The Contemporary Dayton (aka The Co), formerly known as the Dayton Visual Arts Center, has moved. Its new home is a 6000+ sq ft. space featuring five galleries, including a video viewing room, that give it almost double the size it had at its previous location. The space itself is located in a years-in-the-making renovation of the Arcade, a downtown Dayton landmark and architectural gem that had been abandoned for 30 years and has been restored as part of an ongoing urban renaissance for the resolutely DIY city.
The move isn’t just about bigger space or an historic building; it’s about a vision of The Co that expands the organization’s profile by connecting local artists and audiences with a curated roster of national and international contemporary artists and exhibitions, claiming Dayton as a Midwestern city with a global perspective and reach, where art that addresses the concerns of our time is being made and seen. When longtime Executive Director Eva Buttacavoli, who has been steadily crafting this vision, recruited former Wexner Center Senior Curator Michael Goodson in 2020, it was game on.
Goodson was raised in Dayton and graduated from Wright State University before moving on to the Cranbrook Academy of Art and later a curatorial career in New York City, so this move is something of a homecoming for him. The three individual shows that comprise this inaugural exhibition establish The Co’s expanded vision with Goodson’s assemblage of Dayton artists Zachary Armstrong, who has exhibited throughout Europe and most recently had a solo exhibition in Beijing, Curtis Barnes, Sr., a prolific painter, art educator, and co-founder of the Dayton African American Visual Artists Guild (AAVAG), and Los Angeles-based Cauleen Smith, recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2020 Wein Artist Prize from The Studio Museum, Harlem.
The exhibitions, consisting of a large-scale installation, paintings, video, and artist books, demonstrate various modes by which artists serve as both participant and witness to their time. Each show engages with a different notion of community while integrating underlying themes of history, memory and mortality. Dayton native Zachary Armstrong’s show is designed specifically for The Co’s new space. Just inside the Fourth Street entrance, Armstrong has created an immersive corner to corner, floor-to-ceiling installation in the main gallery that surrounds visitors with a densely layered environment of wallpaper, paintings, and objects. It evokes a hall of mirrors reflecting a vast linear network. “Grids and Abstracts”, the installation’s title, refers to the repetitive black and white patterning that overwhelms the space, but within that exists familial references, obscure cultural artifacts, and elements of an artist’s studio, as well as humorous trompe-l’oeil imagery, quirky objects, and memorials to deceased friends. Nineteen encaustic and oil paintings are incorporated into the installation along with “Four lamps, two cats, six masks, two funeral pamphlets, four drawings, one sink, one fish, three circles, and one broom “, as is noted on list mounted to a faux exposed-brick column the artist created for the show.
Armstrong’s linear matrix, at times layered over indecipherable block text, projects and recedes from fore- to background on the surfaces of the walls and paintings. Its order and repetition take unpredictable turns, literally weaving in and out of images from art history and personal iconography, from reproductions of a 1906 naturalistic painting of Gari Melcher’s “Mother and Child” and a text mentioning Picasso’s 1922 version, to a mask of the artist’s father and a funeral pamphlet for Armstrong’s gallerist, Jack Tilton. It’s a scaffolding of time that breaks and reassembles the artist’s own autobiography. In the 3-part work on paper “Noah”, viewers can see the origins of at least part of Armstrong’s matrix, a child’s stick figure drawing made by the artist’s older brother of Armstrong when he was a baby. With an image making process that Goodson calls “filmic”, Armstrong used this drawing to form a complex structure through repetition and inversion that remakes the original image into an irregular, densely massed pattern progressing across the page.
“Grids and Abstracts” is specific to place, referencing people and things that keep Armstrong rooted to the Dayton community. Memorialized in one of his paintings is the artist Curtis Barnes, Sr., whose show “Love and Peace” inhabits the adjacent gallery. Barnes, who passed away in 2019, was an important mentor to Armstrong. It was at Armstrong’s suggestion that The Co’s opening exhibition feature Barnes’ paintings. Together Goodson and Armstrong curated this body of work, some of which had never been presented publicly.
