A Show Of Endurance

Despite troubles, School 33 mounts an intriguing biennial artists' exhibition


December 21, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Small but beautiful landscapes. Painted investigations into line and form. A video work-in-progress that may need rethinking. These are among the intriguing works now on view at School 33 Art Center's biennial studio artists' exhibition through Jan. 16.

The show is a testament to art's ability to soldier on in the face of adversity. School 33 is currently caught in the middle of a bitter legal tussle between the city agency that oversees it and its own board of directors. At stake is control of more than $200,000 earmarked for exhibition and education programs.

While the wrangling continues, the roof leaks, basement classroom spaces crumble and plans for a capital campaign celebrating its 25th anniversary next year are endlessly complicated. So it's a triumph of sorts just to maintain a sense of normalcy and continuity by mounting this year's biennial.

The artists in the show are part of School 33's studio program, which offers them affordable space in the gallery's Light Street building and the chance to work elbow-to-elbow with others of their kind. Participants -- from painters and sculptors to photographers and installation artists -- are selected by a panel of artists and art professionals for terms that last up to three years.

This year's show is dominated by painters. Six of the artists are exhibiting various kinds of oil paintings and two more work in gouache or acrylic pencil; the lone holdout is a filmmaker and video artist whose work is presented in the gallery's installation space. As a group, the painters hew closely to the modernist injunction to investigate the materials and methods of their medium.

Julianna Dail's abstract "Amphibolic" series (the word means "uncertain, changing and ambiguous") is part exploration of the effects of mixing chemical additives with her paints and part investigation of the geometry of organic forms.

Some of her images resemble bacterial cells enlarged to monumental scale. In fashioning these enigmatic images, Dail combines traditional and nontraditional oil painting techniques (combining the oils with acrylics or other media, for example, or applying her pigments to the canvas with an eyedropper).

Kenneth Hilker's diminutive but exquisite panoramic landscapes, by contrast, seem so straightforward one is -- almost -- prone to take their technical adventurousness for granted.

Hilker paints on brown linen supports, using the unprimed fabric as a pictorial ground on which he builds up charming images of earth, foliage and sky demarcated by a horizon line running the width of each canvas.

His paintings, scaled to domestic proportions, are decorative without losing their seriousness of purpose as pieces for quiet contemplation. One leaves them reluctantly, wondering what this artist could accomplish were he working on a larger scale.

James Rieck, whose monumental canvas of well-heeled shareholders at a corporate stock meeting is one of the show's highlights, is clearly influenced by advertising and commercial imagery.

Rieck's sleek subjects, rendered in a vivid photo-realist style that mimics the arbitrary croppings and saturated colors of an annual report illustration, embody an attitude toward life based on affluent consumerism that is as much the subject of the picture as the people themselves.

This is a bravura performance by an artist with an impeccable painterly technique and a wry sense of humor. It's also a withering critique of the mindless materialism that motivates so much corporate misbehavior; the heads of Rieck's subjects have all been cut off by the top of the frame. They are left standing literally as bundles of pure flesh and appetite, conspicuously lacking in either intelligence or character.

Carolyn Case's floral gouaches on paper depend, like Hilker's landscapes, on a subtle interplay between figure and ground. Case complicates the issue, however, by overlaying the saturated colors of her flowers and plants with a spray-painted pigment the same color as the paper supports.

The results are pleasant enough, though they seem somewhat less assured than her previous work.

By contrast, Kay Hwang's delightful acrylic pencil drawings seem at once perfectly realized and wholly original.

Hwang, who has also created flowing installation artworks, here uses simple repetitive shapes with which she builds complex architectural forms that seem to float and hover above the surface of their supports.

Her familiar-looking yet enigmatic works resemble the pictorial instructions that come with modular furniture or electronic components. They have the playful innocence of a child's set of buildingblocks or Tinkertoys.

Also on view are oil and mixed-media paintings by Kathryn Norris, Steven Hoffman Shapiro and Paige Shuttleworth.

James Bartolomeo's video installation, consisting of uncut dailies from a short movie-in-progress, titled Tuffy Low-low, probably won't win an NAACP Image Award. Its portrayal of a scruffy African-American restaurant worker with "big" dreams of making it as a disc jockey is depressingly one-dimensional.

Throw in the fact that the film's protagonist is a loser, a thief and apparently utterly devoid of any admirable character trait (he's not even funny) and you suspect that actor Denzel Washington would never consent to play this role.

Even the mangled English of the film's title is a stereotype -- nothing new there, perhaps, but it does make one wonder whether the artist, who is white, has thought through the implications of this project. One sincerely wishes he had.

The gallery is at 1427 Light St. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 396-4641 or visit www.school33.org.

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