The "Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts" at the American Academy of Arts and Letters is a goulash in which some ingredients seem fresher than others. Bringing together the work of 34 contemporary artists, chosen by the 109-year-old institution's Art Awards and Purchase Committee, the show offers a sense of art's current diversity. But it also demonstrates some of the challenges associated with selecting art by committee.
If the exhibition represents a stew of styles and approaches, it also varies broadly in quality. At times one wonders what could possibly unite Christine Lafuente's ultra-conventional, watery oil-onlinen still life "Pansies, Hidden Clock, and Garden Scissors" (2006), David Salle's confused, post-Modern pastiche of 18th-century painting, and Frances Hynes's muddy, grid-based abstractions. The answer is: little beyond the thrilling competition between utterly different approaches to art making. This committee tended toward a diverse selection, a noble ethic but one that also favors range over quality. I would argue that the few works included — such as Lafuente's, as well as Saul Leiter's fine street photographs from the '50s and early '60s — that have little to do with other contemporary art should have been left out of this selection.
Dana Schutz's "Telepathy" (2006) is an 84-inch-by-104-inch oil painting that sets the bar of achievement on a very high rung. Theatrical and searching, it depicts, in self-consciously large brushstrokes and blaring colors — both typical of this young artist — a scene of paranormal experiment. Beyond a low bank of house plants, a woman takes notes and a man photographs, while the experiment's subject, a bearded, balding man, lies on a chaise, and three figures, their backs to the viewer, watch a monitor. It's a scene of absorption, each participant concentrating on his or her task, that consequently absorbs the beholder so completely that the colors and geometric planes that compose it engage one's attention almost as thoroughly as the subject itself.
Ms. Schutz's canvas is matched in size, complexity, and lighthearted appeal by Charlotte Becket's kinetic sculpture "The Wishing Well" (2004). More than 10 feet tall, it is composed almost entirely of garbage stacked in layers, like a cake. A conveyor belt lifts pieces of garbage from below to the top of the piece, where a fan inflates nearly a dozen garbage bags of different sizes and makes. Air whistles through the bags. On the floor, small piles of cut-up boxes for cereal and other products, crushed Comet containers, and plastic water bottles rise and fall, as though breathing. The implication: We have stuffed the living earth with trash, tossed blithely like pennies into a fountain.
Recycling cast-off items is a fruitful avenue for creation here. Soo Sunny Park's "Untitled/SS. VT. Vapor Slide" (2007) employs a chainlink fence, the holes of which are filled with white plastic cups, to make a beautiful, wavy sculptural installation. Lengths of string hang from the center of the cups, weighted by small river rocks.
By comparison, many of the other sculptural pieces included feel slick and heavily indebted to Pop Art. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle contributes a huge and menacing-looking jack — as in the sidewalk game rather than, say, a car lift. One also encounters a bowtie, pipe, and pair of shoes — blown up to comic proportions — all made from foam, silicone, and licorice by Andy Yoder.
Sarah Oppenheimer eschews Pop gigantism for a modest, yet elegant, architectural installation. Into the corner of a temporary wall, she cut an elliptical hole, which allows one to see three gallery spaces at once. She then lined the hole with a single sheet of bent plywood.
None of the photographs are as exciting as the freshest painting and sculpture here. Sally Mann's varnished black-and-white images of faces close-up, like death masks, feel at once nostalgic and breathlessly panting after significance. I preferred Mr. Manglano-Ovalle's two efforts in color. "Night Vision Poppy" (2002) is, as its title suggests, a study of a single flower, here in nocturnal green and white. In "Oppenheimer" (2003), which appears to be a staged photo, a cigarette-smoking man in a lush, jungle-like setting studies his reflection in what is either a pool of water or a mirrored floor.
Paintings and drawings make up the bulk of work on view here, however, and, while none quite measures up to Ms. Shutz's canvas, several deserve attention. Alexi Worth's dry witticisms remain with you long after you've stepped away from his canvases. In "Enabler" (2006), a sharply drawn bald man with comically large ears, rendered in muted oils, hides his face behind a video camera. In a sort of silent joke, his legs are open like the wings of the love seat upon which he sits.
Juan Gomez's three oils span the range from figurative to abstract. Wide pink brushstrokes define a semiabstract, serpentine figure in "Echo's Sweet Manor" (2006).In "Quiet Reign" (2006), a nude woman, pink and drawn in single, wide strokes, lies propped on an elbow, an infant at her side. The painting's success shows that Mr. Gomez can captivate when he knows what he wants to paint.
This exhibition could have also benefited from a bit more decisiveness. Leaving out some of the weaker paintings, as well as those that stand entirely apart from the forward-moving streams of contemporary art, would have honed its point. But, happily, it is hard not to be pierced — slayed, even — by the handful of ambitious and genuinely powerful works included in this exhibition.
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