Exhibition reviews, Art criticism, and Critical writing

Here you’ll find writings and reviews by visual artist Loraine Lynn.

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SculptureX 2018: Igniting Change

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All art is Social Practice rang out as some of the last words of this year’s symposium, spoken by Saul Ostrow, curator and co-founder of SculptureX.

The event’s ninth year iteration, titled Igniting Change, took place over two days at the Toledo Museum of Art and Bowling Green State University. The focus was on the concept of Social Practice, a way of working in art that often gets traced back to the 1990’s. During his talk, Ostrow pointed out that the emergence of Social Practice began as early as 1913 with the Russian Constructivists (with the rejection of autonomous art) and can be seen later in the 1930’s with Social Realism (in work by artists such as Diego Riveria and Dorothea Lange).

Despite discrepancies regarding its origins, Social Practice is rising in popularity, both in art and academia. Taking this into account the question of whether or not artists can make an impact arises. Is the whole notion of Social Practice just exploitation hidden behind cheap spectacle and a jumble of buzzwords that don’t do anything besides raise awareness? Or can artistic intervention actually accomplish meaningful change?

The works of the keynote speakers, Mel Chin and Laurie Jo Reynolds, provide proof of the latter. Both their works give power back to the communities they engage with. The gesture of giving back – a statement that is always found somewhere in the script of activism – is a sincere one. An actual exchange of power and a shifting of dynamics takes place within how these two help facilitate resources to those who need it – whether it’s victims of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or individuals dealing with the damaging effects of solitary confinement in prisons or criminal registries and their stigma.

Why do you, an artist, understand our struggles but others don’t?

A question shared by Chin during his gallery talk; asked to him by his translator while he was working on The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine, a project considered an extension of the Fundred Dollar Bill project.

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Mel Chin during his keynote talk at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion on Friday.

Are artists more empathetic to the plights of others? This idea does play into the cliche of the artist as an emotional, in-tune being that is keenly aware and sensitive to the world around them. Many of the artists who spoke at the symposium were careful to consider their positions and privilege to figure out how they can best serve the communities in which they were engaging. This act provides a stark contrast to the other side of Social Practice, where communities are exploited and their tragedies are used to create art. An act of taking rather than one of exchange.

Chin spoke of people within the communities he visited and their concerns: asking him how an artist can help them with their problems and telling him he’d never be back once his “work” was done. Projects like Flint Fit and The Fundred Dollar Bill project return the power to the communities Chin works with by giving them ownership over parts, if not most, of the project.

In addition to the keynote lectures, there were two panels during the second day that covered a wide spectrum of socially engaged art. From talks on publicly disruptive installations to running a political campaign, the artists presenting revealed that the umbrella of Social Practice is far reaching.

Ideas of Disruption, a panel featuring artists Jimmy Kuehnle, Lauran Samman, and Jova Lynne spoke to the idea of artists stirring things up and using their power to dispense information and provoke interaction. Kuehnle’s work asks forgiveness rather than permission. The artist works in installation and sculpture utilizing colorful inflatables. He talked about wanting to have fun in life and that’s reflected in his space-invading installations and fantastic spectacles that include group-powered bicycles that invite public participation.

Identity and myth were the main topics during Jova Lynne’s talk. Specifically that of the black superwoman, a myth that alienates African American women by painting them as monolithic, seemingly non-emotional care-givers. Lynne finds strength within softness in her work and constructs sites of power through collaboration with women from her familial home of Jamaica. Lauran Samman shared about her process of collecting data and presenting it to an audience to tell a story and allow them to process it as they wish. Her work is currently dealing with environmental issues, specifically those brought on by the production of palm oil.

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Jova Lynne talking about her work at Bowling Green State University on Saturday.

Without Boundaries, the second panel discussion, featured Lisa Austin, who is also a co-founder of SculptureX. Through her work with the CIVITAS initiative, Austin, along with others, stage functional interventions in public spaces. She spoke about their ongoing campaign to save the McBride Viaduct, a structure crucial to the safe passage of suburban commuters to the waterfront in Erie, Pennsylvania. Austin’s work in social sculpture can also be viewed as performance as she recently ran for mayor of Erie, PA due to her work with CIVITAS.

