Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Of Ugly Ducklings and Contemporary Art

The "swan song" brings to mind a silly image of feathered magnificence deflated into flaccid, supine tubing. Perhaps it's the logical end of a creature that begins life as a flinching ugly duckling. Still, the swan's song was originally believed to be surpassingly beautiful because swans were thought to be silent until the end. 
Matt Kish, Beavercreek, Ohio. © Feinknopf Photography

Starr Review has been loquacious for several years, so I wish all the more that I could guarantee some lyricism for my final post. I've delighted in seeing and thinking about all the shows I've written about. I've hoped that I may have inspired others to look again, to step up to contemporary art, or to know that "not getting it" at first glance is insufficient reason not to engage. Perhaps a few readers have looked with more patience and imagination and have found  their attention rewarded with new perspectives and wider horizons. To have had an effect on a viewer's outlook would mean more to me than would having persuaded anyone about what I've seen. Thank you for reading in the past. Thank you for reading my final post: This is an excellent show to go out on:

Currently installed at the Columbus Museum of Art is a show that exemplifies my wish for a relationship of curiosity and exuberance between "civilians" and contemporary art: Art 360º: Contemporary Art Hatching Across Ohio, conceived, curated, and organized by Columbus attorney, Charles Bluestone

Bluestone is neither trained in art nor connected to the art profession except by enthusiasm. But he likes to look; he is curious and stimulated by visual art. He's interested in the creative process and how ideas take concrete form in the hands of artists. 

Having collected Ohio artists since he came to Columbus in 1993, Bluestone put his personal network  to work to "hatch" a show to highlight the Ohio Art Leagueon whose board he previously served. The League has recently faced the financial challenges of an institution making a location change. The result is a show that is visiting five museums/art centers, raising funds through sales of catalogues and posters for the benefit of local arts organizations. The Columbus Museum of Art is the second stop.

Fred Fochtman, Columbus. © Feinknopf Photography
On the website, Bluestone tells an involved and funny backstory about the evolution of a show based on eggs: not only eggs, but ostrich eggs, originally ones that he had himself collected. Artistically, though, the interest for the artists involved and for viewers is great: How do artists who typically work in two-dimensional media react to the opportunity to work on a round surface? Although this challenge was in some way a lark, the great variety of results demonstrates how thoughtfully the artists considered the problem in terms of their usual practices.

Fred Fochtman is an observational landscape painter, who painted the snowscape viewed from his studio window. He didn't approach it, though, as just another landscape to curve around the egg, but he responded to the surface of the egg as well, which is shiny and smooth. He compared it to a glaze used by the famous Rookwood Pottery in southern Ohio and thought of the "ethereal subjects" that decorated their vases.

Matt Kish (above) is fascinated by Moby Dick and its world. He thought about the style of scrimshaw, the art practiced by seamen who carved intricate designs on the bones and teeth of whales during the long months at sea, and he painted the teeth of the White Whale as it attacks the Pequod.
Willard Reader, Portsmouth, Ohio, "The Artist in His Shell."
© Feinknopf Photography

Willard Reader testifies in his catalogue essay to having been rather unnerved by the task and by the egg's fragility (he never took it out of its box, but worked on it as it remained in the bubble wrap: The back is blank).

He made a leap, though, to forgo his usual practice of painting small-town landscapes and he decided to take the egg at face value. He uses its surface as a shell that functions both literally and metaphorically. The transformation is minimal and witty; he uses the support as the major element of both the composition and the message of his piece.

April Sunami, like Reader, uses the nature of her support in creating meaning in her work. Her approach is equally witty, but it comes with a different message and from a very different place. Reader's work is as closely controlled as Sunami's is elaborate, as withdrawn as Sunami's is effusive. The one didn't even remove his egg from its box…Sunami dropped hers.

April Sunami, Columbus, Ohio. "Un-whole Vision." 
© Feinknopf Photography
"I decided to paint it in its broken state and haven't looked back. In some ways the egg has become a personal metaphor for the detours that one must make in life," she writes in her catalogue notes. While she gives her work the title, "Un-whole Vision," a case can be made for its completeness: It is the only work that even suggests that there is an inside to the egg, a mind to the face, and interior to the exterior.
Audra Skudas, Oberlin, Ohio. "Broken Melodies - Discordant
Fragments - Reintegrating." 
 © Feinknopf Photography

Audra Skuodas' reference to egg lore is more subtle, but breathtaking for the care taken and the process that reveals wisdom at the heart of a common nursery rhyme.

This egg's surface is built up of painstakingly collaged scraps of printed musical notation, which the artist has in parts painted over with red ink, making Easter-egg like designs. Depending on the orientation of the egg, the design radiates out from a center, or is halved around a broad central strip, each side distinguished by its own coloration.

The collaged elements are indeed "broken melodies" and "discordant fragments"—if we are thinking only about the musical scores from which they have been snipped. How could they ever be reassembled to make sense again?

The "Reintegration" turns the music into something quite new though. In effect, Skuodas responds to the dilemma of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again: The nursery rhyme was part of her inspiration. The score will never again be used to make the kind of music it was meant for. Its reintegration is as something new, and we can consider it either as New Music, three-dimensional art, or as an egg, hatching questions in us. 

In "Art 360º," we get to see over forty Ohio artists at the intersection of play and problem-solving, at that moment of creative suspense most of us haven't experienced since we were youngsters. This is a wonderful show for any art-goer at any level of sophistication, from children through art-historians. The whimsy, beauty, and decorative variety of the eggs give them an undeniable appeal for any eye. But the enormous range of approaches to the egg—as surface, as an object with its own meaning; as an object in space; as metaphor—give clues about artists' thinking that can always be carried over to the surrounding galleries. 
Audra Skuodas, "Broken Melodies - Discordant Fragments - Reintegrating."
 © Feinknopf Photography