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Memory's Road Show

BAM's 2007 Idaho Triennial shows the power of recall

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In some respects, the always-anticipated juried exhibition of Idaho art, which for years was a biennial until becoming a three-year event in 1995, has not changed much during the last decade or so. Despite the direction of various curatorial personnel, the end result has been a familiar mix in which photography, ceramics and craftwork typically dominated, interspersed with uneven entries in painting and sculpture and, more recently, one or two conceptual/installation works by university art faculty and students. In hindsight, the overall feel of these shows has been much the same.

Dennis Proksa, Untitled #1, forged steel - COURTESY DENNIS PROKSA
  • Courtesy Dennis Proksa
  • Dennis Proksa, Untitled #1, forged steel

Why this is so is no doubt due to a number of factors, including the glacial pace of change in the Idaho visual arts scene. But it also suggests that the selection formula has grown stale. The reliance on outsider art-world professionals as jurors, individuals with lots of professional experience but little concept of what is going on in Idaho, has not been satisfactory. Add to this the fact that the august juror compounds his or her unfamiliarity with the terrain by having to select the work through slides or digital photography, and it is not surprising that viewers come away from the experience feeling somewhat unfulfilled. It's as if the results never quite match our expectations.

This year, a different tack was taken, and the change in the character of the event is self-evident. BAM's new associate curator, Amy Pence-Brown, managed, in a sense, to bring the Triennial back home.

Pence-Brown decided that the most effective way to learn what's happening in Idaho art today was to jury the event herself. And while she made the first cut from a blind review of slides, the artists who made it through that initial stage earned a visit from Pence-Brown to experience the artists' work firsthand. Her opting for total immersion and lots of cross-country driving was a big commitment. After the first cut had been made, there were no losers in the process. Those who in the end did not make it into the show still got a studio visit by a museum curator out of the deal. Pence-Brown got to see more art in less time than otherwise would have been possible, getting a comprehensive picture of the state of art in Idaho, filling her memory banks for future use. And the public got a more balanced, solid show. It's a documentary of her road trip for art.

Out of the 71 artists that Pence-Brown visited over six weeks throughout Idaho, 25 were picked to participate. While not every entry is a hit, the work is competent and executed with care and skill. The show demonstrates a more consistent level of quality than in Triennials of the recent past. There are several familiar artists, including a few repeats from last time, but many are first-timers. I was struck by the caliber of work by recent MFA graduates from Boise State. One could argue that these facts alone make this Triennial a success.

Willaim Lewis, Two Monuments, 2007, oil on canvas - COURTESY WILLIAM LEWIS
  • Courtesy William Lewis
  • Willaim Lewis, Two Monuments, 2007, oil on canvas

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are welcomed by a rather phallic piece of metallic equipment that comes alive upon approach, turning on its robotic charms as you stand in its presence. This entertaining R2-D2-like specimen, entitled OSzero, is the creation of BOCOLAB, a collaborative group including sculptor Francis Fox, software designer Joseph Coffland, and inventor/designer Caleb Chung, who combine aesthetic/intuitive and scientific/rational perspectives in projects that interact with or respond to the viewer. Their endeavors are eye-catching in the hallucinatory electricsheep.org, which employs the algorithmic language of computers and software to create evolving genetic simulations that pause as you confront them directly. Crossing is a toad-like piece of metal sculpture with a glowing face that slowly acknowledges your presence with a faint wink of light. The science fair-style ingenuity and showmanship nabbed BOCOLAB the second place juror prize.

Such first impressions may lead the visitor to assume that technology dominates this year's event. But the opposite is true: the more traditional art forms rule. There is no video or sound art this time. Even photography has less of a presence, which after years of being a major component of the show, is not a bad thing. There are Brooke Burton's large-scale inkjet prints of Styrofoam packing peanuts. Ironically, these extremely close-up views of a material that is strangling the planet have a crystalline organic beauty to them. After this initial recognition, however, the work has trouble holding your interest.

Photographer Jan Boles, who over the years has been in many biennials and triennials, has changed his work significantly. The usual sweeping, rural landscapes that typically were his subjects have given way to a Pentimento series on the demolition work going on in downtown Caldwell, revealing the original intentions, second thoughts and successive lives of buildings in an aging urban landscape (thus the series' name). The exposed walls with their contrasting abstract color shapes and materials in Arthur Street Pentimento make for a rough-hewn formalism that is a refreshing change from Boles' agricultural orientation. It is a favored genre of photography but is well done.