“Love and Peace” consists of over fifty portraits and two large cityscapes Barnes painted from 1977 to 2003. Shown for the first time is an expansive 45-piece grid titled, “Westwood Community Center Portraits”, depicting his family and people from the community center with which Barnes was affiliated. The portraits, painted mostly in 1995, display the frequent drift from realism to abstraction that was characteristic in his work. Some portraits appear traditional, while others begin to reference African masks, with features becoming flatter, with harder geometric highlights and shadows, as in the portrait of another renowned Dayton artist, “Bing” (Bing Davis), with whom Barnes co-founded the AAVAG. “The multiple mask-like images”, says his son Curtis Jr., “can be seen as eggs or seeds, which express the continuum of life and family.” This concept is at play in a 1979 painting of the artist’s wife, “Portrait of Dorothy (Lady in Red)”, where the tonality in her realistically-featured face is rendered as three wide, flat stripes of yellow, light brown and deep brown.
Barnes’s show also includes several self-studies. A 1978 painting shows the artist’s face taking up the entire center and height of the large canvas, confronting the viewer with pride and curiosity, against a patterned, multi-planar blue and white ground that prefigures the African mask references in his later works. His forehead and cheekbones are sharp and pronounced; the fine details of color, light, and shadow in his beard and Afro hairstyle surround his face to project a full volumetric form against the background grid. Later self-studies from the 1990’s and early 2000’s are smaller scale and darker. The artist’s gaze is more contemplative as the brushstrokes in the beard and hair become softer and whiter.
Dayton has a prominent, highly recognized community of African American artists, which can in part be attributed to Barnes, who in 1975 founded Genesis III, an African American art coalition, in addition to later co-founding the AAVAG and being instrumental in organizing the African American Art and Cultural Festival. As an artist and teacher, he was devoted to sharing knowledge and opportunities. He inspired many of the area’s young artists, and in 2008 was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ohio Arts Council. With this exhibition, his creative legacy continues.
A legacy, or its erasure, is something Cauleen Smith addresses in her 2009 video “Remote Viewing”. In it, a contemporary mother and child bear witness to a reconstructed scene the artist created from a radio story she heard while travelling cross country. In the story, a man recounts how he watched his community dig a deep hole in which to bury an historic schoolhouse, built to educate Black students like himself, in an attempt to erase their history. In Smith’s video, viewers see the slow progress of an earth-mover dig a deep hole in front of small schoolhouse while a Black mother and son look on. Behind the schoolhouse is a towering greenscreen set against a dusty, barren landscape. In the scene after the hole is dug, the camera angle obscures the hole from view, while its lens compresses the distance between the viewer and the building. The earth mover emerges from behind the greenscreen and pushes the schoolhouse forward. Its bell swings with the movement and rings out. An instant later, the entire building is swallowed up by the invisible hole. When the dust settles and the dirt is replaced in the hole, nothing appears out of place, and yet the history of a whole segment of a community ceases to exist.
In this grand-scale project, Smith paints a vivid, quietly violent picture of the willful destruction of a history that connected people with their heritage. With “Remote Viewing”, though witnessing this event from a distance , she is able to “tell a truth by telling a story”, as she says in the artist’s book “Remote Viewing and Other Ways of Seeing” that accompanies the video. While not a member of the community where the story originated, she can resist the injustice of historical erasure done there by constructing a reimagined memory into a permanent artifact.
The art that we call contemporary of course incorporates many layers of time that it’s not possible to tease completely apart. The personal past is generative for Armstrong as a foundation for his interwoven imagery, as a community’s history is for Smith and Barnes to perpetuate a legacy or preserve the “seeds and eggs” of a next generation. The inevitable future is also enmeshed – our own mortality is imminent, as Barnes’ aging through his self-studies, Armstrong’s memorial paintings, and the refilling of the schoolhouse’s “grave” with dirt in Smith’s video attest. Where we find the present is in Armstrong’s relentless repetition of moment after moment, line over line, next after next, to infinity. With Barnes, the 1978 self-portrait gaze that holds us also connects him with artists across time who bear witness with meta-clarity to the arc of their life experience and role as an artist. Smith, in her looped video, with shocking brevity and the sound of a tolling bell, brings us, again and again, to the sudden moment we comprehend the gravity of the end. It is this work that haunts me most, as it captures the tension of the eternal present, the continuous weight of loss balanced by our greatest efforts to hold onto what is ours.
The exhibition will be on view from April 30–July 17, 2021.