Expect the Unexpected: AlRI Members’ Show
By J. Fatima Martins
November/December 2017 Issue
A landscape of calm, with bursts of intellectualism and touches of emotive storm, is what you’ll find at Bristol Art Museum (BAM) in the 18th Annual Elected Members Art Exhibition organized by the Art League Rhode Island (ALRI). The overall tone of the exhibition is comfort, beauty, and subtle quiet acts of rebellion. There are elegance and charm as well as mystery and engagement. What I liked most about this exhibition is that it pulled me out of my general feeling of cynicism. Art, in a beautiful light-filled gallery space, such as the one offered at BAM, gives us an opportunity for intermission and relief away from the harm we receive daily from the world around us.
There are many amusing and skilled works, with Alice Benvie Gebhart’s glass wall-sculpture landscape “The Future is Bright” and Krzysztof Mathews’ robot portrait, “Hold the Line,” being favorites among exhibition organizers. As expected, the exhibition offers diversity in subject and materials ranging from work showing local interest — like the photograph “Town Beach” by David DeMelim — to more patient and introspective works, such as “Floral Pattern,” an example of book art by Carol Strause FitzSimonds, and experiments with new media, including Kristie Gardiner’s “CCRI 2017 Chosen,” a light-box photograph exploring minimalism and the dynamics of space. There’s also stylistic contrast. You’ll find a glamorous realist portrait of a drag queen, “South Beach Drag Queen, Miss Noel Leon at the Palace,” by William Heydt, and abstract and physical paintings, like my personal favorite, “Constrained,” by Ken Steinkamp.
Steinkamp’s mixed-media, abstracted line drawing and painting on multiple layered panels of wood framed in metal deserves attention. It may be the best in the show. Steinkamp makes abstracts that are bursting with energy. In each mark, the viewer can read and feel his process. We have an idea of the tough tools he’s using and the way his body moves to create the composition. The expressive flowing marks are beautifully raw and textured. But, in spite of its beauty, “Constrained” has a problem. In this exhibition, in a gallery filled with bombastic bright colors and light, it’s somewhat lost and overlooked due to its subdued color arrangement — it’s gray, white and silver in tone. The first time I noticed Steinkamp was a few years ago at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island, and it’s a pleasure to see and examine his work again at BAM. His paintings are a lot more complex than they appear at first glance. Steinkamp is definitely an artist to keep watching and to look for in other regional and, hopefully, national exhibitions.
The other piece that surprised me is “2015 Tapestry Diary,” a clever vertical handwoven panel by Janet Austin. I’m generally not attracted to works of art within the craft tradition unless the work has something important to say or is technically exquisite, so during my first walk around the gallery, I ignored Austin. When I did the second walk, I felt eyes upon me, and looked over and realized that there were eye designs woven into the tapestry. I was being watched! When I moved in to look closely, I found deconstructed female faces – eyes, lips, noses and an abundance of abstracted objects. At that point, the tapestry became absolutely fascinating. It’s structured to represent a pages-within-a-diary idea. Each of the 12 horizontal sections, reading from top to bottom, is in a different color arrangement, and contains within broken-up forms that evoke the artist’s private thoughts. On the last panel at the bottom, 2015 is woven in gray, white and black tones.
Moving forward with my general disinterest in craft, I was again flummoxed to find myself liking a ceramic vase, the kind you could easily put flowers in. The artist, Jillian Barber, calls it a sculpture, and it is. “Road to Paradise” continues the tradition of ceramic making that is ages old. Specifically, it’s a vase with animal images, and the small circular wooden base on which it stands gives it an Asian sensibility. I don’t know if it was the bright sunlight in the gallery or the fact that I was hungry, but the motifs – happy elephants with gold-tipped wings, big purplish-pink butterflies and lucky frogs against lush pond and jungle green – made me happy; I giggled. “Road to Paradise” pulled me out of my critical state; it reminded me that when it comes to art, it’s best to allow yourself to move with no constraint or reconceived prejudices, allowing the unexpected to grab you.
Whether by design or by accident, Barber’s “Road to Paradise” is exhibited near “Taking Flight at Dawn,” a diptych acrylic and graphite on canvas, abstract land-and sky-scape by Karen Rand Anderson. Here we have a hazy field that is coming alive. Anderson’s painting lulls the viewer into a state of calm but active movement. There’s a sense of panicked rush against a sky of peace. The feeling of being “woke,” to apply a contemporary term for awakening. The intellectualism and energy come from the abstract style and the crazy nonlinear lines above a field of moody blue. Anderson has created an outdoor environment presenting a condition simultaneously ethereal and physical.
Because we are living in a world that is heaving with unpredictability and anxiety, it’s expected to see expressions that offer awareness, commentary and resistance against oppression. Like Anderson’s “Flight of Dawn,” which is a subtle in its commentary, Susan Fossati presents a pastel drawing of a protest crowd scene called “Presa di Coscienza.” Fossati has used a light and quick sketching style to draw out the figures in the crowd, giving attention to faces. At first glance, the drawing appears to be another relaxing, pretty scene, until you look deeper. There’s a building in the top background, almost a shadow of what looks like the United States Capitol. The crowd is holding peace signs and there’s text within the drawing that reads: “I will not go quietly back. Rights Women’s Rights. Unite. I’m with Her.” Presca di Coscienza translates roughly as “taking consciousness” or consciousness rising, waking up, and an act of realization as an activist movement or collective dynamic.
It’s impossible to describe all the excellent artworks in the “18 Annual Elected Members Art Exhibition.” What you’ll find is something for everyone. Along with the artist already mentioned above, the exhibition presents work by the following artists: Dave Kendrick, Hiroko Shikashio, Cynthia Whalen-Nelson, Kendra Bidwell Ferreira, Susan E. Patterson, Cathy Chin, Anne Winthrop Cordin, Nancy Gaucher-Thomas, Joan Hausrath, Nancy Nielsen, Aaron Usher, Priscilla Foley Blackman, Kathy Hodge, Robin Beckwith, Marian O’Connell, Paul M. Murray, Elena Obelenus, Felicia Touhey, Eric Hovermale, Dora Atwater Millikin, Grace Bentley-Scheck, Elizabeth Goddard, Mimo Gordon Riley, Susan Webster Kieronski, Pam Neal, Ilse Buchert Nesbitt, Peter Hussey, Marjorie Ball, Gretchen Dow Simpson, Beverly Silva, Jeanne Tangney, Reenie Barrow, Kenneth Speiser, Wanda Perkowska Coderre and Sandra Aarons Krupp.
Since its founding in 2000, the Art League Rhode Island has offered membership and exhibition opportunities to artists at all levels, emerging as well as established professionals.