Jack Livingston reviews BLUSH at Gallery CA
Artists, as many people in other professions, soak up the ideas and passions of their friends. Influence from an artist’s peer group is often more powerful than the official education they receive. Though many first meet in academia, the rites of passage they traverse together create deep bonds and leave a strong residue. The exhibition BLUSH, currently on view at the Gallery CA located in Station North, is the result of one such inter-connected group of friends. These artists proposed the exhibition to Gallery CA based on what they feel they have in common. When it was accepted, they built the show based on their perceptions of these themes. The exhibition includes two current Baltimore residents, painters Xinyi Cheng and Curtis Miller, along with printmaker Jeffrey Dell of San Marcos, Texas. Miller, a Texas native, knew Dell, and then met Cheng in Baltimore where they both had moved to attend MICA’s MFA program. Miller brought the three artists together for the Gallery CA proposal and subsequent exhibition.
Gallery CA manager Catherine Akins officially curated the exhibition but, as with most gallery managers, her involvement varies with each show and at times she chooses a more hands off curatorial approach. If she feels the artists have strong opinions and that they are on target, she gives them more freedom to do what they want. With BLUSH, Akins said the artists stated personal interconnections were key to their accepted submission for the show, and as such she allowed them to take the risks they desired in putting the final exhibition together. Due to this, artists Dell and Miller became de-facto co-curators, carefully placing the work with some feedback from Akins. The other artist, Ms. Cheng, was absent from the process as she is currently in-residence at the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting.
Unfortunately the artists’ basic premises for the exhibition becomes the show’s most problematic feature as the viewer struggles to perceive the stated interrelationships, which are not clear. Also, the minimal amount of work by each artist and the sparse placements create juxtapositions that sometimes are weak or disruptive and bear little relationship to the press release which reads:
“The three comparable artists use a soft key color palette, aspects of printmaking technique, narrative, and emphasis on refined surfaces to create prints and paintings with varying shades of pink that retain an unusual inner light.”
Yes, each work is sensitive to color and luminosity, and they do include the color pink somewhere but that’s it. There is no obvious printmaking connection in the work of the two painters—though all the artists have experience in printmaking in their background. All of the works do not have soft key color values—quite the opposite on many. What exactly a ‘refined surface’ means remains unclear, if it means not messy and well executed, well then we can give them credit for that. This all simply points out common problems that result between artist’s statements of intent and the realities of what they produce or are attempting to do as a group. Every writer and visual artist needs an editor and here something is lacking.
It can be one of the problems of choosing group shows heavily based on written themes, and then compounded when it is conceived by and comprised of friends. Yes, it is great to show with your friends but there are drawbacks and it needs to be approached carefully. Here to receive a shot at a group show the artists needed a theme for the “sell” so they based it on common ground they, no doubt, genuinely feel but it is lost in hermetic translation as these things very often are.
Everyone would have been better off going with the simple idea of what the exhibition really is—the works of three artists who haven’t shown together but are connected through the thread of friendship. What is wrong with letting the audience make connections and artists just be artists?
If that is the premise, Blush immediately becomes a very interesting exhibition of work by three differing artists in spite of their misguided rhetoric. Each artist’s body of work—which is limited here— is strong and increases with contemplation. All works are evocative and well executed. Each is a highly skilled colorist. There is not a clunker in the bunch—something rare for any exhibition.
A large, high color key abstraction by Curtis Miller titled Waterstroke opens the show. It’s a well-constructed, gleeful work with a grand orange cone rising across a slathered green and pink background. All of Miller’s other work in the exhibition prove he is a versatile and accomplished painter, yet few of his paintings look much alike. They all have a sophisticated touch that is interrelated, but if another name were attributed to some of Miller’s work the audience would easily accept them as such. This isn’t as troublesome as it may sound. Too often artists are chided for creating different looking work and placing it together and instead create repetitive work just to conform to ideas of being ‘cohesive.’ Here ultimately the variants work in the artist’s favor and add to the exhibition’s verve.
Miller’s paintings are all lush emotive abstractions, sensitive to color and brushstroke. His use of color, enabled by the brighter hued range of paint now available, is strong and his division of space is solid. His work fits a trend of much recent abstraction that playfully riffs off various past forms of abstract expressionism, but leaves out any trace of angst. It is ripe with the joy of painting and relentlessly positivist.
Buoyant abstraction is also the defining feature of Jeffrey Dell’s silkscreen prints that consist of well defined, folding or overlapping geometric shapes with areas of higher saturated color next to subtle greys. The screen prints are so well done they appear composed in a computer as high-resolution files and created with the use of latest in precision large format digital printers. I could not tell the difference between the two techniques which is strange and interesting. Dell states on his website his work “engages themes of human desire and its effects on perception, impulse, appetite, and health…” He goes on to say he wants the work to be both playful, yet not mean any one thing, and as such, embraces disconnections between his original intent and the results, enjoying his work better when it turns out different than expected.
