54th Annual Exhibition ‘a pleasant tumble of ideas and manners’

Gabrielle Israelievitch views the 54th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art on Tuesday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

I’m sorry, but this show is just not the way it is supposed to be.

It’s off-kilter, sometimes upside-down and usually topsy-turvy.

Give this 54th version of Chautauqua’s juried Exhibition of Contemporary Art a nudge and it would tumble over the line, across that careful border that too often marks what is right for art and what is supposedly not.

Jim Kempner, who leads one of the veteran gallery spaces in Chelsea, 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, New York City, takes the show up to the edge. He is its juror, the person who looked at a lot of applicant CDs and decided who got in and who, instead, ended up on the cutting room floor.

Mine is not a rocket-science opinion about the willy-nilly wise-guy nature of the show. It’s right there in the art works’ titles. For example: “Too Far Too Soon,” “Crossing the Line,” “Broken.”

It’s all an eye game, really, for there’s a photograph of antlers playing look-a-like with peeling paint, and a photograph of a woman named Vanessa in painter’s overalls hanging upside down, and then the painting called “The Writer,” which is about a swimmer shown topsy-turvy sideways. For good measure, Kempner includes writing itself in a few paintings and constructions.  But the writing struggles within its medium to be set free, to be loosened from the strictures of paint and clay, squirming out to be itself, just letters.

Things just aren’t always the way one expects, that’s all.

And sometimes, right in the middle of a surprise, one finds one’s heart.

The following information isn’t on the wall anyplace in the Strohl Art Center on Wythe Avenue, but I have it on the good authority of Director Judith Barie that the remarkable mixed-media lithograph by Phyllis Kohring Fannin, titled “Last Moment in My Arms” depicts the embrace she gave to her son, his soldier’s hat in hand, before he left for Afghanistan.

It’s is a lovely image, to be sure, and a piquant read from across the gallery. And then one approaches the image, emotional hat in hand.

The figures Ms. Kohring Fannin created — her son and herself — are lined into the paper in silhouettes, the mother’s shape designed with the graced figures of a topographical map and the son’s in a similar figuration of camouflage. One design is bleeding, reaching, superimposing upon the other, a landscape of love.

The artist teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Her work won the top award of the exhibition, the Bellinger Memorial Award.

Charles A. Kacin won the James and Karen Greb Award with an abstract mood of oil, wax, graphite and ink blended into a different land that has no name, where blots and blurs and lines and smudges of red-based hues describe a mindset disguised as sky.  His work, called “Hiladago,” is represented by InArt Gallery in Santa Fe.

Ann Steuernagel is a video artist who teaches at Northeastern University.  She has shown work previously in Strohl. This year, she won the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution Partners Award for a three-part work called “Garden,” planted from found footage and arranged in a passageway for discovery, that long skinny perforated passageway of film that could lead from arbor to vine, plot to dell, idea to idea, with birds and ice and a rhetoric of effective use of repetition and contrast.  Indeed, like a garden, the artist shaped an opportunity for unexpected riddles, strange syllogisms and opportune jokes, a fine museum work for moving image.

In her own way, a strange way, Rachael J. Burke used sheets of film over canvas to hide and reveal figures and oil smudges and chairs arranged every which way.  It is a very, very free-handed exposition about surface, volume, figure, ground and other arcane art notions, but even so, “Concurrent Dramas” has a blotchy charm that suggests intense conversations about the funny things that some academics engage. The artist from Erie, Pa., won the Jeffrey Drake Award, and with it, the location as the center piece in the gallery.

Kevin Bernstein from Kansas State University is right alongside with a much smaller but far more colorful acrylic called “Crustose,” which shows the vivid formations that lichens make upon surfaces, a sort of biomorphic calico. He won the Ellie Wilder Award.

The show Jim Kempner made is a pleasant tumble of ideas and manners, a pick-up-sticks of fabric and paint and torn-out pages of linguistic theory — 27 works by as many artists selected from 510 entries by 181 artists from 14 states.

And, thanks to Ms. Barie’s installation design, it hangs together with preposterous delight — just the way it is supposed to be. For this is art after all, and one doesn’t go out arting unless looking for the unexpected.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director at George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.