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A Stir in Richmond, Virginia

by Steve Rockwell

Entering Disturbance a video installation at VCUarts Anderson Gallery by Bob Paris, is exactly that ­ unsettling. And it is entered, in the same way that a cave is entered, from the light outside, to a darkened interior. To further the sense of spatial dislocation, the walls of the exhibition spaces were painted black or near-black, permitting the video screen images to lick the retina of the viewer like white flames. Color and fixity in general, were absent. Identifiable images morphed, ebbed, and collapsed in rhythmic dissonance to Frank Garveyıs electronic soundtrack. Paris had presented the shadowy images in a contemporary Platoıs Cave, mediated, as were the shadow images in the cave of Platoıs Republic, but here, further laced by the vitriol of an event that still flickers in the dorsal lobes of collective memory.

In 1991, when a bystander videotaped a road-side beating of a black suspect, Rodney King, by four Los Angeles policemen, the footage found its way to television, at once transfixing the viewing public. Shot at night, grainy images captured repeated blows to an apparently unarmed and already subdued civilian. As viewing, it made for horrific film noir, with disquieting sequels that were to unreel the following year. When a jury acquitted the officers of assault charges, the simmering cauldron of anger tipped into the streets. Television coverage of the riots in Los Angeles that followed became the subject of Parisıs Disturbance: 22 Minutes of Television Images from April 29 ­ May 2, 1992. Derived from a single tape of television footage, it was randomly recorded by the artist, the days following the Rodney King verdict.

In Disturbance, the blurring and abstracting of the recorded visual material was accomplished through analog video synthesizers. With the overlay of moving lines of text from one monitor to the next, something akin to a distillation or purging took place. By stripping away the dross of spectacle, gravity and substance was lent to the events themselves. Paris has managed a resurrection of the bones of the social and ethical issues surrounding the presentation, transmission, and telling of the human story.

Disturbance is an allegory of the cave for our age because it manages to gnaw into the apparatus at the very nexus of our perceptions. And Paris is right, that the heat and weight of our critical muscle should be flexed against the lurid flabbiness and easy sensationalism that seems to go into the marketing and packaging of news.

Video artist Bob Paris is an instructor in VCUarts Kinetic Imaging Department. It was upon the suggestion of Area Head of the department, Bob Kaputof, that Anderson Galleryıs Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, Amy Moorefield, became acquainted with the work of Paris a few years ago. The result was Disturbance.

Anderson Galleryıs permanent collection of prints is impressive. It owns one of only 60 known impressions of Vincent Van Goghıs etching, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1980), and is documented to be the only etching that he ever created. In its collection are prints by Dürer, Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, Honore Daumier, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Philip Pearlstein, William Wegman, Robert Estes, Andy Warhol and an important color lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec.

On view at the time I was there, were a selection of 35 prints and books from the collection, a curatorial collaboration between David Freed and Barbara Tisserat. The Highlights show contained not only the Van Gogh in question but an intriguing Hogarth engraving, Satire on False Perspective (1754) and an 1899-1900 Gauguin woodcut, Le Sourire (The Smile), which had served as a frontpiece for a satirical pamphlet published by the artist. Patrick Caulfieldıs wry pop screen print, Cigar (1978) is reproduced in the table of contents of this issue of dArt.

This was my first visit to Richmond. Early February turned out to be uncharacteristically mild, but still winter. First Friday could be taken in comfortably ­ Saturday drizzled. At Linden Row Inn, my room was on the ground level in the courtyard, where I imagined that young Edgar Allan Poe had played as a child, as it has been reported. Local lore has it that the enchanted garden is the one that Poe mentions in his poem To Helen.

I bring up Poe as a winter reference as a pretext to mention Richmond native Tom Wolfe, who in his white suit might typify a lazy summer day. In a recent interview he reminisced, ³lıll tell you how calm it was in the 1930s, when I was growing up. There was a state fair that was just about three-quarters of a mile from where I lived, in an area of Richmond, Virginia, called Sherwood Park. And it was the biggest gathering of human beings annually in the state of Virginia, the state fair.²

The word that stood out to me in the quote was calm, since calm was not a word I would necessarily associate with Richmond, in part because I had been dropped into a maelstrom of art goings-on, but more as the consequence of my own musings about what I have gleaned from its annals.

