Columbus, Ohio USA
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In Search of Visionary Art
By Jory Farr
January/February 2013 Issue
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Amber Groome's Sisters of the Linear
Genuine artists tend to dwell in the realm of imagination and live or die by the chances they take. Think of the harsh opposition the Impressionists encountered breaking into the staid, established Parisian salons. Artists almost always endure rejection initially. Art gallery owners, for their part, must also take risks if they want to achieve any originality and stay fresh. Otherwise, there’s a danger that they’ll traffic in mediocrity.
I thought about this after spending part of a week in December roaming through galleries on and off High Street, looking at painting and sculpture, taking in glass and ceramics and mixed media, indulging my love of jewelry and miniatures and lingering over pieces that radiated beauty. Beauty, of course, is subjective. But my definition takes in the primitive and the folk aspects, the eccentric, the weird, the mind-blowing and the serene.
I went full of questions. I wanted to know if the art I’d see told a compelling story. Were the works illuminating, cogent, idiosyncratic? Did they have great depth? Were they authentic products of the artists’ zeitgeist or self-conscious statements?
I avoided Gallery Hop altogether, for it offers no new shows and is jam-packed with the raucous clattering of people drawn to Saturday night revelry. My goal was to get lost in art for a few days and talk with some gallerists. Being a cultural critic, I wasn’t afraid to put in a few opinions.
Other than that, I had no agenda. I would visit the galleries in no special order and not worry about what I was missing. Galleries that did not immediately appeal to me would get short shrift.
I recognized a few things right away. Photography was noticeably absent. So was international art for the most part and the art of social protest. Apparently these kinds of art don’t sell well in Columbus. Maybe they don’t sell well anywhere. Still, I lamented their absence.
My first stop was the Brandt-Roberts Gallery, where a profusion of soothing landscapes adorned the walls, interspersed with playful abstracts and some portraiture. There were scenes from Tuscany and the woodlands, tableaux of rivers and shorelines. On one pedestal stood an ancient eocene fish fossil.
I was immediately taken with an oil that reminded me of Zurburan, the 16th century Spanish painter. Here was a scene that was memorable if only because it captured a pre-digital world: a typewriter with paper, an old film camera and a hat, all done in deep blacks and browns and creme white, painted with exquisite detail so as to evince the light within the darkness. The artist, Kendric Tonn, is based in Wooster and is a relative newcomer. And he has a genius for still life painting. One of his other canvasses at Brandt-Roberts is similarly luminous, a still life of a tea cup with folded money so real that you feel you can reach in and take it out of the picture.
Yet overall, there was nothing exciting or adventurous in BR. Its art works occupied a zone of bourgeois comfort, even blandness.
“Our focus is on mid-century Scandinavian and American art,” said Bryan Roberts, the gallery’s co-founder.
“Another focus is on contemporary living painters – some Ohio-based and some not,” said Michelle Brandt, his partner.
“We’re trying to give the gallery a national focus,” said Roberts.
I asked if they ever took chances on edgy artists.
“We’re a small business and we have to pay rent. So we can’t take too many risks,” Brandt said. She paused and thought carefully. “If you do take risks they have to be calculated risks.”
Roberts’ eyes darkened.
“There have been galleries in the Short North who have tried an edgy approach and it didn’t work.”
Roberts was referring to two galleries that had closed down: the Mahan Gallery, a fixture of the Short North scene for eight years, and the Rebecca Ibel Gallery. But the Mahan Gallery didn’t go out of business because it was too edgy.
“The decision for me to close my gallery had to do with the fact that my young son was diagnosed with autism and I no longer had the time to run the gallery properly,” said gallery founder Jacquie Mahan. “And as far as taking risks, I gladly did so all the time. I was never into couch-matching art sales. For me, art was meant to be weird. Weird is wonderful.”
Cartoonist Paul Palnik would no doubt agree. His studio is a haven for the weird and zany. When I arrived, Palnik was busy painting a commission, a colorful depiction of Jewish spirituality, for the local Chabad House. But I was interested in the myriad black-and-white cartoons hanging on the walls like scrolls, posters done in the celebrated artist’s trademark style: dazzlingly dense, often minute figures that led you to explore the sometimes silly, often weird and sometimes profound sayings and commentaries that went with them. Palnik, who at 67 has a snowy white beard with matching hair, is one of Columbus’ treasures, an under-appreciated genius who packs the figurative wallop of R. Crumb (whom he hung out with in Cleveland many years ago) but is more generous in his outlook.
“I play with deep ideas. The meaning of life and death. The battle of the sexes,” said Palnik. “I have two themes: the profound and the absurd. Right now, the art of cartooning is all but lost. There are cartoon superheroes, characters destroying whole cities, imaginary death of a magnitude that would put Hitler to shame.”
Palnik paused over his Chabad House painting for a moment. I asked him if he knew of the work of Jeff Smith, a famous Columbus cartoonist who had created the bestselling graphic novel Bone. Palnik shook his head no. Had he ever gone to the various galleries of the Short North? I asked.
