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Winter Exhibition Series at the Indianapolis Art Center

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Vandra Pentecost, "Dryad"
  • Vandra Pentecost, "Dryad"

I can only imagine the difficulty for art students these days, faced with a bewildering array of possibilities, trying to pick an area of concentration. What’s going on in the upper echelons of the art world these days probably isn’t making that decision any easier. Consider the newly opened exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. This exhibition focuses on abstract art that self-consciously refers to art history and not necessarily referring to anything beyond that history. Forget about trying to create anything new, the curators of this show seem to be saying. It’s all been done before.

But the 11 artists participating in the Indianapolis Art Center’s 2014 College Invitational Exhibition—grads and undergrads currently enrolled in art degree programs throughout the state—seem to be doing just fine. And the prominent placement of their work in the main gallery as part of the IAC’s Winter Exhibition Series through Feb. 1 2015 seemed well-deserved when I stopped by during the opening reception on December 12.

I suspect that one of the works on display here would fit quite well into the MoMA show. Samuel Gillis’s large and largely abstract mixed media painting “Society Rules” evokes Willem de Kooning’s most iconic work—among them his Woman series—with its brusque gestural strokes of paint and faint suggestion of facial features (but without the suggestions of misogyny that this iconic painter was known for). There were also the wavelike ripples in the canvas itself and the conceptual content suggested by the title that went beyond the merely derivative.

The invitational’s Best in Show winner was anything but abstract: Danielle Pugel’s stunningly inventive mixed media sculpture “Encounter,” took the form of a rabbit-like being that appears to have leapt out of a Japanese manga comic strip. But this is no ordinary rabbit, what, with its birdlike purple feathers and antennae. Depictions of hybrid animal forms go back to the days of Ancient Egypt and before but artists keep on creating them. I recall the work of Herron M.F.A graduate Melanie Christine Warner who displayed her lithograph prints at the IAC back in 2011, showing a menagerie of hybrid creatures in a show simply entitled New Work. This work was just as new and fresh as Pugel's, and referred not to previous art movements but to transitional points in her own life. Both Warner's and Pugel's work would seem very out of place in the MoMA show since their reference points can’t be located in New York—or anywhere near New York for that matter. (And at any rate, in the eyes of the MoMA curators, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.)

Another standout was Jennifer Niswonger’s oil on canvas painting “Death of a Virgin” that portrays a beautiful young woman as you might find her in a hospital bed or in a coffin in shades of bruised blue and plasma pink. This depicition features some radical foreshortening: just look at her enormous hands resting peacefully on her belly. Maybe it’s the tension between virginal beauty and deathly decomposition makes the painting provocative. Maybe it’s the peaceful smile on her face.

But the prize for most provocative work at the Winter Exhibition Series would probably have to go not to a student but to Brooklyn-based mixed media artist Catya Plate, with her embroidery, her clothespin freaks, and her stop motion video, “Hanging by a Thread,” which featured freaks made from clothespins. It also employs embroidery featuring the imagery of said freaks as well as vulkeets (combinations of vultures and parakeets). In the video, the grotesquely adorned four-eyed clothespin freaks are manipulated by the vulkeets to create a new race of beings from the eggs they drop. And you can see the clothespins used in the video here as well as the embroidery. In one section of the video you see the clothespin freaks leading the newly hatched creatures (skeletal white beings with large brains) in a sort of dance that reminded me of the zombie dance in the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video.

Plate, on hand at the exhibition talked with me about in this video, how she was creating a new mythology, in this time when the entire world seems to be hanging by a thread.

More provocative than these, at least in the method of composition were Plate’s “suture drawings” of the clothespin freaks employing mixed media, sutures and blood (her own) on paper. Now the use of the blood was controlled and sparing, not some kind of expressionistic orgy of emotional bloodletting, as it were. Speaking of emotions, the more I tried to connect with this art, as admirable (and provocative) in its innovative use of media as it was, the more I felt distanced from it. Maybe her personal mythology was too personal for me.

Older Mediums

Isn't it an innovation, both stylistically and conceptually, to evoke the newness of the contemporary world in an older medium? In painting? This is my question in regard to the oil on canvas painting entitled “Pseudo-science” by Kansas City-based Russell Shoemaker, picturing a woman levitating over a pond in the middle of a forest (one of a half-dozen of his paintings on display). In her hand: a lit cigarette. The single word that leapt from Shoemaker’s artist’s statement was “digital” I could see the image of this work of art working well as a screensaver and I don’t mean this as a putdown. The patterns of light and color are seamlessly interwoven between foreground and background and the patterns seem like they might shift at any second. Something in his half-pixelated, rainbow-bright depictions where all the colors seem to bleed into each other seem like half-remembered recollections of a dream channeled through what, in the future, Apple computers might market as a laptop-based dream recollection devise with forehead-attaching electrodes.

Moving on as if from the Internet Age to the decidedly low-tech, I talked to Terrence Campagna, whose wall-hanging constructions adorned the hallway. In the piece “Three Broken Lattices,” he builds upon planks of crosshatched, weathered wood found in outbuildings on his travels throughout the Midwest. He attaches his own geometric constructions (incorporating found objects) onto the original lattices, using them as canvases. His own constructions are thin, narrow planks of wood sandwiched together, painted in different colors, creating meandering geometric forms that might be described as mutating mid-century modern motifs.

Campagna said of his art: “A lot of the origins came from my connections with the older wood from these old out-buildings, these old structures that were really beautiful in the way they translated light and air and so a lot of the work was video first but then I started collecting wood and then I started putting it on a tablesaw and playing with it and as I moved around the Midwest."

Do it all

And then from the very focused art of Campagna, I moved to the exhibition highlighting the work of this year’s Skip McKinney Faculty of the Year winner Vandra Pentecost, an instructor at the IAC who is pretty much a master of all mediums. (Her answer to the mind-boggling array of possibilities available in terms of media these days: Do it all.) Along with the art, there was wall text describing the various workshops around the country in which she participated in which she created some of the work on display. While this may have been helpful for an art student or professional looking for the hottest art workshops, I found it distracting from the art itself.

Examples abound of her sculpture, collage, painting, drawing, commercial design, and this is not a comprehensive list. By far my favorite of her works on display was the digitally enhanced drawing, from life, “Dryad,” a depiction of a young woman, nude, in the forest, contemplating whatever it was that she was contemplating. With its allusions to Greek mythology it seemed to marry the 21st century AD to the 6th Century B.C. both in its allusions and its method of composition. (It was drawn from life before being scanned into a software program and digitally painted.) This work would also make good screensaver art; like Shoemaker’s painting I described earlier, geometric patterns in the foregrounds and backgrounds bleed into one another, heightening the overall effect of the composition.

But back to the subject of the composition herself. Faced away from the viewer, seated on a tree stump, she is stunningly beautiful, mysteriously erotic. She is communing with nature without the barrier of clothes between her and the elements and, for that matter, the viewer. Maybe she reminds you of someone you know (or would like to know). Or maybe she reminds you of the way you were at a particular time in your life, when you had time to commune with nature without feeling bound to wear heels to work.

With its digitally savvy content, this piece evokes what the MoMA exhibition curator Laura Hoptman as "a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once," but it also has the power to do what might not be possible for any painting there to do. That is to make you feel not just the pleasure of recognizing a stylistic reference but the actual shock of recognition.

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