Gallery View: Occupy Burchfield
Among not-for-profit art organizations, the “members’ show” is a special category of exhibition that’s part fundraiser, part goodwill generator, and part concession to egalitarianism. Inclusion is open to everyone; just pony up the minimum membership fee and you’re in. No curatorial control, no juror snobbery, equal opportunity for all.
For many institutions and artists, the members’ show is an annual rite unique to the visual arts. You won’t find theatrical organizations presenting annual plays in which a membership fee buys an acting part. Orchestras don’t hold annual concerts where any member with a washtub bass or kazoo can join in on Beethoven’s Fifth. Visual art membership exhibitions, on the other hand, are populist affirmations that anyone can be an artist.
When they started, members’ shows largely attracted serious emerging or underrepresented artists seeking exposure for their work. Today they are as likely to include the work of amateurs, children, students, and pretty much anyone who ever laid brush to canvas or pasted tissue paper onto cardboard. My wife, whose formal art training ended with the ceramic sailor’s head she made in middle school, once submitted a conceptual work to a Hallwalls members’ show. (I hasten to add that it was actually pretty good.)
If this sounds like a condemnation of the whole membership exhibition idea, it’s not. Messy as they are, such shows serve a number of important functions. They’re a time-honored means of building membership for not-for-profit organizations; artists often join just to enter the show. The inclusive exhibits also build community goodwill while providing an opportunity to see who’s doing what out there. It’s not uncommon for one or more hitherto unknown artists to emerge out of nowhere and dazzle viewers, including curators and gallery owners on the prowl for fresh talent. The opening receptions pull in huge turnouts, drawing new faces into galleries and giving artists an opportunity to preview their latest work. Perhaps most of all, they are celebratory social occasions for artists, friends, and family.
What they aren’t, generally, is good.
While galleries with tightly focused artistic missions or smaller memberships such as Hallwalls, CEPA, and the Carnegie in North Tonawanda have long traditions of annual members’ shows, it’s rare for a large museum to stage one. Turns out there’s a good reason for that. The Artists Among Us II, currently on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is the museum’s second foray into the genre, the first being a send-off celebration just before the museum moved from its old Rockwell Hall residence to the new building three years ago. At the time, gallery representatives declared that the show of 198 artists would be the last. So why another one now? “Members’ shows are important to a community,” says Scott Propeack, associate director, Exhibitions and Collections. “As a museum dedicated to a region, we felt that it was important to have the exhibition again.”
The result is 670 submissions, far more than the museum can reasonably accommodate. Saddled with the impossible task of creating order out of chaos, the beleaguered staff chose to hang the work roughly alphabetically, salon style, the lowest being about knee level and the highest somewhere around NBA net height, with around four inches between works. The effect is massive sensory overload. It’s near impossible to focus on a single work, so viewers end up scanning large sections of wall in what might be described as image averaging. Spotting a particular artist’s work can be like finding a name on the Vietnam War Memorial. Good work is swallowed up by surrounding visual noise. Sculpture is somewhat thematically arranged on clustered pedestals. It was a major accomplishment just squeezing it all in. “Thankfully, many volunteers stepped forward to help,” Propeack says.
It should be noted that none of this diminished the jubilance of the massive crowd at the opening reception. As a festive one-night social event, The Artists Among Us II was a smashing success. But after the celebratory bender you have to wake up and contend with a show in which the character and quality of work varies widely—much more widely than other area members’ shows.
This might be seen as a tribute to artistic diversity, but the effect is highly discordant. Setting aside work entered just for fun (a fowl photograph with a racy pun for its title comes to mind), there are more than a few pieces that, through pretentious ambition or slapdash carelessness, epitomize crudeness. Two are so haphazardly thrown together that a week into the show they were literally falling apart. And with so many submissions, thematic reiterations are bound to crop up. For instance, there are five sculptures made from cut and twisted polypropylene plastic which—one suspects—emanate from the same classroom assignment. Ceramic figurines evoking mythology also abound. Tucked inconspicuously amidst the crowded landscape, like precious gems demanding visual excavation, are some works of notable achievement.
A. J. Fries continues his recent series of black and white oil paintings that hone in on overlooked details of everyday life. His Two Shots (at Fat Bob’s) is an impressive rendering of shot glasses that, viewed up close, provide a mesmerizing array of shadows and reflections.
One of the few strictly conceptual works can be found in JM Reed’s understated archival print of an unintentionally hilarious advertisement for “involuntary relocation facilitators.” The bizarre ad and accompanying text promises to ease the stress of home eviction with help from a team of musclemen and hot women, each with a nickname ending in -dog. Synthetic CDO Abacus 2007AC1 furthers the artist’s deadpan documentation of the real estate collapse and resulting home foreclosures.
Beth Okonczak’s visually pleasant colored pencil 3D drawing, See-Through Sunflowers, is technically clever, but leaves you wondering whether there is a demand for art you have to wear special glasses to appreciate. A Weightless Dream by Valerie Kasinski is a photograph of a young woman hovering above her bed that combines striking formal design with allusions to supernatural horror movies. This reviewer’s vote for best representational watercolor goes to Michael Killelea’s rendering of the majestic Buffalo City Hall set against billowing clouds.
Ani Hoover edges further away from her customary circular subject matter and leaves painting altogether with Part of Dark Thoughts. The tactilely intense tabletop relief sculpture is constructed of flower forms made of used bicycle inner tubes. Looking Back by L.A. Takats consists of a stereoscopic viewer through which you voyeuristically spy a sumptuous example of boudoir photography, leaving you with the niggling feeling that there’s more here than meets the eyes. Similarly, Lilly L. Booth provides another of her modified clothing items, this one a white linen skirt, spotlit to create a diaphanous appearance. An interior sewn appliqué suggests a ghostly appliance (a vibrator?) with a “power cord” that decoratively threads around the hem. Amusing in a sinister sort of way.
Contributions from Shasti O’Leary-Soudaut, the art team known as Virocode, Felice Koenig, and Jody Hanson, among others, would shine under better circumstances. Hanson’s unassuming grid of crystallized salt daubs is particularly overpowered by its surroundings.
The show’s biggest surprise by an unfamiliar name—at least to this reviewer—is Cover-All, by Jason Seely. It’s a masterful photorealistic acrylic painting of two children engulfed in white hazmat-type suits, only their unhappy faces poking out. The figures float against a white background, offering no hint as to context. It’s disturbing and funny at once.
One hasty attempt at social commentary by an artist using the pseudonym Ulysses was coming apart and falling off the wall three days into the show, but its message resonates. A minimalist print of two rings by the artist Félix González-Torres—one of many available for the taking at the Albright-Knox—is duct-taped to a board. Printed over are the words “Occupy the Galleries.” That about says it.
Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, and educator.