A visit to an art gallery has the power to make people feel uncomfortable. There’s complete silence, save for the noises of hushed exchanges among patrons, the hum of video projectors, the cranking of heaters, and the like. Here the visitors are, ready to be enlightened by multiple perspectives on life showcased by paintings hanging on walls, or sculptures mounted atop blocks, or murals placed high up by the ceiling. Why is all of this intimidating? Because viewers feel they’re not “getting” it, that they don’t know what there is to take away from an exhibit. This is not always the case, but when it is, it is a disappointment.
Such is the case with Painting Zombies: Permanence/Impermanence, the exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, on view until December 15. The description of the exhibition featured in its press release claimed that the works “exemplify and stretch the bounds of 21st century painting practice.” Really? This theme does not seem to fit for a show that includes all different types of media and art pieces—especially when the ones that aren’t paintings are the most interesting. Andy Ducett’s Working Toward Something (trust me), an installation using piles of folderol and what look like findings from garage sales fascinates, posing questions such as to whom these objects could have belonged, what the objects meant to those owners, and so on. Ryuta Nakajima’s video Self World features footage of a bug-like sea creature superimposed crawling over movie clips of traffic, people having conversations, and other such scenes, puts the viewer in a position of someone constantly watching, but never being watched. Where did the paintings fit among these works?
Well, it seemed nowhere. At the gallery entrance are Ry Fryar’s four acrylic paintings on canvas. Fryar’s paintings consist of vaguely impressionistic images of dogs, the only differences among the pieces being their colors, backgrounds, and the number of dogs in each (backgrounds include interstates, ponds, the sun, and cottonweed). Maybe these images are appealing to some, but how this stretched the bounds of 21st century painting practice was lost on me. Nor was the supposed theme clear in Les Joynes’s drip box artifact in which he places gobs of paint at the bottom of a sheet of paper to give the effect of an art project frozen in motion. The paint is grey and off-white, placed on a diagonal, looking like it could have fallen off the page easily while it was still wet. Some far-fetched ideas about time and human attempts to catch up with it aside, (was it a still life?), this piece is empty and definitely not visually appealing.
Some other paintings are better. Ann Tarantino uses ink and gouache on paper, creating representations of nature through her careful splatters. Brown Belay uses gradations of red, orange, and brown and looks like a piece of the earth’s core. Brighter colors mark Homecoming Queen, Red Head, and others, slightly distorted portraits of grass and flowers. Lauren Clay also uses gouache on paper, creating pictures of maze-like structures in neon shades of pink, blue, and purple. At least these pieces, Cosmic Charlie and Saint Stephen, are eye-popping and therefore engaging. Still, whether or not these were attempts, as the press release states, to restore “a supposedly dead artistic form,” these pieces have the opposite effect. They are unexciting enough to validate the argument that painting is, in fact, becoming irrelevant.
Despite the absence of a clear theme, there are enough works to supply the viewer with at least a few points of interest. In one closed-off area in the back of the gallery, Joynes’s video Glassolalia DVD captures the lower half of a man’s face—his mouth and beard—while he mumbles sentences that receive no response. Using the headphones plugged into the TV while sitting on a one-person bench placed before the screen, one can identify a few words: “when,” “finish,” “pancake,” “fix it.” The man’s seemingly schizophrenic whispers stop with one substantial pause. Eerie. Now this is an example of boundary-stretching art.
At the end of the gallery is work representing the star of the show, Andy Ducett. Thumbs Up is a very large drawing of different parts of the physical world. In fact, so many areas were represented, that at first glance the giant sketch reminded me of a page from a Where’s Waldo book. Rather than Waldo, however, we find an odd variety of things: mugs with tea bags hanging out, light bulbs, pipes, potted plants, superheroes, clothes hangers, huge looping highways, lightning bolts, buildings, ponds, robots, cans of pickles, Target Field; the list goes on. All of this is interspersed with little notes: “Has a meeting with Bob” right underneath a tiny figure of a man peering at his watch, “It is, perhaps, the most amazing sunset ever” right beneath a window view of what is, truthfully, an amazing sunset. One could get lost staring at this piece for half an hour.
The show’s title might have been re-thought, and probably the overall theme as well. But while the show was not what I expected it to be, it has its gems and is therefore worth a visit.