I was going around the various venues this First Friday thinking about the essay, “The Most Relevant Art Today Is Taking Place Outside the Art World,” written by Isaac Kaplan in Artsy back in December, which was in part a reaction to “How Art Became Irrelevant,” by Michael J. Lewis, published in Commentary Magazine some months before. Lewis's in my view was a tired diatribe about what he alleges is an increasing indifference to art - not due to membership fees - but to the elitism of artists and curators in an artistic universe where all the taboos have been broken and where artists and curators have become increasingly remote from their audiences. Performance and activist art, multiculturalism, lack of discernment by museums, all seem to be the boogeymen in Lewis's mind.
Kaplan is skeptical of Lewis’s argument but leans so far in the other direction that he seems to dangle off a precipice. He is a proponent of looking outside the gallery space for relevance. But does that go so far to include Emma Sulcowicz’s “Mattress Performance” (Carry that Weight), a performance that included, while a student at Columbia in 2014, her carrying with her a mattress wherever she went to protest the non-punishment of a fellow student who allegedly raped her? While I don’t intend to be dismissive of such a serious allegation, or the relevance of the issue of rape on college campuses, I’m not sure if this performance, as Kaplan seems to think, should rightly belong in an art museum space.
I mean, shouldn’t an artist create art? I recall in this context the two mattresses put on the wall of the Indianapolis Art Center last year by Anna Kell during the Plain Airs exhibit last fall, two mattresses that were painted in a way they looked like they were stained. I wasn’t too fond of these particular works, but at least the artist took paint brush to canvas, as it were, and made me speculate about what exactly the strokes of paint on the mattresses (which looks like stains) were supposed to represent.
I imagine that I could draw from personal experience on this one. I suppose that the work I do for Goodwill Industries as a Team Lead (non-salaried part of a store management team) is a good thing, but I would not go so far as to put text on the wall of my workplace saying “I am challenging the dominant societal notion that curated artistic platforms must occur in a non-negotiable museum space by merging art with life.”
Anyway, I’ve digressed in a major way but it's interesting to me, and hopefully for people reading this as well, to consider the issues outlined above, and issues that I'll return to as I hit the various venues.
Having written a feature preview for NUVO, I already knew something about the Couples Exhibition at the Harrison Gallery, the main venue at the Harrison Museum of Art, an exhibit that was engaging but not particularly challenging—unless one took the view that works of art created in tandem by couples were somehow offbeat, risqué, or unusual.
But first off was my first stop this First Friday: the City Gallery at the Harrison Center for the Arts where Erin Hüber's new show of paintings “Very Truly Yours,” is up. Hers is a vision of Indianapolis as it once was, at the turn of the previous century. Maybe if Vincent Van Gogh had visited Indy during his lifetime he would have painted something like the oil on canvas work after which the exhibit takes its name. But with its yellow chair and couch and curtains against a baby blue painted drawing room and a sole woman seated on the couch reading a book, it not only recalls Van Gogh but Edward Hopper as well.
Some of the paintings are of a more expressionistic bent than others; check out “Lady in Waiting,” featuring a woman taking tea, her face as blue as the dress she’s wearing.
Some convey a shock of recognition across the space of a century: “Dearest Darling” portrays a fashionably dressed woman walking down the street reading a letter, but for a moment you might think that it’s an iPad.
Then there’s the darkest painting of all, “Independent” featuring a woman waking down what is probably Meridian Street, her figure barely delineated against the black of the night and the street. There is a faint Aurora Borealis purplish glow around her, recalling Francis Bacon more than anyone else, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument looms large in the background. What did it mean for a woman to be independent like so, walking alone, wearing black, at the turn of the 20th century? Was she truly a lady of the night? And in what sense of the term?
Fascinating questions, at least for me, but Erin Hüber wasn't around to answer them and it was time to move on. (Maybe I'll catch up with her later).
I had already seen pictures of the collaborative projects in which Nikki and Quincy Owens wove wall hanging sculpture out of wicker. As interesting as these pieces themselves were the shadows they cast on the freshly painted drywall. (The gallery had been renovated just in time for the exhibition.)
The only one of the five couples with work in the exhibition not from Indianapolis (although formerly from Indy) was Zack and Gala Bent.
Here’s a statement Zack Bent sent me about his work that lends a little background to the series of photographs that he has on display, entitled “Listening Eye.”
"Since I was a small child I have been involved in the Midwestern rite of morel mushroom hunting, a fleeting and mysterious foraging practice that my family would pursue in the warm early days of spring in dense deciduous woodlands. Nearly three years ago, I was initiated into the practice of morel hunting in the west on newly ravaged forest fire land. Traversing burnt land is a mysterious and silent experience. While all parties are busy cutting and collecting mushrooms, the hush of the forest and the creaking of the trees are your only companions. It is both eerie and comforting. The forest new in its death leaves its black charcoal marks on you at every turn and permeates your nose with is carbonized fragrance. The silence and death present in this land offers an inside-out view of sublime beauty in the wilderness.
