Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Islamic inspiration at the Belger...finding a Scarlett Garnet in the rough...why don't you take a picture? It'll last longer...previews of great expectations?...if it ain't metal then it ain't no good

             It looks like the warm weather is here to stay, and so are the crowds at First Fridays, sometimes to a detriment.  It’s encouraging to see so many people make their way out for the event after months of desolate streets and mostly-empty galleries seen throughout the winter, but in some cases the crowds were so thick it kept me from seeing the art. At the Leedy-Voulkos the north room had new work up, but the lights were turned out and hundreds of people were packed into the space to see a man playing the electric violin.  Fun, but not what I’m after. 
            What I also found exciting about April 1st is that it was the first day of my new job.  It’s refreshing to break out of a rut that I’ve been stuck in for several years at the same job and have work that I can put some soul into again, but it’s still in the restaurant business and as a result I was dog-tired before I even started my several mile hike around the Crossroads.  I really had to work hard to bring the same energy to this month’s column, and I hope you appreciate it!
Sanam Emami and Sarah Gross at the Belger Arts Center

Sarah Gross's piece titled "Bowl"

            One of the current shows at the Belger Arts Center, Arabesques, features the work of sculptor Sarah Gross and ceramicist Sanam Emami who share the trait of using Islamic culture as an inspiration in their work.  The show’s statement reveals that both artists have been working in the Midwest for several years and makes no explicit claim that either of them has any direct connection to Islam, so I can only assume that they are both outsiders to the culture.  This has the potential to create problems in the work.  For someone to observe and take interest in a culture they are not a member of, there is the inherent risk of mischaracterizing the culture, such as improperly portraying elements or imagery from it, or at the very least creating a shallow “fan art” type of mimicry from not being knowledgeable enough about the subject.  However, both artists skillfully avoid these pitfalls and produce some very interesting pieces.
Sarah Gross

Another of Sarah Gross's smaller works

            All of Sarah Gross’s pieces on display borrow the clover-shaped pattern found in the windows of Islamic buildings and apply it to different forms.  On several pedestals are smaller pieces that are generally less than two feet in any dimension.  One of the pieces, titled “Bowl” is actually formed in the shape of a bowl but the functionality of the object is removed by the large openings carved into the slab.  This is perhaps the most successful of the smaller pieces because it takes a familiar from with many traditional, cross-cultural connotations and transforms it into a purely aesthetic object based on her interest in Islamic patterning.  By removing the bowl’s function, the viewer is forced to consider the cultural meaning in the object, and it is a very successful work.
            The other small pieces do not hold the same intrigue.  Based on the same structure of a flat slab with the pattern cut into it, they do not resemble any recognizable objects, and feel like they are small fragments of something larger.  It is possible they are intended to resemble archaeological finds, which they do very well, but it’s hard to view them as anything more than what they are: a slab of material with a pattern carved into it.  These pieces would be more interesting if they were treated in a more three-dimensional way. 
One option for improving these pieces could be to construct the form out of more than one slab and create a multiple-planed structure.  This would open up the option of creating a more unique, complex form than is currently shown.  Another option could be to do more additional, intricate pattern carving into the surface of the existing forms.  The shapes in the pieces are doing some interesting things, but by themselves are very simple.  Islamic art is all about dense, intricate patterning, and such small, simple forms would benefit from additional carving into the surface to make them something more than what they are currently. 

A detail of the wall piece

            A major factor that causes most of the smaller pieces to suffer is that they are completely overpowered by the main attraction of Gross’s exhibition.  In the gallery she arranged an s-shaped wall that is roughly 7 feet high, composed of many gently curved slabs that have been carved out similarly to the smaller pieces in the show.  This installation is a fantastic, fully actualized version of what is seen in the smaller pieces of the show.  Each piece in the wall is unique in its texture and pattern, and all placed together the result brings to mind a honeycomb or a worm-eaten log, or even a wall in a cave, and creates a texture-rich object that your eyes are dying to explore. 
What makes the piece especially effective is that its presence goes beyond being simply an object and borders on becoming a complete environment.  The height of the wall is much taller than anyone not classified as a giant, and because of its size the simple s-curve created by the wall is enough to create a visually dynamic space.  One can enter a space almost fully encircled by the wall for an up-close encounter with the work.  It is a remarkable execution that produces something very thought provoking out of a relatively simple idea.

