Monday, September 20, 2010

10 Years of Contemporary Art @ OUAG

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" at Oakland University Art Gallery, installation view, featuring work by from left to right: Harmut Austen, Sharon Que, Dennis Michael Jones, Peter Williams, Eric Mesko, and Kristin Beaver. (All photos courtesy OUAG.)
Ten Years of Contemporary Art," installation view, featuring from left to right, work by Denise Whitebread Fanning, Hasan Elahi, Michael E. Smith (floor), and Ed Fraga.
"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" participants, from left to right: Robert Schefman, Rob Kangas, Harmut Austen, Dennis Michael Jones, Senghor Reid, OUAG Director Dick Goody, Renata Palubinskas, Kristin Beaver, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, and Sharon Que. (Not all participants in attendance.) Background painting: Renata Palubinskas.

For a full decade, artist/curator Dick Goody has maintained one of Detroit's most significant venues for contemporary art, all the more remarkable for its location well off the beaten path in the wilds of North Oakland County. In relative isolation (its nearest neighbor Paint Creek Center for the Arts is four-and-a-half miles to the east) and with scant resources, Goody has carried on a dialog with contemporary art that is truly singular, even when compared to institutions in the tricounty area with far greater means at their disposal. In recognition of this achievement, Oakland University Art Gallery has mounted a celebratory exhibition "Ten Years of Contemporary Art," which runs until October 17.

Besides the consistent high quality of the work he has shown, one of the things that makes Goody's approach noteworthy is the documentation he has provided for most if not all of the exhibitions. In a series of typically handsome catalogs, he has not only helped viewers, both casual and the more informed, gain entry into the work of each artist but created an archive that extends the conversation in space and time. (Catalogs can travel where an exhibition many times can't and they continue to exist long after the work has been taken down and the gallery walls spackled and painted over.) What's more, rather than be satisfied with simply illustrating the art photographically as so many catalogs do, the ones Goody has produced have taken the time to get inside the work as well as inside the mind of its creator, providing an extended critical essay he has either written or commissioned in the first case and an interview with the artist in the second.

This documentation isn't valuable just as an educational and a research tool (though it certainly is that); it's important for the artists involved from a career perspective. For most of them, an OUAG show and its accompanying catalog has constituted a kind of "summing up" of their development to that point. It's been a moment to reflect on one's practice and more importantly consider the next move. Indeed, many of the artists in the current show have gone on to significant recognition since showing at OUAG. These include taking part in a Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial (Peter Williams), the Venice Biennale (Hasan Elahi), and several Kresge Artists Fellowships (seven are represented in this show alone: Harmut Austen, Kristin Beaver, Susan Goethel Campbell, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, Senghor Reid, and Michael E. Smith).

The final thing worth mentioning is the nature of Goody's eye. The gamut of contemporary art practice, from traditional painting to mixed-media installation to digital imaging, has been surveyed over the years, a testament not only to the catholic quality of Goody's taste but his ability to separate his curatorial discrimination from his own artistic aesthetic. To be sure, not a single artist in this show does work that looks like Goody's ironic postmodern text-image mashup paintings.

As for the show itself, its conceit is to juxtapose an older work with a newer one by each artist. For the most part, the artists have extended their earlier concerns, in the case of painters like Peter Williams, Ed Fraga, Kristin Beaver, and James Stephens, for example, taking their painterly chops to new heights of accomplishment. Artists working with technology have similarly increased command of their tools, notably Rob Kangas's 2009 photomontage incorporating color-intensified digital imagery and high-tech substrate, and Chido Johnson, taking a cue from Christian Marclay, turning his sculpture Push Stick (2010) into a record of its performative use, mounting on its tip a CD with a video file burned into it. 

A radical exception to this tendency is Susan Campbell's new video documenting her project Weather2250, surveying Detroit's atmospheric conditions from a webcam mounted atop the Fisher Building, that although continuing her environmental investigations adopts the latest information technology instead of the traditional drawing and printmaking mediums for which she is so justifiably well regarded. Less obvious perhaps is Robert Schefman who in his newer painting directs his trompe l'oeil hand to more seemingly prosaic allegory.

Everything in this show is worth the trek out to Rochester to see and the installation showcases it all to great effect. Another Goody convention that works well here is the solicitation of artist's statements, in this case posted along with the work and providing useful information on the artists, especially those I haven't discussed. And in the same way that the Goody treatment often provides a summation and as such a platform for the artists being shown to move on to bigger and better things, "Ten Years of Contemporary Art" is an opportunity to take stock of the curator himself. My take on it is definitely thumbs up.  It'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" continues at Oakland University Art Gallery, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, until October 17. Call 248 370 3005 for information.

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