Last Saturday I attended Dr. Lumpkin's curator's talk for OPTIONS 2005 and I noticed that Michael O'Sullivan (Washington Post) was there taking a massive quantity of notes. I couldn't wait to see what he would say about the show. This morning I was able to read the resulting review. You can find it here.
I know I still owe you my review of the show (hopefully I can write some of it today) but for now I wanted to address O'Sullivan's review. I'm glad that he got mostly the same impressions of it and Dr. Lumpkin as I did. But first, I want to talk about a major miss on his part, one that quite honestly blows me away. He states about Susan Noyes Vaughan's razor blade paintings (go to this post and look at image #5):
...artists whose work could legitimately be described as original, interesting... and good. Among them is Susan Noyes Vaughan, whose razor-blade-on-canvas offerings are all that and more. Both darkly emotional (in their evocation of violence) and coolly decorative (in their geometric reserve), they manage to simultaneously straddle "the expressive and the minimalist," to use the words of curator Libby Lumpkin, who organized the 20-artist show from a field of 400 submissions and who led a walk-through of the show on a rainy opening weekend. Plus, they're cool to look at.
Unfortunately, Vaughan is one of a minority whose art could be called even remotely cutting edge, in her case literally as well as figuratively.
Wow! That's quite a bit of praise for work that I found to be (and everyone else I spoke with) one of the three worst showings in the exhibit. I mean, really, these constructions are AWFUL. I actually thought they were a bit embarassing. O'Sullivan makes mention later in the article about an artist rehashing master sculptors from back in the day and he says it as a bad thing (I agree with him on that note). He also speaks about Lumpkin's inexperience with the DC art scene and not knowing what has been seen too much recently. So I don't know why O'Sullivan leaves Vaughan alone here. First, the Vaughan piece on the right in the photo I provide is a rehashing Dan Steinhilber. Go look here to see what I'm talking about. This is just a simple example of what a great, local young artist is doing in DC. Except, Steinhilber's piece actually looks good. What I think is that Vaughan - who Lumpkin said was abandoning figurative painting for this - saw Steinhilber's work and thought it too simple. She saw a recent discussion by Tyler Green about Fred Tomaselli's work and was like, "I've got it! Do simple patterns a la Steinhilber, but make it edgy by using razor blades!" Well, she fooled two arts professionals with it.
Here are the problems I found:
1) These pieces are ugly... end of story. As visual art, this means you fail (exceptions to the rule exist). Razor blades on unprimed, yucky yellow canvas does not make for visual delight. Dull silver on dull yellow... yeah, so many painters have been successful with that combination...
2) The "geometric patterns" are not even precise. There must be quality craftsmanship in this type of work for it to be successful. Go back to my image. Look at the piece on the left. See the horizontal line of razor blades? See how it goes to the left and falls into the viewer's eyes? What is presumably supposed to be a straight line is anything but. With careful looking you'll see many more of these inconsistencies in the piece. Which leads to...
3) This work feels like maybe a sophomore year undergrad art student's work who procrastinated on their final project. So this kid (based on Lumpkin's comments she may have been a "cutter") grabbed some razor blades and hastily threw them down on canvas. My guess is that the professor would give the artist a C grade for this effort. Thing is, we know that Vaughan is not an undergrad. She's merely using a crutch to be cutting edge. And it fooled people, apparently.
If you think it sounds like I'm bitter, well, you're probably right. If you recall I was in the final 30 under consideration for this show (out of 400). But I got cut (pardon the pun) and Lumpkin wrote me a nice blow off note. Well, her reasons for not including my work certainly don't ring true given the evidence of what's in the show. That actually makes perfect sense because little of what she said during her talk made much sense. For readers who attended one of her talks - especially the one on Saturday - I'm looking to you for confirmation.
OK, let's move on to the stuff I agree with O'Sullivan on, which is pretty much everything else.
Speaking of Tim Devoe's work (image #3 here):
Lying on the floor like a piece of paper discarded by an oversize frustrated architect, it's a meticulously fabricated -- if monumentally scaled -- facsimile of trash that wittily speaks to the raw aesthetic and former identity of the exhibition space (a one-time Georgetown office store) and the puniness of our own existence. DeVoe's second offering (a wall that seems to bulge with a drywall tumor, in the process buckling the wainscoting) is equally disorienting, but in a good way.
I totally agree with his assessment of the "first" piece (the one in my image). Although, I did find some faults that I will discuss in my review. As for the "second offering," well, it looks like a nose protruding from a wall (see below). It's interesting work (great craftsmanship) but in the end suffers because it looks like a nose. It's tough to take seriously.
Fields's sculptural paintings, in which the artist fashions dried acrylic paint into almost floral arrangements, are always a treat -- if one that has been seen a little too often in recent months, both at Irvine Contemporary and the McLean Project for the Arts.
You can see Field's sculptural paintings in image #4 here. I have to agree wholeheartedly with O'Sullivan that I've seen enough of these for the moment. Of course, I never really liked them to start with. However, new to me were Field's paintings on paper (see below). I enjoyed these quite a bit and would love to see more of them.
