Forms, Figures, Symbols at Shy Rabbit: Too Much of a Good Thing

Authors Note: This review was never published. I wrote it about the juried art exhibit at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts in Fall 2006. I was going through documents on my computer and felt that this was a well-written and insightful review of the show and that it should be shared on my blog.

Images, top to bottom: Ronald Gonzalez sculpture “Pincushion Man;” Jean Gumpper woodcut print “Wetlands;” Amy Wendland graphite drawing “Kelp;” Marcie Lenke acrylic painting “Untitled #63.”

Entering the back exhibit space at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts I continue to feel overwhelmed. My eye has no place to rest. More than 50 works of art are crammed into 1,000 square feet on four walls. I felt this way the first day the art lined the walls, before it was even hung. I felt this way the day the hanging was complete. I felt this way on opening night and I continue to feel this way about the show. It is just too much: there is too much art and definitely too much mediocre art.

I couldn’t write this in The New York Times and I can’t write this in The Durango Herald. You see; I’m a member of the Creative Development Team at Shy Rabbit. I spend hundreds of hours volunteering my time to bring contemporary art to Southwest Colorado and provide a venue for contemporary artists to show their work and soon a place for artists to continue learning techniques through workshops, classes and seminars. I am also one of a handful of writers who focus on the arts in this region. Working for and writing about Shy Rabbit is taboo. Conflict of interest they say. Biased.

Perhaps. However, I feel compelled to write about this show just as I’ve written about others. I feel compelled to be honest in spite of the perceived difficulties. I like Gerry Riggs, the juror of this show, and I value what we are trying to create at Shy Rabbit, but I have an objective side, too.

I first saw the chosen art for “Forms, Figures, Symbols” hours after Gerry Riggs finalized the selections. I saw them as he did, digital images in a slide show on a wide-screen Mac. Much of the work seemed intriguing, but even then I saw work that did not seem to be of the quality or standards Shy Rabbit had just set with “Mind’s Material.”

But it was exciting. Entries had poured in from around the country. Submissions came from New York, Indiana, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois. Shy Rabbit was bringing art to Pagosa Springs from thousands of miles away. Some of the excitement waned as the work began to arrive: Fifty-nine works of art from 43 different artists. Denise Coffee logged in each submission; each box was opened and the artwork checked for damage, then repackaged for storage until hanging. The boxes were all marked with entry numbers, which correlated to each unique artist and work. The boxes are stored and the work will be repackaged and shipped back to the artist. No simple task.

It was when the work was unpacked and leaned up against walls that I had my first reaction—Too much art. Some of the Creative Development Team had already realized the need for additional walls and built an extra, hinged form to cover the large roll up garage door in the warehouse space.

As the art was unpacked, I realized that jurors have an incredibly difficult task. Work arrives that does not look like the photograph or slide. It is bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, messier, more amateurish, or poorly framed.

I expected Amy Wendland’s “Kelp, 10 pm” drawing to be larger. I thought Jean Gumpper’s prints would be smaller. I expected Lal Echterhoff’s “The Joshua Tree” sculpture to stand in the limestone base securely and not wobble around. I wanted Marcia Lenke’s “Untitled #63” and “Untitled #71” paintings to be bigger. I assumed Daisy McConnell’s “Figment—Botanical” intaglio print would be larger.

And there was work that seemed of such a poor quality that it shouldn’t be included in the show. I campaigned to have items removed because I felt they detracted from the great art—the work that blew me away in person.

The great art still intrigues and challenges, even after five weeks.

Which art in this show do I consider great?

The woodcut prints by Jean Gumpper are technically superior. “Wetlands” captures grasses and reeds standing in water, some are bent down, lying across the top of the water. The print is created with multiple shades of yellow, gold, grass green, spring green, moss green, pale blue. The swirl in the grain of wood perfectly aligned as ripples in the black water. “Aspens” captures the golden, orange and reds of aspen leaves and contrasts them with aubergine branches on a periwinkle background.

The paintings by W. Howard Brandenburg are intense and thought provoking. “Release” a painting of a man chewing off his own leg is a brilliant work of art. The painting captures movement in the style of Duchamps “Nude Descending a Staircase,” but Brandenburg uses that movement selectively, only the head seams to go back and forth. The figure is frantic to escape and will do anything for freedom. The painting brings to mind Aaron Ralston who cut off his arm to save his life. The passionate creature in the painting is willing to do anything to survive. “Rapacious” is a disturbing look at the avarice and greed of our society. The painting is divided into equal quarter panels in shades of blues with rodent type creatures eating each other—A reflection on capitalism and America’s insatiable appetite.

Ronald Gonzalez sculptures, are miniature marvels. “Mournful Drum” and “Pin Cushion Man” are simple, mixed media constructions. Masterfully created abstracted figures.

Amy Wendland’s drawing “Kelp, 10 pm” is brilliant and captures the knotted up sea plant, swirled and twisted by the tides. It is almost moving, slowly floating across the page. Wendland’s toys are whimsical. “Circle One,” a spinning eyeball surrounded by dark gray river rocks all with a white line through them, encircling the eyeball, is kinesthetic. I play with it each time I walk by. “Object Two,” a pull toy with the teeth is equal parts cree
py and playful.

Additionally, I enjoyed the work by Mary Ellen Long, “From the Forest Library,” her nature altered books and “Winter Pressing 2003/04” nature altered paper, are simple, yet elegant. Sarah Comerford paints her life in “Self Portrait as Resurrection,” with the passion of Frida Kahlo. Patrick Linehan photographs architecture, capturing the angles, geometry, shapes and shadows of buildings and structures in “Chicago #4” and “Milwaukee #8.”

Paul F. Morris’ “Stony Arcuated Ewer 2006” is a brilliant functional work in stoneware created in an amorphous shape with thick layers of moss green and goldenrod glaze all thick and crumbling on the surface.

The majority of the work in this show is average. It is well executed, but doesn’t challenge me in its subject or form. It doesn’t seem to do anything beyond be a painting or photograph or work of sculpture. It disappears and I can walk past it and not turn my head, go in for a closer look, see something new I hadn’t yet discovered.

And far too much work in this show is student quality, amateurish and not up to the standards I’ve come to expect at Shy Rabbit.

I think Gerry Riggs tried to be inclusive with this show. Even though he only selected one-third of the submissions, he said he tried to include something from almost every artist. In this case (and in most cases) this tactic does not produce the best show. It would have been a better show with about ten less works. Those ten works could have been weeded out when the artwork arrived.

Riggs even admits to selecting a lot of work.

“I’m certain I pushed the number of selections right up to [Shy Rabbit’s] limit. I recommended that particular related works be hung stacked in order to accommodate more work than is usually shown,” Riggs stated.

Shy Rabbit did their usual fine job of lighting the work, but the stacked salon style presentation and limited space between images does not benefit any of the work, least of all the quality work that deserves to have breathing room.

Because when it comes to art, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

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