Charles Gill, Back and Neck Care Suite, Part 8, 2006, Oil on canvas - COURTESY CHARLES GILL

Boles' images of architectural memory align him with a number of works whose theme seems to repeat itself. Many of the works address or are concerned with remembrance and memory, both on a personal level and in a more general sense as a species. These are among the most impressive works in the show. They all resonate with the viewer in personally meaningful ways.

Installations by two artists lead the pack in this area. Moscow artist Marilyn Lysohir is a ceramic sculptor who thinks big when planning projects, especially those visualizing personal and shared memories. Who could forget her huge installation called The Dark Side of Dazzle, which included a 24-foot-long, two-ton ceramic battleship that docked in BAM's Sculpture Court in 1999? Women figure prominently in her work, giving her art a feminist edge, but it is a feminism based on family relationships and friendships rather than politics.

Her triennial entry, entitled Good Girls, Sharon, Pennsylvania 1968, is in keeping with this approach. Taking up an entire wall are 42 (plus one self-portrait) of the 163 ceramic portrait busts Lysohir made of the girls in her high school graduating class, each with the subject's name. It is a fabulous period piece. The faces are all pretty much the same with some variations in nose shapes, mouths, coloring, and a number are wearing heavy, black-framed eyeglasses that were standard issue back then. But it is the hair that differentiates one from the other while, at the same time, uniting them all. Each coif is exactly like the subject's yearbook picture, and a copy of the yearbook is there to so confirm. It is a humorous but touching catalog of 1960s styles and personalities.

Marilyn Lysohir, Good Girls, Sharon, Pennsylvania, 1968; 2004-2007 - COURTESY BOISE ART MUSEUM

As in the Dazzle project, which had available an audiotape of Lysohir's friends and family members describing their war experiences, the artist also wants us to touch the lives of her comrades here, and provides letters and photographs from several of her subjects today. Typically, in the course of the project, she talked to as many of her classmates as she could locate.

Polish-born Katarzyna Cepek is a young printmaker in Boise. She has just completed her MFA at Boise State, but still finds herself "caught between cultures and languages," searching for an embraceable home. Her thoughtful mixed-media installation entitled communion is about "the frail and elusive nature of memory" and is, by turns, both earthy and ephemeral. Her efforts to re-connect with her Polish past through the repetition of images and words, and a few symbolic objects related to the death of her grandfather, give pause. It is a solemn setting: a bedroom where the walls are covered with the same repeated image of the grandfather in hat and coat, though some are indistinct and faint as if bleached by the passage of time and fading memory. The artist's recollections of the funeral are handwritten on the bedsheet, covering it from top to bottom, and her recorded voice recites these memories again and again. On the bed is a fedora filled with dirt. Scattered on the floor at the foot of the bed are books in Polish, and a worn chair that does not invite you to sit. In a way, we are intruders, crashing a private memorial.

There are definite religious overtones in Cepek's work, from the title (with its lower case "c") to the litany of the artist's soft-spoken recitation, to the invoking of spiritual revelations. If you are able to spend time alone with this act of remembrance on a quiet day, it is worth the effort. Cepek deservedly won an honorable mention for communion.

Boise painter William Lewis has a considerably less somber take on the subject of memory. Over the years, Lewis has filled his works on canvas and paper with floating, seemingly unconnected objects and images that are obsolete or of expired relevance, yet which resonate with our collective memory in some fashion, sparking associations. In his more recent work, including the three large oils on view at BAM, Lewis has taken to recalling on canvas groupings or arrangements of objects that are not haphazard but rather "offer quiet testimony to the nature of things," thus invoking another sort of intuition. He also has a bold and confident way of painting that enlivens his work and makes it inviting. His art has its own brand of profundity that is friendly, never severe or pedantic.

Troy Passey, go to sleep right away(detail); 2007, ink and acrylic on paper - COURTESY TROY PASSEY/STEWART GALLERY
  • Courtesy Troy Passey/Stewart Gallery
  • Troy Passey, go to sleep right away(detail); 2007, ink and acrylic on paper

In Two Monuments, Lewis juxtaposes contrasting structures. Both, ambiguously, have been erected in memory of something. A standard pointed stone pillar of the type commemorating some historic event competes with an improvised, teetering, improbably balanced amalgam of stacked logs, planks and knickknacks, nailed together by someone with decidedly bad aim, replicating the mess in which the country finds itself today.