Many artists share this desire and it is easier said than done, as errors in intent more often than not just look like errors. It is questionable whether Dell succeeds in his desire to make work that engages in ideas of “human desire and its effects.” There is little evidence of anything “human” here except we know a human created them and the titles refer to human activity; instead they come off as smooth optical gaiety. He achieves his goal of mistaken understanding—the work can be read in a variety of ways depending on how one wishes to approach it, meaning overall it is ungrounded in the best sense of the word. Working in highly refined silkscreen method Dell navigates with aplomb as an artist who clearly enjoys delving into the medium’s potential.
The most enticing work in the show is by Xinyi Cheng, who is the only artist who covers almost all the bases laid out in the aforementioned press release. Her work has masterful, shrewd offbeat color, it is often pinkish and glowing, flat yet expansive. And it is figurative and narrative yet does not fall into any usual figurative format.
Each of Cheng’s paintings sets up a tableau of what she states in the show’s proposal are “white hairy men,” (though one included is of a woman) engaged in some kind of intimate yet mysterious situation. The finest example, the painting titled The Haircut, is of two nude men viewed from behind, one simply cutting the other’s hair. The painting is astonishing in its ability to elicit multiple narratives and emotions. The intimacy is profound in its psychological complexity. All of Cheng’s work in the show is like a film still that captures an important moment of a high quality cinema that leaves one dizzy with myriad complicated dynamics.
Xinyi Cheng is Chinese and on her MICA page writes of her time growing up in China as emotionally difficult due to moving to Beijing at the age of six, followed by a period of being a “troubled teenager,” then after graduating from a prestigious fine art school university, she inform us, she came to the US immediately “with just two suitcases.” It is that kind of detail that seeps through her work; it seems plain, yet meaningful, an openly buried metaphor. Once in the US she entered the MFA program at MICA. Following that, she writes, “Life is lighter now,” yet while happy she remains self conscious, “aware of her Chinese accent.” All her writing is very much like her paintings. Plain, deliberate, funny, flat, intriguing, and quirky in detail.
Cheng’s work has some of the same formal qualities as the great American painter Milton Avery. Like Avery, Cheng uses differing saturated color keys, yet keeps the contrast even and distorts figures to suit the mood. In this way she controls emotion and gets an all over intensely beautiful decorative surface. Her work also has something in common with the paintings of the iconic and disturbing figure painter John Graham, as well as the cool persona portraits of Alex Katz.
Her repeated personal references to being Chinese, yet painting Caucasian men, is intriguing. It is a reversal of the usual Euro-American style of appropriating Orientalism and using it to depict seductive women of another culture. Here the artist reverses the role of “the other” and may also be playing with third generation feminism in depiction of white men stripped of power and shown exposed, a vulnerability women often see in men in their private lives together but men rarely show in public.
The artist’s work is so strong it nearly hijacks the exhibition and her narratives start to drive the other abstractions in the show. Looking at her work online reveals an even more complex, exceptional artist.
Gallery CA, fetching with its two long walls of high windows facing west and south looking out upon the beauty of Greenmount Cemetery at the intersection of Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street, has an interesting effect on all work shown there. The light changes drastically throughout the day into the night altering the look of any exhibition in the process. It’s rather boxy shape and high ceilings make it both traditional and cozy. It may be best used for sculptural and performance art augmented by two dimensional work on the limited wall space—though the walls appear to be modular and movable, making many differing configurations possible. With BLUSH it feels the modules were not well utilized to maximum potential.
This exhibition questions how Gallery CA can in the future better utilize the space when only exhibiting wall mounted two-dimensional work by a few artists. It is quite possible they have before and I have simply not seen it. The truth is, any space can be made to do near anything in the hands of good curator, and gallery manger Akins has repeatedly proven herself capable and has been doing an exemplary job.
In the end BLUSH is a group exhibition that suffers some from work arrangement and confusing claims, but ultimately perseveres through the high caliber of each artist’s series of work.
* Update—Monday July 30th, original text wrongly stated Jeffery Dell’s work is created through digital print processes. It is created by silkscreen. This change has been included in the most recent update of the review.
* Author Jack Livingston is an Editor and Contributor at Bmoreart and Founder of Radar and RadarRedux, two publications devoted to arts and culture in Baltimore.
BLUSH at Gallery CA: Paintings and prints by Xinyi Cheng, Jeffrey Dell and Curtis Miller
June 13 – July 9
440 E Oliver ST
Baltimore, MD 21202