Painting Lessons: The 2015 Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition
The Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition continues to be the premier venue for sampling some of the best work by Ohio artists. The show has a long and prestigious history, and inclusion in the exhibition looks good on any artist’s resume. Plus, there’s always plenty of prize money up for grabs.
That said, the event remains difficult to write about. There is just so much work, and so much of it is really, really good. Also, given the format (it’s a group show) and the selection process (they employ different jurors every year) the exhibition doesn’t hinge on a particular theme or genre. While these factors ensure a fresh and surprising exhibition each year, they confound art writers looking for that all important “angle”.
This year was no different. I took a couple laps around the building, noting what caught my eye, and trying discern patterns, themes, and commonalities. Suddenly it hit me, and I thought “There sure are lot of paintings in here”.
That in and of itself isn’t surprising. Painting is obviously a popular medium, so there’s always a lot of paintings at the State Fair show. This year though, it felt like more. Also, these weren’t just paintings, these were big paintings; four to six foot canvases were common. Plus, for the first time in my memory, the exhibition spilled over into the performance wing of the building. Clearly a little extra wall space was needed this year.
So, if paintings are what this year’s jurors saw fit to feature, let’s talk about painting.
It would be hard to visit this show and not be struck by paintings of Augusto Bordelois. There are three of them, they’re all big, and one of them (Beautiful Girls and Boys in a Peacock Cage) won Best of Show. More than that, these are the kind of paintings that grab the viewer’s attention and hold it. The lights are bright and the darks are deep. The figures serve to increase the drama. They are pushed to the foreground. They pose head on. They gaze from the canvas squarely at the viewer (see also Fernand Leger and Fernando Botero). While Bordelois is fastidiously representational, he employs just enough surrealist flair to keep things off balance. I’m not sure if these paintings are allegorical or not, but I know this, they look allegorical (those rabbits in Becoming Men must mean something, right?). Bordelois is a painter who has obviously found his voice. The inclusion of three large works in this exhibition (plus his award) help further cement the reputation of this talented Berea, Ohio artist.
Speaking of surreal, Paul Emory’s Train of Thought presents a holiday tableau that is both poignant and haunting. In this work a young boy watches distractedly as a toy train chugs across the foreground. His mind is obviously on other things. The older fireplace, the style of the train, and the console television suggest a moment from the past. It’s all pretty straight-forward (i.e. young boy wonders where life will take him) but for the young infant hovering in the background and the twin rabbits on the mantle. As in the works of Bordelois, viewers are left to puzzle the exact meaning of these disparate visual elements. Stylistically, Emory’s work is reminiscent of Bonnard. He’s not afraid to push the extremes of value, and he’s not afraid to construct pictures using repetitive brushstrokes and lively patterns.
Another figurative painter included in this year’s exhibition is Zach Van Horn. In the case of Van Horn though, the focus is more on visual distortion than descriptive storytelling. In Aspartic Acid: Tyrosine the artist mixes painting with a deconstructed collage technique to create pictures that obliterate figurative details but leave the essence of the subject in tact. The mixed media elements remind me of the way Mark Bradford weaves strips of discarded paper into his paintings. What’s notable about Van Horn’s application is the effect of combining the analog process of painting with a pixelating effect found most often in digital media. Beyond that, there’s something reminiscent of both Eric Fischl and the Bay Area Figurative School in Van Horn’s work. Given his recent exhibition at the OSU Urban Arts Space, Zach Van Horn is quickly establishing himself as a central Ohio artist to watch.
While not new to painting, Carol Stewart is relatively new to Ohio. For that we should be grateful. Her two works included in this year’s exhibition demonstrate an artist of exceptional skill in both large format painting and small. Bottled Peaches, Blood Orange offers a still-life that is deft, sure-handed, and intimate. The palette is restricted to mostly reds, oranges, and some subdued greens. Conversely, Paper Lanterns is ambitious, sprawling, and kaleidoscopic. While ostensibly about lanterns, this work is just as much about paint and the nearly limitless ways it can be applied to the canvas. The end result is an advanced lesson in color, harmony, scale, repetition, and pattern.
Moving away from representational work is Brett Barton’s You Could Feel the Sky. In this painting Barton uses glazes and layering to build an image that is both dense and ethereal. Colors hover, fade, and reappear at varying values and depths. At the center of the work is a white void that flips the figure ground relationship, presenting both a figure and the absence of one. It’s this figure that elevates Barton’s large-scale painting to something beyond the purely decorative.
These paintings are just the tip of the iceberg too. Visitors would do well to spend some time with the Hopperesque nocturnes of Aaron Smith, the subtle encaustics presented by Kellie McDermott and the deft brushwork of Richard Lilash. Know too that there is plenty of sculpture, installation work, printmaking and photography as well. As in year’s past, there is literally something for everyone at the Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibtion.
The Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition will be on view through Sunday August 9, 2015 in the Cox Fine Arts Center at the Ohio State Fair.