The Idaho Triennial has had its ups and downs in the last decade. Two consecutive events were juried by out-of-state art figures--photography/video artist and curator Philip Brookman in 2001 and philosopher/critic Arthur Danto in 2004. To compensate for their lack of familiarity with Idaho artists, they relied on personal taste and experience in making the selections. The result was more a statement of their respective aesthetics than a reflection of art in Idaho.
In 2007, Boise Art Museum's then-new Associate Curator Amy Pence-Brown took the initiative and appointed herself juror and selected 71 artists out of hundreds of submissions to visit in person, crisscrossing the state to view art and settled on 81 works by 25 artists. The result was a more consistent level of quality than in previous Triennials.
For the 2010 event, BAM once again chose an out-of-towner as juror, but not really. Beth Sellars, curator of Seattle's respected Suyama Space, which she co-founded in 1998, has deep roots in Boise and knows the Idaho art scene well. Sellars was assistant director of BAM from 1975 to 1979, after which she served as graduate director of University Gallery at Boise State, director of Blatchley Gallery and visiting professor at College of Idaho, as well as visiting professor at the University of Idaho and director of its University Gallery before moving to Spokane, Wash., to become curator of art at Cheney Cowles Museum, a post she held for 13 years. Sellars is steeped in the art of Idaho and the Northwest while also having a reputation in the national contemporary art scene. For Sellars, curating the Triennial is like coming home, and her selections reflect that.
This year's Triennial acquired a certain notoriety before it even started with the commotion stirred up by BAM's decision to give the event the theme Sustain + Expand. As reported in these pages and evidenced by the chatter on the street, many artists were turned off, feeling the theme was unnecessary. In truth, it was necessary (a requirement for federal funding) and in the end, not much of an imposition. The theme is so broad, speaking as it does to the nature of art, that at most it required some thought in composing one's artist statement.
As Sellars pointed out in her essay for the catalog, the submitting artists addressed the theme "through metaphorical, environmental, visual and emotional interpretations," or simply let the work speak for itself. Nevertheless, it may have discouraged more than a few artists from participating. After the impressive responses in 2004 and 2007, this year's applicants totaled only 152, with the showing particularly thin from Northern Idaho.
Still, the result is another competent, and at times stimulating, event with perhaps more of an edge than 2007's. Inevitably, some of the of the 59 works by 46 artists are disappointing, but there is also art that is fresh, confident and even provocative. This is not a collection of newcomers by any means. Many of the names are familiar, but even those who are not are now well into their careers. A palpable sense of foreboding permeates a significant portion of the exhibit (a barometer of the prevailing national mood) and crosses generational lines. Some of this angst is personal, and some pieces have political or cultural overtones, but the thread weaves through the show. Similar to last time, painting and sculpture dominate.
Sellars not only selected the work but also had much to do with the layout of the exhibit. Knowing the BAM space, she could not resist putting together the floor plan, which she described as "the frosting on the cake." She grouped works that shared a common sensibility and somehow informed each other, providing an added dimension. So although some adjustments had to be made to accommodate larger works, the Triennial contains an added aesthetic commentary by the juror on the art she chose.
The first gallery represents the earthier, elemental approach that has long informed a good portion of art in Idaho. It is a room dominated by earth tones, grays and blacks, and subject matter comprised of landscape, environmental/organic references, and somber narratives. Several artists instruct visitors in the often subtle, potentially powerful expressiveness of gray scales and dampened palettes. Pocatello artist Rudy Kovacs makes an encore appearance with his gray and black, multi-media fabric images of fragments of age-old structures. George Wray of Moscow, in his evocative charcoal drawing Canyon Mist on textured paper captures an aura of mystery and majesty through soft natural light on ancient, monolithic forms. The predictable landscape paintings nearby by old hands John Killmaster and Carl Rowe do not come close to Wray's eye for the sublime. Although Killmaster's Owyhee Canyon Landscape utilizes more lively color than most of his work, his technique is still heavy-handed and rendering natural light is not his strength. And while Rowe can paint light, he remains stuck in his Foothills fetish.
Janet Norstrand's black, white and gray digital inkjet diptych, Night and Day 2, is an imaginative use of contrasting positive and negative digital images of suspended dead vegetative matter in a ghostly afterlife, for which she won one of the cash merit awards.
