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2013 Idaho Triennial

BAM's every-three-years Idaho art exhibit shifts gears

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It is Idaho Triennial time again, the Boise Art Museum's once-every-three-years event that invites artists from around Idaho to submit their work for review and, hopefully, selection by a prominent curator or other expert with art credentials, usually from outside the state.

For several Triennials in a row, the number of applicants selected was pretty low for a statewide event, leading to doubts expressed by many as to whether the survey represents a true picture of Idaho's contemporary art scene. And the event has generated other controversies, such as BAM's decision in 2010 to give the Triennial a governing theme, "Sustain + Expand," which turned off many artists. It was a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but it had the unfortunate effect of limiting that year's applicants to only 152.

This year, 65 works by 40 artists are being exhibited. One change in the Triennial, which opened Nov. 16 and will run until April 27, 2014, is the fact that the Juror's First Prize no longer includes a solo exhibition at the museum within the next year. All prize winners receive monetary awards, and a Juror's Special Award category has been added.

Which brings us to the jurors who make this call. In both 2010 and this year, we have been fortunate to have jurors who make their careers in the Northwest and are well versed in the art being made in our region: Beth Sellars of Seattle's Suyama Space last time, and this year, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer curator of Northwest Art at the Portland Art Museum, who has followed the Idaho Triennials over the years and made studio visits to Idaho artists.

Although the 2010 event contained many familiar names, Sellars also included some new participants whose art revealed a palpable sense of foreboding and personal angst. It is clear that under Laing-Malcolmson, this trend continues with an even greater number of new names making strong, fresh art. The juror made the observation that she found much of the work to be "engaging, edgy and smart," and noted that she was struck by a new seriousness with which many here are approaching their art--as well as artists' recycling of found materials in their work. Her opinion is borne out throughout this year's exhibit. In short, in this Triennial particularly, but its predecessor as well, we are witnessing a shift to greater sophistication in Idaho art.

Viewers will recognize a brisk diversity in the art of this Triennial immediately upon entering the first gallery. Even though the landscape painting you will encounter has a glowing, sun-filled presence and a certain technical prowess, it provides little else to hold our attention. Ironically, the exception is Merit Award-winner Boise artist William Lewis' dark "Smith's Ferry Fire Ring," whose crude, stone circle with expiring embers and charred remains is more a still-life, an artifact of man's communion with nature, rather than the landscape norm. Lewis' painting technique is impressive--you can practically taste the smoke.

Also sparking up this gallery is Meridian artist Stacie Chappell's pair of splashy paintings, whose high-energy, formal and spatial experiments are meant as metaphors for streams of consciousness. Her blend of acrylics, enamel, ink, markers and dyes makes for interesting surface effects, even if her Summer of Love palette is not to everyone's taste.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is fellow Meridian artist Patt Turner's poetic, evocative graphite drawings. Comprised of miniature dust storms of delicate marks, they are quiet, meditative considerations of the recent Arab Spring, equating, as she puts it, "Thousands of lines to be seen as one movement."

Sculpture and installation pieces throughout the exhibit demonstrate imagination and ingenuity, beginning in the first gallery. Boisean Amy Westover's wall arrangement of gleaming, kiln-fired black glass hieroglyphics, "Code," has a symbolic and material beauty to it, and a mystery that leaves us pleading for a translation. 2010 Merit Award-winner Pamela De Tuncq, of Hailey, is back with another installation commenting on contemporary culture. Whereas last time her theme was religious practices, this year she has cast six all-white life-size teens complete in sunglasses and hoodies preoccupied with real cellphones. The choreographed mindset of being physically together but not interacting is underscored by the lone figure off in the corner.

Speaking of choreography, Eli Craven and Maria Chavez's collaborative video installation "Canoeing: Rescue" is an odd work inspired by a canoeing safety manual. As the Boise artists' statement suggests, the implications are more universal than specific, with the underwater video depicting an apparent mating ritual, and sperm-like forms heading herd-like toward the V-shaped composed photo of a woman on the wall, all adding up to themes of fate and life cycles.