Sanam Emami
Three pieces on display in Emami's exhibit
            Sanam Emami’s work is much more subtle than Gross’s work.  If the viewer were to have a momentary lapse in attentiveness they may pass Emami’s work seeing nothing more than a cup or a pitcher, but they would really be missing out.  Many of her pieces are functional – pitchers, cups, plates, and platters – and these items are easy to overlook in the context of art because the common modern tendency is to own mass produced versions of these items.  We are so used to seeing perfectly machined plates and cups that we don’t find them to be particularly impressive forms.  But anyone who has actually tried to produce ceramics by hand knows how hard it is to make a plate or a cup that doesn’t turn out a lumpy, misshapen, fingerprint covered mess.  Emami’s pieces look flawless, and that ability is something to truly be admired. 
A detail of Emami's platter piece
            What makes the pieces exceptional is the subtle hints of textured patterns combined with very graphic, modern looking design work that references traditional Islamic imagery.  In particular I enjoy the faintly-impressed pattern work on one platter because it is almost too shallow an impression to be seen, but it is made visible by the glaze gathered at the shallow lip of the shape.  It had to take an incredibly delicate touch to create that surface design, and to repeat the same image over and over with consistency is amazing. 
            Some of the only non-functional works in her exhibit are two series of eight tiles arranged into grids with ornate imagery painted on them.  One might be tempted to describe these as “decorative,” but I’m reluctant to take it there.  Too much thought and originality is present in the designs painted on the tiles for me to treat them that dismissively.  If I knew more about ceramics I might be able to comment further on the show, but I’ll just leave it by saying that anyone who values good craft and precision will enjoy Emami’s work.

The white set of tiles seen in Emami's show

Evan Ashby at The Scarlett Garnet
One of Ashby's inkjet photo on wood works
            I’m not positive that Evan Ashby’s show was actually hosted at The Scarlett Garnet.  Facing 18th Street on the building is a garage door painted with black and white cow splotches that opens up to several interconnected rooms, which if you venture back far enough reaches The Scarlett Garnet, so until I’m informed otherwise that’s what this space is called.  It is an area that is typically filled with several different vendors and mobs of people on any given First Friday, and the art is usually under the bar as far as being particularly impressive. But this month the photos of Evan Ashby caught my eye for their clever use of materials.
In inkjet process colors, white is not printed,
which allows the grain of the wood to show
through in these works
            All things considered, Ashby’s show is centered on a gimmick, but it is a very effective gimmick that I have never seen before.  In his statement he describes how the pieces are made by printing inkjet photographs onto wood.  Inkjet prints use process colors, which rely on the white of the paper to create realistic looking images.  But when you print process colors on a different background it allows that new surface to become part of the image.  In this case the white has been replaced by wood grain, and the result is a set of very interesting photographs made out of what would otherwise probably be a set of dull photographs. 
            Most of the photographs are of buildings, and the combination of geometric, man-made structures in contrast with the natural waves of the wood is perfect.  It is a striking juxtaposition of two different aesthetics which end up harmonizing, and it creates an eye-grabbing piece that you can’t look away from.  The color of the wood treats the photos very nicely by giving them a creamy, off-white look that adds to the character of the structures, and the contrast of the image against the natural wood pattern borders on Surrealism. 
            But the gem of the show doesn’t have any buildings in it at all.  Instead Ashby creates a panoramic view of a forest on the boards by suspending them in a half-square configuration so the viewer can stand in the middle and have their vision surrounded by the scene.  The trees have an abstract quality from being separated from each other on thin vertical boards, and the viewer finds themselves immersed in an experience of pure shape and texture.

            The show does contain a couple of dud images.  The smallest pieces, measuring maybe 6’ by 6’, show arrangements of unidentifiable objects inside and have the appearance of experiments that didn’t work out.  These are too small and densely packed with photographic imagery to clearly discern either the wood texture or the elements of the photograph.  What makes the larger pieces work so well is the open space where the wood is a dominant part of the image, and these smaller works lack that element.  Fortunately Ashby put his effort into the right areas and these small pieces are not a distraction from the rest of the show.
            I was also slightly hesitant to accept Ashby’s choice of buildings to photograph.  It is common in Kansas City to see art containing iconic buildings from the area, and one of the larger prints is a photo of the nearby Tension Envelopes building.  Ordinarily including such recognizable imagery from a city will come off as cliché.  Like the use of the wood grain, depicting iconic places without a meaningful commentary or context is a gimmick, but in this case I decided that like the wood grain I was ok with it – provided it is only done this once.
            The location of this show certainly influenced my opinion in a positive way.  I’m usually not expecting to find anything overly-impressive in this space, and this show by far exceeded my expectations.  If I viewed this same work in a highly reputable gallery I would probably feel very different about it.  In my experience of viewing the work this time, where the gimmick of the wood grain is still brand new to me, I enjoy it.  But the thing with gimmicks is they have no shelf-life.  Printing buildings on wood is a quick and simple trick to come up with a nice looking picture, but it’s not the kind of thing you can build a career, or even a second show, on.  I hope that Ashby resists the temptation to settle for the ooh’s and ahh’s the work receives from people seeing it for the first time and continues to push and develop his ideas, because I think his work at this point shows a lot of potential and it would be a shame to see it stop at this point.
Chadrick Devin at Plenum Space
One of the photographs by Chadrick Devin on display at
the Plenum Space gallery
            Apparently the Plenum Space Gallery is developing as a photo hub of the Crossroads, because I can’t remember the last time I saw a show there that wasn’t predominantly photographs.  Photography can be difficult as an artistic medium because it takes an immense amount of imagination and skill to create something visually interesting to a viewer.  This difficulty is compounded by the fact that photography is relatively easy, so just about anyone that fancies themselves as having a creative eye can take their digital camera down to Kinko’s, run off oversize prints of some mundane snapshots, tack them to a gallery wall, and call it an art show.  Also, as is the case with most artistic media, the quick and easy methods of creating a photograph of some interest have all been beat to death.  Again, photography suffers more from this because without the artist’s hand physically in the work it is easy to resemble someone else’s work.  Anyone who has seen art photography knows at least a few stereotypical categories within photography, and Chadrick Devin’s photos fit into a few of them.

