Arts » Visual Arts

March First Friday in a Divided America

Checking out Punk flyers, minimalist sculptures, plein air landscapes, and Trumpian-era angst

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Concrete Jungle by Hector Del Campo
  • Concrete Jungle by Hector Del Campo

On First Friday I checked out the show of Hector Del Campo paintings “Divided By Abstraction” at Artistry. The venue was new to me but the artist was not: I was dying to find out whether Del Campo was making any kind of insinuation about the Indy arts community or politics with his intriguing title. Del Campo’s an instructor at Herron School of Art and Design, 39; he’s a first generation Cuban-American, who grew up in Tampa, Florida.

It was my second stop of my First Friday tour of galleries that had begun hours earlier at the Harrison Center for the Arts which was featuring Justin Vining’s Outside, an exhibition of brand new plein air paintings, mostly depicting Central Indiana landscapes, both rural and urban. Many of these paintings are super-detailed and crisp, with none of the fuzziness you see sometimes in impressionistic work, or by artists who label themselves impressionists. It’s quite a change from Vining’s older, more stylized paintings.

But there is real tension in both these styles. While in many ways Vining is a city rat, he has rural roots. Vining grew up on a family farm in northern Indiana. In 1999, when Vining was a senior in high school, his family sold the farm and auctioned off all equipment. “I can vividly remember that day,” Vining told me back in 2012. “Your barns being emptied and everything you have come to know disappearing in a day is not something easily forgotten.”

One of the standouts is “Buchanan’s View” where you see this rural/urban contrast. Unlike in his stylized work, this is a scene that is portrayed much as it is in reality. It is the choice of subject matter as much as the artistry that’s interesting here. There are not many places in Indianapolis where you can see the city’s rural past jutting up against its skyline in such a stark manner.

Buchanan's View by Justin Vining
  • Buchanan's View by Justin Vining

Coming from Vining’s show at Harrison into Artistry was, well, a little like walking in from Main Street in Nashville, IN (which has long been a center of plein air painting) into a swank New York gallery. In Del Campo’s work, there are colorful rainbows that look like they’ve been through the shredder: they’re heavy with paint drips and other expressive touches bumping into the hard edges of parallelograms.

I arrived before Del Campo and absorbed the ten paintings in this show. I particularly liked “Concrete Jungle” with its bold juxtaposition of styles.

When he arrived I asked him about the title of his show, which, as it turned out, was a commentary on his own style, not an insinuation, say, about the tastes of the Indianapolis art community.

“I was digging on the fact that a parallelogram has those two horizontal lines on top and then kind of having that divided by abstraction and dealing with both of those worlds and kind of bringing that geometric abstraction together,” Del Campo explained.

But that feeling of being in a New York Gallery wasn’t just about the art. Artistry is a brand-new “mixed use campus” on East Market Street downtown comprising both apartments and office space; its webpage claims the facility “allows your life to become a work of art.” What the Alexander has done for hotels—incorporating fine art into its business plan — you also see at play at Artistry. There were dozens of Millennials at the opening drinking wine, eating hors d’oeuvres, checking out the artwork to be sure in the common area that doubles as a gallery space, but also checking each other out.

Artistry occupies the piece of ground where the Market Street Temple, the home of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC), used to stand. Founded in 1856, this was a German Jewish congregation which served the surrounding neighborhood. But eventually the German Jewish community moved northward, taking their congregation along with it. Market Street’s German Jewish residents were replaced by a population of Hungarian Jews. The Market Street Temple was taken over by the Hungarian Jewish Ohev Zedeck Congregation. They remained at the Market Street location from 1899 until 1927, when they merged with Congregation Beth El and became Congregation Beth El Zedeck. Both IHC and Beth El Zedeck can currently be found on the Indy’s north side.

(In 1977, Dennis and Sandy Sasso became the first married rabbinical couple in Jewish history when they took the helm at Beth El Zedeck. Sandy Sasso, now retired, currently directs the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts Seminar at Butler University which convenes a group of diverse artists: they study in depth a particular biblical text from which they draw inspiration to create artwork. )

I reflected somewhat guiltily that I was out reporting on a Friday night, when observant  Jews are observing Shabbat (the Sabbath.) Is art more important than religion in my life? How about in the life of Indianapolis?

 “Since World World War II, the Museum has replaced the Church as the Church as the main focus of civic pride in American cities,” according to noted art historian/critic Robert Hughes.

I wondered if this might also apply to galleries in a city like Indianapolis, where for-profit galleries have been superseded in influence and popularity by nonprofits and some museums are indistinguishable from galleries (iMOCA) and other museums seem to spill over into gallery spaces, such as the Alexander Hotel curated by the former head of the IMA’s art department.

But there was no time to wax philosophical. I had a bazillion more galleries to get to. I headed then to Gallery 924 that was featuring Emily Stergar’s abstract sculpture in a show called Stack: A Layering of Elements.


Stack I by Emily Stergar
  • Stack I by Emily Stergar

“The transformation of landscape profoundly affects my work,” Stergar writes in her artist’s statement. “Land can be altered and manipulated to create a completely different environment. As a society, we block rivers and divert them to new endings, we cut mountains in half to explore and remove their innards, and dump burnt cities into lakes to extend the shoreline for building. We explore beyond our sphere. Have we found another place? Can it be made suitable for our habitation? My interest lies in humanity’s capability to transform our surrounding habitat, and in questioning our need for adaptation. With that in mind, I draw attention to change in landscape.”

