A Vanguard of Six at Phyllis Weston Gallery

Despite the suggestion to the contrary, A Vanguard of Six is a conventional exhibition of six contemporary artists whose divergent interests make for a cerebral show that at times feels remote and disembodied. Considering the charged subject matter that many of these artists are dealing with, the inaccessibility and perceptual tedium of many of the works is perplexing. Some of the problem may be attributed to the title of the show itself. After being billed as a collection of artists whose work is on the tip of the spear, one is apt to be a little disappointed upon finding out that the leading edge looks suspiciously like the rear guard.

The artists in the show can be divided into three basic themes and each benefit from a smart pairing by area of concern. Terrance Hammonds and Devin Stoddard’s work share political and sociological overtones. Josh Rechtenwald and John Humphries both examine the built environment, and Matt Morris and Kim Burgas offer a more formal investigation into the limits of subtlety. Many of the works on view propose interesting conceptual tensions, but remain unresolved as visual accounts.

The gulf that separates inquiry from representation is widest in the work of Terrance Hammonds. Hammonds’ artwork orbits the turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This period of American history witnessed the transformation of social change movements from essentially peaceful actions into revolutionary and sometimes violent confrontations. Powerful stuff no doubt, but its surprising how little of the immediacy and vitality of the era makes its way into the work. The intensity of a cry for equality “by any means necessary” is replaced by the more sterile “I am a White Agitator” in his two pieces (made by embossing the text in paper, though strangely labeled as screen printed) of the same title. In its current context, the work’s intention is ambiguous (the phrase is lifted from an early 1960s CORE pin) and this is compounded by the lack of anything other than the text on the paper. Only Hammonds’ silk screened portrait of singer Nina Simone gets anywhere near the mark. Hammonds’ use of vivid reds and oranges not only stimulate the senses but also suggest the fire and energy of Simone’s late 60’s revolutionary outlook. In contrast to the assertive nature of Hammonds’ area of interest, his contributions to the show, especially his B-boy Pattern wall paper, are just too polite.

In terms of the marriage of formal and conceptual attributes, the photographic work of Devin Stoddard fares better and his images are among the best in the show. A series of pictures that reference our voracious appetite for energy, Stoddard’s photos depict nuclear and coal fired power plants in a pastoral setting; contrasting the sublime with the ridiculous and the beautiful with the ominous. Minimally composed and treated with the striking color of the early evening sky, Stoddard’s pictures possess a formal beauty that threaten to overwhelm the otherwise unsettling subject matter. As miniature smokestacks and cooling towers cut into the sky, their forms are an oddly compelling reminder of the space where the terrestrial and the atmospheric meet and our responsibility to both.

In the next room, the concrete art (a rather clever reference to one of the early names for abstraction) of Josh Rectenwald connects to the built environment in a direct way. His best work in the show, Untitled, transforms the cloverleaf pattern of interstate highway exits into an elegant abstract design. This design engages and overlaps the variegated surface of the concrete creating indefinite, but pleasant spatial relationships. Similarly, Rectenwald’s New World 1 coaxes a close examination of the pocked and pitted surface of the concrete by painting a section of it a brilliant blue.

Though he manages to pull off a few interesting pieces, the limitations of Rectenwald’s formal vocabulary are apparent in a series of six 12″X12″ works named after various local intersections. Rather than respond to the surface of his support, in these works Rectenwald is content to merely superimpose upon them portions of a street map that the titles reference. The simplified figure ground relationship is at odds with his more effective pieces and make for a dull viewing experience.

In the same room, the work of John Humphries (Full disclosure: Humphries and the author are employed by the same institution.) also touches on the experience of landscape. With a cool analytical feel, Humphries’ multiple drawings exist in a mystifying half way state, somewhere between architectural model, landscape design, and geometric abstraction. Though visually rich, these works are among the most difficult to penetrate in the show. In addition to his drawings, Humphries also presents a collection of three “soundscapes” paired with text that are remarkably warm and inviting. The tenuous relationship between sound and text notwithstanding, the pieces have the effect of transporting the participant, by way of headphones, to the furthest reaches of the Earth, contemplating the passage like a Zen koan.

Assuming that this is new work (none of the works in A Vanguard of Six are dated), Matt Morris’ (Full disclosure: Morris is a contributor to AEQAI.) contributions to the show are some of the most formalized pieces that he has recently exhibited. Though pushed to the edge, Morris’ offerings obey the conventions of art in a minimalist context and as such the visual experience is vastly more coherent than some of his more erratic installations. Morris’ interests are clearly rooted in subtle shifts of perception and materiality; maybe too subtle. In the foil and metal on paper Grotte 1 and Grotte 2, the effect is so miniscule that only a dedicated search would reveal where the two metals are grafted upon each other. In his Seeing is Space series Morris uses the repetition of simplified gestures of glitter to probe the limits of what can be perceived as pictorial space. As a purely formal investigation, these pieces are effective, but the experience is not a lasting one. As with most minimalist work, there is just too little happening within the pieces to sustain and reward multiple visual engagements.

Like Morris, the work of Kim Burgas surveys the understated in a series of 9″x12″ ink and graphite drawings. All but one of these use names as titles and the figurative elements in her work read as portraits. Burgas’ subtlety grows more out of diminished scale and a lightness of touch rather than formal restraint. For such small works Burgas manages to pack each piece with varied and contrasting methods of mark making. At times her approach to the surface appears so delicate that one might be forgiven for thinking that these pictures emerged fully formed out of an ink jet printer. Burgas’ drawings are innately likeable and her diverse touch offers multiple points of entry. In this show, her work is hampered only by their presentation; by pinning them directly to the wall these images feel even smaller than they already are.

Notions of the avant-garde or the cutting edge in visual art in 2010 are problematic to say the least. Despite the fact that there has been no true avant-garde in art for decades or more, artists, galleries, and centers of contemporary art are still obsessed with conceptions of the “new” and seem incapable of appreciating anything that extends past the latest transgressive 23 year old. As far back as 1917 Duchamp demonstrated that literally anything can be viewed in an aesthetic context. (Game, set, match, can we move on now?) Continuing to suggest or title an exhibition based on a “leading edge” mentality in an artistic ecosystem as delicate as Cincinnati’s is a dangerous business. The mindset that values instantaneity over development, youth over wisdom, conceptual gamesmanship over aesthetic quality, and powers of mental association over honed skills of perception creates divisive fault lines among and between artists, galleries, and the public. Rifts such as these have the potential to eliminate wide swaths of art from ever receiving a fair viewing simply by deeming them not suitably hip. The “next big thing” may be a great marketing strategy for a pop singer whose shelf life is about six months, but it is absolutely lethal to the visual arts. The documentation of a (nonexistent) advanced guard A Vanguard of Six is most certainly not, but then again nothing could or should try to be.

– Alan D. Pocaro

A Vanguard of Six, featuring the work of Kim Burgas, Terence Hammonds, John Humphries, Matt Morris, Josh Rectenwald and Devin Stoddard, is on view through October 30, 2010 at The Phyllis Weston Gallery. 2005 Madison Rd. Cincinnati, Ohio 45208. 513-321-5200. www.phylliswestongallery.com.


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