55th Annual Exhibition full of challenges, alarm, surprises, delights

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photos by Michelle Kanaar.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

“The world has come undone,” claims the 55th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art.

Paintings are topsy-turvy; grass submits to an unearthly force and ends up above the sky; the Pope on his throne rides in the sky, above the clouds, laughing like crazy; and, most miraculous of all, children’s books take flight and soar off the shelf and across the wall, up and away, their pages becoming birds in flight.

No joke.

That is art the way it is supposed to be: full of challenge and alarm but providing the safety valve of surprise and delight, inspiration and idea.

The exhibition was selected by Kim Levin, an artist, critic and curator who is president honoraire of the International Association of Art Critics and was once art writer for The Village Voice. She found the toughest-minded 20 works by 15 artists out of close to 500 submitted. It is the best of the annual shows that I can recall.

Maybe it will be upsetting.

At least it will amaze.

For example, the top prize Bellinger Memorial Award-winning piece (to Karen Niemczyk of Greensboro, N.C.) declares the troubling complexity of a techno-savvy, out of control, beautiful world. It is made of wires and sensors and fake flowers. Down the center of a tangle of copper wires runs a column of LED lights that twinkle nervously when someone approaches. How charming; how sinister.

The spindly, spidery copper-wired thing stretches out like rhizomes 10 feet tall and eight feet around. The LED lights at the sculpture’s center outline a shape suggesting a strand of DNA, and the genome lights blink eagerly in response to the heat of living things passing nearby.

Then, at the end of each rhizome, the artist fastens a fake, black rose, which issues a red light, blinking in Morse code some terrible screeds the artist says were once spoken by public figures about women and animal rights and the church and United Nations and some other ideas, such as this one: “The only way to reduce the number of nuclear weapons is to use them.”

We start there. Take off the gloves.

“The Smiling Pope” wins a prize, too — the VACI Partners Award — for a broadside against the pedophilia scandal that has embarrassed the Catholic Church. In the biting irony, by New York City artist Jack Rosenberg, the foolishly grinning pope floats obliviously above a lineup of bare-chested children, hiding their faces in shame.

Score again. Get ready for another.

Hilary Zelson from Boston painted a glittering, blood-red isthmus that well may be the nebula the artist designates in the title, “Eagle Nebula,” but it doesn’t look much like the shape of the famous young cluster of stars in the constellation Serpens. The dark, red sparkle looks more like the blood spilled every day in the violence that has become commonplace right here on Earth. The painting won the Deborah Anderson Award.

The exhibition also takes on the unresolved isolation of North Korea, the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the militarism of tactical maneuvers. But it offers, too, the alternative of the sunny face of creative energy, where just anything is possible and ripe for celebration.

Erie, Pa., artist Dan Burke’s soaring children’s books are ebullient examples. It’s a great message piece and a colorful presence that engages more than half the length of the gallery wall. Burke won the Bellinger Award in 2008.

But the generally acclaimed star of the exhibition is 18-year-old Falconer High School student Collin Everett, whose facility in visual language well exceeds his years. What looks like a clever assemblage of shiny tin cans through the magic of light becomes a portrait of a person lost in thought, though poised for action. Called “Rachmaninoff,” a shadow image is created by casting a strong light upon the tin-can sculpture. The shadow play is the forerunner of the photograph and a fundament in motion pictures, and a tour de force for artist Everett, applauded with the gallery’s James and Karen Greb Award.

Young Everett’s encore is also on view, a paean to one of his teachers, made from Green Bay Packers ephemera and wine bottle corks, “Mr. Anderson Rebuilt.”

The 55th edition of what once was called the Chautauqua National — its bitter and its sweet — is the featured exhibition in the main gallery of the Strohl Art Center.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and research professor at Buffalo State College. He previously served as director at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and as an art critic for The Buffalo News.