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Independent Spirits: Three Paths to Modernism at Keny Galleries

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Independent Spirits: Three Paths to Modernism at Keny Galleries
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From an aesthetic standpoint, we live in a time that can rightly be described as wildly egalitarian. The walls that used to separate art from – well, everything that wasn’t art – are lower. It’s a world where new mediums and methods are adopted instantaneously and without question. The selfie is art, sound is art, and (despite the ineffectual protests of the late Roger Ebert) video games are art. For better or worse the barriers have come down and the road ahead is wide open.

This trend toward acceptance and equality extends now within the art world itself. In the past there was a kind of hierarchy or pecking order; one that put fine arts (painting, drawing, sculpture) above design (illustration, industrial design, graphic design) and craft (weaving, woodworking, glass blowing). Similarly, certain mediums were held above others. Painting (oils only please) and sculpture (preferably bronze or marble) were at the top of the heap. Anything else (say watercolor, printmaking or ceramics) was always seen as somehow “less than”. Though residual bias remains, today’s art world is considerably more inclusive than yesterday’s.

I mention all this because Keny Galleries current exhibition Independent Spirits: Three Paths to Modernism features a trio of artists with Ohio ties who pushed boundaries and helped lead us to our current egalitarian utopia. The show features works by George Bellows, Edna Boies Hopkins, and Alice Schille in mediums that weren’t always afforded the consideration or respect they get today.

George Bellows’ reputation is built mostly around his work as an oil painter; specifically his gritty urban cityscapes and dramatic boxing scenes. Though Bellows was a committed realist, his brushwork, use of color, and progressive themes made him an ally of the American modernists. What’s often overlooked is Bellow’s contribution to lithography and printmaking. In Independent Spirits, Bellows’ lithographs play a featured role, highlighting his skill as a draftsman as well as his keen sense of dramatic lighting. Presenting vivid tableaus in black, white, and grey, Bellows lithographs illustrate his mastery of the medium as well as his sensitivity to the human condition.

Alice Schille is an accomplished impressionist painter whose later works helped advance the cause of American modernism. While watercolor isn’t the medium we associate most closely with either impressionism or modernism, her work captures the spirit and essence of both. Evening, Africa is particularly compelling. In this work, rich saturated blues and cool whites anchor a composition that borders on abstraction. It’s a painting that captures both Schille’s skill as a painter as well as her appreciation for the modernist style.

While Schille and Bellows doubtlessly made inroads with mediums that weren’t always favored, it is Edna Boies Hopkins who deserves the most attention as we consider exactly how inclusive the art world has become. If the archetypal 20th century artist is the White Male of European Extraction Painting in Oil While Braying About His Wild Artistic Temperament (see also Picasso, Dali, Pollock), then Edna Boies Hopkins might very well be its opposite.

Here we have a woman (and a very independent one by all accounts) carving out her niche (no pun intended) in a male-dominated world while working in a medium (woodblock prints) that was arguably pretty low on the artistic pecking order. Oh yeah, and she did it by looking beyond the usual Western styles and themes. While this might seem like a manageable set of obstacles today, for her time she might as well have been working on the far side of the moon. It’s a miracle (or perhaps a testament) that she’s even remembered at all. Maybe that’s why of the three artists featured in this exhibition, it’s Hopkins’ work that seems most relevant today.

Incorporating the asymmetrical compositions and delicate lines of traditional Japanese prints, Hopkins work appears timeless. Her palette strikes the perfect balance between bold and subdued. Similarly the figure/ground balance she achieves in the later prints, along with the flattening of the picture plane, highlights an emphasis on modernism and two-dimensional design that still resonates today.

Independent Spirits presents viewers with the opportunity to reflect on where art can go when we allow it to push boundaries and expand its reach. While the works in this exhibition won’t strike anyone as particularly groundbreaking today, there can be no doubt they helped pave the way for a more inclusive art world. That’s worth remembering, reflecting on, and most importantly seeing.

Independent Spirits: Three Paths to Modernism is on view at Keny Galleries through November 15, 2013.

George Bellows (1882-1925)
Stag at Sharkeys
c. 1917
Lithograph on Paper
18 3/4″ x 23″ x 3/4″

Edna Boies Hopkins (1872-1937)
Spotted Dahlia
c. 1915
Color Woodcut
8 7/8″ x 7 7/8″

Alice Schille (1869-1955)
Evening, Africa
20″ x 17″

Correction: The original article published on November 2, 2013 2:45 PM referred to the artist Edna Boies Hopkins as Edna Hopkins. Given that the artist signed her prints and her correspondence “Edna Boies Hopkins” we acknowledge that the shortened version of her name was used in error. The article has since been corrected.


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