Teachers make the grade
Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery
283 Washington Ter., Middletown, CT (860) 685-2694
The Faculty Show
Apr. 28—May 27, 2007
The Faculty Show, in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery is precisely as advertised, a showcase for a selection of works by ten studio art instructors at Wesleyan, the first such show in a decade. The exhibited work spans the spectrums from austere abstraction to classic landscape representation, from paintings to sculpture to installation and contemporary/conceptual to, well, classic landscape representation.
Leslie Snipes' two large pencil drawings are meditative and precise. Consisting only of straight lines drawn with a ruler and mechanical pencil, they have echoes of Op Art or the minimalist musical compositions of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But where the latter musical composers incorporate increments of motion and change in their pieces, the only real variation Snipes plays on her theme is in the pressure of the graphite. It is the purity of intention and the subtle variations of line weight that engage the eye.
A Professor of Art with a 36-year career at Wesleyan, David Schorr is represented by two series, both titled "Goods." One series is comprised of nine studies, executed with gouache and silverpoint on linen, of familiar objects. Perhaps inspired by Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can, Schorr's illustrations depict butter packages, tuna cans, pasta boxes, 3-In-One household oil and more. His representational skills serve him well here; in addition, he brings a graphic designer's appreciation—one of the subjects he has taught—to his observation of these everyday items. Separately, a slide show, entitled "Goods (Unpackaged)," plays on a video monitor. This is a series of 900-plus digital images shot in India of brightly colored and patterned fabrics, fruits and flowers. It is a consumer society cornucopia colored by that culture's rich traditions.
J. Seeley has taught photography at Wesleyan for over 30 years. Initially strongly resistant to digital imaging—according to his artist statement, he once had a cross made of Kodak Tri-X black and white film "hung over my darkroom door to ward off the digital menace"—he has become a convert. His surreal photo compositions are captured with a flatbed scanner and use of Adobe Photoshop. There is a chilly precision to these images. The allusions are obscure; they seem to hint at a strange 21st century metaphysics. They are also puzzling from a technical standpoint: How does Seeley manage to capture the illusion of depth with a scanner? The technical virtuosity was dazzling and I was left with a desire to know more about both his process and about the meaning of the imagery.
A Visiting Artist in Art and East Asian Studies from Japan, Keiji Shinohara's specialty is in the traditional Japanese woodblock printing style known as Ukiyo-e. But because he is left-handed, he also studied the Sumi-e ink brush painting technique to develop fluidity in the use of his right hand. The works in this show are Sumi-e paintings inspired by his observations of attempts to preserve ancient wall paintings. This "Dragon" series, numbered 1-3, is an interesting mesh of traditional Japanese dragon imagery with fields of mottled earthy abstraction. It is almost as if the dragons are puzzled by this imagery occupying their terrain. Or, perhaps, alarmed. As the abstraction spreads (and the wall crumbles) they are threatened culturally as surely as real exotic animals are threatened by the decline of their habitats.
While on the subject of painting and tradition, it is worth noting the work of both John Frazer and Tula Telfair. Frazer, a Professor Emeritus, is represented in the show by two oil paintings, still lifes of fruits and vegetables hanging by strings. "Eggplant & Tomatoes" and "Leeks, Garlic & Peppers" are gestural studies in contour, surface and light and shadow. I loved the way he captured the rotund gleaming skin of the eggplants. On the other hand, I thought he fell short in his rendering of the ristra of chiles. In the immediacy of the gesture, their essential "pepper"-ness is lost. I thought I was looking at a pinecone until I read the title card.
According to Tula Telfair's artist statement, her works in the show are "my small single-panel paintings." Notwithstanding, these are rather large oil on canvas paintings (5-foot by 5-foot). With their vistas of mountains, waterways snaking through vast expanses of wilderness and high skies host to billowing clouds, they clearly owe a debt to the Romantic tradition. Telfair, in contemporary postmodern tradition, puts some distance between her efforts and their antecedents. The titles—"Early Utopian Ideals," "Modulating Formal Elements" and the like—encourage the viewer to transcend the pure enjoyment of the paintings and rather to meditate on them as part of an ideological construct. The subtle bands of painted color bordering the main image reinforce the artificial nature of the paintings: that they are artifice and not nature. But they look damn good.
Two of the artists in the show incorporate technology to offer visitors an interactive experience. Kate TenEyck looks to the past with her hand-built machines. They were constructed, in part, from found objects from her house and yard, owned by her family going back three generations. "Saw Machine" and "Carousel," with their big wooden wheels and farm implements, recall a rural life where work and culture were connected to the land. "Carousel" is particularly impressive, topped by sun-bleached branches and slim trunks of trees reaching high up toward the gallery ceiling. When a visitor works the mechanisms, the body rotates and the trees, like ghostly tall, thin children, ride up, down and around.
John Slepian offers interactive new media works that are both creepy and cuddly. Using 3-D graphics and interactive computer programming, Slepian created virtual creatures. They look like a cross between an amoeba and a rodent. The three video installations offer three disparate emotional scenarios. "The Kiss," which is not interactive, isolates two critters in separate monitors. The viewer projects their own experiences with separation and longing on these "animals" as we watch them struggle to reach each other, without success. In "Caged," an animal sits in a simulated cage. As the viewer gets closer, the creature hurls itself at the bars, as if attacking. "Pet" is more warm and fuzzy. Touch the image of the creature on the video monitor and it coos or chortles as if being caressed or tickled. On the wall behind "Pet" is a large computer-generated photo that depicts the virtual pet's "natural habitat." It is both totally artificial and completely convincing. In the end, these creations are not about the animals but about our own emotions and our relations with the natural and domesticated world.
Assistant Professor of Art Elijah Huge approaches questions of nature and domestication from a different angle, as an architect. On display are models and digital prints for three site-specific projects, "Intertidal," "Overlace" and "Parkslope." For Huge, traditional architecture's binary approach—built environment here, nature there—is a false construct. His maquettes and illustrations depict landscapes in which the constructed and natural are inter-penetrated.
Of the two mixed media installation works by Jeffrey Schiff, the more playful one is "Vertical Hold." Three large digital prints of the sky are push-pinned high on the white gallery wall. The highest is solid blue. The image to the left has one wispy cloud and the middle and lowest has seven clouds. These clouds appear to be held in place by brackets at the end of long steel rods reaching up and resting against the prints, as though it takes the manufactured works of human beings to hold the clouds aloft. "Mobile Global," which is a prototype for a planned larger piece, appears to be a commentary either on the shifting of tectonic plates or the migration of peoples. Big spools of carpet dispense segments onto rectangular planes astride rolling casters. Gray, blue, patterned tan and two different floral patterns: Cut off from the mother spool, they jostle each other in an increasingly polyglot arrangement.