A selection process by independent jurors is the norm for art shows. It’s the norm for galleries, for art venues, and for the Maude Kerns Art Center in Eugene. The MKAC, however, has an exception to this rule: its annual membership show, “Art for All Seasons.” The show, up this year through December 17th, always goes by the same name and is an opportunity for members to exhibit up to two artworks—no questions asked.
And anyone can be a member. So you could say the process for selection is highly democratic.
I’ve got democracy on my mind because art critic and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient Dave Hickey (1938 – 2021) died on November 12. His book of essays, Air Guitar, is subtitled Essays on Art and Democracy. I studied art history and theory with Hickey. He spoke about art in relation to the democratic process often, not just in terms of how it’s selected for exhibits but also for how it gets made and accumulates value.
MKAC’s exhibition is the embodiment of the notion that art should not have to be judged in order to be seen. No one is excluded by education level or degree of professionalism. Children may join too. Though no child artists are included in this year’s show, they have been included in the past. Artists do need to be members of the center but can join even the day before the exhibit opens and still have work included.
Michael Fisher, the Executive Director of MKAC, says “Art for all Seasons” is his favorite of all the shows at the center, though he concedes, “I say that about every show.” But standing among all the art in the gallery I believe that this truly is his favorite. It represents what the center stands for, which he says is not product but rather process. It’s the experience of making and being around art, and others who appreciate it, that’s central here.
Some of the art represents years of study or practice while for others, it’s only the beginning. Katy Conlin, for instance, is showing her artwork here for the first time. Her painting Pear Plum Party is a still life done in oil, a small square (12” x 12”) format with a minimalistic and painterly flair. And it’s already sold.
Saarkis Antikajian, on the other hand, has been involved with the MKAC since the 1960’s. He has been consistently studying, teaching or exhibiting with the center for decades. His two entries are oil paintings too. Still life with Three Oranges is a colorful piece informed by impressionist brushstrokes. And At Depoe Bay is an eye-catching outdoor study emphasizing shape and variation of line, as well as the blues present in water.
Antikajian is originally from Armenia and used to work as a pharmacist. Retried from pharmacy work now, he introduces himself on Facebook this way: “I am a painter. My studio/home is in Cheshire, Oregon.”
Clyde Horn’s small square paintings are totally abstract. They are done with encaustic which makes them seem something between a painting and a sculpture. Titled Untitled 1 and Untitled 2, their medium comes off the surface, following you around, or at least it does me. I don’t know anything about Horn even after looking online. Maybe this is also a first attempt at showing art. Or maybe Horn is a professional artist. That’s the thing about the membership show, there are no explanations or statements—it’s just the art.
The 2021 “Art for all Seasons” exhibition includes the work by more artists than ever before, 175 in total. This is a testament to the vibrancy of the MKAC community. Fisher jokes that the arts administration program at the University of Oregon, where he earned his degree, forgot to offer a course on how to effectively navigate a nonprofit during a global pandemic. “We’ve been lucky,” is how he puts it. While other art venues closed down, MKAC stayed consistent with programming throughout. Though they still aren’t holding receptions, the continuity of services and exhibitions has kept people engaged.
I visited the center on a Tuesday morning, assuming (incorrectly) that it would be an off time. The space was bustling. In addition to people gathered in small circles throughout the gallery, a few women at one end have made themselves comfortable and are drawing. One is sketching an artwork in the show and another is drawing a long view of the gallery. One of the drawers, Jane Harris, informs me that they belong to Top Drawers & Friends, a drawing group that meets on Tuesdays.
About being at MKAC, Harris says “It’s such a pleasure to be welcome here.”
The drawing group is technically not part of the membership show, but if the center’s overall goal is to make experiencing art accessible, as Fisher says, then the group represents the success of that mission. The atmosphere is welcoming. Aside from the main gallery, in which the exhibit is displayed, there’s a gift show that also showcases members’ art and a sizable ceramics holiday sale with pieces produced by Maude Kerns’ Club Mud Co-op.
I like the idea of a no juror show because it leaves control in the hands of artists. They get to put whatever they want on the wall or floor, without interference from a group of perceived experts. I may have been influenced by Dave Hickey on this point.
The New York Times says that Hickey was a divisive figure: people either championed or despised his thinking about art. I knew him more as a fun teacher. His seminar classes took place at night with a small group of us gathered around a table. His discussions moved back and forth between personal stories to highfalutin theories about art.
Hickey talked about artists as risk takers, as people who break rules. So being pre-approved by a panel of expert judges might well prevent an artist from taking risks—and from making great art. People taking art classes for the first time at MKAC are still learning the rules, the techniques or traditions. The risk here, I think, isn’t so much along the lines of breaking rules. From the point of view of nonprofessional artists especially, there’s the risk of making a fool of yourself byputting work out for the world to see (in person or online).
Of course MKAC is also taking a risk in presenting art by 175 people without a theme or anyone judging. But then“Art for all Seasons” isn’t trying to put forth a unified message or statement. The pageantry of the entire exhibit, and the unpredictability of the whole thing, is what makes it exciting.