Two paintings by Karen Woods successfully capture natural and manmade light in her pedestrian, melancholy, yet provocative urban scenes of Boise traffic caught in wet weather and noirish evenings, as seen through the windshield of her pickup. Her two works are a continuation of her closely cropped, intensely focused compositions, yet have graduated to a larger scale: a welcome departure from her typical miniaturist approach.
Boise painter William Lewis' impressive canvas, The Next Morning, depicts a smoldering, ashen pile of incinerated debris that fairly reeks with the hangover of stale smoke. Filling the canvas with charred remnants, Lewis instills a typical rural practice of burning accumulated garbage with a physicality and emotional charge that suggest the nimbus of more notorious conflagrations, reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer's raw expressionistic works. Lewis won one of the four merit case awards.
Geoffrey Krueger also focuses on an element of rural life in his painting Unit 2 and 3 From Right to Left of two forlorn-looking trailer homes, side by side: a rectilinear composition in drab, sun-faded colors and deteriorating curtains. An accomplished painter, Krueger has focused for some time now on residential structures in disrepair. Typically they are sensitively rendered in a spirit of melancholic romanticism, but these come across as deadpan and flat.
Earthiness is something Boise artist Leonard Klikunas literally achieves in his abstract painting HD1 with his mixture of high desert dirt and acrylic resins on canvas. It has a gritty rawness that can make you thirsty just looking at it, yet despite his claim that it constituted "hundreds of layers" of medium, it does not have the heft or surface presence one would expect from such an effort. Michael Cordell's ode to ore, on the other hand, is a striking found material sculpture entitled Notes on Acquired Memory, whose lustrous bundles of thick copper wire, housed in a 90-inch-tall tower of clear Pyrex, is a virile metaphor for our entangled interior lives. Boise ceramist William Campton's glazed stoneware Jade Garden is a strangely beautiful work combining deep, contrasting textures and organic form suggesting evolutionary changes over time.
Anyone who saw Garth Claassen's dark visions in charcoal at BAM last year, featuring brutish facilitators of America's recent foreign adventures, will recognize the same vein in his two paintings, which also won a merit award. Although his renderings of this subject in charcoal were more dynamic, Claassen's expertise in the oil medium (both stick and paint) is applied here to chilling effect. The viscous, oily waters, windowless prison and fearsome, anonymous guards in Snorkels with Floating Prison depict a Goya-esque grave new world.
The second gallery is more a mix of mediums and old and new names. Charles Gill, one of Boise's most respected artists, is represented by a curious work called Still Life: Vermeer. Expertly painted, it features his small reproduction of a famous Vermeer, sharing a monochrome, drywall setting with only an electric outlet below. Unfortunately, his use of an appropriated image, turned into a still-life object in a nondescript setting, is a not-very-clear statement on the essence of art-making. Cheryl Shurtleff's typically dense, exquisitely drawn graphite pieces depict eccentric interactions between birds and other animals, communicating a touching curiosity and empathy between species. Young Boise artist Kelly Packer's colorful, lushly painted Hofmann-esque, abstract-expressionist compositions contain vaguely recognizable organic and non-organic forms, exposing, as she states, the "guts and brick and bones" underneath the surface of things. Her two works stand out despite their reduced scale.
Merit award winner Pamela de Tuncq's 40 Days and 40 Nights spans an entire wall with crucifixes fashioned from an array of mundane materials that put each into a personal, individual context, flavored by our religious associations and needs (like the crucifix of packaged sanitary toilet aprons connoting covering your ass). Informed by a Pop sensibility (including the Warholian serial format) de Tuncq's project reflects the idiosyncratic nature of contemporary Christianity in America.
The second half of the gallery is dominated by the wall-size, unstretched canvases of Matt Bodett, a Boise artist who addresses the issue of mental health (including his own) in moving, emotional, psychologically charged images using house paint and charcoal. The loose, somewhat ratty looking supports are peopled by one or two whitewashed, silhouetted figures whose only discernible features are their grimacing or yelling mouths, rendered in detail. Everything else is nondescript: The bland institutional setting and scattered chairs are bathed in a generic fluorescent light that intensifies the sense of despair. The spirit and iconography of Francis Bacon's art dwells in these tortured images of figures trapped inside their demons. Bodett won the juror's second place award.
