WHAT: Beginning a New Century: Emerging Artists in Western New York
WHEN: Through Feb. 13
WHERE: Burchfield-Penney Art Center,Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College. 1300 Elmwood Ave.
What a way to start a millennium -- scattered, confused and spilling over with self-congratulatory political correctness.
I'm not even quite sure what "Beginning a New Century: Emerging Artists in Western New York" is intended to be. Is it a juried exhibition? Well, not exactly, although 10 of the 30 artists in the show were selected through an open call. Is it an invitational? Sort of. But, from the evidence of the show, the nine outside curators never coordinated their efforts in any way. Is it a geographical survey? An attempt to represent the art of various ethnic groups? A survey of styles and mediums? Sort of, sort of, and sort of.
The exhibition tries to be everything to everybody and winds up a hopeless hodge podge. How could it be otherwise? Counting the open-call selections made by Nancy Weekly and Ted Pietrzak -- curator and director at the Burchfield, respectively -- these 11 curators represent wildly divergent tastes. It seems that everyone simply picked their favorites. How -- or if -- these works hung together was left to the fates. The fates weren't kind.
This method may be fine for putting together county fairs and pot luck suppers, but it's no way to organize an art exhibition. It falls to the Burchfield curators to intercede at some point and give the show a direction and a context.
Lack of context causes all sorts of mischief here. The work ranges from Native American beadwork to Web site art to traditional and contemporary forms of paintings, sculpture, collage and drawing. These already diverse works are set against an occasional installation, sound piece or video display. It's often a huge leap from one art work to another -- not only aesthetically but culturally as well.
For example, Rosemary Hill's contemporary Iroquois beadwork (selected by Kate Koperski) and Peter B. Jones's reinvention of ancient Iroquois pottery (selected by Midge Stock) are world's apart from, say, Peter Byrne's wall installation/Web site "www.distractions.org" (selected by Sean Donaher) or Allison Crocetta's mirrored installation, "Swing-O-Matic" (selected by Sara Kellner).
I don't want to appear persnickety about categories, but I can't see how these very different artists can be satisfactorily gathered under the banner of "emerging artists." The premises of artists reworking Native traditions are not related in any way to those of contemporary artists hip-deep in current cultural concerns. Sure, a special unifying framework might have been established, but it wasn't. You get what the grab-bag offers.
Luckily for this ragtag show, sometimes what the grab bag offers is very good indeed. Crocetta's swing with its puffed plastic bag as surrogate baby calmly capsulizes a horror that has been building over the century: that we are now fully machine-nurtured beings. David Schirm's paintings (selected by Roberly Bell) also signals that all is not well in the modern Garden of Eden. What makes his pseudo-folk fantasies especially unsettling is that they seem like remembered childhood nightmares coming at you in deceptively jolly packaging.
In a more ironic, less psychological vein, Rob Lynch's paintings of piggy backs and knick knacks (selected by Pietrzak and Weekly) contain some of that same disturbing aura of warped childhood -- except that this time the warping is done by commodity culture. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Joshua R. Marks more overtly indicts this culture with his big mock-heroic neon and plexiglass construction, "VROOM."
Any irony to be found in Frederick Miller's three-dimensional wall pieces (Pietrzak and Weekly) will be of the philosophical variety. Miller suspends simple geometric forms -- textured and painted in elusive, broken colors -- a few inches in front of other like forms so the viewer is forced to see the work as both painting and as an object made up of discrete colored parts. This intricate play between painting's illusionary relationships and the plain facts of real forms makes the experience of the work both meditative and constructive, a process that demands the eye and the mind to alternate duties.
The title, "Beginning a New Century," is misleading. Don't expect too many innovations. Many of the good artists in the show rework familiar territory, and in not particularly new ways. The emotion-packed paintings of Fulani Lamont Carter, for example, are visually compelling. But to get across his message about the harsh realities of African American life, he resorts to the oldest trick in the modernist book -- newspaper clippings collaged in and around expressionistically painted figures.
Likewise, Farrah Kulsum Ali's photos with texts (in Hindu and Malealam) resurrect the tried and true -- the now well-worn conceptualist conceit of text superimposed over an otherwise undistinguished photographic image. (Pietrzak and Weekly selected both Carter and Ali.)
In some cases we don't get the best work of a given artist. Byrne is an excellent painter but his Web site, updated daily or not, nearly put me to sleep. Although William E. West Sr. (selected by James D. Pappas) has had a long and admirable career, he was at various points perfectly capable of producing the most inconsequential of art works. Some are on the walls here.
Some of the other works are, I'm afraid, beyond criticism. Among these pieces are works as painfully sincere as they are naive. Nothing much more can be said.
The exhibition and broad program to support under-recognized artists was funded by Ami and Warren Greatbatch.