I recently wrote a review of an exhibit entitled Paint Piles at River House Arts in Toledo, Ohio. You can read the full text describing Natalie Lanese’s solo show of colorful abstractions at newartxaminer.org
Paula Baldoni can hardly believe that the tenth birthday of her Toledo gallery, River House Arts, is coming up, but she’s ready to celebrate. “The ten years have flown by. If you had just asked me, I’d have said it was 5,” she says.
Baldoni recalls opening her first exhibition space in Perrysburg in 2009 in an unused portion of her photographer husband Bill Jordan’s studio. She opened the gallery because she observed that many Toledo artists with international reputations had no place to show their work locally. She says, “I knew that there were artists living in the area and working here, but who didn’t have a place to show their work. They were showing in Europe and Asia–everywhere but home.” She adds, “We thought that if we could make our mark during the worst part of the Great Recession, then maybe we had something.”
A decade later, River House Arts has found a new, more spacious venue in the historic Secor Building in downtown Toledo. Baldoni has expanded from her original main floor gallery to fill several new exhibition spaces in the newly renovated structure, filling those spaces with art from Toledo and beyond. And in 2020, Contemporary Art Toledo, a non-profit arts organization that she founded in partnership with Brian Carpenter, an artist and professor of art at University of Toledo, will open the doors to its new gallery for the first time. She gives ample credit for the expansion to building owner Jim Zaleski. “He did a lot of work on the new space–he’s been extremely generous. We would not be doing what we’re doing if it wasn’t for Jim Zaleski,” she says.
Reflecting on the past ten years, Baldoni describes herself as a hunter gatherer of artists’ private obsessions, which she then introduces to the larger Toledo arts audience. “There has to be a place to show cutting edge and experimental work. The more people become accustomed to seeing contemporary art, art that they don’t have to imagine having in their living rooms, the more they are open to other [new] ideas.”
Baldoni views the upcoming 10-year milestone at River House Arts as a birthday celebration for a ten-year-old child. The exhibit, entitled Cake, though it coincides with the anniversary, is not intended to be a dignified affair. It’s meant to be “a show of fun, light work (with possibly a dark side because we don’t know how to do it without having a dark side). It will be light with depth…much like a cake!” She promises clouds and butterflies, mixing bowls, rugs and plates in media from glass to painting to fiber and neon. Artists will include Joanna Manousis, Boryana Rusenova-Ina, Loraine Lynn, Alli Hoag, Madhurima Ganguly, Katy Richards, Crystal Phelps and more. Cake will be on view at River House Arts from Nov. 21 through January 19.
When asked about lessons learned from past experiences and plans for the future, Baldoni responds, “The trajectory of a gallery is the same as that of an artist–you have highs and lows, good times and bad times. We are really not that different, we have the same struggles. This is such a crazy business, and it’s not even a business, it’s a life.” She continues, ”I think I’ve hit my stride. I still have goals [for the future]. I want to continue to show work by emerging artists, promoting them to a broader audience. As we move forward one of the opportunities we’re looking at for artists is working more with businesses, both in terms of bringing corporate people in to see our collection and to see the shows we have here and also introducing artwork to go to their locations. She finishes, “I’m still committed to glass [as a medium] and to showing glass work that we don’t normally see, like the work we recently showed in JB Squared, by Brooklyn glass artists Jane Bruce and John Brekke.”
But in the future, she adds, “There must also be cake!”
Emerging artist Madhurima Ganguly’s provocative but uneven exhibit Bodh, currently on view at River House Arts in Toledo, presents us with a travelogue of the artist’s creative journey up to now. It begins in Kolkata, India, where she was born and educated, followed by emigration to San Diego, California and now her residence in the American Midwest.
The (mostly) small works on paper in Bodh illustrate Ganguly’s wide-ranging interests, from traditional Indian folk painting, to observations of the natural world, to explorations of south Asian materials and patterns, to the beginnings of a personal feminist worldview. Or as Ganguly writes, her artworks are derived from “…everything and anything. As a visual artist my works explore the possibilities of space, nature and images from living organisms at micro and macro level.” The richness of her heritage and the breadth of her travels provide Ganguly with an array of sources for her inspiration which need only to be organized and edited to produce a singular and satisfying body of work.
