Although some place their faith in online galleries, window-front exhibits remain the best way to see ambitious new local art. It’s worth looking at two relatively substantial “group shows” currently on-view: “Emergence” at the State of the Art Gallery downtown and “DRIVE THRU” at Corners Gallery in Cayuga Heights. Both corral regular gallery artists. I found the displays—particularly in comparison—to be emblematic of each organization’s place in the local cultural ecology.
The state of local painting comes into focus through reduction. Not a significant part of mainstream visual culture, painting nonetheless appeals to Ithacans. And yet there’s a widespread lack of knowledge: of its techniques, its styles, its history. Even the educated, middle class people who—for better or for worse—dominate Ithaca’s formal gallery scene sometimes seem to know little.
While the commercial prominence of photography and digital imagery gives gallery artists something to respond to, painters are often unmoored. Too many seem to lack a sense of where they are: both in regards to tradition and to contemporary work. And while “craft” mediums like ceramics and fabric may provide techniques—to be mastered or rejected—painting just seems like something that anybody can pick up as a means of “self-expression.”
“Emergence” was originally scheduled to fill the SOAG’s main gallery through May with the work of eight cooperative members. The now abbreviated show, extended to the end of June, has been reworked since last month.
Although various media are represented, painting is the crux. Don Ellis, known for his overscaled outdoor mobiles, is an inventive but sometimes awkward artist in two dimensions. Here a luminescent acrylic mountainscape shows unexpected reserves while explorations of folk art and classic poetry trod more familiar ground. While both Patty Porter and Diana Ozolins have had their moments, it’s impossible to see their canvases here as anything besides hobbyist work. And while hobbyism is honorable, it raises the question of what sort of space the SOAG is. Does the gallery represent local art at its strongest or is it a club for its members?
It’s hard not to feel that you’re face-to-face with these artists’ limitations. Nancy Ridenour’s digital photo-manipulations, printed as “giclée” canvases, have a technical polish that work to their advantage here. Artists’ books are a poor fit for the “don’t touch” ethos of the formal gallery but all the more so behind glass. A saffron-hued accordion fold by Patricia Hunsinger pays homage to the recently deceased artist installation sculptor Christo (1935-2020).
Relative strengths include the pattern-fixated digital illustrations of Daniel McPheeters, which bring the psychedelic side of local art into the gallery with unexpected verve, and MaryAnn Bowman’s playful ceramic and mixed-media figurines. A portrait sketch by Diane Newton is quicker yet just as engaging—still, there’s not enough here to ward off a sense of stagnation.
Unlike the SOAG, Corners Gallery is a one-woman show. Owner Ariel Bullion Ecklund, who also runs a successful framing business on-site, curates nearly everything.
Making use of greater window footage, Ecklund has created exhibits dedicated to local gallery mainstays Suzanne Onodera, Barbara Page, and Stan Taft. The effect of these displays, to be rotated out in upcoming weeks, is to entice the viewer in. (The shop is currently open by appointment for framing.) In distinct contrast to the SOAG show, I was struck by a sense of collective ambition as well as the distinctive accomplishments of each painter.
Working in oil, Onodera’s smoky distillations of landscape complement Page’s brasher acrylic and assemblage approach. Taft, a Cornell professor, engages oil painting as a kind of perceptual psychology: methodically investigating how colors and patterns compose the visible everyday. While he elsewhere engages European architecture and narrative scenes, the focus here is quieter: familiar regional landscape.
I’ve never been one to use “bourgeois” as an epithet. There’s just too much self-marginalizing art being made by the neo-neo-avant-garde. (I don’t believe that a pile of garbage on a gallery floor is inherently more serious or relevant that a painting of a flower.) And I’ll take good art—and useful artistic values—wherever I can find them. That said, the SOAG can give off an aura of complacency, while Corners is taking its cultural privilege—and hard work—over more compelling horizons.