NoDef Art Writer Kathy Rodriguez heads to Julia St. for Common Ground, a group exhibit at the Arthur Roger Gallery.
A megalith of concrete, plastic, steel, and marble chunks appeared in front of the Fine Arts building at University of New Orleans last spring. It was almost as though it landed overnight – it seemed like one day it wasn’t, and then, suddenly, impossibly, it was. The Times-Picayune coverage of the journey of this sculpture by Peter Lundberg, titled Loup Garou, relates the complex narrative of its move from City Park to the university campus. In that time span of about two years, the ground had been scored, the material cast, the sculpture plucked from its mold, the title changed, the monument rejected, then accepted, then moved across the street onto a brand-new industrial strength platform that could accommodate its thirty-three feet of height and support its hundred-ton weight.
While its story is rich, the sudden appearance of the work on campus belied the effort and time taken to get it there. Concrete monuments simply can’t happen overnight. But for some, that instantaneity is the criterion by which successful art is evaluated. Good art takes long hours of practice and devotion, but looks effortless in its execution.
The works of the artists in Common Ground currently on display at Julia Street's Arthur Roger Gallery are examples. The show is the most recent curatorial effort of UNO fine arts professor Jim Richard, who, in his own decades-long career, has met with some of the greatest successes in the art world. For this exhibition, his expert eye fell on the work of eight artists who are either approaching or enjoying the accolades of the New York scene.
Emerging artists Aaron McNamee, Nina Schwanse, Sophie Lvoff, and Jason Derouin, all of whom have been or are students of UNO’s Master of Fine Arts program, use that mass information disseminator, the print, in various ways. But, rather than holding to that content, each artist uses the medium to elevate humble materials and explore ideas of beauty, celebrity, and art itself.
Both McNamee and Schwanse – who showed together at Barrister’s Gallery early this past spring – somehow alter printed material and therefore change the content of the form. The results are highly conceptual, and in part both rely on the aesthetic of Pop, commerce, and celebrity.
McNamee’s Column I curves gracefully toward the light emitting through a nearby window like a growing stem. This organic loveliness is offset by the medium of stacked record covers. The images recall Pop and kitsch, but the text repeats the words “hits” and “go,” suggesting the fleeting pleasure of the one-hit wonder. Simultaneously, they command forward force and the avant-garde and, again, the idea of growth. The form reaches toward the history of monuments and classical sculpture – lasting examples of art objects – but tempers that authority with the record covers, symbols of impermanent celebrity. The vulnerable, yellowing paper speaks not just of decaying popularity but of changes in meaning that occur with changes in historical context.
Schwanse’s paint-splattered prints obfuscate identity. White washes and drips conceal figures in stills from her "Babe Rental" series, which in itself explores the ways individuals create public personas. "K-A-T-E-S" operates on a similar level. In this video, Schwanse disguises herself as various public icons located by a Google search of their first names. The result is Sherman-like in its self-portraiture, but slightly different. Rather than asking the viewer to consider the individual subjective response to the characters she portrays, Schwanse questions how the public in general responds to celebrities, and how celebrities construct their own specific identities – which, in turn, disguise themselves.
Photographic prints by both Lvoff and Derouin emphasize form over concept. Their still lives are rich with color, texture, pattern, and shape, and reach from the precedent of clean, modern abstraction. That makes for interesting contrast – while the photographs are doubtlessly representational images, their beauty is in the brilliant composition of elements more than the subject matter itself. The photograph allows for manipulation beyond what is capable by the human eye alone, mystifying Derouin’s tiny scale models and enlarging, saturating, and clarifying Lvoff’s odd objects.
These four artists join four others who have each gained representation in New York and internationally. Their work is part of the art world architecture, the structure that houses the idea of professional artistic success. They share a strong link to UNO: Wayne Gonzales and Joseph Ayers were undergraduates in the studio program. Gonzales uses economic brushstroke and limited palettes in compositions that up close are completely non-objective, but from afar form images of crowds. Ayers' "Deposition" is a series of tiny panel paintings that together form the image of a beached whale. Both accumulate small images into one unified monumental whole. Megan Whitmarsh, a graduate of the M.F.A. program, stitches together fabric pieces that speak formally to the saturated color of Lvoff’s photographs. Like Ayers and Gonzales, the immensity of her works is the result of a multitude of small parts. The work of both Whitmarsh and Marlo Pascual moves between flatness and space; Whitmarsh’s wall piece joins a freestanding sculpture, and Pascual’s installation hangs a sepia photograph of a potted plant from a chain and hook affixed to the ceiling. The effect is a frozen moment that paradoxically, constantly moves.
Pacual’s piece suggests, in this specific context, that a successful point in one’s career is not a place to stop. Rather, it is a place to move from, or a means to move around. Ayers, Gonzales, and Whitmarsh create monuments, which are generally symbols or commemorations of success, from a process of organized, small and individual steps. McNamee, Schwanse, Derouin, and Lvoff are taking those steps to follow paths to success. Their debuts in the art world have less of the sudden appearance and more of the solid constancy that characterizes their campus monument, which itself is a symbol for the slow accumulation of events that progress into great and powerful things.