Review: ‘Circle/Square Game’ explores impossibility through ‘pattern and wonder’

Guest review by: Anthony Bannon

Text and subtext, sense and nonsense, run riddling through Strohl Art Center, and the visitor can pick their own pertinence, whether lining up with the minds of ancients or the fancies of artists today. Curator Judy Barie has set the terms of engagement; it is called “The Circle/Square Game.”

It is an exhibition that calls to mind the diversions of our forefathers from Greece and from Babylonia, who conceived of a compelling conundrum: Could one create a square by ordinary means using the area that would equal a given circle?

Take up your compass, wield your straight edge and have at it. The image of compass and square edge is at the center of Masonic symbolism. Solve the problem, and you’ll be the first to pull it off. The challenge has taken such proportion over time that it stands now for the impossibility of earth (the square) matching up with the heavens (the circle) — or, succinctly, it stands for an impossibility of any sort. The hip-hop group the Flobots make it the title — “The Circle in the Square” — of their 2012 album, and it is the name of a popular New York theater.

And that leads to art.

Imagine a wooden box with a circular shape constructed at its middle, and now cover it with vintage measuring tapes, and there, by Tim Yankosky of New York City, are the elements of the age old challenge, set out with the tools of the geometer. His works — differing in shapes and articulations — spread out as a leitmotif in the Strohl’s main space.

Barie, who is the director of galleries at Chautauqua Institution, presents her argument in terms of pattern and wonder — “mixing disparate materials, sparking interactions and communication between artists.” The task is to find “the common link or correlative thread between each of these tremendously talented artists,” and there are nine of them with 31 works, both for the wall and sculpture for the open space.

The austere minds of our mathematical forbearers are a launch for artistic latitude here. For instance, Macyn Bolt, also from New York City, creates acrylic rectangles out of quadrilaterals and skinny triangles on canvas. They are beautiful, in adjacent hues of tints and tones, and close enough to squares to gain entry to the game.

The game, in truth, accepts all kinds. Imagine this: Rosemarie Fiore draws with a colored firework at the end of a long stick, exploding into colored smoke that she applies to a fancy paper, and they are so wonderful in spiraling shapes that you would never know their spectacular origins. She is from the Bronx.

Artists take liberties. There is no holding back the spring of their imagination. And no given rules for a curator to ascribe sense out of it all, whether or not willy-nilly.

Alison Helm, for another example, brings glass, wood, LED lights into service to propose new structures for the earth, but according to her logic. She is director of the School of Art and Design at West Virginia University College of Creative Arts.

The old anchors fail with Helm’s work. She wants more, and so makes her own brand of quartz, and shining mica, a geologist’s dream world. And she plants in the middle of her wild-eyed piece for the wall called “Cyber Clash” an other worldly garden of vaguely biomorphic shapes.

Barie buys in, finding a few ellipses in the 2-by-6-foot extravaganza.

And there are marvels: Tiny, tiny dots becoming circles, swirling of distant pale red with occasional sparks. One piece is aptly dedicated to the Cornell cosmologist Carl Sagan, by Paula Overbay from Brooklyn, and precious pots built on concentric layers, capped with gold leaf mouths, comes from the creative mind of Justin Teilhet, from Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Deborah Zlotsky, of Rhode Island School of Design, has piled slabs of color, sort of like a stretched accordion, and Margaret Spacapan, of Pittsburgh Glass Center, reveals the circle in perfectly blown bowls.

Finally, Ted Larsen from Arizona finds discarded materials and faces off rectangles, built like a growing stalk. In one, called “New Classic,” he builds an arch off of a square that recalls the poet Robert Lax’s work about a straight line. In the Lax poem, he imagines a sage asked what might be preferred, drawing a straight line or big flowers? The sage’s response?

Draw big flowers, many big flowers, until they become a straight line.

The exhibition continues through Aug. 25.

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