“No,” he shrugged sheepishly, as if to say he lived deeply in his own imaginative world for better or worse. “Fortunately my own following is national. I do a mail order business.”
I took a walk south for my next visit: the Marcia Evans Gallery.
“I do a holiday show every December,” said Evans, a middle-aged woman who immediately dropped the fact that she was a corporate art consultant. “I ask my artists to bring in medium and small paintings.”
She pointed to some paintings that looked like they were executed in globules of streaked mud.
“Those are by Annette Poitau, a French-born painter who now lives in Oberlin.”
Poitau’s work left me utterly cold. My eyes fell momentarily on a display of decorative scarves and jewelry.
“I only sell the scarves seasonally,” Evans said, as if apologizing for trafficking in mere outer-wear. “But they are not selling this winter.”
“All the galleries here are trying to survive. We’ve been through a recession,” Evans sighed philosophically. “But art buyers eventually come back.”
I walked around her small gallery. The work here had the generic feel of hotel lobby art. There was no vision behind these images, no cultural imperative, no compelling story. I left quickly, hoping to see something inspiring in another gallery. And for that I knew where to go.
Unlike the other galleries in the Short North, Lindsay Gallery has a national clientele thanks to Duff Lindsay’s narrow niche – outsider and folk art – which makes it easier to connect with collectors across the country. “But only a certain number of people are going to collect outsider art,” Lindsay says. “So it’s a two-edged sword.”
Each year, Lindsay participates in enormous shows in New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, to sell art to an ever-widening array of collectors and cultivate new patrons. In each city he finds those who are hungry to own art that more often than not comes from a wounded place in the artists’ psyche.
Take the work of Amber Groome, one of a dozen artists on display in a show currently up at Lindsay called “Self-Taught Ohio.” Lindsay and I stopped in front of Sisters of the Linear, a work housed in a wooden box and composed of human hair, bone, lace, polymer clay, needles and a prescription bottle.
“Amber’s work is a chronicle of her struggle with bipolar depression,” Lindsay said. “Amber’s from Columbus and I was working with her for years and one day she brought me these doll sculptures. Now the dolls come enclosed in boxes, but back then they were loose dolls. They seemed so raw in terms of emotion.”
I looked at the dolls. Their tiny hearts were outside of their bodies, and in some cases bound in thin twine. A jar with two tiny eggs rested on a shelf. An old dirty drug bottle sat to the left. It was a heart-stopping vision.
“The eggs have to do with birth and fertility,” Lindsay continued. “And in some of her pieces, the doll’s hearts will be pierced with broken glass. When I first approached Amber, I wanted to make sure that she was ready to expose herself to the public in such an intimate way.”
I asked Lindsay what he looked for in an artist.
“I look for consistency of vision. To me that is a big determinant of authenticity. But I also look for honesty. I go for the art of the gut as opposed to the brain.”
So what is the essence of being an art dealer?
“People have an idea that an art gallery is a place where you hang art that you like and people will beat down your door. But you have to have a vision and communicate that to the public. It’s really hard work. The shows out of town I do are grueling. Just because you hang paintings on a wall doesn’t make you a gallerist. You have to be a warrior for art every day.”
I asked Lindsay about the importance of taking risks.
“If you don’t take risks, you go stale. Down the years I’ve done shows where I knew the artist wouldn’t sell. And sometimes I was wrong and sometimes I was right. Sometimes you do shows because the artist is ready. If it fits into my aesthetic, I want to do it.”
I thought about that as I entered the Sherrie Gallery. I was immediately drawn to a gorgeous piece of blown-and-carved glass, that looked like something out of a Gustav Klimpt painting. It glowed with a kind of magnetic attraction. I wasn’t surprised to find out it came from a Venetian artist. Gallery owner Sherrie Hawk came over with a smile.
“The artist, Davide Salvadore, came from Italy to Columbus and taught here a while back. He was at CCAD. He did demonstrations. After he blows a piece, the glass cools and it’s all cut on a copper wheel. It enables him to get texture and pattern.”
Salvadore seemed to be influenced by Moroccan trading beads in this sculpture, for their rich patterns adorn one side. It all reminded me of my stay two summers ago in Venice, where I saw Murano glass works in various galleries – but nothing of this magnitude. This was a vision.
The Sherrie Gallerie had many other interesting pieces. There was Christian Faur’s Crayon Boy in Speckled Sepia, made of 2200 crayons whose tips were exposed to form a face at the right focal point. And there was Ruth Markus’ enamels – jewelry, figures and miniature “rooms” made from enamel – that seemed to be created in a distant time and place. The handmade pieces conjured prewar Europe. And I was not surprised to learn that Markus was born in Prague and lost her mother and brother to World War II.
“Ruth just died a few days ago, and we’re having an exhibit of her work in February,” said Hawk. “She was completely self- taught. When I look at her work, I imagine her giggle and her spirit and the delight she had in making these pieces.”
