Kebabs, drones and absent mothers: three shows open at Strohl Art Center Sunday

Provided Photo
At top, “New Chair” by Julie Blackmon is part of the exhibition “Domestic Vacations” opening at the Strohl Art Center Sunday. Above left, Blackmon’s “Airstream”, also part of the exhibition. Above right, “Fire.” Blackmon’s photos of her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews are all highly staged and cinematically lit.

The Strohl Art Center is ready for a new season — and what a season it will be.

Three exhibits are opening Sunday: the 58th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, “Politics in Art,” and “Domestic Vacations.”

The 58th Annual Exhibition received about 500 entries, but guest juror Hrag Vartanian choose just 26 to be displayed. Vartanian is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the popular art blog, Hyperallergic.

“I always try to find someone [to judge the exhibition] who has their hand in the mix,” said Don Kimes, artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution. “I wanted to get someone on the younger side … somebody who really has an impact on what people are reading.”

Vartanian, born in Syria, raised in Canada, and now residing in Brooklyn, fits the bill. Besides running Hyperallergic, he has been interviewed by national and international news agencies from Al Jazeera to NPR.

“He is everywhere — there have to be six of him,” Kimes said.

The exhibition itself is a diverse mix, including woodcut prints, paintings on canvas, mixed media and even embroidery. Seven-foot-long shish-kebab skewers pierce old architectural plans in one corner, while a large ceramic beetle rests in another.

Upstairs, the “Politics in Art” show, curated by Kimes, is also an eclectic mix of art forms. Many of the pieces came from the galleries of Denise Bibro and Jim Kempner, both former jurors of the Chautauqua Annual Exhibition.

On one wall hangs what Kimes calls the benign presidential portraits. John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are all represented. Most of the other pieces center around various themes — the environment, women’s rights, racism, police brutality. There is a whole alcove devoted to anti-war materials.

Kimes makes special mention of Francisco Goya’s work, “The Third of May, 1808,” which art historian Kenneth Clark called “the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention.”

While Goya’s painting, depicting Napoleonic soldiers shooting a Christ-like peasant, is not included in the show, it is reproduced as part of a modern work by the artist Phyllis Plattner, which she includes alongside images of abuse from Abu Ghraib, prosthetic limbs and more.

While the exhibit does include pieces critical of the previous administration — including a series of mugshot-style photos of Bush, Dick Cheney and others — Kimes had included pieces critical of the current administration as well.

“I am an equal opportunity pisser-offer,” Kimes said.

The most notable criticism of the current administration, a 40-foot-long replica of a drone, has not yet arrived but will be suspended outside the gallery Week Five.

Out of this broad range of topics and media, one piece that stands out particularly for Kimes is a three-panel painting in reaction to the death of Eric Garner, simply titled “I Can’t Breathe.”

“I think it’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time,” Kimes said. “It works on a formal level … the (political) statement is strong because of the art.”

Next to “Politics in Art” is the collection of Julie Blackmon’s photographs, including some from her series “Domestic Vacations” and her more recent work, “Homegrown.” The photos are of her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, all highly staged with cinematic props and lighting. When Blackmon began her photography, she intentionally distanced herself from more traditional documentary style work.

“I was doing it both ways [documentary and arranged photographs], and the work that was the strongest was the set up,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon is heavily influenced by painters, especially the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Steen, who depicted chaotic tableaus of everyday life.

“I just kind of got over thinking of myself as a photographer,” Blackmon said, and she allowed herself a much broader base of inspiration.

Most of the pictures have few or no adults in them, making children the central focus.

“I’m exploring the concept of the absent mother, present mother … [and] the mother who is too spacey to be a helicopter parent,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon’s photographs are whimsical — a disgruntled child being sprayed down with bug spray, a baby trying to feed a lollipop to a leopard rug — but there is an element of danger, too. In one picture, a boy pulls a plastic bag over his head, in another, kids stand around a bonfire without an adult in sight, one brandishing a flaming hotdog.

“I’ve always thought the funniest things had a dark side,” Blackmon said. “Sick, funny, charming — they don’t seem like they should cross over, but they do.”

From the contemporary to the historical, from the whimsical to the horrific — these three shows cover a broad swath of the visual arts.

The 58th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art will run until July 20, “Politics in Art” through August 24 and “Domestic Vacations” through July 26.