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"El Cielo'' by Yen Ospina.

ITHACA, NY -- Putting on a regular calendar of art exhibitions is hard work: all the more so now amidst lingering health and economic uncertainties that hit small, independent organizations with particular force. Palpably, local galleries seem caught between familiar approaches and new directions. 

Digital artist and mural painter Yen Ospina may be unfamiliar to followers of Ithaca’s mainstream gallery scene. Boasting a distinctive, forceful palette and stylized, folkloric imagery, her work is welcome and striking. An online exhibition, “Warmth and Hues: Work by Yen Ospina,” will be featured by the Community Arts Partnership for the month of March and can be viewed at their website. (Their physical gallery downtown, the CAP ArtSpace, will be closed until May.) 

Meanwhile, the ever-busy Corners Gallery is showing “Heather Swenson: selected works,” featuring an eclectic assortment of prints and constructions from a new-to-town Rochester artist. The Cayuga Heights gallery — also a framing business and now design shop — is settling into a routine of casual “pop-up” art displays rather than more formal exhibitions. The selection of artists is eclectic as ever, with Swenson’s hip contemporary art joining traditional oil still-lifes by local writer and painter Rachel Dickinson. 

Ospina, who identifies as a “Queer Colombian-American self-taught artist,” is a prolific local muralist and has shown her prints previously in informal local venues. 

I have resisted writing about interactive “virtual exhibitions,” particularly when physical presentations of traditional art have been on (at least sporadic) offer. Ospina created her work here on a tablet; her work is faithfully represented on a screen. Still, it’s hard to say what is being gained by the video game — like presentation being offered to local artists through CAP — other than the pretense of business as usual. 

Ospina’s actual digital drawings are wonderful: in print or on a screen. Featuring goddess figures and strong women as well as mythic nature scenes, her work offers a distinctive take on the familiar traditions of Art Nouveau and poster art. Her use of color is repetitive but effective. Hot orange-yellows, deep red, emerald green and black join variegated flesh tones in vigorous celebrations of cultural, ethnic and sexual identity. Scanned floral and paisley fabrics and textured papers offers a warm, traditionalist touch — offsetting her hard-contoured shapes with areas of fine detail. 

Pieces such as “El Cielo,” “Cuerda de equilibrista” and “Lily of the Valley” portray elaborately costumed and nude female figures interacting with settings encompassing verdant landscape, fantastic architecture, animate skies and the theater. Other images, like “Alizon” and “Daliah,” recall Ospina’s love of Gustav Klimt — himself influenced by Japanese prints — with their central figures juxtaposed against ornate geometric patterns. 

In addition to her current exhibition, Ospina will be showing at the State of the Art Gallery as part of their (“live”) April invitational “15 Feet.” 

It’s hard to know what to make of a multi-faceted artist like Swenson from the small selection of work currently at Corners. The grouping, arrayed around the gallery’s two public rooms, includes her signature screenprints as well as sculptural maquettes. Both show a kind of twee sensibility with enduring art school appeal. 

A playful, knowing reflection on the built and manufactured environment is her main theme here. Us traditionalists will be irritated by her proclivity for casual, thrown-off compositions, though this is part of a widespread tendency. Her use of illustration-like linear drawing ties her work to Ospina’s. So too does her occasional use of found (or mimicked) textures: notably in her printed fabric and plastic frame towers and in “Security Tint,” which appropriates the shape and intricate blue patterning of an opened envelope.

“Winnebago,” which shows a tarp-covered trailer parked behind a white picket fence, is Swenson’s most traditionally composed, picture-like print here. It works quite nicely and shows off a nuance of color on scant display elsewhere. 

A small accordion-fold screen print book, “Plastic,” is her most endearing piece here. The divided, sequential format gives structure and emphasis to the artists vignettes of varied, sometimes unrecognizable plastic detritus. 

It is welcome to see local galleries opening themselves, however tentatively, to less familiar voices. One hopes that once things have settled, we will get to see more involved presentations of artists both new and established, from Ithaca and from beyond.

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