Friday, March 02, 2007

New England art critics awards

Are local artists not museum worthy? That was the blunt question I was wondering about on the train home from an art critics awards ceremony at Boston’s Gardner Museum Wednesday night.

The New England chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) presented 36 awards for best 2005 and 2006 art exhibits and events, plus a special recognition award to Boston Institute of Contemporary Art Director Jill Medvedow for leading the creation of the flashy new ICA building, which opened on the South Boston waterfront last December. (Pictured above, Julia Fethergill, Bernard Toale Gallery's Joseph Carroll and Fethergill's husband, artist Joe Zane, whooping it up at the AICA awards.)

One of the things that struck me was that of the 16 New England museum shows awarded prizes, only three featured artists who live(d) in New England. And the number of living local artists in these shows was small. (See complete list of awards at bottom.)

Awarded first place for best thematic museum show was “Painting Summer in New England” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts,
organized by Trevor Fairbrother (at left with Gardner Director Anne Hawley). It featured some 80 artists, many who lived in New England, but if you look at the 13 still alive you find Cape Codders and Mainers, some summer visitors from outside New England, and one Bostonian, Allan Crite.

“Ahistoric Occasion” at MassMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, took second place in this category. Among its 11 artists was a token New Englander, Peggy Diggs of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The top prize for best architecture or design show went to “A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape: Marcel Breuer to Charles Jencks” at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Why didn’t New England critics (I’m not an AICA member) honor more museum shows by local artists? (Is three out of 16 enough?)

A first question is are there local museum shows of great living local artists? The Brooklyn Museum’s recent retrospective of Southfield, Massachusetts, painter Walton Ford, was definitely award worthy, but has no New England venue. The retrospective of Brookline’s Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons that just opened in Indianapolis isn’t scheduled to come here either.

But 2006 did offer a number of local museum exhibits by artists who reside locally – photographer Laura McPhee and painter Ambreen Butt at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; painter Sarah Walker at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis in Waltham; the Foster Prize finalists exhibition at the ICA; and several shows at the Danforth Museum in Framingham and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln.

“Wunderground” at the RISD Museum in Providence, which featured pretty much every artist from Providence’s lively underground art scene of the past decade, should have gotten some sort of award. It was a wild and wooly show, messy and imperfect certainly, but much more exciting and representing more important art developments – important nationally – than “Painting Summer” or “Ahistoric.” Or most of the other museum shows honored.

Still, the AICA’s picks are telling. Frankly, a lot of the other museum shows featuring local artists weren’t anything to go ape about. Blame the artists. Blame the curators. (Hey, blame us critics, too.) But what will we do to foster more exciting art-making and more exciting museum exhibitions of local art around here?

The 2007 AICA Awards:
Best Monographic Museum Show, New England
First Place: “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” organized by the Blaffer Gallery, Art Museum of the University of Houston and the Addison Gallery of American Art; curator, Terrie Sultan.
Second Place: “Joan Snyder: A Painting Survey 1969-2005,” organized by the Danforth Museum of Art; curator, Katherine French. (Pictured above, for no particular reason, AICA event host Arthur Dion of Gallery NAGA and Big Red & Shiny pooh-bah Matthew Nash.)

Best Thematic Museum Show, New England
First Place: “Painting Summer in New England,” organized by the Peabody Essex Museum of Art; curator, Trevor Fairbrother.
Second Place: “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History,” organized by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; curator, Nato Thompson.

Best Monographic Museum Show, Boston
First Place: “America Starts Here – Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler 1985-1995,” organized by Skidmore College and MIT List Visual Arts Center; curators, Ian Berry and Bill Arning.
Second Place: “David Hockney Portraits,” organized by Boston Museum of Fine Arts; curators, Sarah Howgate and Barbara Stern Shapiro.

Best Thematic Museum Show, Boston-area
First Place: “On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West,” organized by the Iris and Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University and the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; curator, Britta Erickson.
Second Place: “Choreographic Turn: Daria Martin, Peter Welz in Collaboration with William Forsythe,” organized by MIT List Visual Arts Center; curator, Bill Arning.

Best Installation or Single Work of Art in a Museum, New England
First Place: “Xu Bing: Any Opinions?” organized by the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; curator, Anja Chavez.
Second Place: “Carsten Holler: Amusement Park,” organized by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; curators, Joe Thompson, Nato Thompson, and Larry Smallwood.

