Dennis Harrington, director of the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, Downtown at the Cincinnati Arts Association’s Aronoff Center for the Arts, has put together a provocative and witty show for this holiday season. The three featured artists offer contrasting views on design and the human spirit.
These three excellent solo exhibitions, which are visually and intellectually rewarding, are well worth a visit. I joined Dennis on one of many tours he has conducted for local schoolchildren. They found the artworks engaging. I suggest this as a stimulating exhibition for a family art appreciation tour. Or for individuals of any age curious about contemporary artists working in our region. The Weston brings the best to Cincinnati.
The splendid but challenging street-level gallery is given over to Tim Rietenbach, a graduate of, and now professor at, the Columbus College of Art and Design. His work, which is often three-dimensional and monumental, is well known, especially in Ohio.
His site-specific work for the Weston is a painted construction of wood and papier mache, which spoofs authority and pretension. Titled “The Man,” the startling composition appears to be a stadium or arena peopled with skeletons. The allusion is to the Aronoff theater setting, where people enter expecting to be the audience. But here, they are greeted and viewed by an assembly of skeletal puppets. This weird crowd of papier mache skulls with pop eyes made of painted balloons watches them. Adults are reminded of Early Renaissance paintings memorializing the Black Death or the Book of the Apocalypse. But the effect is comical rather than melancholy. The artist molded the newspaper heads over inflated balloons, “delighted to be making something out of air,” Harrington says.
Rietenbach’s second sculpted piece is an inflatable black “snowman,” which is puddled on the floor, but rises up as it periodically fills with air. It was a source of delight to the schoolchildren touring the gallery. And to the adults as well. Why shouldn’t art make us chuckle as well as think? A scroll-like painting and a one-eyed wine bottle sculpture completes this whimsical, yet serious-minded, exhibition.
The lower level west gallery is filled with provocative paintings by another Columbus College of Art and Design professor. John Kortlander is a Columbus, Ohio resident, who grew up in bucolic Athens Ohio. His paintings in this series are called Deus Otiosus, a Latin phrase which may be translated as “a god at leisure,” or one disassociated from human existence. The striking canvases are filled with abstract geometric shapes, predominantly black and white, with occasional flat forms in the shape of a church, cross, or other religious symbol. His compositions are inclined to the horizontal, suggesting landscapes, perhaps inspired by his Athens experience. There are some lyrical small paintings, which may best be described as abstract still-lifes.
While the Reitenbach and Kortlander galleries evoke somber reflections on mortality and meditation, the final room of vibrant paintings by Cincinnati artist Joyce Phillips-Young invites jubilation. Titled “Spirit Moves,” the rich, colorful paintings portray people of color singing, dancing, and gardening. It is a life-affirming collection of beautifully executed works. Young is a superb draughtswoman and her preparatory drawings (samples are shown here) illustrate her technique of layering geometric and floral designs in the space surrounding her figures. Each painting is carefully calculated and structured, although the final works have an seemingly effortless fluidity. Her art sings to us.
There is much to like and learn from in these three appealing exhibitions. And most of the works are available for purchase. The gallery, which fronts on Seventh and Walnut streets, is free and open to the public seven days.
See westonartgallery.com for hours, artist speaking dates, and other details.
–Sue Ann Painter