ITHACA, NY — Since the spring of last year, Ben Bookout has been making The Rest (113 West State/MLK St.) as a real alternative to Ithaca’s often-tired downtown gallery scene. Photography teacher and technician – as well as an accomplished photographer in his own right – Bookout brings diverse interests and connections to his project. The personal and educational studio and exhibition space has become a lively gathering place as well as a place for unexpected and often fascinating exhibitions.
Conceived by Camaron Cohen and Rodrigo Guzman and juried by team, the gallery‘s “Artist Showcase Juried Exhibition” joins a broad field of regional artist surveys, both by invitation and by open call. The show (which runs through May 29) includes the work of 30 Finger Lakes artists working in the expected range of media.
An exhibition of this type inevitably attracts a wide range of submissions: from seasoned artists with distinct voices, to perennial amateur hopefuls, to the truly up-and-coming. While I can’t say I agree with all the selections, it’s to the gallery’s credit for bringing together familiar and unfamiliar names on an equal footing. As far as regional investigations go, this one is tight and thoughtful.
Displayed on a shelf behind the gallery window, a trio of small ceramic sculptures by SUNY Oswego instructor Renqian Yang stand out. Variously executed in porcelain and stoneware pulp, their abstract shapes recall leaves and petals, their allusions to nature enlivened with unexpected and varied textures and colors. The reference becomes more precise in “Ilinx”, the best of the three. Broadly conical in shape, the porcelain piece combines sections of white clay with bits of pale turquoise, mustard yellow, shiny black and, suggesting small roses, rose red.
As those of us who have done it know, hanging diverse and largely unrelated work like this here tends to bring out the intelligence – if not the flippancy – of curators. The perfect example here is the side-by-side pairing of Elizabeth McMahon’s unframed multimedia abstraction on cardboard “Moving Party”, with Deborah Bilinski’s trompe l’oeil acrylic on canvas “6 Boxes”. Done on elaborately faceted flattened cardboard, McMahon’s drawn, painted, and glued piece features a moving and often luminous agglomeration of zig-zags and diagonal hatchings reminiscent of the Cubists and Futurists of a century ago.
Bilinski’s piece also returns to the interwar period – here mainly Magritte’s arc ocular. Rendered in an overall beige hue, with deep shadows and pale pink accents, the piece is a faux diorama, with five cardboard boxes stacked haphazardly within a larger box – the delicately rendered edges of its open face coinciding with the edges of the canvas.
Photography is an understandable point of emphasis and relative strength – although there is a palpable lack of artists who really push the medium. Highlights include Steve Piper’s “Untitled Railroad Cars 1” and “2” – with their beautifully colored and textured echoes of color field abstraction – and local favorite Jon Reis, with his typically funny take on folk illusionism, “Waterfront, Lotus Lane, Port Stanley, Ontario.
Straight painting is not a particular strength of this show, with basic technique and familiar design aplenty.
My own heritage notwithstanding, I was publicly accused last year by a social media activist of “anti-Asian” and “anti-feminist” criticism for what I had thought to be my informed, non-malicious skepticism of the regard to the work of a local painter on themes of Asian-American history.
In this light – and with my characteristic naivety – please me with my account of Kacey Kim’s oil on canvas “Invasive Species”. The piece, which could be a self-portrait, depicts the head and upper body of a young woman, with long black hair and cartoonish yellow skin. Around it – we see a corner suggesting the interior of a glass aquarium – swim many goldfish, as if in the air rather than in the water. About the height of the course here in purely pictorial terms, the piece taps into a local vogue for what I have identified as a New Age revival of 19th century symbolism – combining it with a satire of the Yellow Peril that can be either brutal or “brave”. and in a timely manner, according to his inclinations.
It’s always a treat to see the work of Jessica Warner, a local painter who continues to push still life in unexpected and strange directions. A particular emphasis of his work for at least the past decade has been an attempt to present drawing and painting as equal and interchangeable. Although far from his strongest work, an untitled piece on paper here – combining gouache and watercolor with blue pen line drawing – is compelling in its irresolution. Blots of paint stained in ocher and lemon yellow, lavender and yellow-green lie heavily on a delicate, scrawled landscape of repeated patterns taken from a textile design.
In addition to being selected and organized with a certain care, “Juried Exhibition” simply benefits from the local ignorance of so many of its artists. It’s refreshing to see a downtown gallery continue to escape the closed loop of the all too familiar.