by Emil Robinson
Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? Painting Parody and Disguise at the Contemporary Arts Center presents a range of painterly practice from sculptural to traditional, conceptual to formal. As such it is a coup for the Contemporary Arts Center, whose recent presentations can seem to under-represent the current excitement surrounding contemporary painting. Curator Michael Stillion is a serious local painter who also works at the Contemporary Arts Center. This show has a lot of work in it, so I was only able to pull together thoughts on a select group.
By calling the show “Painting Parody and Disguise” Stillion presents the human desire to hide behind a costume or mask our intentions. The artists in the show do this in different ways. Several pieces especially caught my eye/heart/mind. Stillion represents himself with a bevy of paintings in the exhibition. Stillion has been directly engaged with disguise and mischief in his paintings as long as I have been aware of his work. The artist routinely mixes costumes from different cultures with the goofy symbols of his own life and riffs on painting history with cheeky aplomb. At its best it’s a real mess of disparate subject matter made impactful through subtle narrative and serious dedication to craft. My favorite two pieces in the show are “Push” 2013-2014 and the emotive “Ghost (Stare and Mouth)” Both take Stillion’s work in a more personal direction. “Push” presents a strangely erotic and pathetically heroic form that presents itself pleadingly to the viewer. In “Ghost (stare and mouth)” Stillion creates tension by fracturing his vibrant ghost character into separate small frames. The piece creates pathos in its imprisonment of a character that is already inscrutable in its mix of subject and form.
Elsewhere in the show, artists Sarah Blyth Stephens and Samuel T Adams play with the effects of natural forces. Adams appears to have a difficult relationship with painting. His works are weathered beyond repair, sanded down through the canvas and obviously battered. The works resemble old metal siding or wet leather. This is a nice transformation, but the end result does not transcend his obvious intentions. The piece Ignis Fatuum was my favorite, as it is the least dramatic in its treatment and end effect. The subtle aesthetic in Ignis Fatuum creates dynamic friction with the evidence of the artist’s deconstructive process. Blyth Stephens is a sculptor who uses cement in a painterly way. Her Wall-ish1 and 2 are simultaneously fragile and full of motion. Clearly the result of a dramatic process, they remind the viewer of the downward pull of gravity and the human need to construct a foil against it.
The most provocative work in the show belongs to the artist Todd Pavlisko, fresh from his controversial work “Crown” at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Pavlisko centers his practice on skewering our sense of value and cultural heritage. In doing so he raises serious questions about our priorities and the ease in which those priorities can be manipulated. Pavlisko’s “The Lovers” is a stand out in this show. It is an image of two figures leaning towards each other. The simple body language of this scene is full of feeling, mostly because the details of the situation are unclear. This lack of tangible information, yet the sense that something basic and human is going on intensified my experience. The piece is made all the richer because of its materiality. Colored plastic tags of the kind that hold prices at virtually any store make up the whole image. They are neatly attached to the canvas and bristle with dense air. This atmospheric effect coupled with the formal beauty of the image, make this piece a knockout for me. Obviously the consumer culture connotations of the materials is an easy message to pick up, but Pavlisko deftly handles this by making the visual side of this work more sophisticated. Provocation is boring like anything else when it is served cold, but it can also be transformative when an artist of imagination and sensitivity is in control.