Group shows can be messy affairs; not in a bad way, but rather in a sprawling, diverse, “million different directions all at once” way. If you’re in search of unifying themes or cohesive statements a group exhibition is rarely the best place to look. At least that’s what I always thought. But that was before I viewed this year’s Fine Arts Exhibition at The Ohio State Fair. While the 2011 show features a wide range of interpretations and mediums, I was most struck by how much of the work on display fits into a couple of broad categories. Whether this was a function of the jurors or a function of the artists, I can’t say. What I can say was that our natural world (specifically plants, animals, and landscapes) and our sense of nostalgia dominated this year’s State Fair entries.
I’ll stop short of claiming these two themes represent some grand social indicator (though they might) or that I’ve uncovered Ohio’s zeitgeist cloistered in a brick building on the south side of fairgrounds (though I may have). Clearly though, and without the hyperbole, something is at work here. How else do you explain so many artists turning so completely toward either our natural world or the passage of time. These themes weave in and out of the works in ways that become nearly impossible to ignore.
Time and nostalgia were evident in the number of artists who re-purposed old photos in their work. Barbara Vogel’s pair of portraits (Cousin Duane and Niece Katie) as well Tara Polansky’s Why That Vacant Lot? both put this practice to good effect, creating works that spark a dialogue both from the past and about the past. Similar in style were mixed media pieces by Eileen Woods and Tracy Greenwalt. Each artist offered intimate works with a vintage flavor, serving to memorialize individuals frozen in time.
A slightly different approach to the theme of time was created Melissa Vogley-Woods. In the work Neighborhood Gone, Woods uses photographs of older homes altered with acrylic paint to imagine landscapes void of housing. It’s a chilling exercise, especially in light of the foreclosure crisis, and made all the more effective by the artist’s use of negative space.
Our natural world was another theme that recurred over and over again in this year’s show. It manifest itself in animal depictions, landscapes, and a host of flowers and plants. Animals forms were represented in all styles; from the traditional (Jim Glover’s Majesty (Bald Eagle)), to the whimsical (Rick Borg’s Zebra) to the unconventional (Udine Brod’s Bah Bah Black Sheep). Plants and landscapes were also out in force. It was here that some of the most surprising interpretations were encountered. Catherine Smith Bell’s rolling Watershed, Alissa Sorenson’s Reliquary: Husk, and George Gregory’s Such a Dandy each provided inventive representations of otherwise traditional subjects.
Which isn’t to say The Ohio State Fair is all about flowers and sepia tones. There were artists working in industrial materials (Linda Leviton’s (Diamond Shape) Radiant Quilt and Jules Knowlton’s Caelifera come to mind) as well as some forward thinking conceptual pieces like Christiana Pereyma’s Out of Context (Series) and David Lane’s Dan as David. These were the exception though, and certainly not the rule.
Looking to art as an accurate social barometer is always risky. Art is imprecise, unquantifiable, and rarely beholden to the laws of cause and affect. Still I can’t help but wonder what this interest in nostalgia and the natural world says about this year’s crop of artists. Perhaps more importantly, I wonder what it says about us and the world we live in.
Oil on wood
Bah Bah Black Sheep
Hand-build ceramic, acrylic, stuffed animal fur, wood glue, found wood, spindles, wax glue
She Never Missed a Service
Oil pastel, watercolor, and pencil
Why That Vacant Lot?
Archival digital print on archival paper of digitally altered old family photo
Mixed photo printed on wood, carved and painted with oils