Best Installation or Single Work of Art in a Museum, Boston-area
First Place: “Jessica Stockholder: Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light,” organized by Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, School of the Museum of Fine Arts; curator, Joanna Soltan.
Second Place: “Paul Chan 1st Light, Momentum 5,” organized by the ICA Boston; curator, Bennett Simpson.

Best Show in a Commercial Gallery, Boston-area

First Place: Taylor Davis, Samson Projects. (Above, artist and curator Eddie Martinez with Samson Projects honcho Camilo Alvarez.)
Second Place: Neeta Madahar “Nature Studies,” Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Best Show in a Commercial Gallery, New England
First Place: Neal T. Walsh, Gallery Agniel, Providence, RI; curator, Sara Agniel.
Second Place: “New Visions: Mike Berg, Paul Chojnowski, and Ray Charles White,” Harrison Gallery, Williamstown, MA; curator, Jo Ellen Harrison.

Best Show of an Emerging Artist, Boston-area
First Place: Joe Zane “Personality,” Allston Skirt Gallery.
Second Place: Gary Duehr “Car Obscura,” Gallery Kayafas.

Best Show in an Alternative Space, Boston-area
First Place: Joe Wardwell “Solo,” Green Street Gallery; curator: James Hull. (Above, Wardwell with Tony Fair.)
Second Place: Liz Nofziger “Grate (Black Gold); Second Gallery; curator, Rebecca Gordon.

Best Monographic Show in Institutional/University Gallery, Boston-area
First Place: Shintaro Miyake “The Beaver Project,” organized by the Sara and David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art; curator, Lisa Tung.
Second Place: Penelope Jencks, organized by Boston University School of the Visual Arts, 808 Gallery; curator, Lynne Cooney.

Best Group Show in Institutional/University Gallery, Boston-area
First Place: “Pattern Language: Clothing as Communicator,” organized by the Tufts University Art Gallery; curator, Judith Fox.
Second Place: “Four Artists in Search of the Intangible,” organized by Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College; curator, Bob Oppenheim.

Best Group Show in Institutional/University Gallery or Non-Profit Space, New England
First Place: “From Baja to Bar Harbor: Transnational Contemporary Art,” organized by The Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art. Portland, Maine; curator, Toby Kamps.
Second Place: “Voice: Women in Contemporary Art,” organized by the Providence Art Club. Providence, RI; curator, Kara Walker.

Best Group Show in a Commercial Gallery, Boston-area
First Place: “Don't Abandon the Ship,” Allston Skirt Gallery; curator, Eddie Martinez.
Second Place: “Katherine Jackson, Pamela Harris, Eva Lee, William Weiss: New Works on Paper,” O·H+T Gallery.

Best Project in a Public Space, Boston-area
First Place: Michael Dowling “Medicine Wheel,” Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts.
Second Place: Ellen Driscoll “Filament/Firmament,” Cambridge Arts Council; curator, Hafthor Yngvason.

Best Architecture or Design Show
First Place: “A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape: Marcel Breuer to Charles Jencks,” organized by the Provincetown Art Association and Museum; curators, Bob Bailey and Peter McMahon.
Second Place: “Light My Fire: Rock Posters from the Summer of Love,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; curator, Patrick Murphy.

Best Historical Show, Boston-area
First Place: “Gentile Bellini and the East,” organized by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; curators, Alan Chong and Caroline Campbell.
Second Place: “Frank Stella 1958,” organized by Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum; curators, Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke.

Best Exhibition of Time Based Art, Boston-area (Film, Video, and Performance)
First Place: Brian Knep “Deep Wounds,” Memorial Hall, Harvard University; organized by the Office of the Arts at Harvard and Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School. (Above, Knep with AXIOM gallery's Phaedra Shanbaum.)
Second Place: “ArtRages Festival,” organized by Mobius.

Second Annual AICA/ New England Special Recognition Award
Jill Medvedow, director, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

For comparison, here’s my list of the best local art stuff of 2006.

Photos by the Gardner's Katherine Armstrong.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Leon Robinson, Laurence Pierce, Richard Waters

Leon Robinson sat in his parked car studying the way the light shined at night from the yellow building at the corner of Boston’s Tremont Street and Mass. Ave. The Roxbury artist made a quick sketch, and then dashed off to his studio down the street to paint the scene while he could still remember just the way the lights glowed inside the corner shop and apartments. And then he returned, finagled to get the same parking spot for the same vantage point, and sketched some more. He pieced his painting together “Check Cashing (Night)” (above) by going back and forth several times.