Through these experiences, the ‘burn’ became lodged in my imagination and I began to scheme projects that would use the vast and monumental scorched landscape as a backdrop for photos and videos. This exhibition Spires is the first wave of work created during multiple visits with my sons to a parcel of forest fire land south of Cle Elum, Washington over the past year. The photographs include sculptural and performative interventions that are process-driven images responding to the desolation of the forest while acknowledging the impending growth just beneath the surface of the land. Including my young sons as players in the photographs is my way of comparing the land to our fragile flesh and interjecting quiet acts of human presence amidst the ruinous spires."
Couples Amy Falstrom and Ralph Domanico as well as Andrew Perry Davis and Rachel Bliel are also showing work in this exhibition.
Rachel Bliel’s teddymorph ceramic sculptures black and white teddymorph ceramic have amused and attracted me since I saw them for the first time in 2012 at the Indianapolis Art Center. The theme of her work is transformation. There is an elegance and refinement to her work—in her smooth black and white designs on her stoneware surfaces, no jagged edges anywhere, not that you would expect to see jagged edges on a teddy bear type, even a Godlike one, in a state of transformation.
Andrew Perry Davis’s work in ceramics is much more rough-hewn: his Death God (earthenware with slip, underglaze and stain) looks like a cross between a Hannah-Barbera cartoon character and a God statue taken from a Mayan ziggurat.
And Amy Falstrom’s moody abstracted landscape paintings like “Double Weather”—I’ve written elsewhere that she seems almost allergic to complementary colors—are contrasted by Ralph Domanico’s painting entitled “Jim S. Bag,” which depicts a paper bag in the foreground among other isolated items against a mostly black background is a perplexing (in a good way) mix of abstraction and highly-detailed representation, as if he is depicting disparate items collected on the floor of a recollected dreamscape.
After Harrison, I went to the WE ARE show at the Rapp Family Gallery, at the Indiana Landmarks Center,
In its brochure copy, this exhibit claims to be relevant to the Black Lives Matter Movement. But the exhibit does more than just inspire a discussion, though a worthy enough goal. Which is a fortunate thing. It’s a good thing that traditional notions of high art are being challenged per Isaac Kaplan’s essay, as high art has traditionally been the territory of white males, but it’s an even better thing when there are really good artists leading these challenges (and not just mattresses being carried around on someone’s back, or mattresses placed on a wall).
And there’s really great art here by African-American artists who are mostly new to me. One whom I haven’t heard of before is sculptor Keith Bullock, whose day job is as a welder. His “hobby” is making sculptors out of repurposed metal. The sculptures depicting head busts in “The Graduate” and “Life Splitting Headache” invoke the history of African sculpture with their slightly abstracted features. They might be viewed in the context of this exhibit as two ends of a continuum; the enormous achievement of Barack Obama on one end and the injustices and inequality still faced by many African-Americans on the other. (In this work, the depicted is quite literally carrying his head in his hands: a thin-fingered hand is the actual pedestal for the head.)
“This all started as a form of relaxation for me,” the 28-year-old Bullock told me. “I had no idea that people enjoyed art.
Bullock is a welder by trade, and works on airplane engine components at Praxair’s facility near Speedway. He started working with metal sculpture—where he puts his skills as a welder to use—as a form of relaxation.
“I always loved art,” he says. “Art is just so relaxing. I just love the way you have a concept in your head and then you create it but once you create it, it turns into its own thing. It speaks to people. It has its own voice, so to speak. You can’t give it a name but every time someone looks at it they get an idea or image of what it means to them. That’s the fantastic thing about art. No matter what medium you use, whether it’s painting or sculpting or music, you create it and it has its own voice and it speaks to so many different people on so many different levels and approaches. It just grabs everyone.”
You could certainly read anguish into the untitled grayscale drawing “Untitled” by Bruce Armstrong depicting a man with eyes closed and mouth wide open. It’s rich in detail and since it’s drawn on brown butcher paper, sepia tones emerge. It's something of a counterpart to Munch’s “The Scream.” Contrast that with “Voyage” which, with its Marcus Garvey Pan-African Flag colors—and flag-like composition—goes beyond hard-edge type abstraction with its upward movement of color and line towards the upper right of the canvas, suggesting hope for Africa—and African-Americans.
Anthony Radford comes the closet to agitprop with his mixed media composition on board “Black Lives Matter” that makes an African mask out of the body of a vacuum component—where one of its two plastic eyes is shattered.
Considering the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” text and other assorted text collaged into this work, this very well could be an abstracted representation of Trayvon Martin. A calmer, but by no means less interesting homage to African-America History is found in “Red, White, And Blue and Jazzy,” where you find the American flag blended into the Marcus Garvey flag; you find also collaged-in photos of jazz greats, and jazz flowing from built-in speakers. And Mijiza (a.k.a Saudrajo Holiday), the curator of this event, also had an acrylic on wood painting entitled “Sitting Colored,” depicting a woman seated on the floor, head crouched in her hands. The woman is depicted in all colors of the rainbow, against a black background. Is she in despair, you may ask or is she just rekindling her inner energies? There’s a rainbow spectrum of talent available to see in this exhibition; one to inspire and provoke thought, one not to miss, one that could just as easily be entitled Black Art Matters.