In my imagination, it is only to casual appearances that the city of Richmond is tranquil. Hoisted high upon their pedestals along Monument Avenue, bronzes of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, merely appear as fixed today as the day they rode out of the foundry furnace, belying the restless shadows that they have cast upon history. I suggest that they are the product of the civic genes of Œcontainmentı and Œruptureı, best exemplified by Patrick Henryıs cry ³Give me Liberty or Give me Death,² from the speech that he gave on Church Hill in Richmond, sparking the tinder to the Revolutionary War. In the ensuing conflict, the town was torched by the British, under the command of Benedict Arnold. Again at the close of the Civil War, retreating Confederate soldiers set fire to large parts of the city on Evacuation Sunday. My guess is that the ensuing devastation probably allowed for construction of Monument Avenue itself, ironically.

A more recent, but less catastrophic fire on Broad Street, across the street from the VCU School of the Arts, still had the intensity to melt the windows of the school, since they were acrylic. Grad student Jacq Crowley recalls the frustrations of the school being closed for several days.

The counter point in Richmond to fire is the turbulent river water of the James. In no other city in North America is it possible to white-water raft through the heart of the city. And you can count on at least somebody, every year, knocking themselves senseless on its crags. A decade ago a floodwall was built to hold back the James. Particularly vulnerable was the Shockoe Bottom district, the heart of the Confederate capital during the Civil War. Although ruined in the war with the Union, it became a thriving industrial center of tobacco warehouses and factories.

When Hurricane Gaston struck just under two years ago, an attack from the sky had not been expected, and Shockoe Bottom ­ essentially a bowl, filled with water, to devastating effect. Twenty blocks of the lively bar and restaurant district, or half of the historic area, was declared off limits. It is still undergoing recovery in places.

If I seem to run on, somewhat, at this juncture, it is to attempt to put my finger on ³just exactly what it is, that is in the water in Richmond.² It is worth considering, however, that my notion of ³rupture² and ²containment² might not be that far off. At critical moments in the history of the country, Richmond has been the battleground of values and ideas.

Since Richmond has never quite managed to put together a major league sports franchise, some of that testosterone must have gone elsewhere.

Although the word ³ranking² has an inescapable military ring to it, in colleges and universities, ranking is something that can be taken to the bank. And ranking is something one becomes aware of at Virginia Commonwealth University ­ since the university has been doing so well in recent years. Have a look at the Steve Jones piece on page 28, for an elaboration on very impressive numbers. Letıs just say that VCU has been outranking Yale (second) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (third) in its sculpture program. Out of 185 applications in a year and merely six accepted, a three percent chance of acceptance makes the sculpture program highly competitive. While Yale and the Rhode Island School of Design have long been known for their fine arts, VCU began to achieve recognition only in the late 80s. By 1997 it was already ranked fifth.

A good deal of credit for this has to go to the current Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for Graduate Studies, Joe Seipel, who was chair of the sculpture program for a number of years. And having spent some time with Mr. Seipel during my stay in Richmond, it might come down to simply a genial optimism, without a trace overbearing, and seemingly boundless energy. Part of his secret must also be in where that energy has been expended. Seipel has been instrumental in forging links to the art world in New York City and elsewhere.

Chairing the VCU sculpture department is Amy Hauft, a well-known artist with a record of prestigious grants and national and international exhibits to her credit. Hauft believes that what sets VCUıs program apart is its focus on the studio, the building of things by hand, without sacrificing content. Consequently, students graduate with a lot of technical skills.

What I noticed in my walk through the school, was how easily accessible the other fine arts areas are, such as Sculpture and Crafts. I was impressed by the energy and openness of the faculty. No better typification of this is the Department of Craft/ Material Studies Chair, Sonya Clark, who is herself an embodiment of the departmentıs mission for students to visually realize original ideas through the investigation of material, developing and utilizing technique, process, or technology. It is expected that students become creative professionals in their field, with proficiency in critical thinking and problem-solving. Students are expected to make a contribution to the cultural aesthetic identity.

With numerous degrees and awards, such as the H. I Romnes Fellowship for her work in the celebration of the hand and head as subject matter in a cross cultural context, Clark has also exhibited in numerous solo exhibitions and over a 100 group shows, both nationally and internationally.

