A Look at Paintings in Two Baltimore Artist Run Spaces
In December, 2013, two Franklin Street galleries presented adjacent painting exhibits that seemed to explore nothing more than the “amateur joy of pushing paint around on the canvas,” which is how CP Arts Writer Baynard Woods described it. However, Marisa Takal: Z-1 at Rock 512Devil and Paintings by Liz Durette at SophiaJacob were not as straightforward as they initially seemed. Both were solo exhibitions, both painters are female, both used the traditional medium of oil paint, and both exhibited work recently created in about two month’s time. It is only after examining the curatorial decisions behind each exhibition that the shows began to veer radically from each other.
On the surface, Marisa Takal and Liz Durette each created a show that reflects the trends of the Brooklyn and the Lower East Side gallery scenes, where a recent resurgence of casual, cartoonish stylization and a capricious aesthetic in painting have been given new attention. Good examples include John Finneran, Nick Payne, Austin Lee, Brian Belott, Tatiana Berg, Kristina Lee and the current king of painting, Michael Williams.
Marisa Takal’s works in particular are fitting in the company of these painters. Educated on the West Coast at the San Francisco Art Institute and immersed in both fine art and ‘zine cultures, Takal showcased an aesthetic range with colorful paintings and a black and white publication, released at the opening. Treating each of her surfaces as an extension of the sketchbook, her images are fresh and unfiltered, charmingly nonsensical and surprising in approach to balance and scale. Each painting has a lightness of surface and shallowness of space that makes painted scenes appear to float within their edges. Her lowbrow language – a layered mix of arms, bubbles, clouds, torsos and cartoonish creatures – and a casual hand only briefly distract from the elegant luminosity achieved in the larger works, and the flat, graphic application of paint in her smaller pieces.
Takal recently relocated to Brooklyn, and without a studio there, had been producing smaller publication projects and drawings, and initially planned to exhibit older works when approached for her exhibition by Rock 512Devil. However, when a room became available at the Coward Shoe (now Summa) warehouse space in Baltimore for the two months before her exhibition, Rock512Devil invited the artist to do a residency and create a new body of work for the exhibition. Taking a hands-off approach to curating and putting complete faith in an artist who’s work they already admired, the trio of Rock directors (artist/curators) let Takal call the shots, and waited to see how the show would shape up.
Next door, it could be argued that the three SophiaJacob curators did the same thing, and, to a certain extent, that’s true. Paintings by Liz Durette included an entirely new body of work created for the artist’s solo exhibition. However, the dimensions, medium and concept behind this exhibition were entirely orchestrated by the gallery’s curators with the artist plugged in as a painting ‘surrogate’ to complete the project. Chosen for her perceived lack of experience in painting, rather than to recognize and exhibit work they were already following, Liz Durette’s exhibition is as much an exhibition by the three curators as it is Durette’s.
Despite attending MICA for an undergraduate degree, and having painted in oil during her studies, Liz Durette is not publicly known for her visual art. Rather, she is an established, Baltimore-based musician whose solo album will be released through Ehse Records later this year. Durette was invited to create her work as a conceptual, collaborative premise: she was appointed as ‘painter’ in the context of this exhibition and through the gallery’s various maintained platforms making up their web presence. The gallerists, all of whom are painters and working artists, offered their services to Durette as studio assistants. Supplying the paint and brushes for the work, they even went as far as to set the canvas size and stretch the canvases, wanting the creation of the painted images to be the only burden on her.
Having the assistance of the gallerists for the grunt work of preparing for the show is admittedly one of the reasons Durette chose to accept SophiaJacob’s offer. Additionally, realizing the public perception of the project would be distributed evenly between the curators and herself made the challenge of the show easier to undertake. In a sense, it did not matter what the paintings looked like, just that they were made within the prescribed limitations: within a month, by a ‘non-painter,’ and using oil.
The intention of the gallery was to effectively create a ‘new artist’ and set of images online that represented the visual career they’d bestowed on Durette with this opportunity. By offering her a solo show presented in a visual arts venue, the curators wanted the work to be considered and critiqued as such. It is, however, the intention and presumptions of the gallery that outweigh the resulting images, as accomplished as they are.
It is the reviewer’s opinion that, while the gallerists did not deliberately dismiss Durette’s multifaceted identity as an artist, their press release tellingly leaves out their heavy-handed involvement. What a number of viewers aptly referred to as a “My Fair Lady” situation, the presumption that this exhibition opportunity definitively categorized Durette as an artist, despite her academic art studies and creative path, seems to reinforce an understanding of art as only that which is recognized by a gallery. More dangerously, it illustrates a common occurrence in the larger art world, that opportunity and market are created and dictated by white males. (See Black Art in America’s article from last month, and note the more direct roles art collectors are having in the careers of the artists they collect, accelerating the success of artists like Oscar Murillo, David Ostrowski, Kour Pour, and Lucien Smith.)
To present this show next to another solo exhibition of oil paintings brings to focus the most interesting issues that the project raises. The curatorial angle and relationship with the artist through the duration of the project, as confirmed by Durette, were highly positive. Essentially, SophiaJacob worked with Durette to create a show that presents the inclusive statement that anyone can be a painter. This message in and of itself isn’t bad, however, next to Takal’s Z-1 exhibition, the value of skill, education and dedication to one’s craft is called into question.
For those unfamiliar with the program, these are all fair concerns. However, what this simultaneous pair of exhibitions truly illustrates is an opposite philosophy in the role of an artist-run program. SophiaJacob has set itself apart by exploring an active artistic and conceptual role in the curation of their exhibits. This practice has, quite naturally, crescendoed into an inseparable extension of their own creative practices.
Paintings by Liz Durette, a show that invites someone who is not a ‘painter’ to create an entire exhibition of paintings is perhaps the most obvious illustration of the blurred line SophiaJacob has consistently maintained between curator and artist. However, attempting to review or categorize these shows as anything but the extremely calculated and clever projects of the three artist-curators is impractical. SophiaJacob’s Jordan Bernier, Steven Riddle and David Armacost each have an extensive knowledge of the larger art world and the executive role a commercial gallery plays in an artist’s individual exhibitions and career.
Paintings by Liz Durette hyperbolizes this role through an aggressive set of limitations, and a dramatic challenge to the artist, especially when seen next to a show in which an artist like Takal was granted unparalleled freedoms. While SophiaJacob’s exhibition brings to light a side of art commercialism not often seen in Baltimore, it was also a project in which everyone involved had an honest curiosity about the results. The project had no commercial intentions, setting up a seemingly traditional show with an emphatic twist. While other programs promote the creative control and potential short-term benefits to artists through sales and reviews, SophiaJacob actively expands the possibilities for artists, curators and venues to think beyond the object.
* Author Alex Ebstein is a Baltimore based visual artist and a Managing Editor at Bmoreart.