Kate Levy presented clips from her documentary films, a way she uses her affluent background and privilege to show different communities’ plights. Levy talked about the closing down of schools in Detroit, as well as the water issues effecting there and Flint, showing the devastating consequences it has on the children and parents of the community. Her films highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy coming from those in power.

Shanna Merola acts as a witness to protests in places such as Ferguson and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Merola is not only an artist but an educator, holding workshops to inform people of their rights as witnesses and documentarians of such events. Like Levy, she takes an active step back and allows people and communities to speak for themselves.

With more and more educational institutions creating courses and programs centered around socially engaged art, there is a concern that must be addressed: what does it mean to teach and promote Social Practice within a system that perpetuates similar hierarchies and power dynamics that many socially engaged artists strive to protest and change?

What does it accomplish to operate within existing systems? Does it do more harm than good? Many of the artists that spoke create work that uses existing systems for subversion in order to enact change. Can institutionalizing Social Practice – creating a curriculum, crafting rubrics, assigning a grade, etc – make a difference or does it bring into reality some of the skeptical sentiments of the communities artists insert themselves within?

This issue wasn’t addressed formally at the event – it was discussed in one of many conversations that occurred after the day’s activities were done. This highlights the lack of questions and critical dialogue during the panels, an issue that was mentioned by Ostrow in the closing talk.

Without exchange there is no useful dialogue and without challenging conversations there is no moving forward. Socially engaged practices are built on that foundation and without that act of exchange and empathy, Social Practice just ends up being another empty gesture that is more about appearances and less about meaningful action.

SculptureX 2018 was a great introduction to the variety of processes that exist within Social Practice and without a doubt sent the attendees – and even the presenters – away with a lot to consider.

Information regarding SculptureX 2019 will be coming soon. For more information on this years’ symposium and participating artists visit http://www.catoledo.org/sculpturex or http://www.sculpturecenter.org/about-sculpturex/

Pretty Queer @ River House Arts

Mainstream society is dominated by heteronormative standards. The prevalent lens people typically view the world through is being challenged more each day as discontent with these standards continues to grow. Pretty Queer features nine artists whose works explore concepts of identity, cultural history as well as politics and subvert expectations of what that all means. Materials, techniques, and familiar subject matters are used to bring to light what has typically been overlooked due to complacency with outdated societal norms and conditioning.

Visibility is an overarching theme throughout the exhibition. Many of the works are layered, holding secret histories and meanings underneath sleek veneers of colorful gradients, kitschy objects, and formal compositions. Robert Fitzgerald’s Boys Wear Blue utilizes found objects to play with the concept of gendering colors. Three exposed drawers contain vignettes that include ceramic figures, golden apples, and mirrors. Fitzgerald’s work manipulates the iconography of objects, presenting multiple meanings and allowing the audience to make connections that may not have been visible before. Circular mirrors bring the viewer into the composition, allowing a moment of reflexivity. The presence of the golden apple can be read as temptation, knowledge, and even discord, depending on the stories and history one is familiar with.

Colton Clifford’s photographic print Untitled renders the audience a voyeur rather than a participant. While Fitzgerald explores ideas of masculinity, Clifford takes on the other end of the standard spectrum: femininity. The scene veers into the uncanny with two feminine figures enacting behavior that is usually associated with the mystical and femme. Tarot reading, a protective flower circle as well as the synchronization in the styling of the figures gives strength to a feeling of ritual and closeness (physical touching, the act of bonding, the practice of the occult) while at the same time keeping the audience at a distance from this intimate scene.

The concept of the body is approached in several ways within the exhibition. Stephen Owczarzak and Troy Hoffman’s work take on the body in an abstract sense. Owczarzak’s Throat 003, a singular ceramic cup, is a vessel rendered useless. Without function to consider, the piece’s relation to the body – particularly the hands, mouth, and throat – become a focal point for the audience to ruminate.

