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The 88th Annual Spring Show at the Erie Art Museum

Road Show

Traveling Route 5 past Brandt, Irving, Silver Creek, Dunkirk, weather being what it was in early May, we drive past bright green fields, sighting spring freshets and high water in the streams and creek beds. The misting rain shrouds the horizon as we stop at one of the native gas plazas that dot the route down to Erie, PA.

Erie is the town on the lake that one glimpses, at intervals, from Route 90, along with hyphens of the lake itself through distant woods and farm buildings. The town’s significance as a pre-Revolutionary outpost was emphasized during the War of 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 engendered the remark “Don’t give up the ship,” uttered at a point in the exchange of cannon with the British fleet when the American side was in doubt. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry spoke those words, which went, in a manner of speaking, “viral,” along with “Fire when ready, Gridley,” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Later, at the Erie Yacht Club looking at a map of the lake, it was not hard to imagine the significance of the American Naval Fleet to the nautical security of the region during the fledging years of the republic on the lake.

My friend and “small-town girl” drove down to Erie to see the 88th Annual Spring Show, comprising art submissions from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and neighboring New York, all entries coming from within a 250-mile radius. As the guest juror stated, “My process for selecting work was to look for work that reflected the artist’s idiosyncratic view of the world.” Within the bounds of the exhibition in the spacious surrounds of the Erie Art Museum, the classic polarities of a large group exhibition—90 works accepted from 74 different artists—were in place: faith versus skepticism, hope versus pessimism, engagement versus neutrality, and imaginative freedom versus ideology. The experience of being pulled in several directions is corollary of viewing a group show. There is a diverse range of work submitted in a comprehensive outlay of processes and materials.

Much of the work is either digitally photographic or elaborate found/mixed media, leaving little room for painting (only six actual paintings on canvas), reflective of the greater general interest in the former art forms. The paintings are either oils or acrylic and are, in the main, the least compelling images presented. However one piece moved past that assessment, Ron Bayuzick’s Spring Time Light Trap, acrylic on paper, an inspired, intuitive scribbling in riotous scrawls of color. Printmaking holds a stronger position than drawing, and there are interesting examples among the submissions: Hear No Evil, a clothed figure lying on his side in a single bed, is a Japanese-style watercolor woodcut, by Bill Mathie. This technique, in the manner of ukiyo-e, the classic watercolor woodblock of ancient Japan, always gives the subject matter an illustrative authority through clarity of design. A large graphite drawing by Suzanne Proulx, titled Dinosaur, is a careful rendering of a new-born baby bird, looking very much like its prehistoric antecedent. Another, a graphite drawing by Diane Pierce titled Chickamauga, presents a phantasm cataloging the full range of expressive horrors visible on a woman’s face.

Photography outside the digitally altered variety is expressed in two works by Mark Kirsch, from Jamestown. Using a 19th-century salt and silver nitrate process developed by the father of photography, Henry Fox Talbot, Kirsch sites his subjects, Swan and Kites, in a gauzy atmosphere of sepia pink, giving a feeling of veiled intimacy despite physical remoteness of the scene. Dietrich Wegner’s Cumulus Brand, Sabine and Sebastian, is a large photo print of two wide-eyed babies covered with multi-colored fake tattoos depicting logos from corporations spanning the advertising spectrum from soup (Campbell’s) to nuts (Planter’s). Heaven, by Darren Lee Miller, presents a standard-bearing image for the modern ironic icon: A typical housewife stands, domestic, posed with a hose-type vacuum cleaner on her front walk while two persons pass out of the frame symmetrically. Her gaze is fixed beyond the horizon.

Mixed media gets a mixed review. In this most idiosyncratic of art forms, the technical resolution of disparate objects depends entirely on the artist’s own personal taste, appearing to a viewer often tentative and ambiguous. In one case fewer elements make a stronger impression. Jay Hanes uses a hand-hewn oak tenon from an 1850 New Lebanon, Pennsylvania barn to fashion a monolithic figure with certified PA Department of Agriculture beeswax and his own hair. Nick R. Square arranges a table with five large jars normally associated with bar-side pickled eggs, to present an interactive installation titled Inventing the Piano Using Francis Picabia, referencing the 20th-century French painter and poet associated with both the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Here the jars are filled with various kinds of small objects freely arranged to shift about when turned. A patron was showing his son the work, encouraging him to pick up and twist the jars to rearrange the contents. The boy gave it a turn and said, “What’s supposed to happen?” The father replied, “Sometimes the artist just wants you to do something without telling you why.”

That is what art has always been, to witness without being told why; it’s an experience in free will, open-ended to provide as much interpretation as one can work up in one viewing.

Exhibitions of regional artists’ work in annual group exhibitions continue to play to the growing conservatism in society generally and cultural arts in particular. Even when clearly stated, an artist’s intentions are only one aspect of what determines how an artist is received and valued by our culture. In our culture, the institutions of exhibition and criticism, in the best of cases, work together in a creative act of interpretation where both meanings and reputations are made.

j. tim raymond

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