The million dollar question: If this was in color, would it be as arty?
            The first category they fit into is the “shoot-everything-in-black-and-white-with-dramatic-lighting-because-that-makes-everything-look-arty” category.  You know how sometimes characters in TV shows will attend a gallery show?  Well if they attend a photography opening chances are they would use prop photos of this genre.  It is the 4/4 beat of photography.  Just because this set of devices are used doesn’t mean the photos are completely lost.  There is the chance that an interesting image can still be arranged within this motif, but Devin doesn’t do this.  In fact, he commits the cardinal sin of having a close-up of a person staring intensely at the viewer in an attempt to mimic something that portrays hidden emotions.   
I can look straight through your soul with a pouty expression
            The second category Devin’s photos fit into is “print-everything-big-because-that-makes-it-seem-more-impressive-and-therefore-important.”  All of the prints in the show had to be at least 30”x40” or larger, and while it was fairly obvious this was meant to make the images more confrontational, this effect was not achieved.  The key to any image is getting people to pay attention to it, and if you can see a picture from across the street and already tell you’re not interested, you’re going to turn the other direction and ignore it.  But if you are in a gallery and see a photo the size of a postage stamp, you can bet you’re going to be up there with a magnifying glass trying to figure out what’s in that picture and why it’s so small.  Presentation is about inviting the viewer to look at your work, and presenting everything in the same large format is the equivalent of ending every sentence with an exclamation point.  After a few times the emphasis added by the exclamation wears off and is meaningless. 
            And a third category for the photos is “nudity-is-great-imagery-because-it-shocks-people-but-it-also-makes-some-deep-complex-statements-about-human-nature.”  This is apparent just from looking at the photos and seeing static poses of nude men standing around, and it is confirmed from reading Devin’s statement for the show.  Through these photographs he is attempting to question societal stereotypes about masculinity and what it means to be a male, particularly in the context of homosexuality.  In order to achieve this, the figures must be contextualized in a way that truly poses a question.  Photographing two men crossing swords doesn’t inspire the viewer to think anything deeper than “two cocks.”  Perhaps if the figures could be seen doing something else as they press their crotches together, like sharing an ironing board, then the viewer might feel compelled to dwell on the image.  But if all you give the viewer is two cocks, that’s all they’re going to take away from it.  And simply showing a nude man is not questioning masculinity.  Unless he’s doing something that piques the viewer’s interest,  it’s just a picture of a guy with no clothes on.
Michael Baxley and Derrick Breidenthal at MLB Designs
            During my trek through the Crossroads I noticed that a lot of people seemed to be entering and exiting the building formerly occupied by the Byron C. Cohen gallery, and decided to stop in and see what was happening.  Apparently the new occupant of the space is MLB (major league baseball?) Designs, and inside was a loose collection of several smaller shows by different artists along with a handful of vendors selling wares toward the back.  Some of the art on the walls I recognized from earlier visits when the Byron C. Cohen Gallery was still there… so I’m not really sure what’s happening with the space.  But there was some work by a couple of artists that I thought were worth sharing, so let’s take a quick look at them.
Michael Baxley
The ceramic flowers in these works are an inventive change of
pace from the typical painting
            Michael Baxley is a painter who apparently got tired of the same old brush-and-canvas act, so he decided to embellish his paintings with small ceramic flowers.  I’ve seen plenty of works that incorporate three-dimensional objects into a two-dimensional image, but usually those tend to be found objects.  These flowers were different because they appeared to be made specifically for the purpose of accompanying these works, and they achieve a very nice effect. 
An arrangement of the ceramic flowers
can also be seen on the floor here
            A few of the pieces start slipping toward the point of becoming formulaic in the use of the flowers, but for the most part Baxley includes a good amount of variation in the size of the flowers and their arrangements to make each piece visually interesting.  And as an embellishment he took the flowers a bit further and arranged several dozen of them across the floor near the entrance to his show, nicely complementing the title of the show, “Scattered.”  I don’t want to spend too much time going on about Baxley’s work at this point in time because the show feels very small, as if there’s more to his work that was not available for display.  There are some nice things happening with the use of pattern, imagery, color choice, and variation in his work, so I’ll wait to comment extensively on Baxley’s work until a later date when hopefully I can see a more complete representation of his work.