In Bodh, the most immediately successful pieces capitalize on Ganguly’s academic background in contemporary sculpture. Her abstract drawings are often single, idiosyncratic shapes that seem to reference natural forms and are presented as more or less symmetrical objects centrally placed on plain backgrounds. Coral, fungus, and even internal human organs provide her inspiration and manage to be referential while avoiding the illustrational. She also has a gift for the manipulation of materials that have an ethnic association, such as batik and gold leaf. A particularly satisfying example of this is Earth and Sky, the central image of which appears to refer to a coral form and illustrates many of the artist’s strengths. The richly colored blue ground and the saturated orange batik, combined with her characteristic lacy pattern painting and spiky tendrils, are unique and point to promising areas for future exploration. Other standouts in this vein are If Feelings were Human and Sand and Beach.
When Ganguly strays into the figurative realm, however, she lacks the technical means to create a convincing narrative. Her educational background is upper-class, post-colonial and westernized, and she seems to have an arms-length relationship with the more humble forms of Indian painting that she references in her representational drawings. Works such as Wall of Fame and Self-Portrait seem, to me, to be clumsy and touristic, and her personal iconography is still in the process of formation.
Ganguly is a cosmopolitan artist who feels the pull of her native culture while remaining a citizen of the contemporary art world. A rich diversity of influences will define her creative practice going forward, as she travels from her place of origin to an unknown destination, where her personal history and its innate conflicts can be resolved in a defining body of work.
For more information about Madhurima Ganguly and Bodh go here
Pretty Queer, a provocative summer exhibit at River House Arts, closed on August 5 but lingers in the memory as a thoughtful echo of one of contemporary art’s most vexed and vexing preoccupations. The artists in Pretty Queer want us to know that gender identity and gender normativity are far more thorny and ambiguous subjects than we thought, and there are as many shades of sexuality as there are humans to express them.
Over the last fifty years, the issue of alternative gender and sexual identity has taken the foreground in public discussion of how people love, present themselves and interact with the broader culture. The spectrum represented by the initials LGBTQ has fractured, with distinctions increasingly finely sliced and diced, atomized and reconstituted. Pretty Queer is an effort to quantify and enumerate some of these distinctions as they exist now, in this historical moment.
Pretty Queer’s premise is anchored in the exhibit by a work of the late David Wojnarowicz, an art polemicist who is enjoying a moment in the art world now that contemporary concerns with gender identity have caught up with his pioneering AIDS activism. The serigraph, Fire and Water (1990), projects a sense of dislocation and peril, multiple images of a confrontational pugilist overlaid by a grinning red devil. (Wojnarowicz is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Up at Night.)
The works in Pretty Queer are characterized by a desire to act out and a countervailing compulsion to conceal which might be a core of the queer aesthetic, described by academic sex researcher Iain Morland as “the sensory interrelation of pleasure and shame.” A number of the works in the show address the artists’ compulsion to show themselves as they are, accompanied by a pervasive sense of discomfort in this self-exposure.
Troy Hoffman has nailed this ambivalence with two digital prints. The first is a small, lush close-up of what appears to be a bed of roses, the centers of which turn out to be human anuses. It’s comic, pretty and deeply disturbing. It’s unclear to me what he means by his other entry, a digital collage of a sado-masochistic dog mask on a female human, overlaid by fragmented black and white images of policemen, but it’s one of those images that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.
Fiber artist John Paul Morabito has taken a more reticent approach. His woven pieces Frottage 052 and 049, are woven tapestries that at first appear to be elegantly minimalist until (upon close inspection) ghostly images of genitals become visible.
Several of the artists in Pretty Queer have chosen kitsch imagery and objects to describe their response to received gender norms. Robert Fitzgerald’s Boys wear Blue is an example: A set of three deceptively demure boxes contain reproductions of 18th century china figurines in the act of “performing” masculinity and femininity within the confines of a box (could his meaning be any more transparent?) By adding a small mirror in each box, the artist invites the viewer to place him/her/their self in relationship to given norms of gender behavior. Atop and outside the top box, a china figurine rests, his back turned in a gesture of rejection.