Hoffman’s Untitled, a collage of digitally rendered butthole roses could be considered vulgar. Despite that, there is a poetic gesture in the comparison of a part of the body that carries so much baggage to an icon of romantic love. The work is both subtle and confrontational, but the tongue-in-cheek nature of the comparison allows it to unfold in a devilishly playful way.

John Paul Morabito, "Frottage 052" & "Frottage 049"
John Paul Morabito, “Frottage 052” & “Frottage 049”

All things are visible, though we only see what we chose to focus on. The artists of Pretty Queer highlight concepts deemed universal and show what they look like when presented outside of dominant cultural norms. Being able to confront issues that were once considered off the table by heteronormative standards is refreshing. Unlearning what we’ve been taught to keep hidden and ignore as a society takes time, but this exhibition displays an elegant push-back and challenges the audience to do just that.

 

Pretty Queer, presented by Contemporary Art Toledo, is on view at River House Arts until August 5th. For more information visit https://www.catoledo.org/pretty-queer and http://www.RiverHouseArts.com/

“Matter, Matter, Object, Wall” @ Ann Arbor Art Center

Concerns and concepts of space are compelling topics in art, especially with the advent of social practice and activism as forms of expression. Taking art outside of institutions isn’t anything new, the interrogation of the “white cube” gallery space became popular in the 1960’s with the rise of Minimalism. Works were no longer restricted to the wall, they migrated to new spaces and demanded a deeper interaction with the audience. The curatorial foundation of Matter, Matter, Object, Wall is inspired by this decades old premise, presenting works that deal with these familiar concerns that are just as relevant now as they were when they were first explored.

The Minimalist idea of stripping away expressive excess and letting the materials and space evoke a moving experience for the audience is recapitulated in this body of work by various artists — all Cranbrook alumni. The pieces are highly formal and consist primarily of industrial materials, some having an intimate feel to them that plays well off the more impersonal pieces. Investigations of space span from architectural to personal with works that reference domestic space, designed space, and furniture.

Shelly McMahon’s grouping of various pieces takes inspiration from the Design Museum’s 1993 exhibition, Ideal Home. The concept of “good design” is explored through sculptures that come together to mimic a maquette, creating a space where the viewer can enter but never really find a sense of comfort. McMahon’s interest in one’s emotional dependence or bond with a space is evident through hand-constructed items found throughout the staging: an ashtray, sleeping bag, necklace, and a lamp. All the makings of home are present, though that notion is subverted through an alienation of the viewer and even the objects themselves.

While McMahon’s works explore connection with a space, Ruth Koelewyn does the opposite by referencing objects and places that create a feeling of disconnect. Blue Triangles consists of repeating prints of windows that are bathed in the neon blue light of Sky Shape, an accompanying neon sculpture. The prints are aligned in a grid formation, a favored tactic of Sol Lewitt. The repetition of the work is calming and familiar – like home – while at the same time giving off the cold, lonely feel of a cityscape enveloped in the light of signage.

Nadege Roscoe-Rumjahn’s work uses a dialed-down grid structure while retaining a personal, softer edge. Materials and processes often used in fiber are paramount in Roscoe-Rumjahn’s work. They evoke the idea of craft and the human hand, referencing Post-minimalism and its rebellion against the machismo that was inherent in most Minimalist works. North American Wildflowers emphasizes nature and tenderness through imagery of botanicals and techniques of hand-cutting and sewing.

The works of Sophie Eisner also carry on this sentiment. Soft and Heavy (Vignette #5) acts as a hybrid between sculpture and furniture, constructed of fiberboard and fleshy silicone. The modular formation of the silicone component harkens to the works of Eva Hesse, who was known for her material studies. The choice of materials and techniques throughout the show bring to mind ideas of craft and its position in the realm of fine art (which is always a hot, and at this point, worn out debate).

Victoria Bulgakova’s база (baza) elegantly rides the line between craft and fine art with a series of emotionally evocative works. база, translated means “base,” which leads the conversation to ideas of foundation and where one comes from. The objects appear to be manipulated thoroughly by hand, giving them a fragility that isn’t typically attributed to copper. This series encapsulates an idea of what it means to belong, concisely summarizing an overarching concept of the exhibition: what are the roots of creating and viewing art works and how have they, as well as their space, evolved throughout time?


