This year's Idaho Triennial at Boise Art Museum has been an event of heightened expectations. Securing renowned critic and philosopher Arthur Danto as juror (or "guest curator," as he is being called) spurred once-ambivalent artists to submit entries and fueled speculation on the choices he'd make and kind of show we'd get. Perhaps deep down we were a little nervous about what this art world big shot would make of Idaho's art scene.
Of course, there was nothing to worry about. Danto's conclusion is that we are pretty much in step with what is going on in art elsewhere these days, that what holds true for the work he reviews in The Nation holds true for art being made out here. In our discussions, Danto emphasized that his main criteria for choosing or rejecting a piece was the overall quality and whether or not it was "of its time," i.e. has a contemporary look and feel. He was not about to accept something that a New York art dealer would reject or cut us any slack just because this is Idaho. Danto says he selected works that he would easily expect to find on the walls of a Chelsea venue in New York City, and this exhibit does have that feel.
The only guidelines set for Danto by Boise Art Museum Associate Curator Heather Ferrell for Danto were to select 20 to 30 artists and choose as many works for each as he wanted, the idea being to show each artist in as much depth as possible. The immediate impression walking through the show is that it is generally of higher quality than other triennials in recent memory. The presentation of the work, too, appears more polished. The exhibit also reflects Danto's own personal preferences, which are eclectic, drawn to the vernacular vocabulary and implicit pluralism of Pop and its post-modern heirs. And the fact that he has followed and written on contemporary craft makes him well suited for curating an event in which craft is always a major component. Yet, the character of this triennial is different in that it is less weighted toward ceramics and photography than usual, with strong showings in other mediums. In all, it is a good-looking show with a nice catalog containing a lively essay by Danto.
As is often the case in Idaho, found materials and imagery play an important role in the work on view, with varying degrees of success. One of the best is Margo Proksa's Uh-Oh, a spherical mélange of natural and man-made debris she collected. The colorful twine, saplings, bungee cords, cables and assorted detritus whip around and entwine like skeins of paint in a three-dimensional Jackson Pollock. It is a good metaphor for how this planet has become an entanglement of natural remnants and overwhelming human junk. Jennifer Williams' bird-nest-like "baskets" made from dried kelp are a mass of writhing forms like Medusa's snaky locks, making for a strange, organic abstraction. And impressive as always is the furniture/sculpture of Don King fashioned out of indigenous natural resources, in this case willow saplings. In King's more whimsical works, domestic use has often taken a back seat to animation and an implied personality. Here his two pieces embody stylish functionality and elegant design inspired by recurrent patterns found in nature while retaining their down-home honesty.
Much less successful are Grant Olsen's collages of found cartoon imagery in a series of three panels. Danto admits to a fondness for this kind of low-brow appropriation, but these don't work very well, leaving us perplexed at what the artist is getting at or even how they made the cut. The best cartoon art is subversive or ironic or incisive or even romantic, as purported in this case, but these pastiches do not connect on any such levels. Richard Allen certainly went all out by decorating and painting a Burger & Brew frisbee which hangs from fishing line, twisting in the air. Allen sometimes seems more interested in posing as a rebel than creating art of substance, seeing himself as making "Outsider Art" despite the fact that he has an MFA. I guess Danto's definition of quality is broader than mine.
The ceramics he selected have a solid presence. Particularly intriguing are Reba Robinson's white porcelain Light and Shadow bowls. By turns floral and vaguely anatomical, they seem more like life forms than vessels. With their rhythmic ridges and folds and surfaces that relish light, they are fascinating abstractions. Kevin Flynn's Prowler expands on the basic teapot form to explore its possibilities as sculpture, and George Gledhill's dense works emphasize the raw "mud" attributes of the medium. Abbie Thomson's basins of red terra-cotta clay have a primitive, earthy, unfinished look which balances an apparent fragility with evocations of form forged by primal forces. Her use of gold leaf, amber and turquoise, however, is a little incongruous, adding an element of glitz that doesn't quite fit.
Photography plays poorly in this year's event, with the notable exception being Lori Dagley's giclee prints of aerial views of Southern Idaho and Wyoming. Giclee (pronounced zjee-clay) is a refined ink jet process that captures minute nuances of tonality and is frequently used by artists for reproducing their paintings. Dagley's soaring, vertiginous panoramas have a painterly quality of their own, allowing us (in her words) to "forget our own bodies." Rachel Reese's unusual fictional portraits in gelatin silver print of historical figures like Giorgione, Joan of Arc and Napoleon unfortunately have all the staying power of Hollywood promotional photos. She lost me with her artist's statement, but its emphasis on process suggests that, for her, the means justifies the end. In the end, her frames are more interesting than the images. And David Frankel's nude warrior women come across as kinky kitsch at which you can't help but roll your eyes and smile.
