah Frankel, Johanna Mueller, Leslie Shellow and F. Lennox Campello. All of them have been working and exhibiting in the Washington DC region for some time, and all of them, in one way or another, have shown interest in the themes of mythology and transformation.

Mythology has always captivated me. Since childhood I have loved the ancient stories that so often involve transformations to explain the origins of things, from animals to trees and stars. The ancient Roman writer Ovid’s wonderful book, the Metamorphoses, is all about change, and many of those tales, one might imagine, were, by Ovid’s time, already understood in metaphorical terms. My extensive researches into mythology—first for my master’s thesis into the Celtic legends that served as bridges to the Christian faith in Ireland, and later, for my doctoral dissertation, into astrological lore and tales of the origin of constellations—have filled me with a great love for this most human of practices. Mythology is universal, and many, probably the majority of myths, involve the theme of transformation.

Artistic expression of the concept of transformation, and allusion to mythological themes or archetypes is not limited to existing myths. Indeed, it is not limited to figural styles. The idea of transformation, especially as in so many myths, from some dark place into the light, from animal to human or human to some other form, from one plane of existence into another, can be expressed by abstract means. And, since the archetypes of myth are universal, they can be manipulated into new stories and meanings.

The work of Johanna Mueller fully illustrates this last point. Her work employs a mythical framework, most often without alluding to specific mythic sources. Hers is a personal world of fable, where the lioness is enlightened and the deer are connected by heartstrings. Many animal characters re-appear in her work, sometimes morphing into others. Mueller herself has said, “I want to create something of a ritual space, to create the feeling of the symbolic spirits of my creations moving from one form to another. I think that having these repeating forms take on different shapes and sizes helps to convey that idea.” Thus, the concept of transformation is also a part of her iconography. Mueller’s incredibly detailed plastic plate engravings provoke and resonate in the mind of her viewers, touching on their own mythologies.

F. Lennox Campello’s drawings are more grounded in familiar stories from ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology, and from martyrology and hagiography. Campello’s Minotaur rises up with all the frightening strength that such a hybrid monster can project, dark and menacing. His Witch Dub shrieks in the black water that is the origin of the city of Dublin. The story of St. Sebastian, a favorite subject of artists since the Renaissance mainly because it was an opportunity to represent a male nude in Christian art, has had a new life in contemporary expression as the target of misunderstanding and persecution of all kinds.

On a more organic and less specific level, Leslie Shellow’s installation connotes the mythology of the Great Mother, the goddess who gives forth the life of the earth—plants, flowers, animals, people. Her paper forms and delicate drawings seem to literally be growing in the gallery, taking over the spaces. In this, Shellow’s work expresses both the benevolence of the Goddess, and her dark side as well. While Nature is life-giving, it is also chaotic and unpredictable, irrational and capable of great destruction. Shellow’s sensitivity to the transformational character of growth is evident, and accounts for the surprising power of her work. Simple paper rings are transformed into evidence of being.

Finally, the hand-made paper works of Leah Frankel express the notions of myth and transformation in more abstract ways. Frankel’s Grade is a work that connotes transformation from darkness into light, a theme that is at the core of many myths. Being abstract, the work provides a mythical framework that can carry stories projected on it by the viewer. The myth of Orpheus comes to mind, but so many stories about moving through the darkness to the light, to new life—or, even more fundamentally, the hidden mystery of birth—a theme that goes back as far as human pre-history. The Paperstack also shows movement from bottom to top, gently transforming the piled papers into a moving form. Frankel’s work is open to viewer interaction, providing a space for thought and physical response that is deeply personal.

Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D.
School of Art + Design at Montgomery College
September, 2010