Ideas of privileged space within art are being challenged with happenings such as coalitions rallying against galleries gentrifying neighborhoods (https://hyperallergic.com/314086/anti-gentrification-coalition-calls-for-galleries-to-leave-las-boyle-heights/ ) and museums being called to own up to their exclusionary histories (https://hyperallergic.com/446082/museum-protests-attacks-op-ed/). Is it enough to safely reference past concerns and interrogate them in a safe space? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the dilemma of the “white cube,” or at least figure out what that has evolved to be in contemporary art.

Artistic engagement can always be more and there’s demand for it to be more (however you wish to interpret that). Matter, Matter, Object, Wall is a fantastic introduction to these ideas of the politics of space and interaction, but in the contemporary artistic climate, it becomes just an echo of the concerns of the 1960’s, which comes off as an overdone, but beautiful gesture.

Visit https://www.annarborartcenter.org/exhibitions/matter-matter-object-wall/ for more information about the curator and artists.

Nancy Mitchnick & Ryan Debolski @ the Center for Visual Arts

Painting and photography are two different (and at one point competing) media with the same objective: to capture a moment. Nancy Mitchnick and Ryan Debolski, who both have work on display at the Center for Visual Art’s galleries, capture moments of disruption, decay, and formation.

Mitchnick depicts images of domestic structures in various states, showing landscapes both constructed and natural. Debolski uses the camera to capture images of isolation and vulnerability that are unmistakably masculine, though they embody the opposite of what we’ve been conditioned to consider as such. These separate shows share a connection through the histories of their chosen methods and also through ideas of transition.

Mitchnick’s large scale paintings focus on houses, using muted tones that are extremely pleasing and evoke feelings that are reminiscent of David Lynch’s signature unsettling 1950’s aesthetic. That nagging feeling that something lies beneath even though all appears fine on the surface. Large swatches of pinks, blues, and expressive brush strokes only add to this eerily calm aura.

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Triptych of paintings, Nancy Mitchnick

The paintings as a whole can be seen as linear, there is a before, during, and after. Starting with a scene of nature and ending with a house in a state of irreversible wreckage. The triptych of trees, abundant with brush-y marks and greens gives us a scene that nature regularly intervenes on – think of the change of the seasons. We don’t give this a second thought because it’s expected. This acts as a contrast to the disruptions occurring in the other paintings where the changes don’t seem all that predictable.

Flux is a constant state in life and both Mitchnick and Debolski confront us with this truth in their work. While Mitchnick shows us a break down in structures, Ryan Debolski’s series of photographs present us with the formation and construction of relationships, both personal and environmental.

Construction sites and building materials, rendered in black and white, give a sense of potential and also a sense of static; the disruption of construction zones is well known to many commuters. Compositions in several of the works are arranged so that attention is on the giant pieces of machinery, the extensions of the workers hands that form the sites as they dig, lift, and roll. Raw materials and machinery carry baggage, but at the same time also carry a universal meaning due to the people who control them and the structures they end up erecting.

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Set of four photographs, Ryan Debolski

In contrast to the cold machinery and materials are scenes of men, most likely workers, enjoying themselves on a beach. Images of bodies interacting – despite being dragged about – evoke a tender feeling, complimented by the image of a snake being released from a plastic water bottle. An ubiquitous masculine symbol being affected by a simple act of kindness. The emphasis in these works isn’t on the energy, movement, or symbols, but on ideas of isolation and the formation of relationships.

These two artists’ works are about shifting focus to what lies beneath, to give us insight on what is not always apparent at first glance. When thought about together the tension between photography and painting is unavoidable, adding another layer of complexity to these two separate bodies of work. Both these artists succeed in pausing life’s constant movement and allow us a moment to contemplate it.

