Sunday, February 26, 2006

Saltonstall Salon

Today, I attended the second installment of the Saltonstall Foundation's new Art Salon series, which takes place at the Museum of the Earth, a natural history collection. The striking, angular building, filled with fossils and artwork depicting long extinct lifeforms, was a fun and offbeat locale for discussions of contemporary artists and their work. I got there early, so I got a chance to wander the museum, which I hadn't been able to do at the first Salon. The recently discovered Hyde Park Mastodon, almost (95%) complete, was impressive. (If you want to, you can sponsor one of the bones.)

There was light food, coffee and tea, set up by the catering people. I'm not sure what the numbers were, but I think that there were substantially fewer visitors than last time. Perhaps the weather, which was cold and windy? There were four speakers; each was supposed to talk for ten minutes, although this wasn't rigorously enforced. Many of them were quite awkward as public speakers, which seems to be the case with many visual artists (and something that I certainly identify with myself). Each artist was introduced by Laurel Guy, director of the Foundation. All brought samples of their work, and stayed around after the formal talks to chat with visitors.

First to speak was Virginia Cobey, who showed landscape paintings, as well as "abstracts". (This latter usage is probably out of date, and I have to say that I find it awkward.) She described her working schedule: plein-air landscapes when it is warm out, abstractions in her studio during the wintertime. Her emphasis was on the formal aspects of her work: selecting a composition from nature, building contrasts of shape and tone, establishing unity, and so forth. Much of this seemed generic (not particularly specific to her own work), and the talk was for the most part pretty dry.

Craig Mains, my favorite artist of the group, spoke next. Mains had a solo exhibit of his work at the Ink Shop last fall, and another one at Gimme Coffee earlier this year (an show from 2004 is reviewed colorfully here). Particularly nervous, he warned the crowd that he might suddenly stop talking (which luckily didn't happen).

First, he discussed his symbolic approach, which incorporates icons of disaster and flux (or icons in flux). Houses, trailers, ice-cream trucks, telephone poles, trees, Cessnas, helicopters, and more suffer the ravages of wind, fire and flooding. He noted the human attraction to such chaos and destruction, which he wants to separate from the human tragedy that usually accompanies it in the real world.

He also discussed his technical process, which has unusual aspects. He applys wet media (usually watercolor) to porous acetate sheets, which he can run through a printing press. Often, he cuts his iconic forms out, arranging and rearranging them. Although the monotype process is meant to produce a singular, unique image, Mains reuses these cutouts in further images, in which they grow progressively fainter as the pigment fades. Images and their "ghosts" are used to form series. He also talked about his use of Internet search engines as a source of imagery, which sometimes produces unexpected but useful juxtapositions
—for example, a search for "high tension wires" producing an image of a downed helicopter.

Bill Roberts, who teaches at Wells College, talked after Mains. He spoke engagingly about his life history, but didn't have too much to say about his current painting, a series of "shaped" (non-rectangular) pieces inspired by Elizabeth Murray's work. These pieces, done mostly in pinks, blues and whites reference the notorious "dimpled chads" from the 2000 election, which seemed like a pretty forced attempt at humor. Some of his earlier work, reproduced in catalogs he was giving away, looked more interesting. He also spoke about his work as a sports photographer (football and horse racing), and his love of Spain and its culture and art.

His philosophy of teaching was presented as a series of cliches, likely familiar to anyone who has attended art school: be spontaneous, experiment, be willing to fail, value the process of making art over the results, be fufilled in life. (He reminds me of a particular teacher I had in art school about whom I have very mixed feelings.) I don't know if Roberts is a good teacher or not, but I personally don't find these truisms very useful or encouraging.

Linda Swanson, a ceramic artist currently attending grad school at Alfred University, was the last to get up. Her work, inspired by the landscape of Iceland, uses natural processes such as dripping, cracking, and the formation of crystals, which act in unanticipated ways. Unlike the other artists, she read from notes for much of her talk, which gave it an strangely academic tone, seemingly out of place. She spoke of an interest in referencing the geological and the biological, different scales, mapping the landscape. The difference between science and art is important for her; the latter allows for things to be "other than what they are", which is a nice way of putting it.

Swanson showed two circular porcelain pieces, meant to be hung on a wall, although they were shown on a table instead (due to a lack of set-up time). The pieces were coated in thick layers of glaze, which were deliberately allowed to crack. One was white, black, and red, and the other (my favorite of the two) a pond-like green, with white crystal growths. The pieces receded behind their metal frames.

The quality of both the artists' talks and their work (which seem to correlate), was more uneven than at the first Salon, which is too bad. Still, it was an enjoyable event. I'm looking forward to the next one, which takes place on March 26.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see your critique of the Saltonstall Art Salon, which I also attended. Saltonstall and Laurel Guy deserve many kudos for making our arts community more vital and inspired. As for the salons, I love hearing artists talk about their work and this definitely has a place. But to me a salon should have an interactive quality that is mostly absent from the Saltonstall salons (to be fair, they haven't been at it for very long). Lively debate, discussion - these come to mind when I think of a salon. Though we are encouraged to talk with the artists after they've given their presentations, this often ends up being a one-on-one situation, with others waiting discreetly at a distance for their own chance to ask the artist a question or to make a comment. It's not very different from attending any lecture, though there is a little more socialization beforehand and afterwards. So I am wondering how else a salon can be structured (for I do feel some kind of structure is necessary). There are many topics I'd like to see discussed, and it seems to me that a salon might be the perfect place to focus on them. For example, one of the complaints I hear over and over again is that we in the Ithaca area are inundated with uninspired landscape paintings. A friend of mine likes to say that many of the landscape works we see around here could have been painted centuries ago. The same is true of much local landscape photography. Having just read a terrific article in the New York Times on Richard Misrach, who photographs the American West desert - out of love but also deep concern for how that landscape is treated by government and industry - I was reminded yet again that to see landscape as divorced from environmental and political concerns is to stick one's head in the sand. I'm not at all suggesting that a political agenda is necessary or always desirable, but I do think imaginative conceptions are - works that will refresh us and make us think or feel in a new way. A salon on re-imagining the landscape, perhaps with a specific focus on the Finger Lakes region, could make for an interesting topic. There are numerous other topics that are clamoring for attention. And if we knew in advance what the agenda was, we could come with some well-formed perspectives and would be less inclined to be mute non-participants.

6:27 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

I agree with Nancy about the need for more group discussion and (particularly) debate at the Art Salons. People need to be less intimidated by artists, more willing to offer criticism and alternative points of view. Artists themselves should be willing to say what makes what they do different from (or even better than) what other artists do.

The best way to do this is would to add a group debate segment into the structure of the salon. This could be done either with or without having artist speakers (probably on first). Of course, having speakers who bring their work is very useful, especially for those unfamiliar with local art.

Having an overall theme or problem--such as Nancy's suggestion of the "landscape problem"--is another good idea. Having suggested readings or viewings for before the Salon would give people a common frame of reference. Artist speakers would also have to be chosen with greater care, which is a plus.

All of this is dependent on finding a diverse, enthusiastic and perceptive audience. The Foundation might want to experiment with different locations or days of the week, tie-ins with other events,varying formats and lengths. They could also, I imagine, broaden the reach of their advertising. Reaching out to local college students would be a good idea too.

2:26 PM  
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1:50 PM  

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