Lyle Kissack, Gerald Ross, and Renee van der Stelt at the Creative Alliance Reviewed by Jack Livingston
The theme of the current exhibition at the Creative Alliance, 3 Strategies for Surprise, is not based around a common thread between the works, a critical theory, or connected political investigation. Instead, it features three mid-career artists, each with a highly personalized, mature style and highlights the surprise that each can deliver.
The exhibition, curated by Jeremy Stern of the Creative Alliance, showcases the work of Lyle Kissack, Gerald Ross, and Renee van der Stelt. All three artists have lived in Baltimore for many years, are well known and respected, and have created a steady body of new work while balancing other myriad life obligations. Early middle age finds them making better art than ever.
Lyle Kissack is well known in the community for his visual art, but also as a musician. He is currently the drummer for Baltimore band Boister, a muralist, and a teacher. As a visual artist, he is primarily a painter, but his work has taken various forms over the years through different styles and mediums, including photography and ceramics. He now has years of sketchbooks with a reservoir of images he refers to in current work, dipping in and out of times past and present. His work is hung on the back of wall of the gallery, wrapping around the left and right walls. The effect is welcoming and pulls the viewer into the space.
Kissack’s paintings are full of movement, color, and figures dashed off with lucid thin brush stokes. Hung in proximity and stacked, they are cinematic. The viewer can jump from frame to frame, finding interconnections and narratives, while the variant ground colors, scraped across one another, create further motion and depth of field. Kissack’s work is joyful improvisation, the paint application sultry and swift, the images full of life.
The gallery’s front south wall features work by Gerald Ross, whose small, unique, and sensitive paintings I have long admired. After taking a short respite from art making, Ross, who currently works as the Director of Exhibitions MICA, presents a new body of work created for the show built around a few paintings from last year.
The artist’s work has a wonderful off kilter element he manages to balance. Ross is a painter’s painter — he has a particular talent that is hermetic yet moving, and hard to explain. Personal life experience is his starting point, but the artist uses memory to manipulate shape and color in a formal way. Ross’s paintings offer a trace of reality, captured as non-reality—similar to what one sees in a mistaken glance out of the corner of your eye.
His work reveals a reverence for early abstraction, especially the idiosyncratic. A Ross painting is never what it seems at first glance; you need to live with it, to give it time. When you look closely, an abstraction may suddenly come into focus as an object, in this case, maybe a local monument he has placed in as a substructure. There are few of those is this series. His wall of paintings are as compelling as any in a major museum show I have seen in a long time.
On the Northern wall across from Ross is Renee Van der Stelt, whose work possesses a thoughtful conceptual bent, an austere sensibility, and an intensive working method. She currently is a professor of drawing at MICA. Here she presents three series of drawings on large white sheets of quality paper hung without frames. Each drawing set uses thin graphite lines to create an atmospheric point of departure.
One set is overtly political. It deals with the current horror of the USA’s prison industrial complex. She created guides along with a key chart of numbers to represent the number incarcerated in each state and uses grids to map out these populations. Tiny boxes are marked in to represent those held in captivity; as the darkness begins to dominate the size of the horror becomes clear. She intends for the viewer to consider the magnitude of human suffering and to empathize with the many men and women who are victimized by a brutal system. In front of this work is a simple rectangle, taped out on the floor, in the exact size of an average isolation cell. To stand in the rectangle and consider living there for long periods is a horrifying proposition the artist has employed to more deeply illustrate the issue.
In a second series, Van der Stelt again uses her standard large sheets of white paper, but with a formal set of line and scoring a process of esthetics is employed and adhered to. These works have much in common with set of operations minimalism and the process’s connections to spiritual connotations. Here the artist has set up work perimeters, using straight thin horizontal or vertical lines and cuts with folds all, each drawing produced over a long period of time producing a fading in and out of variant shades of graphite greys. They are hung in a grid. Their optical impressionism by way of meditative, repetitive mark-making produces hypnotically seductive results.
In the third drawing series, Van der Stelt lessens the rigid line, and ventures into the organic. She still sets some boundaries through a concept, but creates less linear, roving marks. Instead, marks include drips and splotches from working outside, letting the elements make their mark: leaves, ice, falling debris, frost, rain, all enhance the drawings, making them humanistic and playful. This set of drawings possess a calm assuredness and feel more varied thematically than the other two. They may be her most overtly personal work to date and speak of acceptance of change and wonder. Renee’s three ways of approaching the simple act of drawing together form a powerful triad that embodies the range of her practice.
The exhibition is a rewarding triumph and underscores a current regional problem. We who cover the arts (and those who present it) tend to place more emphasis on younger artists, and whatever trend seems to be happening at any given time. Much less coverage goes to the large amount of continuous working older artists, such as the three in this exhibition.
This is natural, because the youth scene is always barreling through, with lots of collective energy, late night festivities where young artists blossom and start to work in earnest. Every weekend is buzzing with activity, in a kind of never ending party, flying high on its shiny new wings and reaching for the next great thing. Then as the artists start to hit their thirties, then forties, things begin to change, both in their personal and public lives and as a result of this their work matures.
To be fair—Baltimore does seem to be riding a creative wave at the moment with many talented young artists of all kinds at the forefront of this change. Yet when we attribute it to young artists only that is a serious problem. We need to remembere generations of older artists have set the stage for whatever is happening now and continue to participate in this wave in numerous ways, both through their continued art practice (which must be seen more) and also through their mentoring and teaching. That said, I have not lived in a city less inclined to really give its more mature artists their due. This exhibition is an exception, a welcome one.
I am being reductive of course. There are many instances where there is a fair balance across generations. It is there in the few major galleries we have, and in the big awards that are given out each year now, also somewhat in the college gallery scene. No artist wants to be categorized by age and this is fair enough. I am confident in letting 3 Strategies for Surprise speak for itself.
I simply desire more of it’s kind.
Gallery Talk: Saturday, November 15th at 5pm
Creative Alliance at The Patterson
3134 Eastern Ave,
Author Jack Livingston is a Baltimore-based artist and writer.