 

Nancy Mitchnick’s work is on view in the CVA’s Main Gallery until October 6th. Ryan Debolski’s Break is on view in the Clement Gallery until October 31st. There will be a reception during the Third Thursday Loop on September 21st from 6-8PM. For more information please visit http://www.utoledo.edu/al/svpa/art/galleries/.

“Nature Morte,” Joanna Manousis @ River House Arts

In contemporary society the argument of what is real and what is fake focuses primarily on technology. Are we talking to a real person or a computer generated bot? Is that a hologram or an actual performer on the stage? Joanna Manousis explores this classic dichotomy through sculptures made of cast glass, bronze, and mixed media.

Glass is a material that defies many assumptions and occupies dual spaces; it is both a liquid and a solid, at times hard and at other times malleable. Nature Morte presents us with dualities that range from nature versus artifice and copy versus original in order to challenge the viewer to consider whether they’re actually seeing or just merely looking.

Reflection is a recurring aspect in the work. The use of reflective surfaces that shine and images of mirrors drive home the idea of image and vanity, whether it’s a literal reflection of the viewer’s image or the idea of cultivating and manicuring an identity. Is what we see actually what’s really there? Real/Artifice consists of seemingly identical mirrors that offer two different reflections while Veil, an ornate mirrored shield form, offers a fragmented look at ourselves and the surrounding space.

There’s always a barrier between the viewer and the work. The two hand mirrors can’t be held, a taxidermy peacock is settled behind the bars of a cage, and even glass pears hang suspended in bottles. The work is beautiful, displaying a level of finish and craft that inspires a sense of awe and ethereality. These aspects bring forth a lushness that is also echoed in the objects used within the work: a peacock, glass cut and polished to resemble diamonds, and clean natural wooden stands. The high level of craftsmanship is repeated in metaphor through Reaching an Ulterior Realm, which features mirrored glass balloons that pass for the cheap mylar ones seen in every “get well” basket. The balloons appear to be deflated and are accompanied by arrows. There’s a suggestion of archery, a feat that requires precision and practice, that never actually happened but was staged. Everything is meticulously placed but succeeds in luring the viewer to believe it’s been plucked from the wild, natural world and not created by an artist’s hand.

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Reaching an Ulterior Realm, Glass, bronze

This is what makes the work interesting – it comes so close to looking like the thing it’s mimicking. In the end that doesn’t matter because it’s not about fooling the viewer into thinking they’re looking at glittering gems or actual pears and pigs’ feet, it’s about offering a chance for contemplation on what these objects mean outside of their original context: are you just looking at it or are you actually seeing what is there?

 

Nature Morte is on view at River House Arts until June 17th. For more information on the artist and their work visit www.joannamanousis.com. Please visit http://river-house-arts.com/ for more information on this and upcoming exhibitions.

 

“Trans Human,” K.A. Letts @ River House Arts

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9 Muses, Vinyl applique

The future is an uncertain condition that continues to be the subject of speculation: what will become of our planet, of our species, of our own personal futures? K.A. Letts’ new body of work mines tales and styles from the past to present an interpretation of what the future could hold.

With the integration of the internet, smartphones, and social media into our everyday lives, our culture has shifted itself to align with technology. Our attempts to enhance ourselves physically, intellectually, and technologically is explored by Letts through the revisitation of ancient tales and myths that have largely shaped many cultures. The urge to overcome our (human) limitations – to get more, make more, and feed a sort of hunger that never seems to be satiated – is fueled by ambition. Throughout the work themes of inspiration and ambition are present in subject matter and even technique. The stylish and meticulously rendered paintings visually hearken back to Cubism and Abstraction, while the subject matter references the Bible and Greek mythology.

9 Muses, a large cut-out wall piece, catches the eye with its liveliness and movement, setting the tone for the rest of the show. The muses were female figures that granted inspiration to people in several different artistic areas. Throughout the exhibition there seems to be an exploration of women as shapers of culture – whether it’s through inspiration or through their actions. The tales presented traditionally have been seen as matters of good and bad, black or white, but are presented outside of those binaries within these works. Humans are complex creatures after all.