Derrick Breidenthal
            Much like Michael Baxley, Derrick Breidenthal had a very small show on display with maybe seven pieces total.  But the paintings stood out to me among everything that was happening in the space and I thought they were worth at least mentioning.

Breidenthal's small paintings are reminiscent of some great
abstract paintings fromt the turn of the 20th Century

            Most of his paintings are about 5”x&7”, and the two biggest ones can’t measure much more than 10”x10”.  Yet despite their small area, Breidenthal is able to densely pack information into the space and create a painting that is worth looking at for several minutes.  Some of them achieve this effect through complexity: thick, raised brush strokes of white combined with spatters of dark blue and yellow create a complex image, and the small scale invites you to fully explore the space.  Others achieve it through simplicity: a nearly blank, description-less sky and ground sharply contrast the two tiny orange flag-like things on the horizon.  They are so different they grab our attention, but they are so small we can’t easily figure out what the image is of.  So we stop and we think about it, which in almost any art is really the ultimate goal to achieve. 

A detail from one of Breidenthal's 5x7 paintings

            What makes Breidenthal’s painting’s so good is that even though they are small and simple, he has a knack for activating the entire space.  This means that he doesn’t paint any areas in the works that are truly blank.  If he painted the whole canvas the same color of white he would be able to draw interest to certain areas by creating a different texture with the brush strokes, or through some other trick.  There is evidence of this all over his works.  He doesn’t put paint down the first time and call it good.  It is clear that he works back into all areas of the piece until they are fully incorporated with the rest of the space, which is why even though the paintings are small, they carry a lot of weight for their size.
Dennis McNett on 18th Street between Baltimore and Wyandotte- BEST IN SHOW

 A look at the Wolfbat War Vessel before it rolls into action

            There isn’t a whole lot to say about Dennis McNett’s performance.  One look at pictures from the event tells you the whole story, and it is a brilliant one.  A metal band playing on board a Wolfbat War Vessel, while the Wolfbats dressed in their ceremonial hats and carrying oversized battle axes and pitchforks slay two alien piñatas.  Then the entire group moves off down the road toward the site of McNett’s gallery show at the Escapist, the metal band continuing to play as the War Vessel rolls down the street. 
            I didn’t get a chance to see McNett’s actual show, but it doesn’t really matter.  The performance portion was strong enough to stand on its own.  I wrote something once about artists in the digital age needing to find a way of incorporating experience into their work, that it was essential that they provide the viewer with a real reason to go see the work in person.  And I can’t think of a more effective reason than this. 

A view during the melee of alien slaying

So many people were gathered around the performance in front of the Arts Incubator that some poor sucker trying to drive down the street was stuck there for a good ten minutes waiting for the crowd to clear.  The people weren’t being rude, there was simply nowhere to go to get out of the way.  And I think that even if someone wasn’t really interested in the metal/slaughter going on, they couldn’t help but be entertained by witnessing the spectacle.  It’s very bizarre and memorable, something you will never see again.  That and all the pieces worn by the Wolfbats (members of the performance) were individually interesting pieces of art, and definitely memorable to anybody.
What made the performance particularly good is that it’s a direct extension of McNett’s two-dimensional work.  It’s not like he was a figure painter who decided to do something wacky for attention.  The whole thing was so well put together because it was a genuine part of his gallery show.  And for those of you who aren’t familiar with McNett’s work I encourage you to visit his website, link provided below.  It’s not often that I would review, much less promote an artist of McNett’s caliber, but if I witnessed a war party of Wolfbats marching through the crossroads and didn’t mention anything about it, I would be failing in my duty to try and find the best work I can discuss for your consideration.  You’re welcome!
You can visit Dennis McNett’s site here.

The alien pinatas to be unwittingly slain during the performance
A look at the action from safely inside the Arts Incubator