Which brings me to my next point. Is it even possible for something to have been seen too much? Artists may disagree, but I think it is. That's precisely the problem with Anne Benolken's installation of shadow-box constructions. I (and, I daresay, much of the Washington art community) first encountered them several years ago at "Artomatic." To Lumpkin, an art historian, writer and curator who works in Las Vegas, Benolken's work may be, as Lumpkin said, "very, very different from any boxes I've ever seen." Unfortunately for a lot of people in this town, they're anything but.
I will definitely have something to say about this work (see image #10 here) but I struggle in this case with O'Sullivan comments, though this is a larger issue than here and now. I've seen Field's work a lot but I've never seen Benolken's work before this show. Given that, they were very different than anything I've seen. This makes me think how hard it must be to be an experienced art critic or curator or gallerist or whatever. You see so much that's hard for any one thing to be fresh. Yet, you have to remove yourself from your own experiences to produce something relevent to the general population (not in all cases I guess). I haven't been able to draw my own conclusions about this but I know for a fact it's a struggle. Something to think about I guess...
Hiring a curator with zero familiarity with the regional art scene is the least of the WPA/C's worries, though. Lumpkin also seems inexplicably taken with the most retrograde of artistic endeavors. How else to explain her gushing defense of Sheila Blake's suite of ho-hum paintings and preparatory pastels depicting the four seasons as seen from the artist's suburban back yard? Yes, they're "closely observed." And, sure, the artist's determination to "capture the light" is nothing short of admirable. But the same could be said of the work of schlockmeister Thomas Kinkade (that trademarked "painter of light"), yet I don't see his work hanging in the Hirshhorn.
While I plan on discussing this quote in particular later, "Lumpkin also seems inexplicably taken with the most retrograde of artistic endeavors," I just want to say in response to O'Sullivan's comments re: Blake's paintings (see below), AMEN and BRAVO. Lumpkin's talk was embarrassing, quite honestly, but even more so was the inclusion of these paintings. While I believe it's great to give underappreciated artists more exposure, it should not be in a show that I thought was dedicated to highlighting the best emerging art in DC and showcasing up and coming work. Blake's paintings are well done, I'm sure, and she would rack up many awards at the Art League of Alexandria's monthly shows, but come on...
Elsewhere, Lumpkin seems similarly, inexplicably infatuated with the antique, most notably with the retro-modernist sculptures of George Tkabladze, who appears to be channeling (or, as someone less charitable might say, ripping off) any number of early-20th-century artists: Brancusi, Moore, Marini, as Lumpkin all too accurately points out in her catalogue essay. It may be true, as Lumpkin says, that much of our nostalgia for early modernism (here she's speaking for herself, not me) has to do with the fact that "there was a future then" and the fact that there isn't one now. But it's an awfully depressing thought, especially from a contemporary curator. If that's the case, why don't we just throw in the towel?
See Tkabladze's work in image #5 here. While Lumpkin was talking I first rolled my eyes and began to look at the rest of the crowd. The majority of people began rolling their eyes too. At that point I did throw in the towel, on her talk at least.
Even Lumpkin admits that Judith Baumann's themes are "tired," but at least they hark back only to the 1980s, not the 1920s. In Bauman's Photoshopped collages of lawnmower and vacuum-cleaner swarms descending on the earth, the artist is clearly addressing the notion of the encroachment of human culture on the natural world. But what are these warmed-over ideas doing in a show that used to be thought of as a survey of the new?
"Tired" is certainly the right word here (see below). I can see how these pieces would appealing to many (one sold for $1,400 by the way) but there was no spark there. I found the color choices to be interesting (sort of strange but beautiful) but the idea, which dominated the piece, just didn't have much life. Oh well... Lumpkin seemed most impressed that they were printed on super nice printmaking paper. That's something, I guess.
New is overrated anyway. Skill, on the other hand, is a perennial. I honestly doubt the composition of Amanda Sauer's overly sentimental, saccharine-sweet photographs of Washington landmarks -- the Korean War Memorial, Hains Point, etc. -- would have caught anyone's eye if they hadn't been taken with a pinhole camera, which lends them a bit of low-tech art cred.
I am so glad that O'Sullivan touched on this. I too wondered if Sauer's photos (see far left in image #4 here) were good, or if the effects of the pinhole camera (I thought it was a Holga but I must be wrong) are what make the photos appear to be good. I'll have more to say about this in my review.
Only about a third of the show passes muster, true. Still, it's more than a numbers game. There's just something about the cumulative weight of the show's failures -- its over-reliance on the work of recent art school grads, particularly from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; its inability to distinguish between the nostalgic and the stale, between the novel and novelty; and the feeling that it has been juried rather than curated -- that seems to rob even the worthy artists of the pleasure their work would otherwise evoke.
Again, I'm extremely glad O'Sullivan brings this up and kudos to him for having the guts to say it outright as such. And he's absolutely right (though I do feel that even he got fooled once distinguishing between the novel and the novelty in Vaughan's work). And his last sentence sums up why I am disappointed that I wasn't selected to be in the show, I'm not so disappointed that I wasn't in this show.
Man, can anyone tell I've had some thoughts about this show pent up for a while? Ha! I've got plenty more to say in my own review(s). Trust me. For the record, I did think there were a few (3 or 4 artists) who were quite strong although O'Sullivan doesn't mention them. I will.