Across the room, Zachariah Szabo returns to the subject of kitsch as a received view of norms, turning the concept on its head with irony and humor. The ultra-adorable china figurine in Pink Planter seems to say “ You want cute? I’ll give you cute!” It calls to mind pieces by Jeff Koons (Balloon Dog, anyone?) but with a sharper satirical edge. Colton Clifford’s digital print of two identical, stereo-typically feminine figures surrounded by flowers and formally arranged and constrained within an under-scale dollhouse continues and amplifies the critique on received gender norms.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and ambitious exploration of queer/gender issues is the large, mixed-media montage by Rowan Renee. Part memoir, part political polemic, the installation recounts a dispute over ownership of nude photographs of the artist with their then-partner and now-adversary, set against a backdrop of gender transition. In a statement, Renee describes their method: “My labor-intensive process centers on the obsessive act of material transfiguration to recast a relationship I am ashamed of into the pleasure of artistic production.”
Pretty Queer, in my opinion, does a good job of placing us within the discourse on gender and sexuality in 2018. The question that comes to mind, though, is what will this discussion look like in 2028? Or 3028? It seems clear that we are in the midst of an evolution that is headed for parts unknown, but one hopes it will get us to a future where equality and respect for difference prevail, when we can be content to merely call ourselves human.
For more information about Pretty Queer and Contemporary Art Toledo visit https://www.catoledo.org/pretty-queer . Artist/arts blogger Loraine Lynn has written a thoughtful review of Pretty Queer which you can access here
Animals. They share our beds, our homes, our back yards. We love them, as friends and as dinner. And in some ways our relationship with them reflects a confused and self-contradictory understanding of our place in nature, a place that is being reassessed in the early 21st century as we confront climate change, animal cruelty and mass extinction.
Our fraught relationship with animals forms the premise of Thinking with Animals, a thoughtful collection of exquisite artworks currently on view at River House Arts in Toledo. Artists Jessica Tenbusch and Morgan Barrie have curated this exceptionally beautiful show, and share the gallery walls with the work of fellow artists Julie Bahn, Emily White and Breanne Sherwood.
Jessica Tenbusch employs silver and bronze casts of natural objects such as animal bones, insect exoskeletons and bits of plants in dialog with highly refined manmade materials to create a series of lapidary landscapes displayed in a grid pattern. The overall effect is one of beauty and order that invites close looking. Each single component of her piece Artifacts/Ecofacts is a complete work of art but together they constitute a world of minute perception.
Morgan Barrie’s two large photo collages riff humorously on the well known Netherlandish Unicorn in Captivity tapestry owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She adapts the decorative plants from the original tapestry by introducing plants native to the upper Midwest, such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans and joe pye weed, digitally collaged on a dark background. In the center of the composition formerly occupied by the mythical unicorn are life-size domestic companion animals, the dog and the cat, surrounded by what appears to be modern storm fencing of the type available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The dog in Tapestry is a handsome boxer and, as it happens, her own family dog . Though chained, he seems to be comfortable in his confinement, while the feral-looking cat in Captivity lurks within the fence, scheming to escape.
Fiber artist Breanne Sherwood is clearly in love with the substance of nature. She shows a particular affinity for the decorative qualities of bird plumage in Relics of Santiam, embellishing disembodied avian wings with carefully embroidered and appliqued threads and tulle. They retain their anatomical identity but the delicacy of the artist’s handling imparts reverence to these relics of departed creatures. Sherwood’s more ambitiously scaled One Yard, One Bird applies human organization and emotional tenderness to a fatal event.
The intimidatingly-sized and accomplished paintings of wild animals native to North America in Emily White’s two artworks Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) and Velvet (a truly disturbing life-size rendering of a moose shedding the velvet skin of its antlers) dominate the gallery. They look as if they could easily grace the walls of a natural history museum. The landscapes in which the animals stand are surrounded by highly finished birch plywood, framing the wilderness in civilization. Easily missed in the paintings are the artist’s sly additions of human technology into the natural environment.
Julie Bahn’s work is the most directly political of the group. She addresses human consumption of animals for food and consumerism in One Hundred Twenty Eight Days of Protein. A silver plate is piled high with the broken bones of consumed animals, embellished and be-dazzled by Swarovski crystals, ready to be re-cycled and re-consumed as art. Her soft sculpture Hug Me, is a tantalizing visual enigma. The large vinyl fish with strangely human eyes hangs limply from the gallery ceiling, a glittering tag around its neck, inviting us to engage with it as a fellow creature, not just as dinner.
Artists, always the shock troops of changing cultural attitudes, are thinking hard about the way forward in our relationship with nature, and in the process creating art that resonates, questions and inspires with its beauty. The work in Thinking With Animals ably addresses the complexity and ambivalence of our evolving thoughts about animals, humans and our place in the environment.