Tree of Knowledge 1 & 2 read like topographical maps of a confusing terrain. Based on the biblical tale of Lucifer’s offering of infinite knowledge to Eve, the two works can be compared to mapping, building, and infrastructure – some of the many marks we have as humans on this world. A muted color palette of black, white, and gold is visible throughout most of the work, along with the morphing images of human bodies. The shifting and evolution from what we know now as human and what the shape of things to come can be is presented in a subtle manner. There are no cyborgs, no machines, no artificial intelligence, just human tales interpreted and rendered by the human hand.

Does looking back to the past allow us to imagine the future? Whether universal or personal is the future even fathomable? Through looking back to tales that have shaped culture for centuries Trans Human gives a personal interpretation, both intimate and culturally specific, at what the future may hold. Even with speculation the future is an out-of-focus, close-but-far-away prospect that is tricky to concretely imagine. Despite that Letts’ proposition throughout this collection of work is both beautiful and mysterious.

 

For more information on the artist and their work visit http://www.kalettsart.com/. Please visit http://river-house-arts.com/ for more on this and upcoming exhibitions.

“Whipstitch: The State of Contemporary Textiles” @ Gallery 117, Ann Arbor Art Center

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Send Katy & Valentine, Rebecca Ringquist

The convergence of technology and fiber is ingrained within the discipline’s history; Jacquard punch cards paved the way for the invention of the first computers. Whipstitch: The State of Contemporary Textiles takes a look at the many facets of fiber and its existence as an industrial, decorative, technological, and highly intimate practice.

Dreamer (Series) #1: Maitena, a multi-media piece by Reed Esslinger-Payet, taps into universal concerns through emotional intimacy. A little girl’s outline, a cyanotype, is presented on a woven hammock and accompanied by an audio component: an interview with a male immigrant. He laments that he is able to disguise his background if he stays silent but is worried about speaking to others as it would give him away. He also worries about how the current socio-political climate of the country will affect his daughter. The outline of the body on the hammock is an imprint, a memory of simpler times, but simultaneously resembles a chalk outline. The work rides a fine line between memory and memorial.

Sensory experience is often a part of fabrics and textiles: the vibrancy of the colors, the feel of the materials, and even the sounds they make. Soft Sound, a work by EJTECH, an entity consisting of artists Esteban de la Torre & Judit Eszter Karpati, explores sound within textiles through the use of a conductive material adhered to fabric and activated with neodymium magnets. It’s a performative textile that comes off as a scientific project, emitting a low hum, which can be compared to white noise. The production of sound from the sculpture is reminiscent of the Fluxus attitude towards music, one that put forth that everyday background and white noise can be considered as a “legitimate” piece of music.


A less mechanical approach of blurring boundaries within textiles can be seen in several wearable pieces in the exhibition. A marriage of interaction and activation is presented by Heidi Kuamao’s Wired Wear. The work features an audio-activated bra that lights up as sound intensifies. Video documentation of the garment being worn, on loop, plays next to the work. At one point the video shows a train speeding by, sounding its whistle causing the bra to light up. This scene brings to mind the often sexualized images of women hitchhiking throughout pop culture. The garment, and its activation, transcend that issue by evoking a curiosity when it comes to the mechanics of the piece.


Video accompanying fiber was a running theme throughout this exhibition. Varied Choreographies by Erika Lynn Hansen & Wes Kline presents a woven rug placed in front of a large screen playing an animation. This piece creates a place of meditation that exists between the physically fabricated and the digitally fabricated; a delineation between the two where the viewer can exist in an in-between space away from the everyday.

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Apparently the smog has something to do it with: 3 & 5, Erika Lynna Hanson

Blurring boundaries with technology allows textiles to no longer be confined to the old conventions that they are commonly associated with it. Pushing and questioning traditions, as well as exploring the potential and the future of textile work, is invigorating. Whipstitch gives the audience a glimpse into that future and shows us the possibility of what’s to come.

 

Whipstitch: The State of Contemporary Textiles is on view at the 117 Gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center through April 29th. For more information visit: http://www.annarborartcenter.org/exhibitions/whipstitch-state-contemporary-textiles/