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Monday, March 16, 2015

Speaking Through Art

Critical Mass 3 is technically a contemporary show, but don’t expect many new ideas



The word “contemporary” is a catchall term for the artists living and working at whatever point the writer or speaker is at work. Which means, of course, that every artist with work in “Critical Mass 3,” now on view at artspace, is a contemporary artist. It also means that every piece on display is having a conversation, at least potentially, with all the art that has come before. And for the contemporary viewer, the challenge is determining which conversations you want to engage in.

Arts writers across the country would have artists believe they are creating work in one of the most creatively desolate periods in art history. We lament the end of originality, the rise of commercialism, or the emergence of what some are calling “Zombie Formalism” – the use of attention grabbing processes to create visually predictable work i.e., one artist numbs his hands before picking up a paintbrush. Basically what writers tend to agree on is that contemporary art is in a rut. Even at the Modern Museum of Art’s contemporary painting show, “The Forever Now,” the curator opened with the idea of “atemporality” to explain that all genres, all art movements, are collapsed into the work of artists working today. There are no new art movements; artists today are endlessly revisiting, revising and remixing all predating movements.

What does that have to do with the “Critical Mass 3” exhibition in Shreveport? Since all art created today is by necessity contemporary, the answer certainly shouldn’t be “nothing.” But throughout the space there was a general lack of fixations on prevailing trends.

Much of the work on display is Art 101. A well-composed stilllife painting by Charles E. Tabor hangs on one wall, and down the way, there’s a shiny geometric abstraction by Brett Malone. Other work on display exhibits an enjoyable painterliness. There’s Kim Bennick’s small but lovely Impressionistic piece, “Jubilee Gardens, viewed from the London Eye.” In the back room, Yasuko Makishi’s “Apache & The Dragon” piles on the paint to bring to life a rip-roaring science fiction story; in the front, Susan Duke’s use of the palette knife technique on her large, colorful diptych painting is eyecatching, albeit uninspired in subject matter. And Julie Crews’ “Waiting for Dinner” is perhaps the most graceful, skilled painting in the entire exhibition, although dripping with a sense of Norman Rockwell nostalgia as her subject is a man and dog anticipating a warm meal.

The work on display almost allows you to forget that art is by nature a rebellious undertaking. That for decades artists have been fighting “the man,” not creating pieces to match his oversized desk. Barring the in-your-face rebellion of Amanda Roe’s “Just a Girl,” which tells a blithely vicious story of female repression, or the two sociopolitical pieces by Taffie Garsee and Curt Harville, the pieces in “Critical Mass 3” seem fairly content with polite conversation.

Some of the most interesting selections on display were those with a literary quality like Devin Rachul McClintic’s narrative portrait, “Second Position Extremus” in which a face was obscured by hair and, worn ballet shoes stood in for breasts, giving the portrait an androgynous mystery, and the martyr pose symbolizing an artist who has sacrificed life and body for craft. In others, the literary quality seemed pedantic and overwrought like in Joshua Chambers piece “The Next Step Therefore Was to Enable,” which is visually appealing but far too wrapped up in its textual element. A good example of art with a story to tell is an adorable 40-second video by Brandon Crist called “XY” in which an animated figure steps out of a mirror and flashes between male and female hugging and dancing with himself accompanied by a simple soundtrack running underneath.

But the work that seems to be having the most contemporary, lucid conversations with art and the rest of the art world are the pieces in the gallery space that bring materiality to the forefront. There are examples headed in that direction like Meredith Piper’s “Prism,” a largescale construction in which the artist has framed yarn with large constructions of wood, or Su Stella’s layered glass painting illuminated from a backlight like a small diorama.

In John C. Wagoner’s “Paint Cut,” he builds layers of acrylic paint and then carves into them, stopping at different moments in the paint. Most artists I’ve seen carving layers like this use paper; Andrea Myers being one. But this idea of layering paint and then carving into it carries with it not only a preoccupation with the joys of discovery in painting but also the gritty underbelly of challenging yourself as an artist. Many artists seem to sculpt out a top layer of paint, but Wagoner’s interests are more internal in this piece. He is not building but taking away. Though the painting seems unfinished or unresolved, it’s headed in an interesting direction.

Lauren Smart is the arts and culture editor for the Dallas Observer and an adjunct journalism professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she teaches arts writing and criticism.

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