TOPSPIN/10: A slow simmered platter of art
Say you’re given the task of mounting an exhibition that reflects the depth, diversity, and quality of visual art in Western New York. It’s a daunting project under any circumstances, one for which no entirely effective solution exists. The Beyond/In Western New York biennial (or triennial or whatever ennial-cycle its murky future holds) approaches it through the assimilation of a dozen plus curatorial viewpoints into a grand extravaganza oriented toward cutting edge art and media. The still evolving Echo Art Fair, having completed its second annual round in July, employs a panel of judges to fill available booths with first-rate saleable artwork. Neither event focuses exclusively on the art of WNY, but both provide an enticing regional snapshot from a particular vantage point at a given moment.
The Castellani Museum on the campus of Niagara University may have stumbled upon another recipe for assembling a cross section of the region’s creative output—adding the ingredient of time. TOPSPIN/10—The Ten Year TopSpin Retrospective is a highly palatable mulligan stew of artwork that is to biennials and art fairs what long slow cooking is to stir-fry.
TopSpin is the Castellani Museum’s ongoing series of solo exhibitions funded by Tops Friendly Markets that showcases mostly emerging or underrepresented artists. Each exhibition is accompanied by a color essay catalog. The prospect of a solo exhibition in a first class museum holds great appeal for area artists. Around a hundred vie each year for the three annual TopSpin slots according to Michael Beam, curator of collections and exhibitions. Aside from being necessarily selective, the curator’s choices display uncommon diversity and have included a broad range of media and visual styles over the years.
TOPSPIN/10 brings together all twenty-nine of its previous participating artists, starting from the first show in June 2003 through the most recent one ending in May of 2012. One or two of the selected artists are outliers from faraway places like Syracuse, but most will be familiar to anyone who’s hung around the region’s art scene for the past decade.
Each TOPSPIN/10 artist is represented with one or sometimes (inexplicably) two recent works. With all its diversity, this was no easy exhibition to mount. Beam deserves credit for keeping the flow as smooth as possible. A nice touch is the original show catalog on display near the artist’s new work to refresh viewers’ memories, or acquaint them with missed exhibitions. It’s interesting to see whose work has changed—and whose hasn’t.
For instance, when Amy Greenan’s TopSpin exhibition took place in February 2009, the artist presented a mix of styles, techniques, and subject matter from landscapes to self-portraits, mono-prints to collages. Greenan had also just begun making geometrically abstract paintings of abandoned houses, complete with expressionistic drips and runs. Her early attempts, which debuted in the TopSpin show, felt tentative—or maybe set against the backdrop of multiple artistic directions, this viewer responded tentatively. In any case, Greenan has since built a strong body of work around the house theme, as evidenced by the accomplished No Way In, No Way Out on view here. Two ethereal houses inhabit a flattened picture plane, one seemingly hovering above the horizon. Greenan’s deft paint handling and skillful surface treatment displays growing confidence and visual intelligence.
Richard Huntington’s September 2008 TopSpin show closely followed his release from exhibition exile imposed as a condition of his employment as the Buffalo News art critic. The newly retired writer’s TopSpin show was something of a mini-retrospective packed with witty and accomplished paintings (full disclosure: Huntington and I are longtime studio-mates). Here, he performs a brand new act of artistic legerdemain with collaged digital imagery and paint on paper. Mussolini Gets Near Nirvana manages to merge de Kooning-derived abstraction with appropriated Chinese printmaking, topped with a crude folk rendering of said dictator and his Red Cross nurse lover. Huntington layers imagery, puns, and a medley of linear elements in a mishmash of references and styles that nevertheless manage to hang together.
Mark McLaughlin sticks with long exposure pinhole photography using large format paper negatives, but here he moves from ghostly portraits to scenic vistas of Yellowstone Park. This might appear to be a significant departure, but upon closer consideration, McLaughlin is just shifting from one traditional photographic subject to another. His media is still his message.
James Montford moves from the performance/photo-documentation of his earlier exhibition to a brief but affecting video, but his theme remains the exploration of his African American and Native American roots. My Wife is a sound and image video collage made by videotaping previous digital imagery as it’s projected onto his wife’s back. This time-worn technique might evoke yawns, but Montford’s hypnotic audio soundscape of racially tinged commentary makes it engaging.
Robert Lynch’s paintings freely combine imagery culled from myriad source material. This time he’s waxing expressionistically with color that’s pumped up to graffiti levels. Dentist Cancer transcends its street art lineage on the strength of Lynch’s considerable painting chops.
Christine Walsh jumps media completely. Her TopSpin work utilized craft materials, but Moth is a darkly mysterious abstract painting with a richly worked surface that seems to be at least as much about process as product. Kurt Treeby makes a small but significant hop from his earlier hooked rug reproductions of famous figurative paintings to a crocheted replica of a Frank Stella minimalist work. Scott Bye shifts gears from elaborate Rauschenberg-like mechanical assemblages, to relative Duchampian simplicity—an oxymoron if ever there was one—with Easy Easel. A large wooden shelving unit is attached via lazy susan to a painter’s easel, resulting in an oddly compelling work.
Matt Duquette's A New Day is one of the many highlights in the Castellani's TOPSPIN/10 exhibition
Photo courtesy of Castellani Art Museum.
Some artists show resolute commitment to a single medium or technique. Topping this list is Felice Koenig, who carries on with her meditative time-based “paint mountain” technique that builds up colorful dots of thick glossy acrylic paint to create an effect similar to art glass. Koenig’s jewel-like canvases, which can take months to complete, often seem more like precious objects than paintings. Tom Hughes’ small light box with its customary affirmation phrase uses expressively etched lettering rather than the carefully printed inscriptions of the artist’s larger earlier works.
Jonathan Rogers’ undated Racing Death #40 features a large cartoonish figure set against a neutral background, in contrast to his more elaborate earlier compositions. It would fit comfortably with the very first TopSpin exhibition, which featured the artist’s wildly inventive and darkly allegorical works. Joseph Miller’s charcoal drawing of a mother and her children wading in shin-deep water looks like it might be an eighteenth century academic drawing, until you notice mom is daintily pointing a digital camera at one child. Tom Holt’s work taps a wide range of visual language including graffiti, comics, and technical illustration. With Working Man he offers an enigmatically symbolic triptych that is by his standards downright mannerly.
Two works stand out for their visual presence. Lillian Méndez is known for her evocative autobiographical assemblages. Self-Portrait of the Artist involves a tangle of vines that literally emerge from the ceiling. Entwined within them are a plaster-gauze life mask and two arms. One hand grasps a sack-like breast form from which a white droplet emerges. Below, a food-display refrigerator contains additional vines ornamented with plastic twist bags of white material described on the accompanying label as food products. Everything is sprinkled with a white powder invoking confectionery and drug allusions. Its makeshift construction has an urgency her earlier works lacked. It’s hard to know what to make of it, but boring it’s not.
Deborah Dohne creates large-scale assemblages that merge science, philosophy, and pseudo-scientific techno-babble. Never mind. The resulting sculptures are strikingly creative and visually dazzling. Drivable Data Cloud is a motor bike tricked out with an array of blue lights and a steel framework enclosure circling up and over the rider. The actual vehicle is accompanied here by a diagrammatic drawing and a few documentation shots of the work being ridden. Its funky sci-fi vibe begs for a lucid explanation.
Given a minor cavil—the show seems a bit lean on new media—TOPSPIN provides a nice slice of what the region has to offer.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer living in Buffalo.