Another prominent work in this space is Coeur d'Alene artist Rimas Simaitis' suspended, strange-looking contraption called Self-contained Hydroponic Growing System constructed of plastic sheeting and mechanical/electrical components that nurture a growing patch of grass within. Though whimsical in appearance, it is a serious statement on achieving a balance between "traditional environmentalism and new eco-conscious technologies."
Practically hidden amid these larger presences are two small gems by Boise printmaker Jill Fitterer entitled Hair Formations 1 and 2. The subjects of these laser engravings are shapes made of her own hair strands, which she has collected since 2006 and worked into various formations, some of which she portrays here. Delicate and unusual, organic and personal, she describes them as "myopic and solitary" contemplations. Another impressively focused work is Nancy Quinn's alkyd painting on paper, Gray Boise Tree, a mosaic of organic colors and patterns, with a natural light that makes the image vibrantly alive. It is echoed by its neighbor, an intricately patterned and designed glass mosaic triptych by Anna Webb.
Some of the Triennial's best photography is in this room as well. Both Boise's Carol Leonard and Nampa's Chris Wethered's close considerations of the colors, shapes and designs found in nature make for startling, painterly images. Peter Vincent of Moscow has an eye for the openness and timelessness of Western landscapes, and his Bonneville Start #6 demonstrates his talent for incorporating graphic elements that reference human interaction with that landscape in a memorable minimalist composition.
In the third gallery of the show, things really liven up. Bright abstractions cover the walls and share the space with unconventional three-dimensional works. There is a 1960s flavor to much of it, a whiff of the post-Action Painting aesthetics and subversive playfulness of that period.
Surel Mitchell's painting Three Oranges is a cheerful, decorative abstraction of Matissean blues, oranges and floating arabesques, which compositionally does not make a lot of sense but lifts the spirit. Boise's Kevan Smith's exploration of spatial and chromatic relationships in abstract compositions has taken him in various directions over the past decade. A dyed-in-the-wool modernist, Smith's three Window paintings in acrylic and graphite are improvisations of contrasting colors, values and surface texture, with trompe l'oeil effects to impart a 3-D aspect to the compositions. Dynamic and well-executed, they have a retro look that they share with their neighbors: Dennis DeFoggi's Plasma Pods II, whose reverberating imagery evokes curiosity and playfulness; and Raymond Obermayr's captivating oil Scout Mountain, whose spider-web graphics ensnare auras of radiant color. All three artists recall the Op Art aesthetic of the '60s while expressing their own personal infatuation with the possibilities of color design.
Well-known Boise painter Christine Raymond continues working in her labor-intensive color field vein. Ever striving for exquisiteness of surface, her In the Moment seems to capture the last remnants of the day in its deep twilight blues and low horizon reds. Local artist Jack Bangerter departs from his better-known plein-air watercolors for the Triennial with a three-piece "Degradation" series inspired by Mondrian's hard-edge, primary color abstractions. Conceived and presented in a diamond format, they appear more finished in reproduction than in the flesh. In terms of execution and concept these collaged abstractions have the formulaic look of a design project rather than a work of fine art.
Center stage in this gallery is the juror's first place award winner BOCOLAB, a collaborative team of sculptor Francis Fox, inventor Caleb Chung and designer John Sosoka. This is their second Triennial, and their installation Objects with Empathy is comprised of three interactive, robotic sculptures that explore the evolving relationship between humans and their creations. Evolved Lamp and Evolved Chair keep cozying up to each other, with the lamp also checking out Evolved Table's digital drawings. The work brought to mind '60s sculptor Claes Oldenberg, whose irreverent wit and imagination changed the medium and our thinking about it. BOCOLAB's marriage of left brain/right brain methodologies can be thought provoking, but are mostly fun.
As Sellars pointed out in her awards address, these types of juried events are always controversial. People bring all sorts of expectations and personal perceptions to the Triennial, meaning there is a good chance they may be disappointed one way or another. But the Triennial provides exposure to young and little-known artists, as well as reviews what is happening statewide. BAM's added feature of providing audio recordings of the artists discussing their work is helpful in understanding where they are coming from. The many high points and thoughtful presentation of this year's exhibit make it worth a visit.