The Painting Program ranks in the top ten, and is one of the largest departments in the country. Established in 1928, it was out of the Painting and Printmaking Department at VCU that all the other departments developed. With 15 new spacious individual Graduate Painting Studios, and a new Graduate Printmaking Studio in the Fine Arts Building, the new facilities are providing the necessary physical environment for the Graduate Program.

Joe Seipelıs philosophy of providing students a direct line to current art developments through participation in gallery shows in New York, for instance, is paying dividends, by making concrete something that might otherwise remain an academic virtual or a mere possibility. What could be a better confidence builder than showing at Stefan Stux or Kim Foster galleries? And since department heads are practicing artists themselves, there is a dynamic of mutual support between student and faculty, and a real sense of being connected to something beyond the campus.

At VCU, I observed that it isnıt enough to think outside the box ­ some of the walls of the box must come down. Painting and Printmaking Department Head Richard Roth would agree. He has taken his department in the direction of interdisciplinary freedom. ³Painting is not just painting anymore; we are abandoning the frame,² he says. ³Technology and new materials are changing the old precepts of art. In this environment we are not here to defend the ideas that we grew up with in art school. We are here to create a culture of openness.²

Technology has impacted printmaking. Associate professor of printmaking, Barbara Tisserat, says of the changes in the department over the years: ³I think thereıs always been experiment in printmaking, but it has really been accelerating as weıve integrated digital imaging.²

It is with the grad students that the categories generally associated with ³painting and printmaking² are particularly blurred, and departments are creating new definitions of themselves.

Two of the four Javits K. Javits Fellowships awarded to studio artists this year went to sculpture students at VCU. One recipient, John Henry Blatter, started the Daily Constitutional along with Benjamin Jones and Derek Coté, as an outlet and forum for the individual artistıs voice. In fact, our paths crossed in Miami Beach at the scope art fair, where we were both releasing magazines. Blatter observed that critics, theorists, curators and gallerists seem to have taken over the articulation of thoughts and ideas that might just as well be expressed by artists themselves. Blatter looks back to a time when artists such as Judd, Smithson, Man Ray, Duchamp, or the Surrealists and Dadaists, penned letters, essays, and manifestoes. They had something to say and did something about it.

With the slogan, A Publication for the Artistıs Voice, and a somewhat formal script for the Daily Constitutional logo, there is an ironic reference to a time before modernism. It is a Declaration of Independence of sorts from todayıs art power-cliques and an artistsı call to arms.

Bolstering Richmondıs profile on the museum stage will be the completion of a master plan for a $100-million expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the transformation of its 13-1/2 acre campus. Ready by 2008, and designed by London-based architect Rick Mather, the museum will be able to more fully display its extensive collection of world art. Matherıs handling of transparency and natural light will open the museum to its surroundings and create an inspiring setting in which to view art.

Opened in the depths of the Great Depression, the museum had its start in a demonstration of faith in the future and a belief in the value of art. The impetus and idea had come from as far back as 1919, when Judge John Barton Payne, a prominent Virginian, donated his collection of 50 paintings to the commonwealth. Other donors followed. When Judge Payne proposed a $100,000 challenge grant to build a museum in 1932, Virginia Governor John Garland Pollard accepted, and the rest is history. An expansion was done in 1954, and by 1976 three additional wings were added.

Important gifts from Ailsa Mellon Bruce, of 450 European decorative objects, Art Nouveau objects and furniture funded by gifts from Sydney and Frances Lewis, made further expansions necessary.

By 1985 a fourth addition opened to accommodate further donations from the extensive collections of the Mellons and Lewises. The West Wing houses the Mellon Collection with French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and British Sporting Art, and the Lewis Collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, glass, and other decorative arts.

Classical and African art, paintings by Poussin, Goya, Delacroix, Monet, and American masters such as Homer and Sargent, make up the current collection. The museum has one of the worldıs leading collections of Indian and Himalayan art. It also has a remarkable and popular collection of Fabergé imperial jeweled objects. In 1988, patrons Harwood and Louis Cochrane established a generous endowment to acquire major pieces of American art.