In the center of the gallery is the winner of Juror's First Place Prize, Boise artist Caroline Earley's sculptural installation, "Domestic Disturbance." Earley is a ceramicist who likes to create nonfunctional works with a touch of humor or the absurd. Here, her soft-appearing, exaggerated, somewhat alien forms gracing an undulating dinner table have a Claes Oldenburg demeanor to them. The piece is inspired by an earthquake she experienced in New Zealand, where she lived for 16 years, as well as her struggle to readjust to living here again, i.e., a Pop Art take on the personal.

Drawing us into the second gallery is Boisean Goran Fazil's Second Place Prize-winning monumental piece, "Hegelian Constructs." A native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is not surprising that his art deals with war and the concepts that underlie it. Fazil's aesthetic is here a critique of Hegel's philosophy of history, which sees the evolution of Western civilization as an inevitable, positive dialectical progression. The artist's crumbling, ancient-looking battlements (a metaphor for society itself) topped by three canvases depicting the ruins' perennial updating using modern technology is not only visually arresting but a powerful indictment of the "unstable [philosophical] foundations" that endanger us all. The feel is reminiscent of Garth Claassen's dark drawings and paintings warning of foreign adventures.

A palliative to the high drama of Fazil are two adjacent small-scale, delicate works by McCall artist Mare Blocker and Boisean Lisa Pisano, of Boise. Blocker's "Archive Threshold" is a book-format piece created out of scraps of "nontraditional" photos, wood, embroidery on paper and signature binding. Handsomely designed, it is a multi-sensual experience, with gloves provided to allow the viewer to not only explore each page but feel the surfaces as well. The pleasure is enhanced by the artist's obvious reverence for her materials. Next door, Pisano's favorite medium of tiny natural leaves is used to create a triptych on panel, in this case "pressed" into the service of two-color minimal abstractions with intricate surface patterns, creating a paean to nature's role in nonobjective aesthetics.

Matt Bodett, of Boise, uses his art to delve into the subject of mental illness, a topic of great personal interest to him as he suffers from Schizoaffective disorder. In 2010, his large, unstretched canvases of distressed patients won him the Juror's Second Place Award. This year, his entry is a horizontal work covered in black house paint (his favorite medium) with a crude white chalk design aimed directly at a drawing of a young woman at one end. The title, "Anatomy of a Murder," is practically the only clue to the fate of the figure (aside from the artist's statement), except for the barely discernible handwritten phrase along the bottom asking, "What is this that frees me so in storms?" It is a creepy yet heartfelt plea to comprehend the act, and it holds you in its grip.

On a much lighter note is John McMahon's "How to French Kiss," his large oil on plywood providing 42 detailed illustrations instructing us on the do's and don'ts of this time-honored activity. McMahon is a Boise artist who works in several mediums, often demonstrating a penetrating wit and material dexterity. One can never be sure what he will come up with next. Here, his clinical anatomical renderings of a couple's respective tongues and mouths going at it has the effect of eliciting a "yuck" on our part rather than providing erotic entertainment. In McMahon's hands, the delicate art of foreplay takes on a Dada-esque play on arousal.

There are several artists representing quality photography in the exhibit, but perhaps the most intriguing and beautiful ones are those by Ketchum artist Wendel Wirth. Her archival pigment prints of minimalist winter landscapes tinged with an Eastern aesthetic won her a Merit Award for "Gannett Winter 73." The virtual white-out in this piece is grounded by a row of miniscule black fence posts in the far distance, which alone distinguish the foreground from the background. In this and the equally captivating "Fairfield Winter 8," with its whiff of windblown snow on the distant gray skyline, testify to her ability to capture "rare, atmospheric occurrences" and turn them into subtle abstractions.

Back in the realm of installation and sculpture, Karl LeClair's wall and floor piece, "Ideation," is his reflection on the origins of ideas, information flow within us and the role of consciousness. The relief block print-and-ink imagery pieced together in a large collage of small sheets of paper is a relief map of synapses and neurons in all of us. LeClair, of Boise, sees the work as a metaphorical act of connecting printmaking and thinking, rendered in the physical space of art. He is successful to an extent, but I enjoyed it more as an intriguing variant of organic abstraction.

