In VACI’s 56th Annual, ‘a quiet, confident sense of excellence’

 Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerA visitor to Strohl Art Center views “Corrugated Saints” (acrylic on paper, 38″ × 40″)  by Lester Berman, on display as part of the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, which runs through July 15. The show was curated by Janne Sirén, the new director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer

A visitor to Strohl Art Center views “Corrugated Saints” (acrylic on paper, 38″ × 40″) by Lester Berman, on display as part of the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, which runs through July 15. The show was curated by Janne Sirén, the new director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

This may be the 56th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art — a juried rite of entry for each season — but it is the first one in my long memory that hangs together and works as a unit, rather than as a random gathering of different parts, fine as they may have been. Credit the gift to the new director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Janne Sirén.

The show looks good.

Sirén, until recently the director of the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland, selected a tight display of 27 works in several media, including sculpture, created by 22 artists from 396 submitted works by 132 artists from around the United States.

A quiet, confident sense of excellence dominates. Abstraction prevails, though a full range of focused and unfocused references make their play, too, among them:

— Sculpture by James Parlin, which catches roughly bronzed figures in a stasis, as if just shot or  frightened, suggesting Robert Longo’s iconic “Men in the City” drawings and prints.

— Rachel Burke builds from Franz Kline’s abstract signature a tectonic field of urban architectural distress.

— And Harry Leigh creates a dramatic sweeping arc that suggests an Eero Saarinen arch — the Gateway Arch in St. Louis — except that it is rough and violated and fixed to the wall.

The point is that often there is mindful reference here that takes the conversation out of the limitations of mere media or manner.

Craft does not play here, though there are some of the materials of fine craft art. Neither sunsets nor puppies, though Paula Everitt introduces considered concern for children in the immediacy of graphite, ink and charcoal from a fire pit in Haiti as she renders on paper just more than a foot on a side the experience of a pulled-together school room in Haiti, and another view, compassionately, of a gurney in Iraq, with a huddle of dark figures in a corner.

There is gravity here, occasions to turn your mind in a different direction.

A grounding of intelligent invention also animates the exhibition. Chautauquan Judith Gregory summons the tragic compulsions of Miss Havisham, the Charles Dickens character (Great Expectations), by constructing a frail tapestry of stretched-open tea bags, embellished, flocked, with tea leaves in floral swirls. And then Gregory suspends a tangle of wire in front of the piece, a hard fractal echo of the tea designs on the tissue.

Danielle Frankenthal references Pandora’s Box with open-brushed paint upon two transparent layers of plexiglass, and Francine LeClerq calls upon Narcissus, the proud son of the Greek river god, in a clever oil and reflecting resin on canvas that indicts the viewer in the vanity while quoting Michaelangelo Caravaggio’s painting in the process.

These are elegant selections, even refined, where the brush stroke is manifest and color clusters between muted green and orange, as in the striped diptych paintings by Buffalo, N.Y., artist Susan Copley. These toned, adjacent hues, centering in a tempered yellow, are grounded by a good number of other exhibited works created in sturdy, simple blacks and whites.

This limited palette features light as a core value, particularly in two huge oils by Mark Jones, a California artist who won the VACI Partners Award. His work appears to radiate toned and tinted pools of light, or its absence; but the painting’s virtue is the range of hues it reveals upon careful, extended consideration.

The Deborah Anderson Award, in memory of Harold Anderson, was presented to Marlene Siff of Westport, Conn., who connected two rows of black canvas, wall-sculpted diamond shapes that open to receive the delight of light discovered in nooks of the construction.

PJ Zimmerlink found an image on the Internet — a different kind of light  — depicting a turn-of-the-century community barn building. He transferred to canvas an inkjet scan of the image nearly 10 feet square, a huge chunk of memory recognized with the James and Karen Greb Award.

Finally, Dan Hernandez, an art professor at the University of Toledo, collected for the second time the Bellinger Award, the Annual’s top prize. This one is a reprise of the fantastic war games the artist imagines, teamed by scores of tiny soldiers swarming an architecture in the sky, free-floating ruins, armories, churches and battle stations. It could have been a nonsense Boy’s Life doodle if it weren’t for the strange virtual realities of our time. Hernandez puts an edge to this repeat showing of his strange army by breaking down the surface of his painting, as if it were a crumbling plaster cut from a frightful archeology.

The show is a winner, installed again by Judy Barie, director of galleries for Visual Arts at Chautauqua Constitution. The pieces are on display in the Strohl Art Center through July 15.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and a research professor at State University of New York College at Buffalo. He also is director emeritus and senior scholar at George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.