In the permanent collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and part of the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection, is a life-size sculpture rendered in striking pop realism by Duane Hansen called Businessman (1971). The collectionıs Curator, John Ravenal, pointed out a fascinating bit of art trivia, that the sculptureıs head and hands were modeled on Sydney Lewis himself. With a cigar drooping from the corner of its mouth, the slouching figure seems to keep inattentive vigil over the collection.

In 2004, the museumıs exhibition, Best Friends, featured portraits of Sydney and Frances Lewis by many of the artists they collected, including Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Alex Katz. The show was mounted in honor of the Lewisesı major contributions to VMFA at the 20th anniversary of their gift to the museum and the building of the West Wing. Reportedly, Lewis made friends with Warhol, after responding to an advertisement by an artist willing to exchange artwork for film. It turned out to be a cost-effective way for Warhol to launch his film career. It was also an astute way for Lewis to amass a sizable contemporary art collection. With the exchange of household appliances and other merchandise for works of art in the early 1960s, Lewis became not only personally acquainted with the artists, but developed a life-long interest in contemporary art. Through their national company, Best Products, the Lewises were able to build an additional contemporary collection. In 1985, the Lewises gave their private collection to VMFA and helped construct a new wing to house it. Their generosity helped transform VMFA into one of the top museums in the U.S.

A cornerstone of the commercial gallery scene in Richmond is the Reynolds Gallery. Founded in 1978 in the home of its owner-director, Beverly Reynolds, the gallery has been in its present two-story 1514 W. Main St. location since 1987. Its mission, says Reynolds, is ³to exhibit and support exceptional artists working on a regional level as well as artists who are nationally and internationally known.²

The galleryıs February and March exhibition consisted of a remarkable selection of modern and contemporary master prints ­ bracketing Baldessari and Braque, Jim Dine and Tara Donovan, with Hockney, Johns and Lewitt. VCU alumni Tara Donovanıs contribution was a typically obsessive, beautiful lithograph of bubbles, a technique-defying oeuvre. Matisse was represented in part by a masterly and minimally executed head of a woman, and the seemingly effortlessly rendered 1926 lithograph Danseuse. His rival, Picasso, held his own with a number of etchings and dry points from the 1930s, here at a significant peak of his protean graphic powers.

The pebbly, ebony beauty of a classic Serra print, a refreshingly liquid Pat Steir, and the sinuous lineaments of a James Siena, round out the sıs.

Also exhibiting was Bosnian- born painter and printmaker Tanja Softic, with her show Migration Songs. References to botany and anatomy feature prominently in her work, such as pods, shells, or petals, rendered in densely patterned layers, and tamped into a lush, animated quilt. Softic has stated that her work is an exploration of memory, the practice of expanding oneıs mnemonic capacity through intense visualization of events and objects. Add historical and cultural references to her intricately layered fugues, and Softicıs prints and paintings become cryptic journals or diaries.

The Baja Bean Co. bar on Main Street was as good a place as any from which to plot the First Fridays Artwalk. The main line of attack would follow Broad Street down from where 1708 and Quirk Galleries were situated. Joe and I thought it better to take both in before the First Friday forces started to mass on Broad Street.

Quirk Gallery still bills itself as a new gallery with a new point of view, featuring innovative work by both established and emerging American and international artists. Take Cover was an exhibition of 21st century quilts created as works of art. These original pieces used image, pattern, and color with humor, whimsy and experiment. Amy Orrıs $100 Quilt consisted of 100 one dollar bills (yes, real), torn, turned, and re-jigged into pinwheel patterns, making funny with the money. >From afar with a squint, it seemed regular enough to be a value-added quilt that a very distant grandmother might have made. Susan Shieıs The Lazy Susan/Wheel of Fortune was somewhat looser in execution and included Shisha stitching ­ no idea what that is. Susan was not too lazy to apply airbrush and air pen, but stopped at air guitar.

The shop part of Quirk (by the window, where art multiples might be purchased), had the new Marcel Dzama multiples of salt and pepper shakers and ashtrays ­ at once both creepy and fun.

1708 Gallery has the distinction of being one of the oldest artist-run galleries in the country. Joe and I ran into director Kimberly Tetlow by the door as we came in, and she walked us through the show To Be Determined. In the office upstairs, Kimberly presented me with some very nicely produced catalogs and books, the production of which were helped by a grant from the Warhol Foundation.

