By: Amy Haddad
The list of great 2-D artworks over the past two centuries is endless, from Paul Cézanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire” to Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1 (Lavender Mist).” Increasingly, 2-D contemporary art competes with art that comes off the wall—inhabiting visitors’ space or tacitly asking for physical interaction. Yet 2-D art was the focal point in the June 6 opening of “Art by America 2015 Juried Exhibition: A National Review of Two-Dimensional Art,” co-sponsored by The Art House and the Arts on Elston in Chicago. The 2-D theme, along with a size constraint (20” x 20” x 4”), unified the 250 artworks submitted by 145 accepted artists from around the United States, including Texas, Oregon and New York City.
The Art House, a Chicago-based art organization that offers studio classes, professional practices, support and exhibition opportunities for the visual arts, initiated “Art by America” to assess America’s tendencies and practices in 2-D contemporary art. Rebecca George, Founder and Director of The Art House and co-curator of the exhibition, also explained its focus on the artist: this juried exhibition “provides exposure for a wide range of artists, including those who may not have sufficient opportunities for recognition due to limitations to exhibit or present their work locally.” That said, “Art by America” offered artists of all levels the chance to have up to two pieces of art reviewed by jurors, win cash prizes in four award categories and have their work professionally curated and exhibited. Undoubtedly an extraordinary experience for artists, the show’s opening was a joy for more than 300 attendees.
Upon entering The Art House, one of two locations where the show was on view, visitors delighted in hand embroidery, ink and charcoal, watercolor and graphite pieces, among a host of other 2-D artwork. The Art House provided a fitting location—quiet and intimate—to view these more fragile pieces. And its emphasis on space added to the experience. Visitors took in the detail and quality of the work, given the generous space allocated between the pieces and ample room to stroll in the gallery’s open environment.
Ginger Ware, “4 Friends.”
By way of contrast, Arts on Elston, where the exhibition continued diagonally across the street from The Art House, offered a different experience in an eclectic space. Visitors crowded in its front gallery, enjoying nearly thirty pieces of art—such as abstract, figurative and still life paintings on a variety of media—that hung side-by-side. Chief among them was Ginger Ware’s oil painting, “4 Friends.” Through this scene, Ware, who received a Certificate in Fine Arts from The Art House, recalled the love and affection four teenage boys had for each other during her travels in Africa. She shared this front gallery space with works by Christopher Cosnowski, Teresa Eck, and Stephanie Holtnecht—all of whom received awards in the four prize categories and were recognized by the jurors at the opening. Intermixed among the winners included a mélange of other top works that captivated visitors; so did the room itself. Contemporary art in a traditional room—complete with elaborate crown molding, a patterned ceiling and a dark wood floor—was a satisfying juxtaposition, while the light-gray walls softened the mood. Quickly put at ease by the atmosphere and pleasantly surprised by the quality of the contributions, visitors continued on.
The organization of the four galleries, hallway and open spaces that followed was broadly thematic. According to George, themes included portraiture, pattern, texture and abstraction. One portrait worth noting was Carol Anshaw’s “Rotogravure,” a profile of Vita Sackville-West, an English novelist and poet. This piece is part of larger series about this woman’s notorious life. Anshaw reveals the woman’s flawlessly styled black hair, rosy cheeks and prominent jawline against a bold red background.
Interspersed throughout were tables created by Art Connor, Owner and Director of Art on Elston and co-curator of the show. These tables added a 3-D presence to the show’s 2-D works. Take the second gallery on the left. Connor’s table, measuring the length of the gallery’s end wall, added stability to a room otherwise filled with mostly abstract art containing bright colors, movement and energy. Sandi Miot’s “My Insanity,” which depicted tightly wound swirling circles, and Bernard Bahr’s dance of lines in his “Hurricane In Spring” were two such examples. The 20 artworks that filled this space work better in tandem, rather than in isolation. The vivacity of each piece amplified those of a similar style.
Partial exhibition shot at Arts on Elston.
When moving between galleries, visitors could not miss the framework of a re-purposed pool table, also created by Connor, leaning vertically against a wall intermixed with the exhibition’s 2-D artwork. The curators’ decision to combine 3-D with 2-D was a welcome addition. It was a creative means to display a number of pieces, while adding visual variance to the show.
As the exhibition progressed, the quality of work was maintained. The sole gallery on the right side of Arts on Elston offered a contemplative environment to look, consider and reflect on Georgie Cunningham’s “Red Leaf Falling,” an intricate design consisting of handmade flax paper with paste. Or visitors may have studied the variety of antique stamps from around the world in Peter Bullock’s “Blue Star.”
Mary Saran, “Abstract Cluster A.”
So, what are the trends in 2-D artwork in the 21st century? “Exhibitions such as Art by America are not curated in the usual sense of the term, they're an exercise in selecting the best and most interesting work from a pool of applicants,” said James Yood, Director of the New Arts Journalism program and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the two jurors. This being so, there were two key insights from the show. The first was the subject matter. “I was struck by the number of artists working with pure abstraction, which suggests to me a more general re-engagement with the practice,” observed the second juror, Ginny Voedisch, art historian and Adjunct Lecturer at The Art Institute of Chicago. To her point, Mary Saran’s aptly titled “Abstract Cluster A” was just one of many abstract works filling the galleries. A centralized ball of sorts contains brushstrokes of various colors, including white, black, taupe and teal. Bits of color burst out to the edges of its red background. Second, the majority of artworks included in this show used traditional materials, such as oil on canvas, rather than digital ones. In a world inundated with digital technology, an exhibition with little of it proved refreshing.
“This exhibit is the first time I've had the opportunity to co-curate across two gallery spaces, each with its own strengths and unique elements,” George shared. This curatorial approach worked well. George and Connor effectively used two different spaces to facilitate one show: the openness at The Art House complemented the distinct galleries at Arts on Elston. To that end, “Art by America” achieved its aim of uncovering the trends and traditions in 2-D contemporary art. At the same time, the show visually and intellectually engaged visitors. The artists benefited, too: not only from the process, but they also received the sale proceeds. Indeed, “Art by America” is a compelling show for visitors to see and artists to participate in.
“Art by America: A National Review of Two-Dimensional Contemporary Art” is on show through June 30, 2015. Exhibition is by appointment only. To set up an appointment, please email Arthur Connor, Director of Arts on Elston: firstname.lastname@example.org
“FAR-FLUNG, Contemporary Art of the Midwest” is the next juried exhibition featuring works from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in October. Please see The Art House’s website for participation details (www.thearthouse.us). Also please check this website for studio classes, local and long-distance studio/professional instruction, artist in residence program and the certificate in fine arts.
Amy Haddad is a Chicago-based freelance art writer. She currently writes for Newcity and the Evanston Art Center, and has contributed to the Columbus Museum of Art and NTQ-Data Limited..