“This is more of a memory painting than on site,” Robinson tells me.

The painting is featured in “Three: Artists of the African Winter Group” at Boston’s Piano Factory gallery through this Sunday. The show also includes paintings by Laurence Pierce of Dorchester and Richard Waters of Roxbury. The work is uneven, but they’ve got lots of heart. And it provides a glimpse of some of the art being made in Boston outside the Newbury Street-Harrison Avenue galaxy.

“African Winter” refers to the gallery of the same name that Pierce set up in his basement in 2005 – and which is open irregularly. (I’ve tried going once some months back, but couldn’t get in.) The name has something to do with global warming and environmentalism and such. Basically it’s a collective of Boston middle-aged artists of color with shared Afro-centric interests.

Waters paints faithful black, blue and white copies of photos of jazz greats who inspire him – Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. One of his best is a painting (above) of Stan Getz blowing on his sax.

Pierce presents a mix of abstracted images and more realistic scenes that speak of Black pride and African-American history. (At left is his "Man with Loud Tie.") “I, The Queen” and “I, The King” is a pair of standing portraits of an African-American woman and man, crowed with gold bands. The couple’s faces are sculpturally rendered but their outfits are built from flat African-Egyptian-Cubist-type patterns in a palette of bright reds, browns, golds, greens and blacks. It feels a bit like Grant Wood filtered through Klimt. Actually, the artist his stylistic mash-ups most brings to mind is the late Boston-native Lois Mailou Jones.

Of the three, though, Robinson’s work is my favorite. “Mass Ave. and Columbus Ave. 10 a.m.” depicts early morning light raking across a green and red building on that corner. His paintings seem inspired by Edward Hopper. And like Hopper’s work, they’re all about mood – the nostalgia for the light at a certain time of day at a certain street corner you frequent.

“Three: Artists of the African Winter Group,” The Gallery at the Piano Factory, 791 Tremont St., Boston, Feb. 9 to March 4, 2007. 617-262-1988. Closing reception 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 4.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dan Hunter speaks at Searts

The arts have only been a public sector issue for the past generation, Massachusetts arts advocate Dan Hunter said at a public talk Tuesday, a public sector issue only since the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1960s.* And so those of us who care about the arts are still getting used to treating it as public sector issues are treated – and lobbying for it. Over and over we need to insist on the importance of the arts, he said, until the message becomes as familiar as a Coke ad, until the arts are no longer seen as a luxury.

“This is the value of our society,” Hunter said, “and the way we have to support that value is through public investment.”

Hunter, the executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit MAASH (Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities), is one of the chief advocates for public arts funding in Massachusetts. If you’re associated with any Massachusetts arts advocacy group, they probably regularly forward you his updates on legislative doings.

And so I went to see him talk in Gloucester, where he was the featured speaker at Tuesday night’s annual meeting of Searts (Society for the Encouragement of the Arts), Cape Ann’s version of one of those “creative economy” arts advocacy groups.

The problem with the “creative economy” mafia is that they focus on “economy” and forget about the “creative.” But Searts is a good example of how a small, scrappy organization can add excitement to a community. Now about four years old, it sponsors public artist talks and art history lectures and provides grants for local artist-business collaborations. It has used state and local grant funds to financially support the two-year-old Gloucester New Arts Festival, run by Gloucester dancer Sarah Slifer (I’ve exhibited work in this festival), and residencies at the Rocky Neck Art Colony. One of their board members is looking into developing artist live-work spaces on Cape Ann. Like all fledgling operations, there have been rough spots (and could New Arts Festival ticket prices be a bit more affordable?), but in a city of 30,000 like Gloucester, these efforts have meant a lot. And created the sense that cool art is happening there, just waiting to be discovered. One of the pleasant surprises is that the work Searts has supported has been varied and frequently challenging.

But back to Hunter. He is a balding man in wire-rim glasses, a dark suit and crooked tie, who gives a witty, rousing speech. Sitting in front of me was one of Gloucester’s great characters, musician Bonnie Barish, who chanted “Amen” to all he said.