A. Jacob Galleıs videos played at the front of the gallery. His untitled [hucking], 2004 was a frieze, high on the wall ­ a tease really, since it was difficult to make out what was going on. The black and white 3.10.04 ocean wall, 2004, was a little clearer, yet ambiguous at the same time, since the task of stacking stones, if thatıs what they were, seemed pointless. Galle simply presents his activities and settings as mute repetitions to be pondered ­ or not ­ but nevertheless looked at, yes.

At first glance, John-Philip Sheridanıs photographs seem unnatural or at least artificially manipulated, or even wrong. The intense saturation of light and color lend them an eerie, otherworldliness. One begins to question the absence of people, and ponder the possibility of an unseen alien presence. All of this is, of course, entirely inferred and imagined, since the images are simply quite beautiful, and really quite normal on close scrutiny. Yet, in subjecting his views to a prolonged light exposure, Sheridan manages to reveal hidden dimensions in the ordinary. Under the prolonged gaze of Sheridanıs lens, melting snowbanks, benches, lawns, and industrial buildings, yield their inherent magic.

A non-profit exhibition and performance space, 1708 Gallery was founded in 1978 by the rising stars from VCU, who wanted a space for risk-taking work. The gallery aims to expand the understanding and appreciation of contemporary art, a mandate that includes a challenge to mount shows that question and redefine social and aesthetic visual boundaries, and provide a forum for dialog that contributes to the creation of culture.

Moving from Baja Beans to Lauren Duckworthıs opening at Main Art required no more than crossing the street. Conveniently, Baja Beans also catered the event with beer and delicious meatballs. Richmond printmaker and emerging artist Lauren Duckworth is a VCU grad, who with this show, was provided the venue to exercise her majors. Botany and biology also emerge as themes in her oeuvre. She is the recipient of several awards, such as the Brooks Fellowship, which enabled her to study printmaking at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado two years ago.

Lauren creates drawings and collages based on her observations of the natural world. The butterflies in Duckworthıs Swarm tumble and swirl into a jumble of densely packed spirals. Only traces of the full-image butterfly remain, overlaid by matted red and black ghost lines of helpless flutter. I suppose that itıs life as fragile ephemera that the artist captures and seals into her prints, replaying the cycle of birth, growth, and return to the earth.

Her method of printing and collage fulfills the human impulse to collect, preserve, and display things and impressions. Perhaps itıs the taxidermist in us.

Main Art also consists of Main Art Supply, the downstairs store, which provides fine art supplies to schools, corporations, museums, workshops, and private classes, as well as framing. Main Art@Plant Zero is a recent addition to the Manchester art district, an appropriate location for an art store, since artist studios in the building and area number in excess of a 100.

Main Artıs Janet DeCover is also an artist in her own right, with a showing of her paintings and monotypes last November at 1708 Gallery.

Initially, your attention will be seized by Kirsten Kindlerıs paper paintings and sculpture at ADA Gallery, simply because of what they are. Thatıs the easy part. A robust black pattern against a white wall will assail the retina, because optical laws are at work. The functional label here, of course, is op art ­ or more immediately in this case, pattern art. You are reminded of iron grill-work with the flat, stencil-like works. With each association, however, an opposite is encountered. Against iron is softness. Where the pattern appears to repeat, there is instead variation. With the large hanging piece, the center should fold into indentical Rorschach halves, when in fact they are hardly similar at all.

Since the pieces lack rigidity, lyrical shadow arabesques from the cropped silhouette are made. The closer we examine the essentially abstract pattern itself, the more figurative association we muster.

If there is a moral to the critique, it lies namely in the imperative of crossing the retinal divide ­ the less immediate rewards may be equally fulfilling, if not more so.

Diana Al-Hadidıs drawings on Mylar trace some central issues about the practice of drawing. For a start, they are less about the things that drawing generally accomplishes, such as drawings of things. Yet, in the comparing of the apples to Al-Hadidıs apples we find that some of the apples might indeed be oranges.

On occasion, the roads in Al-Hadidıs morphology clearly lead to the place where anatomy and geography meet. The apple assumes some of the characteristics of the orange.


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