Opened in 1913, Elmira’s Arnot Museum combines a distinguished historical collection with rotating exhibits of primarily contemporary art. The founding collection belonged to local banker Matthias Arnot (1833-1910) and remains on view in an 1833 Greek Revival mansion built by his father (a contemporary addition was completed in 1982 by architect Graham Gund.) Visible in a skylit 1890s room near the lobby and featuring an imposing salon-style hanging is an impressive display of European and American paintings, sculptures, and decorative works from the 17th through 19th centuries.
The Arnot’s contemporary focus is on “realist” and neo-academic art. Ostensibly, in keeping with the museum’s historical art and setting, this creates a strange disconnection. While such work is worth seeing, much of it exists so far outside typical canons of recent art that it appears historically unmoored.
The main exception to the Arnot’s figurative-only rule is a regional juried show, held every few years. Selected and arranged by Brian Lee Whisenhunt, director of Corning’s Rockwell Museum, and Arnot collections manager Laura Wetmore, this spring’s “76th Regional Exhibition” adds expressionist, abstract, mixed-media, and conceptually-driven artworks to the more expected fare. The exhibit has a split personality: part contemporary realist survey, part broader exploration of the varieties of art being made today. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite satisfy either intention.
Although the show encompasses artwork from the Northeastern U.S., as well as Ontario, many artists are from nearby. The exhibit fills most of the museum’s first and second floor galleries. As expected, realist painting dominates.
Mary Moquin of Sandwich, Massachusetts contributes “Contemplation,” a lushly expressionist self-portrait. More so than the handful of purely abstract works here, her oil on plastic panel piece challenges the more conservative paintings around it on what feels like their own territory. It presents a middle aged artist: long red hair, dark clothes, limbs enfolded while seated on a light green armchair. Smears of richly colored paint and visible underdrawing present a counterpoint to her pensive mood.
This is a strong show for painting. Greg St. John of Connecticut contributes “Butternut Creek #7,” a freely rendered, overscaled oil on paper landscape. Done in a more naturalistic vein, Stephanie Bush of Vermont’s canvas oil “Winter Capriccio” captures a fine filigree of reeds, silhouetted against heavy snow. New York City painter Cesar Delos Santos offers two oil portraits: “Gamble Love” and “Are We There Yet?,” both crisply detailed and imaginatively set.
David Higgins of Corning offers another highlight with his oil on panel “November Night.” The backyard scene captures a silhouetted house and shed, tightly rendered yet surrounded by a dense arboreal net that calls to mind Pollock’s painterly drips. Bursts of orange-yellow light almost suggest fire.
Whether personal or political, much of the “serious” art of today relies heavily on context for its assumed significance and value. All too often, this abets an indifference to what makes art so compelling in the first place: skillful and imaginative manipulation of the physical medium.
It’s a foible exemplified in several alternative media pieces here. Two oil on fabric paintings, “Portrait of My Father” and “Shroud,” combine realistic close-ups of faces with areas of patchwork-like cloth collage. The juxtaposition appears arbitrary.
Reading the text, we learn that these pieces reflect the artist’s past struggles with mental illness. We read that these are supportive family members and the fabrics are their used clothing. Such illness can certainly result in fragmentary feelings. Yet there are ways of capturing disjointedness in aesthetically more cohesive artworks.
Small three-dimensional works appear throughout the exhibit in wall-mounted plexiglass cases. Larger free-standing sculptures, however, have been confined to a gallery on the second floor. Given the constraints of the building’s corridor and room spaces, separating the sculptures makes curatorial sense. Still, the flow would have been enhanced by allowing 2D and 3D works direct conversation.
A mottled green bronze statue by Jerry Atkins of NYC, “My Buddha” is particularly striking in its comical primitivism. “Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You,” an exuberant painted wood and metal “whirligig” by Stephen Hazlett of Painted Post, New York, recalls rural folk art tradition. Amongst several realist bronzes, “Prometheus,” by Erik Durant of New Bedford, Massachusetts, sticks out for its dignified poise and detailed musculature