Humans and Animals and Environs, Oh My!: Cerulean Arts 6th Annual Juried Exhibition
Juried exhibitions are generally a mixed bag… and in this case, I mean this as a compliment. Cerulean Arts 6th Annual Juried Exhibition has variety in that there are highly representational pieces, abstracted pieces, non-objective pieces, works on paper, works on glass, ceramics, prints, mixed media, and of course, paintings. But there are also areas of commonality-- some due to the submission guidelines. For example, none of the artworks are to go over 36 inches in any direction so the pieces are of a manageable size. Another is the list of accepted materials which keeps more of a connection to the traditional stuff precluding things like video, multi-media, and performance art. I find this very satisfying because the artworld seems to be so enamored by new technology that it misses what is fresh and ambitious in conventional artmaking.
Another factor in the look of the exhibition comes from the person who juried the submitted works. The people chosen to jury an exhibition tend to be highly accomplished and recognized artists, art historians, curators, and/or critics. They have a point of view and wise artists who are looking to have their work accepted study this and choose pieces of their own work which they believe will interest the juror.
The juror in this case was Patricia Traub. Patricia is not only an accomplished artist who is part of Gallery Henoch in New York, a dedicated instructor in drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who specializes in figure and animal studies, and a committed environmentalist and animal rights activist. Her painting style features darkly contrasted and somber grounds with objects lit and glowing—she is very much about the play of light in her paintings. And there is a sense that there has been careful study—that is, in examining her subject and making many drawings and oil sketches. Her web site bears her motto, “We are relatives of every living thing.”
Knowing all this I am not surprised by the selections made. Many of the pieces have human or animal subject matter, or both. Many of them explore the subtleties of the play of light—especially moody light. Every artist in this exhibition demonstrates great technical proficiency. Even in the most informal work, like Michael Friedland’s “Walt’s Diner”, there is assuredness of line and color that makes it feel carefully composed and executed. Likewise, “Courting Cranes” by Jayne Ollin is a superb study of brushwork and arrangement.
This “studied” quality could mean that the exhibition has a heaviness, a remoteness, a lack of improvisation and spontaneity. This is true up to a point. Few pieces pull me into the “world” of the picture or object. It is more like I am observing through a window—something more akin to the classical standards set down by Alberti. But so many of the pieces capture my senses or my mind or my imagination, or all three, that I decided to at least make a comment on each one.
There are two 3-d pieces showcased, and they are close to each other—Karen Aumann’s “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” and Diane Collins’s “Trophied”. Both allude to horned animals often prized as collectibles; both offer a textural experience. Collins has transformed clay to become the varying surfaces of a taxidermized gazelle, including an area of stitching. It is a beautiful illusion that speaks to life and death as well as the strange human need to “own” or sacrifice another life form as a decoration or memento. Aumann’s “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” is also about trophies but of a different kind—the remnants of nature that we may pocket on a walk . A bowl sits atop a mountain of objects including animal horns, shined stones, and “mountain maple detritus” (I’m guessing found debris from trees). It is possible that all the parts are ceramic. This would make clear the variety of forms that are possible in this medium.. But it also presents a unity of organic structures whether natural or man-made.
Two pieces that use wood, whether real or trompe l'oeil, also caught my interest. One is Andrea Lyons’s “Town”. Having the medium listed as “oil on wood” doesn’t say enough about the construction. Yes, it seems that pieces of wood were fitted together to become seamless. But sometimes the wood is allowed to be itself, even rising off the picture plane. While other times the surface is painted to become cut shapes—of other pieces of wood, of roofs or ground planes, of buildings. There is somewhat of a cubistic feel to what is related, but it also leaves me feeling vertiginous—that queasy stomach that I get when I look up at buildings or feel surrounded. Ryan Almodovar has two small gems in this exhibition, both listed as oil on panel. Each presents a solitary figure in classical garb in a niche of a wood frame. The figures themselves are beautifully rendered and carry an emotional expression. The framing is also rendered, not “real”, as well as the niche-quality.
There is no shortage of evocative landscapes whose contrasts in value, color, and brushwork prompt different responses. Joseph Sweeney’s “Whitehead Point Key West” is more than half sky with sweeping clouds. I can feel the rapidity of shifting weather. Pat Moran has two reverse glass paintings, both monochromatic and on opposite ends of the spectrum in sensation. “Promise” is a peaceable kingdom while “Turmoil” is ominous and roiling. Another water scene is by Kathleen Wert. Titled “Vancouver Tidal Flats”, it is a detailed study of pattern in nature ranging from dark rocks to glowing water and grainy sand to atmospheric distances. Everything, including a barge in the water, funnels to the city—a wonderful composition. Suzannah Thomer presents a different version of a city but one of equal compositional direction. “Evening Stroll” places us on a city sidewalk and takes our eyes on a journey oozing with color and contrast. Martha Wirkijowski’s, “Haunted” uses rectilinear blockages of color and luminosity to offer us an ominous mystery. And Victoria Rolett places passages of greenery, gray slabs, and an orange drum in an abstracted composition that reminds me of what it is like to drive the freeway to places unknown.
Making beauty out of rough places is what Shashana Rucker does. Rather than looking at the picturesque, she chooses sites that are not just shabby, but obviously decayed. She has two paintings in this exhibition-- “By the Docks”, which seems almost monochromatic, and “Transportation Structures” which has more, but still muted, color. There are layers of paint and line and shape that describe everything about the scene in amazing detail. The scrutiny of the scene and the scrutiny in her choices in rendering blend to create a location that we would overlook but a painting that must be seen!
