Review: A national aesthetic: 58th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Arts features ‘outrageous range’ of works

Guest review by Anthony Bannon

For 58 years, Chautauquans have counted on their gallery to take the temperature of the national aesthetic. And while the count on the submissions has declined from several thousand to a little less than 500 this year, the firm quality of the work selected by guest curators has ascended.

It helps a lot to have a galleries director the quality of Judy Barie, who makes sense in her installations out of the outrageous range of work selected from east and west. The top award winning piece in this year’s Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art is Dana Goodman from Huntington, Indiana. Her “GroundBeetleGround,” makes the case in point.

Goodman submitted a diorama, of the type appropriate for the Cabinets of Curiosity collected as a sign of wealth during the Renaissance. These collections of wonder held whatever the fancy could justify: religious artifacts and icons, specimens of natural history and the fabrications of natural history, too; art and other contraptions, portents and mystifications.

“GroundBeetleGround” would fit right in, a clay effigy of what the artist claims are coupled beetles with legs like frogs and carapace that as easily could have belonged to a tortoise. For good measure, a leaf has fallen from the heavens to rest upon the dorsal aspect of the creature. The beetle, if you will, walks, if it could, upon small pyramids of vegetation, an odd moss, while flower fronds mark the edges of this ecosystem of artistic design.

It is the perfect piece for this exhibition, escaped from the science museum. It is the part that stands for the whole of this exhibition, the ultimate synecdoche. There is no need for a juror’s statement from Hrag Vartanian, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, the arts blog that people talk about this year. “GroundBeetleGround” says it all, winner of the Bellinger Award.

Pressed into two dimensions for the second prize, the VACI Partners Award, Vartanian selected the work of Chautauqua School of Art student Morteza Khakshoor, “Mom’s Heart,” an etching and aquatint depiction of what doesn’t fit in, what has no place outside of its own place of distorted figures, naked man with woman in foreground holding a pump that looks weirdly like a dissected heart.

Things don’t fit, but they do, so that the things on the wall swim together as a viewer discovers a pattern of patterns, one after another, and finds patterns, then, where they were not expected. Turn around then, looking back, to locate the installation by Hisham Youssef, called “This is Not Industrial Plans,” when, in fact, those documents thrust through with poles to become sculpture were — in fact — industrial plans from Pittsburgh.

Right. These are not plans. They are art now.

The show stands off the wall so well, because the juror selected only 27 pieces, including ceramics for the wall and open space, a video, and embroidery.

Heidi Leitzke, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, makes islands of fabric, stitchery of many colors, threads that become trees, and bushes upon dyed linen, with applied paint, tiny things, jewel ideas, self-contained, that favorite island of the mind. She received the Harold Anderson Award for “Susquehanna Isle.”

And next the show needs work to take ideas down to their component parts, such as an acute angle, as if made with two twigs, along with its shadow, a pigment print by Christopher Atkins of Minneapolis, echo of the great French 20th-century minimalist, François Morellet.

Work by Sara Fletcher, from Boonsville, Missouri and Watie White, from Omaha, Nebraska, lingered in the juror’s mind, so he made up an award, called Honorable Mention, an appropriate fictive gesture for the way his show unfolds.

Fletcher begins, just to the right of the entrance, with her work, called “Morning,” an oil on canvas, beautiful light, the Milton Avery half light, a tint to lush hues. She paints a woman and a man reading, blanket spread on the ground, laptop off to the side, real books, and real phantasms on the hill behind, knights in full gear, a lonesome traveler on the other hill.

White, second off the start, presents “Ganymede,” a large woodcut. Ganymede in mythology was the most beautiful of men, whose legend is carried by the constellation Aquarius. In some accounts, Ganymede becomes an eagle, in others, the cupbearer for the gods. In White’s account, this title bearer is the ruler of the roost of turkeys, a puffed up male flapping right up and into the foreground, hens scattered all about.

Juror Vartanian’s playful, absurdist manner is a good lens for our time, and also the ticket for his blogazine, which usually takes the reader similarly by surprise, as does his exhibition, springing radical or nutty ideas, seriously.

AJ Fries is a beloved Buffalo artist whose work, sited not far from Goodman’s prizewinner, takes on another key voice for the exhibition, that of the mirror, talking back to the viewer. In his characteristic full-on gray palette, Fries details the interior of an empty building, propped plateglass against a wall, reflecting the other side of the room, large windows, of course, which permitted the light that made the painting possible.

Back at you.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. He previously was the art critic for The Buffalo News and director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York.