- "Gilbert Grape," by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, gloss enamel on paper.
Plenty. The action's just off the canvas, rather than on.
The combined showcase of Cleveland artists by the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and the Dead Horse Gallery is worth attending, both for the glimpse it offers into the depth of talent in the area and for the artists' blissfully divergent takes on still lifes.
The exhibit is also worthwhile for a less obvious reason: It encourages local visual artists to interact, forming alliances and friendships that can challenge and support them in the future. It's the old "in unity there is strength" concept at work. This may not lead to Cleveland having its own SoHo or Greenwich Village, but then again, why not?
The show itself came about because art people spoke to each other. Chrystal Polis of the AAWR mentioned plans for a still-life show to a friend, who knew that Dead Horse Gallery's Kim Schoel was also planning an exhibit of still lifes. The two very different galleries then joined forces.
The Artists Archives of the Western Reserve is a co-op whose 30 members store and show their works in a 7,500-square-foot fortress-like building just down the road from University Circle. The AAWR seeks members who have been professional artists for at least 20 years -- a requirement that rules out most Dead Horse Gallery exhibitors. Their space, ensconced in the upper floors of a Lakewood wine shop, features tiny rooms connected by a narrow hallway; artwork crowds the walls, floor, and cabinets in an abundant jumble.
The works at AAWR represent a more traditional interpretation of the genre, and yet both galleries play rather freely with the concept of still life. As Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, the one artist with work at both places, notes, "Life is not still, therefore there is no such thing as still life." Her delightful pieces elaborate on that conclusion. "Gilbert Grape," for one, is a gloss enamel on paper made up of a bowl holding realistically rendered grapes, surrounded by red squiggles and the words "Gilbert Grape" in taupe-shaded primary-style printing. Though she's right-handed, she writes here with her left hand, in an effort not to over-control the piece. It radiates energy. Grapes, subject of many a fine Dutch still life, have now become an object of fun and satire. Another, "Table Manners," is a two-and-a-half-foot-by-three-foot rectangle of black paint applied over orange, with table settings scratched onto its surface. Like "Grape," it has a witty good time with the very idea of still life.
Other works in the AAWR's portion of the show display traditional techniques used skillfully but not innovatively. Harriet Moore Ballard's acrylic paintings set a mood with objects included willy-nilly, whether or not they might actually be seen at the same time. Her abstract "Assemblage" conveys a striking sense of how it feels to, say, sit in the sun and watch boats on the river below (though boats usually belong more to waterscape than still life). In a similar way, Phyllis Sloane's bright canvases (lots of red and orange) also take liberties with realism. The cheerful "Still Life With African Purse," for example, has a slightly skewed perspective -- the table slants a bit much, and the objects on it are flattened and appear poised to fall off.
Over on the West Side, some of the Dead Horse's eclectic collection is tethered by only the finest of threads to the notion of still life. Some paintings are of landscapes; others are collages of women or scribbles on squares of paper. One utterly original and disarming piece is Robert Jergens's wood and acrylic sculpture, mounted about elbow height on the wall, of a shawl draped over a piece of wood in the shape of an arm. The work is reminiscent of New England ships' figureheads (only this would be a figurearm, of course). Jergens's carving freezes the casual gesture made by whoever dropped off the scarf and leaves the remaining cloth permanently cast as a memento.
Other intriguing pieces, such as Steven Kasner's black-and-white mixed-media portrait of a miserable-looking bird head labeled "Untitled," don't seem comfortable with the still-life theme. Kasner's picture is so persuasively creepy, it could be considered a satire on the classic still lifes that exhibited gruesome dead hares and other game.
Laura D'Alessandro's mixed-media print "Because Life Is Hairy Enough" isn't a still life at all, but rather an attractively witty comment on situations females face. Composed of photographs and sketches of women standing and flying on the backs of creatures, it's very good, but appears to belong in another show entirely.
Nevertheless, this joint exhibit makes a point worth repeating: As long as artists work together, neither they nor their art need remain still or neglected.