Hunter cited an often-referenced 2000 report by the New England Council that said the “creative economy” represented 3.5 percent of the state’s workforce – a seemingly small percentage, but more than the software industry or biotech industry. “The arts are perceived as a luxury,” Hunter said. “And yet we’re an economy of innovation and ideas.”

His point, of course, is we need more public arts funding. Hunter became chief of MAASH in 2002, when then acting Governor Jane Swift (Republican) slashed arts funding by 62 percent. The state has since raised arts funding by 66 percent, he said, and last year established a cultural facilities fund to support the renovation and construction of museums, theaters, exhibition spaces, zoos, etc.

Hunter was most moving, though, when he noted that Massachusetts’ dedication to the arts is one of the ideals written into its constitution (see chapter V, section II). I wrote about this same thing last year:
Our state constitution says it’s the duty of government leaders to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences . . . to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country.” Why? Because in 1780 John Adams and his forefather pals believed this fostered the wisdom, knowledge, and virtue citizens need “for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” In other words, promoting the arts promotes democracy.
For the past four decades, Hunter said, government has been portrayed as an “instrument of destruction and malfunction.” He argued for a return to the Commonwealth’s founders’ vision of government dedicated to the common good (that’s why they designated Massachusetts a commonwealth), of government as an agent to build and support community – with the arts as a key part of that.

“We aren’t going to be able to do it at the federal level,” Hunter said. “We need to do it at the state level.”

*This is just a quick recounting, so I’m not double-checking all Hunter’s facts and figures. But strictly speaking, arts and arts funding aren’t new public policy issues in this country. The NEA and NEH are descendants of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, like the FSA photos, WPA mural program and WPA easel painting program, which served as a farm league for Abstract Expressionism. And these programs faced the same objections the NEA and NEH face today.

Monday, February 26, 2007

El Anatsui

The best show I’ve seen in New England this (still young) year is “Gawu” by Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui (above, standing in front of his 2003 sculpture “Hover”) at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire. In my review, I talk about how he transforms junked milk can lids, printing plates and caps from liquor bottles into dazzling sculptures, often recalling West African ceremonial kente cloth, that speak of the legacy of colonialism and African life today.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview Gerard Houghton conducted with Anatsui in 2003 that is in the exhibition’s catalogue:
This idea of getting a fabric out of metal, it’s interesting to me in the sense that the idea of hardness/rigidity is subverted by having the medium treated that way. Well, and this idea of using drink tops, too. Back home we would characterize someone who is given to the pleasures of drinking and eating as someone who is “building the stomach,” so that kind of idea is somehow behind it as well – the whole piece is talking about “consumption,” or could be seen as referencing it at least. Not consumption as something that is peculiar, in the sense that we are talking about the various landscapes that consumption can create in Nigeria, Ghana, etc. You can have huge piles of detritus from consumption, because you don’t have the technology to recycle and also because of the weather. A lot of things which are made in Europe and America and are sent over, arrive in certain kinds of packaging, for example fresh milk comes in tins. We have our own milk too, of course, but in addition there are huge imports of milk from outside, which is accessed by way of tins. Being that you don’t have the means to recycle there develop huge piles of milk tins, drink tops and all these things all over the place. So it’s an examination of consumption and the various landmarks it can generate in various parts of the world.
Environmental concerns as well as efforts to make sense of our inundating mass-produced synthetic culture have made this sort of recycled-materials sculpture an increasingly common artistic practice. For example there’s Rachel Perry Welty of Needham, who is exhibiting sculptures made from old twist ties as one of the finalists for the ICA’s Foster Prize; Hyde Park artist Deb Todd Wheeler’s sculpting of plastic shopping bags into utopian flowers in her show at Green Street Gallery in December; New York’s Tom Fruin, who showed quilts made of recycled drug baggies at Judy Goldman Fine Art last summer; and L.A. sculptor Tim Hawkinson, who had a big retrospective at the Whitney in New York in 2005 and whose new show at the Getty Museum includes a bat made from twist ties and Radio Shack bags.

“El Anatsui: Gawu,” Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, Jan. 6 to March 4, 2007.

The photos don’t capture the physical presence of the work, but pictured from top to bottom are “Hover” (2003), which is owned by the Hood Museum so you should still be able to see it after the show closes; “Crumbling Wall” (2000); “Skin of Earth” (2006); and “Peak Project” (1999).