It can sometimes seem comforting to know that nothing is lost, that all the human ideas that ever existed are still dangling in space somewhere, always available to be brought back at will. But there are some socially retrograde ideologies and stereotypes that we might think had been sent to the infinite black hole of deleted information, never to return, that seem to have an awkward ability to keep popping up again.- womens art as a category, for example, or the feminine associated with flowers.
La Flora at Red Gallery presents the work of nine women artists as examples of feminine individual identity. For me it first raises the question of why the artists would choose to be put in such a category when so many excellent women artists in the past have rejected it. And for these same reasons of fear of marginalization, women writers and poets, like Elizabeth Bishop, consistently refused inclusion in women-only anthologies.
But this attitude may be out of step with the times. In the current, highly competitive art scene of résumé building, the important thing is to be seen, to be constantly visible in any context available, to be included in as many shows as possible.
And, in fairness to the curators, this exhibition turns out not to be so much about La Flora as it is about the exhibitions subtitle: A Celebration of Signature Style. This is an astute and timely idea because finding a style and making ones lifes work a series of variations on that style is the description of the contemporary artists career plan, in which the artists signature or brand name mannerism becomes the essence of her working style. The better to sell you with, my dear (to keep to the motif).
But what will impress the viewer in this exhibition is how much variation can be accommodated within one idea or series of gestures.
Liliana Porters oeuvre consists of Polaroid ( brand-name item my computer insists on capitalizing) photographs and videos of toys - a category that includes any ornament that represents a creature, animal or human - placed in incongruent contexts in order to provoke.
In the photograph, No!, a small groom from a wedding cake is placed next to a bride doll that towers over him. In Death Threat, a small toy soldier is pointing his gun at a large, smiling piggy bank. This solitary childs play, in which small figures are made to walk and talk to each other is particularly clear in the video For You (Para Usted) which consists of fragments, each titled and accompanied by music.
Red Gallery has a curatorial policy of placing the work of SCAD students, professors and alumni alongside that of artists with international reputations. Liliana Porter, originally from Argentina, has been pursuing a career as a professional artist in New York since the 1960s. The other international artist here, Jenny Watson, from Australia, has been working since the 1970s. She describes her work as post-conceptual, which in this case at least seems to mean faux-naive. She works on large sheets of fabric, Chinese damask or organza, which have been pinned to the wall with bows attached to the top. On this fabric she paints child-like drawings of figures: In Secrets, two girls with a flower.
In Purse, there is a girl, a purse and a table. The paintings are accompanied by short anecdotes of childhood, written on small canvases with brush and paint and rendered with the same calculated ineptitude as the bigger paintings. I see the authentic childs drawing as a struggle to realize a vision, while the simulated childs drawing has a cool surface appearance. Neither have a use-value, but the first has no monetary value, and the second is Art and therefore has a market value.
The signature styles of these two artists have been developed over decades within the international high-art market, which seems to be characterized by a shrewd irony - dare I say even cynicism. Next to them, the works from the SCAD community seem, by their honesty - or maybe merely caution - to be restricted to another type of market that is characterized by a conservative adherence to the rules of representation and design. SCAD stresses the importance of skills.
Artists cannot help being influenced, even if only to a small degree, by their day jobs. And most artists do not earn their living through the art market. In the case of teachers of art conventions like drawing, design, illustration, color theory, etc., it is very difficult to break the rules. It would seem pretentious, dishonest, not being oneself, to abandon the conventions and step out into the unknown. One would also have to radically separate ones own studio practice from the classroom activity, like a Mata Hari, live a double life.
In the two small, compressed and slightly surreal paintings by Katherine Sandoz, there is a narrative quality and craft of execution that suits a professor of illustration. Similarly, Amy Freemans large, monochromatic self-portraits reflect a commitment to drawing from life that is tidily appropriate for a drawing teacher.
But it is only in a one-artist exhibition that the signature style is truly revealed. And Jeff Markowskys 99 Paintings of Paint on the Wall at Pei Ling Chan Gallery is an example of pushing the possibilities of one small idea into seemingly endless repetition. One could say (without being facetious?) that it is a painterly version of Liliana Porters game with toys and words, similarly conceptual but influenced by the a professors preoccupation with paint, value and color theory.
In Markowskys case the models or toys are always tubes of paint that often resemble creatures. These tubes are partially squeezed out or completely squeezed out, or in the act of being squeezed, and then composed in acrobatic formations.
There are eleven works, each consisting of nine small canvases, 9 x 8 each, and arranged identically in rows of three - hence the ninety nine small canvases in total. Each arrangement suggests an idea. in Yin Yang the paint tube acrobats are arranged on alternating backgrounds of blue and yellow; in Tic Tac Toe, the Xs (which have won the game), four tubes each, are laid out in an X formation, and the 0s are created from circles of paint tube lids.
For this artist, I suspect the word game serves only as an extra stimulus to the important activity of the painterly gesture, the process of piling on the paint.
If manipulating paint is central to Markowskys work, it is drawing that forms the basis and the motivation behind Rose Casterlines paintings at Pinnacle Gallery.
Casterline, a SCAD alumna, was commissioned by SCAD to paint a series of ten works featuring the recently demolished Cloister Hotel on Sea Island, to be shown there during the G8 Summit. Casterline teaches figure drawing and she is a master of the quick sketch observation, of the overlooked but meaningful human gestures and stance.
Her compositions owe something to Edgar Degas, the figures cropped by the frame, the empty spaces, the focus on the insignificant. For example, the maid slumped in a chair in Fifty Cent Dance, the woman at the mirror in Primping, the man scratching his forehead in Pool Side Casino Dinner.
These small areas of well-observed body language are the strength of these works, which are not so much paintings as quick charcoal sketches, blown up to monumental proportions. Every line is readable under a thin wash of oil paint.
There is something deeply nostalgic about the way they have been made, as if they proposed a return to some traditional art values that, like the Cloister Hotel itself, have been demolished.
Bertha Husband is a native of Scotland who has studied art at Oxford University and Ruskin School of Fine Art. She has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Her art criticism has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Somnambulist, and Left Curve.