Review: artNOW Philadelphia at the Kohl Gallery by Mary McCoy

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On the same day that “The Monuments Men” started playing at the Chester 5 Theatre, a new exhibit called “artNOW Philadelphia” opened at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery. The two could hardly be more different in their approach to art but they both make you think a lot about its nature and value.

The movie is an entertaining story that would warm the heart of any art lover. It’s a film based on the true story of the rescue of thousands of masterpieces of art stolen by the Nazis in World War II. Over and over again, you gasp as the actors discover a Michelangelo, Van Eyck or Rodin hastily stashed in a mine or a castle, and more than once the question is asked, “Is art worth dying for?” Of course, the answer is yes.

In the Kohl exhibit, the questions are very different and the answers far more elusive. On view through March 7, artNOW Philadelphia is the third of the College’s series of exhibits featuring work by prominent young artists from nearby cities. It’s a show that asks a lot from the viewer, probably more than most will want to bother with.

Assistant Professor Benjamin Bellas makes his aim in curating artNOW abundantly clear in his accompanying essay. Set in the form of a detailed definition of the words “challenging” and “challenge,” it’s a provocation to do your best to comprehend the assembled work by these seven artists from Philadelphia, work that is by turns discomforting, humorous, irritating, inspiring, opaque, and highly thought provoking.

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Amze Emmons’ “Modern Popular Movement,” graphite, gouache, acrylic on panel, 20 x 24”, 2011.

“The Monuments Men” presents art that’s breathtakingly beautiful (as well as familiar to anyone who’s taken an art history class) but in this exhibit, even when it’s present, beauty isn’t the issue. Julianna Foster’s photography-based images are eerily lovely, and Amze Emmons’s illustrative drawing style is exquisite in its clarity and simplicity. On the other hand, Leslie Friedman’s neo-Pop Art installation is purposefully crass and annoying. As if Andy Warhol was still alive and well, its row of silkscreened green nudes line up across from a pile of oversized multi-colored Coke cans and sugar substitute wrappers where an endlessly repeating video loop shows a masturbating woman.

Like the other artists in this show, Friedman is less concerned with the aesthetics of art than with the ways we communicate and build our belief systems. Her in-your-face look at consumer culture’s passion for overstimulation and vacuous pleasure is fairly predictable, but it offers a cursory nod to the fact that in a world of titillating underwear ads, graphic news videos and online pornography, art long ago lost its power to shock.

Tim Portlock’s work also considers consumer culture but in a more penetrating way. His urban landscape sprawls into the distance under windswept clouds bathed in the kind of transcendent light you’d find in a 19th century painting by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Cole, artists who celebrated the scale and rugged beauty of the American landscape. At six feet wide Portlock’s archival inkjet print, “Clone,” shares the expansive quality of their inspiring vistas, but under its heaven-lit sky is a flat, gray landscape of empty buildings. Houses, restaurant and big box stores are all up for sale as new construction waits unfinished. Reacting to the thousands of buildings standing abandoned in Philadelphia, Portlock reconsiders the American dream, suggesting that in the postindustrial age, capitalism’s faith in unlimited growth is no longer viable.

Ryan Wilson Kelly and Marc Blumthal also play with how our perceptions of America’s history and values have been shaped. Blumthal impishly cuts and pastes a speech by George Bush into a rousing jumble of nonsensical phrases that retain a very American-sounding flow of political rhetoric, while Kelly has great fun turning our nation’s history into myth. His video, “The Wizard Franklin,” is an engaging little story that retells the American Revolution in condensed form, turning three of the founding fathers into beings of mythological stature.

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Leslie Friedman, “Tastier”, 2013

In many ways, there’s a wide gap between “The Monuments Men” and “artNOW,” but both make you ponder art’s raison d’état. Many of the paintings and sculptures in “The Monuments Men” were commissioned by patrons of the church with the purpose of educating and inspiring by illustrating stories from the Bible for an illiterate congregation. Some might also call it propaganda or even brainwashing.

The artists in this show all use art as a method of investigating the impact of how information is presented. Living as we do in the Information Age, we see images of disaster constantly. Amze Emmons borrows such images from the media, honing, editing and splicing them to suit his purposes. His work distills instantly recognizable signs of poverty, environmental degradation and refugee displacement into engaging, beautifully drawn and cheerfully colored scenes. Disaster is commonplace, they seem to say, but it’s okay, life goes on. We’re constantly bombarded with this message, so why should we not believe it? Why worry?

Whether in terms of politics, culture or human nature, artNOW is intended to raise questions. If you want to get something out of this exhibit, you need to spend time with it. If you don’t, you won’t begin to understand the layers of meaning and intercultural discourse that went into Ruben Ghenov’s work. His paintings are consummate exercises in spatial gymnastics, abstractions that promise glimpses into complicated realities without offering specifics. You can simply appreciate his prodigious skill, or you can take the sparse clues he and Bellas offer in the catalogue and do some research. The internet is the perfect place to start. For Ghenov, as for all artNOW’s artists, you’ll find websites and links to articles and interviews, as well as to related work by other artists, poets and writers, and you’ll be launched into a process of reading, investigation, consideration and synthesis.

This show is all about being willing to explore and go beyond the boundaries of convention to open to new ideas. Julianna Foster has a magical way of questioning conventional thinking. She “documents” what she terms a “fantastic event that allegedly occurred” with images of patterns of lights suspended in the night air, strangely shaped clouds over water or low hills, and a house apparently floating in the sea. Obviously, whatever this mysterious occurrence was, it can’t have been real, yet allegedly there were witnesses.

Foster is asking a series of questions. How do we take in something that we can’t conceive of being true? Why is it so difficult to admit the existence of something outside the bounds of accepted knowledge? And if it’s a challenge to an individual’s belief system, how much more so for the established institutions of government, science and religion?

In assembling the work of these artists, Bellas dares students, viewers and citizens in general to take the initiative in searching out greater knowledge and widening our perspectives. The rescue efforts of “The Monuments Men” were aimed at not just at recovering beautiful objects but also the ideas and ideals spawned during a thousand years of culture. ArtNOW challenges us to practice learning and thinking creatively, for these are the most necessary skills we humans can possess in these times of unprecedented global change.

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