And she does this with her “stacks” of natural and man-made elements —such as wood, concrete blocks, and Styrofoam — that, in her words, add up to an “orderly and understandable pile.”

I’m also not sure if the scaffolding of her artist’s statement holds up her stacks, as it were, conceptually but the ideas, as they are expressed, are interesting.

Robert Hughes has also written about how  the minimalist works of sculptor Carl Andre, which were put on display in London’s Tate Gallery during the 1970s, would be hard to identify as art outside the context of a gallery or museum.  So too in this particular case. It would be interesting to see how such sculpture sits in a zen rock garden.  The effect would be more jarring than in a gallery, I think, because when you'd be expecting to contemplate rocks you'd instead get her orderly piles.

There was nothing very zen about the next show I headed to, “The History of Indianapolis Punk Rock” presented by Satch Art Space, and overflowing into the adjacent Stokol Gallery at Circle City Industrial Complex, featuring vintage flyers and historical info from the punk rock scene and a performance by the band Cheetah Priest. There were some very cool flyers on display, flyers characterized by an improvised D.I.Y. aesthetic.

 Strange to think, looking back at it, that the rise of punk coincided with the beginning of the Reagan era and the dominance of some of the world's worst bands ever to jam up the planet's bandwidth: REO Speedwagon, STYX, and Foreigner among them. ( Not that I want to call anyone out or anything. ) But for every reaction there's an equal and opposite reaction, or so states Newton's 3rd Law of Motion.  Maybe, just maybe Styx was so terrible, so awful, that some new kind of music had to arise to counteract its effect.  Would that mean we have Styx to thank for the rise of punk?

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During the opening, apparently there was a man going around hanging up his own posters, but the organizers of the event decided to let him be. After all, it was a very punk thing to do.
Crowd at "The History of Indianapolis Punk Rock" at Circle City Industrial Complex
  • Crowd at "The History of Indianapolis Punk Rock" at Circle City Industrial Complex


In CCIC’s South Studios, the 30 years worth of work by playful, surreal paintings Becky Wilson were on display.

painting by Becky Wilson
  • painting by Becky Wilson


I also had a chance to view Raymond Gray’s 40-meter-long scarf in his studio, all in black.

“ It’s been a nine year journey," Gray told me.  "When I started working on it, my life pretty much shut down.  “All the black felt lining that’s how I felt, it was like a black hole."

For Gray, a fashion designer, working on the scarf was his ladder, as it were, out of depression.

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The last exhibition of the night was the Nat Russell-curated group show “How Are You Doing?” at General Public Collective in Fountain Square. GPC is one of the last gallery space holdouts in Fountain Square, now that iMOCA and Primary Gallery have emptied out of the Murphy Building.  

That question/title  is a loaded one, considering the results of the election, considering Trump’s apparent contempt for the arts, manifest in the administration’s stated desire to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

It is not just the threat of the elimination of the NEA, or the harassment of artistic types by Customs officials at the American border, artists are also posed with the question, why create art at all? Paintings like Ilma Gore’s “Make America Great Again,” which depicted Trump naked, with a micro-penis.  But this unflattering piece of work didn’t stop Trump’s ascendancy.

There was nothing as provocative as this at this show. Instead there was, along with a subdued air in many of the works, a sense of the contemplative. Travis Millard’s mixed media drawing showing an artist at a desk, trying to draw but just coming up with scribbles, wads of crumpled up paper at his feet, a swirl of gaseous confusion (and planets) swirling around his head.


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Rich Jacob’s untitled black and white drawing might be a self portrait for all I know: in its expressionistic density, where the lines are as thick as barbed wire and the shadows like the underbellies of clouds, it speaks to my own election-born anxiety.

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Ramsey Dau’s “U.S.” immigration survey” also speaks to election anxiety, and asks patrons to “Draw a Picture of Your God.” It’s a demand that cannot be met by adherents of two world religions, Islam and Judaism, since both prohibit graven images.

I’ve talked to artists who feel under siege, who are struggling mentally in the age of Trump, but maybe there is hope.

In Matt Burriesci’s Jan. 28 article in Salon “How the arts helped kill off the NEA — by trying to play the conservative “economic value game,"  in which he makes the point that artists can never save such programs by co-opting the language of the enemy.

He writes:

A humanistic culture does not select a crazy demagogue to lead it. We are no longer a humanistic culture. One of the reasons we are not is because we, as cultural leaders, have abandoned our charge to create that culture, and do so without shame, apology or equivocation. We have spent far too much time articulating the economic and ancillary benefits of our disciplines and not enough time actually building and serving the culture
.

Ça Ira by Liana Jegers
  • Ça Ira by Liana Jegers


So building and serving the culture is something that artists can do, with or without the NEA, even if that struggle might seem futile. And if art is a form of religion for much of us,then it might help to have a little faith. And that sentiment is captured by Liana Jegers in her mixed media work on paper, "Ça ira” (which translates to It’ll be Fine, the title of a song popular during the French Revolution.)  The piece of paper this work has been composed on has been folded into quarters, and then folded into quarters again, and unfolded, as if the artist was carrying it around as a talisman in her pocket to ward off evil.

But maybe the talisman itself is the idea that art is essential to a humanistic society, that it’s more essential than any kind of deal making. Whether the Trump era will be a raw deal for artists, or whether or not it will inspire an artistic renaissance in response to his crass materialism and his bigotry — recalling Newton's 3rd Law of Motion —  remains to be seen.

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