One of the real strengths of this triennial is in painting and drawing. Charles Gill's three large oils on canvas of single adult male figures gingerly posed in minimal, almost monochromatic settings are a treat to behold. In Jason, the subject (a dwarf) is perched precariously on a chair, bathed in dramatic yet diffused light, in a scene that seems right out of Velasquez. In Dancing Practice, the visual pun captures the demeanor of the subject holding a piece of paneling like a dance partner, watching his feet, taking his tentative first steps. All three works are wonderfully painted and underscore Gill's talent for compositional risk-taking and an uncommon treatment of the commonplace.
Geoffrey Krueger, too, presents imposing, large-scale canvases of mundane subjects. A successful landscape painter who has a gift for rendering natural light, in 2002 Krueger turned his attention to abandoned homes in various stages of disrepair. In this, he is encroaching on Gill's territory as Gill is known for his ordinary, single-story dwellings painted in a matter-of-fact manner. Krueger's, however, are much more haunting images, and he brings his considerable skills to bear in creating a rather chilly melancholia around forlorn structures that crowd the picture plane. They are among the most powerful works of his I've seen.
Surel Mitchell's diptych entitled Textured Memories is one of her strongest works in some time. This striking, seemingly monochromatic painting is in fact a complex work of multiple layers of multiple mediums including watercolor, oil pastel, oil paint, acrylic and graphite, which she has given texture through gouge marks in the surface and implanting two floppy disks (which stare out at us like a pair of nipples.) Mitchell has always been at her best in building rich surfaces with a luminous physicality, and these two panels fairly glow against their black backgrounds. Her artist's statement reaffirms that it is a labor of love.
At a distance, William Lennon's paintings, particularly his Stars of Alhambra, have strong, luminous presence as well, but upon closer examination the quality diminishes. They are strange works with a thick vinyl stucco applied to the canvas, into which Lennon literally carves his abstract designs, then paints over with acrylic pigments. The result is a dense, bulky surface that resembles textile art, and his motifs look much like Native American designs. Up close the paintings have a clunky look to them, and Lennon's colors tend to be garish and acidic. It makes for a less than pleasant visual experience.
Stealing the show in the drawing department are Elaine Green's charcoal nudes on watercolor paper entitled Unhomelike. These thoughtfully presented torso studies of a pregnant woman are intimate and empathetic while remaining anonymous, rendered in such soft detail as to resemble mezzotints--even the stretch marks are revealed. The extended body parts achieve a round, gentle formalism controlled by close cropping, and the figures are reminiscent of those ideal types we see in Northern Renaissance art. By using masking, Green creates crisp edges to her images and, in a nice touch, has stitched the paper to the support underneath.
Sculpture is conspicuously absent from this show, although there are two noteworthy installation pieces. Providing a soft whistling to the ambience of the exhibit is Ted Apel's ingenious sound installation, Irresonance. The visible sculptural aspect is the eight brass tubes of varying lengths; the rest is feedback, recording devices and computer technology, all unseen. A microphone picks up the resonant sounds in the tubes as well as other sounds in the gallery space which the computer delays, reduces ("irresonates") and feeds back to the tubes where the sounds are combined and amplified. The result is an eerie aural presence that is inexplicably materializing. Heather Anderson's installation of four pink satiny dresses entitled Ladies in Waiting beckons us in a dark side space. As we approach, digital images of a woman's face appear from the back of each dress, the eyes progressively opening to engage us. Her statement about its relevance to divisive issues of gender aside, I like the mystery and seductive feel of this work.
I was also surprised to see so little printmaking here. The only prints are those by Holly Gilchrist, whose linoleum-cuts (a variation of the woodcut technique) are unremarkable images of kitchen utensils, salt and pepper shakers, and the like, whose banality make them more suited to a Williams Sonoma outlet. They just do not rise to either the aesthetic or conceptual level the artist indicates she intended them to.
Which brings me to a final observation. There seems to be a correlation between the weaker work and extravagant artist statements. Here and elsewhere, I often find that when the art lets me down and I turn to the statement for elucidation, it is full of off-putting, ambiguous artspeak, as if loading the piece down with lots of intellectual baggage will somehow redeem the image. Usually, the art cannot handle the burden placed on it. We will all be interested to hear Professor Danto's thoughts and comments when he gets to see the work (and read the wall texts) for the first time in the flesh when he travels to Boise mid-February.