Claire Owen also takes us to dark places, places unknown but known. “Little Miss with March Hare” is a scene where all is apparent—a little girl in a red dress with a bunny stands before a line of trees in a dark foreground and a line of trees in the lit background. Allusions to children’s books just pop and the color leaves one with foreboding. I want the rest of the story! A second figurative piece of great beauty and elegance, Charles Cooper’s “Elegy” is a heartfelt exploration. Cooper uses color as much as the figures to tell the story. A woman reclines in a pool of cool grass while a man, at some distance is standing reading a book. The grass is made of pixelated strokes of blues and dark greens in the foreground and turquoise and light green in the middle-ground. The background tends
toward a purplish gray (house), light blue (sky), and muted green (trees). The people are black people—orange where light hits their skin, brownish in the shadows—which, when placed in the surrounding cool colors, causes them to glow. The compositional set-up moves from woman to man to house. It is a scene of domestic quiet that leads to questions of the relationships—between the and separation of the figures. Another figurative work that needs further investigation is “White Gown” by Leah Macdonald. A black and white photograph, it feels timeless as opposed to nostalgic, designed as opposed to sentimental. At the center of the picture is a woman in a white gown. She holds up the outer hem to form a suggestion of… what? A flower, a bird, a different texture and pattern? It could be a bride perhaps doing a David Blaine-esque act of rising from the earth. A muse coming into the garden. Or, by shape, she could represent a bird, like the Holy Spirit; or an orchid, a delicate and beautiful exotic in a garden of trees.
Two scenes, one a still life the other an interior, use implied light to great effect. Sean Sauer’s “Planting Room” has that dark, rustic quality of a planting room that is enhanced by his choice of charcoal to describe it. Starting in mid-shadow, a series of shifting grays convey us toward the back as does the repetitions of lines-- both horizontally across the picture and as orthogonals-- to the vanishing point. Gray, dark, a tease of lighter gray, back to dark, until we hit the target of white at the center. Conversely, Stephen Schiff has made an archival pigment print called “Still Life with Tapestry” where the lighting keeps us up front with the very textured plant and basket holder while the tapestry in the background has just enough illumination to sense the pattern without quite seeing it.
The use of rectangles and contrasts are at the center of two of the other pieces of this juried exhibition—one is monochromatic and non-objective; the other is very chromatic and representational. John Craig’s “Rectilinear” is of oil and acrylic. An active dark surface has a series of white interlocking rectangles playing across it. It feels as though I am in a gloomy rustic space with mirrors-- the glare feels acute. Jim Conner’s “Street Box” is equally overwhelming to the eyes. A pigment print of a blue and an orange box sets each off to glow. Just as in “Rectilinear” my eyes suffer from retinal fatigue and I have to close them for a bit until the after-image dissolves—very cool. And David Horwitz “Woman in Green” also plays with simultaneous contrast with good affect. Not exactly a portrait, the head and shoulders of a woman in a green turtleneck is surrounded by an intense magenta. Because of after image, the surrounded shapes take on a greener cast.
Other artists ask us to use our perception to make a meaning within ourselves. Heather McMordie arranges colored and patterned papers piled on top of each other in “Replanted”. Some of the shapes are torn so they have uneven, white-rimmed edges; some shapes have white boundaries applied to them. Coupled with the shift of color and density of the patterns drawn on, there becomes a layered effect like looking down a crevice or through water in a stream. Joellyn Ross’s “Untitled”, another non-objective work, has a strange energy. On the one hand, it too reminds me of looking through water, but this water is more like the tinted medium of a slide holding amoeba. On the other hand, in a macroscopic world, it could be the trace-energy coming out of a centralized figure. Andrea Snyder’s “Lucas Samaras” composition works like a cascade. Starting at the top, right, stripes descend to a pool of shapes only sometimes recognizable. Out of this appears a converse hi-top, more and larger cascading stripes, and a hand. At different points I think I make out details of a face, but it could be my eyes are playing tricks on me. Since Snyder used Samaras name in the title, I am guessing this is a self-referential piece not unlike many of Samaras’s photo-transfers.
These last two pieces brought a smile to my face. Jeff Thomsen’s work is known to me. He has a warm luminous palette and is equally adept with familiar landscapes and domestic interiors. In “Two Cats on a Bed” we are presented with a picture of two black and white cats on a colorful quilt with cat toys. The room seems awash in light, but it is the cat personalities that come through. Without painting every hair we get personality of each cat—one hunkered down to relax, the other ready to spring. And his handling of the paint gives the animals the warmth of a living being. Ritva Kangasperko’s “A Picnic with Planets”, a smiling male nude sits on the ground surrounded by a couple of cups and saucers, lowers, birds, and a dog. A yellow sun (or is it a moon?) and a planet (Saturn?) are in a blue sky. The color is light but not luminous. Everything is amply described and playfully executed. I feel that the artist has started a conversation with me—about art, about art history, and about life and the universe. This is truly a visualization of Patricia Traub’s web site quote, “We are relatives of every living thing.”
Cerulean Arts’ 6th Annual Juried Art Exhibition will continue through July 28th. Cerulean Arts is located at 1355 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia, PA 19123. They are open Wednesday through Friday from 10 AM to 6 PM, and Saturday and Sunday from noon until 6 pm, and they have private parking—an important convenience for visitors. The artwork can be viewed and bought at www.ceruleanarts.com/page/exhibitions.
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