The wall sculptures of Pocatello artist Pablo Dodez have a physicality and spirituality resembling Native American aesthetics. Dodez sees art as a ritual at the heart of his existential quest to understand his place in the universe. His well-crafted constructions, made of wood, clay, paper, fabric, leather and paint, have a raw, earthy beauty to them, embodying a search for the sacred not unlike that of more primitive cultures.

Since her MFA show at Boise State University in 2011, talented Boise painter Erin Cunningham has become increasingly noticed and respected. Her figurative subjects especially, with their emphasis on the interplay of image and memory, and her dramatic lighting effects conjure up nostalgia, dream-states and a bit of melancholia. Her 2011 painting "Oracle" includes a partially depicted, heavily rouged woman entering our view from the lower left quarter, thereby relegated to status of second place to the curtained center stage setting behind her. The piece brings together familiar Cunningham elements--anonymity, isolation, awkward cropping, theater--yet lacks the nuanced lighting that can impart her signature atmosphere of distilled ambiguity.

Twin Falls installation and mixed-media artist Milica Popovic´ is a native of the former Yugoslavia who participated in the 2007 Triennial and makes art that quietly references the memories and customs of her war-torn homeland. She sensitively and movingly incorporates materials, images and textures that re-create the feel of that personal place and time, including fabric, lace, old photographs, plant material, gold leaf, even pieces of old wall to metaphorically take us back there with her.

After years of being known primarily for small- to medium-scale works usually of bird motifs and studies, Boisean Kirsten Furlong has been expanding her nature-based aesthetic horizons of late in terms of subject matter, mediums and scale, primarily due to a series of artist residencies she has experienced in wilderness locations. One result has been a reconsideration of "the concept of landscape representation" and the emblematic significance of animals, as demonstrated by her impressive 6-foot by 7-foot canvas "Alaska Gold: Snowshoe Hare." A multimedia work dominated by an iconic metal leaf hare, it is her dexterous, imaginative use of thread, felt, colored pencil, graphite and gesso to create a landscape-based set of designs that work together to replicate a natural terrain and subtle three-dimensionality that makes the work so fascinating.

Lynne Haagensen, of Troy, returned from a three-month residency outside Barcelona, Spain, to create her multi-imaged wall-spanning piece "Rhythms in Catalonia." Her collage of black-on-white photocopied monoprints of drawings from that experience allows her to arrange the images into a series of connected panels in a manner intended to benefit the entire piece. However, the format and intricacies of the total composition presents a lot for the viewer to sort through, with the result that her desire to present "the interplay between observation, memory and imagination" does not always click.

Finally, the recipient of the Juror's Special Award is Marilyn Lysohir of Moscow. Lysohir is a leading ceramic sculptor who creates figurative, life-size, often surreal works, sometimes in conjunction with other materials. Personal and collective memories often inform her work, as do serendipitous events in life. There is also something of the social historian in her output. Women figure prominently in her art, as is the case here with "Flower Girl," one of two works of the same design. The top half of a ceramic female figure sits on a leafed skirt-shaped metal cage within which ceramic flowers are strewn on its enamel-tiled floor. In the center of the "skirt" is a figure opening its shroud to reveal the scars of leprosy. This moving, beautiful sculpture relates to an incident in India where Lysohir was stopped in a taxi when a lovely girl tried to sell her flowers from one side while on the other side the hands of a leper reached in begging for money. Typically, she sees this work as "relating to those clues of joy or pain or creativity and the celebration of life."

As Laing-Malcolmson relates in her juror's statement, it can be difficult to judge the strength of submitted works from digital images. It is always better to see the work in the flesh. Speaking with her at the opening, she was satisfied that her choices made for a compelling show. It does demonstrate that Idaho art in general has moved to a new level. To a great extent, this is due to the strengthening of college and university art programs here, and the fact that Idaho is attracting young artists from other states as well. The result is a shift in emphasis, more diversity in mediums and approaches, and an increasing willingness to take risks while probing into the weightier intellectual, spiritual and political issues of our time.

Idaho, artistically, is no longer so easily labeled, nor dismissed, as it has been in the past. This is a good sign that, hopefully, will be reconfirmed in 2016.