I read the other day that scientists are having trouble finding a way to illustrate the tree of life. They know how species are related, but fitting millions of them onto a tree would look like a “blurry inscrutable thicket.” The Contemporary Arts Center’s 20th Anniversary Juried Show presents the opposite problem: The art is easy to see, but the structure that supports it and might make it coherent can be inscrutable.
Most artists consider themselves postmodernists in some sense, so that’s a good place to start looking for structure. But for some, postmodernism means, “We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won”; while for others, it means, “No one can be a modernist anymore. Modernism is over.” The first group builds on what figures like Picasso initiated, shifting from art’s what to its how, from things represented in a painting to its process. The second group wants to erase the line between high art and commercial culture, since that distinction gives modern art its authority.
Many of the CAC exhibit’s artists fall into the second category. Justin Favela’s “Donkey,” an icon-like conglomeration of kitschy thrift-store items, is an example of low art aspiring to be high art. Spray-painted in shades of gold and rust (yes, it sounds awful), it is really quite beautiful. The use of commercial and recycled materials is another salient feature for this kind of work: Greg Stahl’s portrait of Elvis is spray-painted on a vinyl LP, while Barry Ferich uses cut-and-curled, salvaged perforated steel to form an oddly adorable cube.
Appropriation of popular, commercial and other unorthodox elements is another important element of postmodernism. Peter Mengert’s multimedia drawing wittily references antique maps in which geographical accuracy is sacrificed to whimsy—an infant red devil sits amid an ocean-sized eddy, and a Swiss-cheese moon hangs from a chain around a goat’s ear.
Several pieces focus on line, shape and color and the nature of visual perception, not the imagery. They fall into the first category, as do Clara Berta Rappaport’s gorgeous mixed media on canvas and Bill Fravel’s watercolor of Red Rock Canyon, which transforms the grandeur of the Western landscape into abstract forms in stunning colors.
Some artists combine both approaches. In her digital photograph, Linda Alterwitz gives banal subject matter a surreal gloss by superimposing a garish multicolored chandelier on a noirish hotel corridor, then undercuts the spell by exposing the mechanics of photography and leaving the metadata visible along the edges of the print.
Noelle Garcia turns a mundane snapshot of a man in a backward baseball cap into an enameled keepsake through the application of thick acrylic paint and glossy-gel medium. Robert Preston appropriates an old-master oil portrait of a porcelain-skinned woman; like a reel of spooling film, her image repeats, and her features, stretched like rubber, dissolve into a smear of black paint, calling attention to the painting process and the artificiality of the painted image.
Grappling with postmodernist concepts gave me insight into the shared impulses behind many of the works and made the exhibition—more than 60 works in scope—even more enjoyable. Hopefully, I’ve whetted your appetite to check out the rest.