Woodpile is a still life of sorts with cut tree branches and logs forming a rampart over which a paint-splotched studio rag flies like an insolent banner, perhaps in defiance of the encroaching BOCOLAB technicians threatening the once-dominant painters' craft. In these works, Lewis' fertile imagination, irreverence and solid technique conspire to create pointed, mischievous commentary.

Others in this show belong in this grouping as well, including Pocatello artist Rudy Kovacs, whose photography-based textile art explores the myths and premonitions of exotic cultures. In his Oaxaca Memories #5, masonry and brick have a ghostly presence, their solidity an illusion that hauntingly evokes an obscured past begging to be revealed.

Painting has a strong suit in this triennial, which is nice to see. In addition to William Lewis, there is Meridian artist John Reilly's large scale canvases, whose high key primary colors and stark whites and blacks jump from their corner of the show. You might call them a neo-Pop mix of Lichtenstein-esque cartoon aesthetics and clip art, a little heavy on the visual punning and minus the irony that infused the original Pop phenomenon. Both Target Audience and Plan B are strong, tongue-in-cheek compositions—with the latter, done predominantly in black and red, having all the finesse of a propaganda poster—but their impact can't be denied.

Across the way, there's a totally opposite aesthetic in the lush, meticulous still lifes of Dan Scott. An assistant professor of painting at Boise State, Scott is both a sensuous and conceptual artist. He luxuriates in the possibilities of his medium, coaxing his audience to spend time with the surface beauty and design elements of his works, from the fashionable wall coverings to the light-flecked porcelain ware, as well as to consider the deeper implications of his compositions. In his oils, we can see both the painstaking sensibility of a Chardin and the decorative expressiveness of a Matisse, a rare thing these days.

Susan Latta, Protection Failure, 2005, resin, steel and paint - COURTESY SUSAN LATTA
  • Courtesy Susan Latta
  • Susan Latta, Protection Failure, 2005, resin, steel and paint

The pairing of Andrea Merrell and Charles Gill on a wall to themselves is a clever choice, since it highlights the similarities in their paintings. Both are masters of understatement, and their entries here border on the monochromatic. Both work well on an intimate scale, sometimes resorting to unusual rectangular dimensions. Their paintings here are studies in the tones and values of different grays, and both are interested in exploring the range of possibilities within set limits.

The Sun Valley area is represented by two painters, David deVillier of Ketchum and Theodore Waddell of Hailey. DeVillier's flat, fanciful acrylics on panel and canvas depict a world of half bird-half human creatures in fairytale-like settings, and have a certain preciousness about them. Waddell, on the other hand, is a gutsy painter of landscape scenes, lathering on the pigment and dissolving forms while staying true to nature.

Chris Binion returns to the Triennial with his watercolors. You might say he is still doing still lifes, but these are of a different nature, depicting stand-alone objects and structures in the Camas prairie area of Fairfield, Idaho, in works that evoke the solitude and isolation of the place.

Geoffrey Krueger is also back with another of his paintings of abandoned suburban homes. In A Slow Conversation, two such buildings face each other in temporary limbo waiting to be moved to new locations, with the idea that there is some sort of dialogue going on here. Krueger is another artist interested in past lives and memory, and sees these once-lived-in homes as offering a key to such secrets. But in this work, the concept seems to have lost steam and does not speak to viewers the same way his earlier, single-structure pieces did. The pervasive moodiness and sense of loss from the earlier works are missing here.

Three artists from Boise working in mixed media on paper offer unusual visions. Troy Passey's ink and acrylic compositions combining written text with abstract forms have a Zen demeanor. The text is a repeated rewriting of the phrase that serves as the title, but it is not necessary to read the prose—the literary element is secondary to visual considerations, a graphic element that has its own formal appeal. Passey's pieces here address the theme of sleep and sleeplessness, and his art is well suited to the night. Go to Sleep Right Away is a darkly suggestive work that conjures up a mind opening to an elaborate internal dialogue that keeps sleep at bay.

Kirsten Furlong's suite of six pieces entitled the Doubles Series combines print media, ink, acrylic and gouache in works that continue her interest in the debate (and confusion) over what is "authentic" and what is not in art, along with issues of identity. Birds and botanical specimens still populate her work, and Furlong's recent explorations of the chine colle printmaking technique, which involves adhering additional layers of paper during the printing process, has given her art an added dimension. Although a more subtle, warmer palette has softened her compositions, her work can still seem dry and distant.