I said good-bye to Hawk and went to Studios on High Gallery. The first thing to know about the Studios on High is that it’s a collective of 18 artists. The work, not surprisingly, is of uneven quality. I found Judy Hoberg’s camels and rabbits to be calculatedly commercial even for the genre. But Beth Himsworth’s glass mosaics, hand-cut, were handsome. Searching for memorable images, I was drawn to Tom Harbrecht, a plein air painter.
All of his work was interesting. But the painting that got my attention was Brittany Coastline, which featured gray clouds hovering over a lonesome lighthouse on a wild and rugged shoreline. The play of light and dark and the power of the ocean and the shore animated the painting, from the granite cliffs to the winedark sea."
Harbrecht paints from a belief in the plein air aesthetic. Which is to say he paints outdoors in the natural light. Before being an artist, Harbrecht was a high school teacher, a coach and a Navy Seal. Besides being a painter, he’s skilled in graphite drawings. His scenes of a Delaware County field and Crystal Pier capture the solitude and sculptural beauty of each place with a fierce eye.
Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, by Rick Akers at Sharon Weiss Gallery.
Even before I walk into the Sharon Weiss Gallery, I have my eye on some paintings. From the window I think I see a painting of a hawk, but when I actually get inside the gallery, I see they are birds native to Ohio, not raptors, but decidedly glorious for being familiar. There’s everything from a red-winged blackbird and a cedar waxwing to a rose-breasted grosbeak and a kingfisher. Not as Audobon would have painted them, but more childlike.
They’re done by Rick Akers, a palette knife artist who captures the evanescent quality of the birds who wing their way through the trees and marshes and rivers and hills. The paintings are beautifully realized and feature vivid splashes of color. In fact, as I soon realize, the whole room is devoted to Akers’ work. His landscapes have a light, airy feel; but they are deeply observed. Every scrape of the knife has created bursts of light and shadow.
“Rick is a great colorist – he paints what he sees,” says Sharon Weiss, who has had a gallery in the Short North for 19 years. “I see depth and playfulness. His paintings have an ease about them. They’re not intimidating.”
The Weiss gallery has that same ease, and its collection of paintings, representing 48 artists from Ohio, are firmly rooted in place. There is something here for everyone. Debra Joyce Dawson’s Poetry in Motion is a subterranean waterfall, full of mysterious rushing energy. Another canvass of hers, Seabook Island Wetlands #3, is alive with lavender, iridescent water and yellow and green and orange marshes and grasses.
My eyes fall on a black New Orleans accordionist. The piece, called Zydeco on Bourbon, is by Columbus-based Linda Langhorst, whose work adorns walls in various OSU buildings. “Linda goes to New Orleans and shoots thousands of photos. She’s very passionate about jazz. Some photos become the basis of her paintings,” says Weiss.
As the elder gallerist of High Street, Weiss has learned what sells. But she wasn’t always a gallery owner. For years she taught parenting education to high-risk parents. For a while she had an art/antiques store open only on weekends. But she eventually took the plunge and opened her own gallery. She says she will always take a chance on something new if it fits with her vision.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered 83 Gallery, located in a large room inside a pizza parlor. Young gallery co-founder Nick Stull, puffing on a cigarette that he snuffed out, greeted me.
“We want to be a bridge between an art collective and an upscale gallery,” Stull announced as if it were a manifesto. “We’re very inclusive and want to provide a space for emerging artists and those who have been on the scene for some time. We’ve tried to create a place that combines the vibe of punk rock with a New York gallery in the 1960s or even earlier.”
Maybe so. But Stull and his cohorts have not succeeded in conjuring New York in the ‘60s. My eyes roamed the dark walls here, chockablock with canvasses, iconic images (Marilyn Monroe and Warner Brothers cartoon figures), photographs and works in other mediums. The art works were hung willy nilly all the way up to the high ceiling. I walked around the room and asked Stull if he could talk about an artist he particularly liked.
“Here,” he said, motioning to the very top of one wall where, on a large surface, a turtle chased a bunch of rabbits. The piece used photo transfer and words: “Run rabbit run, we all fall down the rabbit hole in the end.”
“This is by Chad Kessler. It’s called Rabbit Hole. I like his liberal approach to media,” said Stull.
I wandered over to a large, elongated portrait done by April Beacon, called Breathe Ophelia. The composition was good, the drawing workmanlike.
“This is a portrait of the artist’s daughter done in acrylic, and I like the imaginative cross-hatching. I love her use of color to define the work. She does a lot of painting on old photographs, and there, too, she’ll use geometric patterns.”
I had to leave. Suffice it to say, 83 Gallery is a mishmash of this and that.
Its curating is questionable. Most of the images are forgettable. But for someone starting out as a collector, the prices are relatively cheap. The gallery is moving to a new space soon. Maybe at another show there might be something worth picking up. Some treasure. Some ironic, witty masterpiece. I doubted it. But hope springs eternal.
Cultural Critic Jory Farr is a freelance writer living in Clintonville.
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