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Truth(s) and Consequence(s)


The plurals are not insignificant. The artworks included in Eastern Kentucky University’s current exhibition Truths and Consequences – ending February 15th – deal with the complexities of art’s tendency to work in layers.

This is initially the physical layering of materials and images, and finally the layering of meaning. As juror James Grubola explains the ultimate complexity lies in how these processes of layering contribute the broader concept of Truth. These are not the processes of documentation or the recording of things real or perceived. Instead, they delve deeper into the ways in which artwork is able to create and manipulate reality and how this gives power to depiction. Philosophy or sociology might call this the construction of “consensual reality.”

Art and media wield an incredible amount of influence in the spoken and unspoken battles waged to establish how we understand our societies and the broader world  – and how that understanding translates into larger and much more consequential truths.

Following this tendency towards recognizable depiction, one of the more noticeable threads in the exhibition is figuration. Barring a few painted works, recognizable or semi-recognizable figures dominate, even among the several included sculptures. Of course this isn’t limited to the human figure, rather a host of beings and things that can be readily identified. While this might be attributed to the preference of the juror’s selection and taste, it seems to also follow from the exhibition’s larger theme. This is not the preponderance of truths (again the plural is important) but their consequential effects as well. In the ways that art can make statements about the world, these statements are neither passive nor neutral. Instead they reflect back onto the world and exert a potentially strong influence on how the world is perceived, constructed, and understood. 

Martin Beck, “Finished During The Eclipse”, Mixed media on prepared paper, 2017

Barry Motes, “Sibling Rivalry”, Oil on canvas

For example, works like Martin Beck’s Finished During The Eclipse and Barry Motes’ Sibling Rivalry, are weighted with a certain gravity to the choices made in subject matter. Both use people of color as models, one a woman and the other two boys, and temper their depictions with lofty and almost mythological imagery. The history of art and its tendency to silence and make invisible these same people is (intentionally or not) a part of this display. This is one reason why media representation has such a deep and abiding effect on audiences. The figures we see in art, especially when they are people who resemble ourselves, shape our personal and cultural realities. This is most visibly the case with depictions of women, people of color, LGBTQ people and other historically marginalized groups. The ways that art is thought to reflect the world in its broadest sense can also contribute to tangible changes in reality itself. Of the diverse subject matter on display, as well as the diversity of media, there is a shared sense of art’s obligation to representation and its willingness to challenge and experiment in these arenas. 

Devon Horton, “The Swarm”, Oil on canvas

Steven Rasmussen, “In the Ditch”, Digital photography

This relates to another theme present in the exhibition – that of the more banal elements of the material world. Devon Horton’s The Swarm, in which a scattered assortment of dumped trash fills the huge canvas, engages with the ability of painting to potentially transform and elevate its subject matter. Or Steven Rasmussen’s In the Ditch, a photographic print that recalls Cindy Sherman’s late eighties series that depicted the filth and decay of food, objects, and even bodies in overbearing color. Stagnant water and a submerged bicycle loom brightly in front of the viewer, the uprightness of the water threatening to also consume the audience. Both of these work against what was once considered appropriate for depiction as art. Histories of beauty or aesthetics are less besmirched than reevaluated, an effect that redefines art’s purpose against a seemingly stodgy or traditional past.

Along similar lines, the exhibition’s other photographic works proved conceptually compelling. In a myriad of ways these engaged directly with the reality of photography and the photographic image. Photographs often play a very privileged role as a mediator of reality. They are taken as reality, as surrogates of the world we see, and as proof of what we cannot or did not witness. But this is quite problematic, especially considering the ability of photographs to be manipulated and used to manipulate. In this way, most of the works included make concept central to their subjects. Two other photographs play considerably with the medium’s outwardly central tenets: focus, and framing. 

Leah Schretenthaler, “At One Time the Rail Did Not Exist, Laser cut silver gelatin print

Ian Sexton, “Lightscape 044”, Photography

Leah Schretenthaler’s At One Time the Rail Did Not Exist is an image that has been physically and materially edited. The gelatin silver print has had much of its surface removed by laser, making the flattened and burned paper of the print a part of the image. Here a landscape edited by human intervention is reflected by the artist’s own intervention. Similarly, Ian Sexton’s Lightscape 044 pulls the landscape image to the limit of softened color and textured film grain. Landscape is barely perceptible apart from its appearance as melded with the materials of the print. To trace back to idea of layers, there is a sense that both image and object can have a considerable effect on audience perception.

From the minutia of media to the larger concerns of display. I initially found it odd and even distracting that some works (and not all of them) included statements by their respective artists. While these short texts provided context to the works in relation to the theme, they came off as counter to the aims of the exhibition. Yet these sometimes jarring additions ultimately contributed to the conceptual thrust of the collection as a single unit of artwork. Both Art with a capital A and its many individual works take part in the complex dance between what is seen and what is shown. Every single decision, from the choice subject to the media to what the artist might say about his or her own work, to the juror’s selections and the means of display, impacts how this reality is shaped and perceived. Art is not a mirror that reflects the world. Instead, the people and objects we see allow us to discover and make sense of what is ultimately our world.

This exhibition is part of the 2018-19 Chautauqua series at Eastern Kentucky University will explore the theme “Truths and Consequences” through nine lectures by many internationally prominent authors, artists and experts; a special documentary screening.

Joel is a sometimes contributor to UnderMain who always tries to look at things closely. He recently received his Master’s in Art History from the University of Louisiville and has a deep interest in the material realities of photography and other art media, an interest that sometimes comes in handy when taking his own bad pictures.

