All roads lead to the Bush Barn Art Center

Regionalism, transcended or escaped, is the subject of "Divergent Strategies"

By PATRICK COLLIER

The Salem Art Association’s Bush Barn Art Center has an exhibit up called “Divergent Strategies.” Put together by Andries Fourie, their 2013 guest curator and a faculty member in Willamette University’s Studio Art Program, the exhibition intends to “showcase the wide range of aesthetic and conceptual strategies employed by contemporary artists.” Included are paintings, sculpture, drawings, photography, mixed media and, according to the curator’s statement, new media, although I did not see anything that I would recognize as such.

To further emphasize this diversity, the various artists hail from Salem itself, (Andrew Theis/Sculpture and Alexandra Opie/Photography)  to as far away as Helsinki, Finland (Mikko Ijas/Computer Drawing) and Windhoek, Namibia (Nicky Marais/Mixed Media). Other artists included are Ron Ulicny (Portland, OR/Sculpture), Richard Martinez (Walla Walla, WA/Painting), Bethany Hays (Portland, OR/Painting), Michaele Lecompte (Orangeville, CA/Mixed Media), Nathan Lewis (Seymore, CT/Painting), Hong Chun Zhang (Lawrence, KS/Drawing), Sarah Wolf Newlands (Portland, OR/Sculpture), Chris Daubert (Dixon, CA/Sculpture) and Keith Dull (Ashland, OH/Printmaking).

Granted, I had to do some some digging to find out more about these artists. Some of the names may be known to Portlanders: Hays, Ulicny and Newlands. Opie and Theis have a presence in Salem as both are employed by Willamette University.  I found this last bit of information curious, so, as I continued my research, I kept my eye open for certain details, linking Fourie to the artists.

Martinez went to UC Davis with the curator; Lecompte shows at the same gallery as Martinez in Sacramento, and curator Fourie went to school there as well; Lewis has exhibited in Sacramento; Ijas has exhibited in Windhoek, Namibia, as has the curator, and I’ve already made the Namibia connection for Marais; Zhang went to UC Davis; Daubert is an art professor in Sacramento; and lastly, Dull worked with Fourie before the latter came to Willamette.

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Sarah Wolf Newlands, "Chariot for the Elysian Fields"

Sarah Wolf Newlands, “Chariot for the Elysian Fields”

From the curator’s statement:

“In some ways the work in the exhibition acknowledges the value of art that is of a specific place, but is individualistic enough to defy the orthodoxy of easy regional classification. We could do no worse than to inoculate the art of our region with just enough external influence to keep it on the right side of the dividing line between regionalism and provincialism.”

There is a mild irony within this statement because what we basically have here is an exhibit largely consisting of artists with a common thread. Yet, as my wife was quick to point out, isn’t that how a lot of things get done?  Sometimes there is not much of a distinction to be made between community and committee, and this is certainly true in the art world. I’ve benefitted as well, so no, I can’t take a huge amount of issue with how Fourie gathered his roster for this show.

Still, his selection may have led to compromises the curator wished not to make, for much of the exhibit suffers from a lack of the distinctiveness that it purports to have. A fair amount of the work in the exhibit is rather generic, and therefore it would seem to run contrary to the notion of a recognizable regional aesthetic or divergence from the same. Even so, while his statement would still have to be carefully worded, it might have been better if Fourie had been more upfront and made it clear that built this exhibit around a group of artists he had met and/or befriended in his travels and life as an artist.

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I do not mean to belittle the technical skills of all the artists showcased. Opie’s tintypes are interesting in that she has used an old process to represent contemporary portraits. Ulicny’s assembled contraptions are well-constructed and show an active wit. Newlands’ sculpture demonstrate a consistency in two pieces made nine years apart. Zhang is clearly skilled with graphite. Rodriquez’ irregularly shaped canvases are somewhat intriguing. And the Salem Art Association chose well when they used Lewis’ painting, “Sharp Was the Blade” as the frontispiece for their promotion of the show. Although I can see someone classifying this piece, along with his “I Burn Today” as having regional elements, Lewis demonstrates  a sophistication of subject matter and meaning that goes beyond the fact that he paints well or hails from a specific area.

It is clear from reading Fourie’s artist’s statement about his own work that he is largely concerned with issues of identity, and in his case, examining what it means to be an Afrikaner. It would therefore not be too big of a leap to consider issues of regionalism for a themed exhibit, especially when one has been displaced from one culture into another. New connections must be made while the regions of origin and the new one become a study of comparisons and contrasts. The former has an internalized hold while the latter may very well seem overbearingly present and, yes, potentially provincial.

Re-reading the curator’s statementthen takes on new meaning. His “otherness” must find a balance, a re-framing that both maintains itself while finding ways to interact in a constructive way with his new environment.

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Nathan Lewis, "I Burn Today"

Nathan Lewis, “I Burn Today”

If “Divergent Strategies” is an effort to bridge that gap, his stated goal may subtly bite the hand that provided this opportunity.

The SAA’s Bush Barn is a two-story structure.  “Divergent Strategies” is hung in the large, open, A.N. Bush Gallery upstairs. The downstairs area consists of a gift area and two other galleries. The larger of the two, the Camas Gallery is featuring the work of Dale Kurtz and Dale Crawford.  Kurtz is presenting watercolors of Oregon landscapes and Crawford has carved a series of raptor heads that emerge from stone, wood and horn, and all are very well made.

In the smaller Focus Gallery, SAA Artist in Residence, Mary Hollinger has created a series of small, mixed media pieces with titles such as “Nest Building Time,” “Fall Dance,” and “Reflections,” and in her artist’s statement she writes of art as “my way of expressing the transformation that envelops me.”  These three artists are working in themes dominant in this region and in these galleries, something to which Fourie is no doubt responding.

Again, from the Curator’s Statement:

“A few of the artists in the exhibition [“Divergent Strategies”] make work that conforms to a specific regional aesthetic, while others are more iconoclastic. The Oregon artists in the exhibition were selected because they fit into the latter category.”

Fourie seems to indicate regionalism may raise its ugly provincial head in his current locale while he gives a pass to how it is represented in other parts of the world. Mind you, I’m guessing, but it’s almost as if he is saying, “Please, I’ve seen enough artwork inspired by nature around here!” when he might have been better served to pursue a completely “iconoclastic” agenda and thereby amplify the title of the exhibit.

We certainly hear enough about the subject of provincialism in art criticism circles these days, most recently about New York-centric coverage. However, if we think of it in terms of a kind of boosterism, then just about every major city’s art community is guilty, including Portland. It only becomes a problem when it takes on a smell of micro-nationalism, which I don’t think is a problem in NYC, PDX or any other large metropolitan area.

The constant influx of new talent exerts its own influence, if ever so gradually. People aren’t clamoring to move to Salem as an art center, so when all is said and done, there is some value to be found in Fourie’s efforts to bring in art from outside of the area, and similar enterprises are to be encouraged.

 

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