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and familiar subject matters are used to bring to light what has typically been overlooked due to complacency with outdated societal norms and conditioning.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/

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“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.

“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.

“Heterogeneous: States of American,” Josh Byers, David Cuatlacuatl, and Faith Goodman @ River House Arts

What is the American identity? We are experiencing a time of intense debate when it comes to who and what is considered American. As the push against the United States’ melting pot heritage continues, three Toledo-based artists’ works are brought together to examine what it means to be American; a concept which can be encapsulated by a single word: difference.

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Works by Josh Byers, David Cuatlacuatl, and Faith Goodman.

A mix of painting, collage, and ceramic sculpture from Josh Byers takes a trip down memory lane by presenting a nostalgic, yet sharp, look at formative years. Sketches and doodles of pop-cultural icons and consumables litter the work: Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy covers, Etch A Sketches, and Trapper Keepers. Images of buxom celebrities, and manly heroes of the seventies and eighties exude a distinct masculinity that was a hallmark of the their time, as well as echo the male anxiety that was a defining feature of Reagan’s America. Byers’ work speaks of the quintessential American infatuation with pop-culture and its fads, trends, and advertising that, to this day, is still growing strong.

American identity can’t be boiled down to consumption alone, there’s also aspects of rejection inherent within it. Faith Goodman’s work deals with a rejection of identity due to not meeting the expectations of one’s culture. Goodman processes this struggle through use of stereotypes and foods commonly associated with Black culture, appropriating typically racist caricatures to subvert expectations built from decades of ignorance. Mixed media and paintings confront the viewer with issues that many would rather just ignore or erase: imagery of watermelons with seeds in formation of how slaves were packed into ships as they were abducted, sculptures created from weaves, hair and tar, and depictions of voluptuous and vicious feminine forms. The confrontational work is timely, echoing the struggles – historically and contemporarily – that Black Americans are facing in this time of intense opposition.

The instability of existence, whether it’s due to social, economical, or political circumstances, is dealt with through issues of boundaries and mobility in David Cuatlacuatl’s work. Paintings and mixed media collage feature figures from pop-culture and found objects, giving them new meaning and life in disjointed compositions. The work is simplistic, an intentional move that takes a jab at the idea of value and hierarchies, which seem to constantly shift. Concepts of conquest – of nature, body, and consumption – are depicted on flat, matte surfaces, never following a linear path. The elements in Cuatlacuatl’s work come together to form snippets of a story, never presenting the full version, though we really don’t need it.

We’re currently in a time where the idea of what’s American is a polarizing issue. These three artists’ works meld together to show that the American identity is more complex, complicated, and varied than most would care to admit. This exhibition serves as a timely reminder that identity, American or otherwise, is always in flux and comprised of so many elements that the only constant factor is difference.

Heterogeneous: States of American is on view until March 4th. For more information visit http://www.river-house-arts.com/