The third of this group is Angela Katona-Batchelor, whose multimedia, multifaceted works entitled The Body Paradox are among the most intriguing of the show. Her intricate, small-scale prints incorporate hand-colored etching, transparencies, wax paper and resin set on petri dishes. The anatomically based depictions delve into the metaphoric/symbolic associations historically attributed to human organs. Appropriating the early scientific visual device of moveable, overlapping images illustrating the layers of bodily interiors, Katona-Batchelor cleverly and colorfully considers the cultural, intellectual and spiritual baggage we bring to our own anatomy.

Last but not least, there is a significant amount of sculptural art that is also well done. Moscow artist Gerri Sayler is captivated by the textures of rope and twine. Her pieces can be called fiber sculpture as the main ingredient is the yellow-brown strands of sisal and manila (both stiff plant fibers used in making rope) which she painstakingly unravels from rope and combines with other materials to create dense, earthy surfaces and forms. Her 8-foot by 7-foot wall piece Potentia is a mass of these unraveled fibers set in cast acrylic and is a blonde abstraction, expressionist-like work that beautifully evokes the western grasslands that inspired it.

Anika Smulovitz, assistant professor of metalwork at Boise State, not only works in silver and other fine craft metals, but she also fashions sculptural accessories out of white cotton shirt collars. She has taken a 20th century cultural artifact, the simple Oxford shirt, and turned it into something reminiscent of 17th century fashions when collars were elaborate, ornate and high.

The subject of unusual sculpture brings up Boisean Susan Latta. Latta's intense, uncompromising involvement with her chosen medium—at first a variety of metals, now broadened to include concrete, resins and rubber—has been her hallmark, but it has not always worked to her advantage. Her work in this show is strong and places her firmly in the extreme end of the expressionist tradition (beginning with Otto Dix). Latta is also preoccupied with remembering, but for her memory is pain, and she is not afraid to tell us so. The gaping wound of Protection Failure and the flayed, abused skin of Excoriate are disturbing, but not over the edge. Latta knows the difference—she is not out to shock for the sake of it. This and her driven soul set her apart.

The two sculptors in the triennial working in metal have much in common. Pocatello artist Dennis Proksa's three sculptures are unusual in that they communicate a life force within forged steel, a cold and static substance. His graceful yet somewhat frightening pieces suggest organisms groping in the dark for light and nourishment, as if at the bottom of a deep submarine canyon. Michael Cordell, too, has turned to steel to explore organic form, inspired by art historical precedents in metalwork. Specifically, it is botanical designs and motifs that inform his tall, slender works and his seemingly mutable surfaces. Cordell manages to achieve a sense of change and growth in his sculpture although it is hard to appreciate in its foyer setting at BAM.

Margo Proksa (wife of Dennis) is represented both three- and two-dimensionally. Her free-standing work entitled Big Bang is a substantial piece made of willow branches encasing found objects, much like her entry in the last Triennial. But whereas the objects in that earlier work were junk, here they are bundles of colorful found material wrapped in thread and stuffed inside the willow and steel structure like a cosmic pinata ready to shower goodies on impact. Proksa's piece is a totemic organic work that seems alive with potential.

Moscow sculptor Todd Volz, like Marilyn Lysohir, works in ceramic, but his art couldn't be more different. Volz must have been a sheet metal worker in his former life as his art has a definite industrial bent, re-creating machinery and mechanical devices in a kind of 1930s style reminiscent of the sets in the movie Brazil. His largest work at BAM is stylishly titled 66U-323 (sounds like a German U-boat) and occupies a rather prominent place in the museum entrance. However, aside from his technical prowess, Volz's work is remarkably deadpan without any suggestion of either sinister, humorous or, for that matter, aesthetic intentions. He did win the second honorable mention although his art did not seem on par with Cepek's similarly recognized installation.

Exactly what Amy Pence-Brown's successful 2007 Triennial means for the event in the future is hard to say. Presumably, BAM will go back to enlisting an outside juror for the next event. Perhaps an answer is to have a pair of jurors, one from Idaho and another from the art world beyond, thereby enabling at least some in-the-flesh contact with the artists under consideration.

The 2007 Triennial just might instigate new thinking about old formulas.

The 2007 Idaho Triennial Exhibit runs through November 25. Boise Art Museum, 610 Julia Davis Dr.

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