Arts

The Human Body, Reconsidered

Dora Natella’s Await (2017), a bronze sculpture of a sloping unclothed woman reaching behind herself to steady her position on a stool, functions as a metonym for Manifest’s ninth annual NUDE exhibition. It is unclear whether Natella’s figure is in the process of mounting the seat onto which she holds, readying herself as an object to be depicted, or if she is in descension from serving as a thing to be studied, drawn, or sculpted. In any case, Await maintains a degree of uncertainty regarding its subject.

Dora Natella’s Await (2017)

Like Natella’s sculpture, the exhibition at Cincinnati’s Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, which is on view in two of the organization’s galleries, intends to perplex. That is, the twenty-one works by sixteen artists on display, selected from over 500 submissions, render the human body in a manner unfamiliar.

Bodies are obscured in the drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs occupying Manifest in a multitude of ways. Limbs are severed by either strategic incompletion or the edges of a frame, and non-bodily objects are often utilized as a means for distortion, as is evident in Stephanie Grenadier’s Not Waving But Drowning (2017), wherein a woman is nebulously disconnected by ripples in water. Rarely in the exhibit are bodies in full view, a testament to the jurors’ commitment to representations of concealment and fragmentation.

Photo by Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center

Indeed, the selection of artworks in NUDE emphasizes the body as necessarily unstable rather than as an object substantially grounded in the physical world. Some of the more effective works in the exhibition illustrating this conceit are photographs, since photographs rely on reality in the process of making an image. Annie Gonzalez’s Formation (2017) presents two enveloped bodies. Their torsos extend in opposite directions from what could be conceived as the epicenter of the photograph: the groins of each figure, which are touching, yet remain unseeable. Viewers perceive the backside of the figure in the foreground and are able to observe the left hip and side of the second figure peaking above his/her counterpart. The figure closest to the camera bends his/her head and arms so that neither appears in the image. The contours of the bodies in the photograph, as well as a protruding leg jutting from the lowest point in the composition, are disorienting, and Formation reads more like an abstracted dreamscape than a combination of human forms.

Whereas certain junctures in NUDE stress motifs of unfamiliarity and incompleteness literally, such as Nick Reszetar’s mixed media diptych entitled Virum Muliereum (2017), others investigate how these themes can be expanded to include implicit notions of protection.

A nude woman reclining on her back extends her left arm towards the viewer in Martin Beck’s The Hunter (2016). A dog rests at the foot of the platform from which she lies and a shotgun is settled next to the figure. Beck’s pastel drawing evokes certain classical trends through the incorporation of fabric as both a prop and cropping mechanism, the use of a direct light source, and the insertion of the dog—a dog symbolized fidelity in many nude paintings made in the pre-Modern era.

Left: Martin Beck, Color Field, pastel on prepared paper, 2017. Right: Martin Beck, The Hunter, pastel on prepared paper, 2017.

What distinguishes Beck’s portrait from those by old masters, among other elements of the drawing, is the depiction of the shotgun placed near the woman’s hand, pointing away from her, seemingly ready to be grabbed and employed. An overt insinuation of protection, the gun in this work may imply that to be nude is to be vulnerable. What’s more, with his inclusion of classical tropes, Beck suggests that the nude genre itself is possibly more susceptible than one may think, protected by the likes of museums and history books, and in actuality able to be redefined or modified. The Hunter assumes that historical precedents are merely guidelines and not rules. The portrayals of bodies in NUDE prevail as reminders that nothing is certain, particularly when it comes to ourselves.

If multiple artworks by a single artist are featured in the exhibition, they are displayed in the same gallery, yet not always adjacent. Visitors to Manifest will enter NUDE by first making their way through an exhibition called MONOCHROME, and the transition from one exhibition to the next is made smoothly—the first gallery of NUDE features works that are largely monochromatic or grayscale. Consequently, the second gallery of NUDE contains the more vibrant depictions of bodies, forcing viewers to negotiate between brilliant palettes and compelling subject matter. Alex Spinney achieves a fluorescent quality in Fakefood_1~Lobster/Oyster#prop (2017) and Realfood_1~freckles/Bolognese (2017), two paintings that allude to, in addition to concealment, consumption and pleasure through their combinations of food and the human form. Yet Spinney’s conceptual premise is dwarfed by the artist’s application of paint as well as the vividness of nudes by Beck, Chris Corson, and Martha Gaustad in the same gallery.

Alex Spinney, Fakefood_1~Lobster/Oyster#prop (2017) 2017.

Were each gallery holding no more than a single work by an artist, NUDE would perhaps stress the thematic interests of the jurors in a more concrete fashion. In other words, integrating the monochromatic and color artworks would unify the exhibition in a mode that cannot be accomplished under its current layout. Yet such an endeavor does not come without a cost: there is a distinct elegance, especially on an aesthetic level, enacted by the curatorial decisions that resulted in the exhibition’s format.

Besides, the blatant differences of the artworks in the two galleries provide a kind of dualism when it comes to conceiving the ways in which the human body is capable of being rendered.

On one hand, the body is treated with reverence and precision in most of the monochromatic works. On the other, the use of color permeating the second gallery denotes an enthusiastic celebration of the human condition. This exhibition acknowledges the legitimacy—indeed, the history—of such representational strategies, but sensibly declines to favor one over the other. Like Await, viewers are encouraged to gauge the numerous ways of capturing and perceiving the nude genre. NUDE, therefore, posits an indeterminacy that resonates conceptually and corporeally.

The 9th annual NUDE exhibit continues at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati, OH until September 15th, 2017.

Installation shot, 9th Annual Nude exhibition, Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, Cincinnati OH. Photo by Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center.