It is a rarity for an area art gallery to mount a retrospective exhibition of museum-quality artwork by a local artist — much less one covering six decades. Such is currently the case at the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts (TCFA). Running through Nov. 28, “Romanoff Redux” offers visitors a deep plunge into the art of Ithaca legend (and Trumansburg resident) Victoria Romanoff.
Best known for her historical preservation work, Romanoff is also a trained and ambitious visual artist. While her architectural restorations demand fealty to tradition, her personal artworks are imbued with the anarchic spirit of modern art.
There are more than 50 pieces here: satirical drawings, vintage protest posters, painted paper mosaics, and assemblage sculptures. The artist’s mature sensibility emerged early. Rather than showing a linear development, she returns cyclically to established approaches.
Architectural themes pervade her art. The 1851 Greek Revival building that houses the TCFA was formerly a Baptist church. The structure – a rustic wooden approximation of a Greek temple – offers a welcome physical context for appreciating Romanoff’s sensibility.
While the artist’s approach to the classical tradition is sometimes explicitly satirical and always playful, an appreciation is also clear. And while the imperialistic associations that that tradition has accrued might seem off-putting to the unabashedly anti-war artist, here they more immediately recall the small town civic pride of times past.
Framed drawings and mosaics fill much of the perimeter of the Conservatory’s enormous main room — thoughtfully punctuated by freestanding and wall-mounted sculpture.
Five pencil drawings from 1962 are the oldest pieces here. Recalling the conflation of abstraction and caricature found in the work of Picasso and George Grosz, densely wrought pieces like “Theatrical setting for a battle” and “Departure from an overstimulating community” set her sensibility at its most caustic.
Much of her two-dimensional work here takes a more lyrical, formal approach. Romanoff’s paper mosaic technique involves assembling pieces — often fragments of existing work — into compositions where they fit together puzzle-like, without overlap. Recalling the so-called formalist abstraction of the mid-20th century, flatly painted and sprayed areas of acrylic are emphasized in some works. In others, a brushier approach, recalling the neo-Expressionism of the ‘80s, predominates.
The former leaning encourages a “purer” abstraction, juxtaposing areas of diverse, high-key color with darker and more neutral foils. The approach is most concentrated in a set of four 2004 pieces occupying a corner behind the TCFA’s stage.
“Starting a revolution demands proper attire” displays an appropriately chic radicalism. Two vaguely figural standing forms in bright red and magenta front areas of thin olive, orange cream, gray blue, milk chocolate brown, and white. Sprayed, flat, and brushed textures intertwine.
Eight overscaled, unframed paper mosaics reengage Romanoff’s political and war themes. They date to 2002 and reflect her impassioned protest against the renewed American militarism of the time. More deeply, however, they recall her early childhood experience as a refugee from World War II Europe.
Four of these, hung towards the other back corner, reflect the destruction and dispossession experienced by the various peoples of Europe. “Night of the soul-lifting stars” and “Night of a billion shards” capture the hope and horror of the Jews, seen in symbol-bedecked skies. Three additional pieces from the same series hang behind the balcony seating. “WW1 warrior capitulates” and “The uniformed enthusiastically endorse” mock the grand spectacle of war. An aerial, apocalyptic view of contemporary-looking cityscape, “The harvesting of the industrial-military complex” is particularly haunting.
Developed as a fine art technique by the early 20th-century avant-garde, assemblage — an outgrowth of collage — merges abstract form with fragments of the everyday. Assembling wood and sometimes metal scraps, Romanoff constructs memorable comic-absurdist furniture.
A 1966 piece, “Babylon prior to urban renewal” is large and sprawling, resembling a child’s miniature stage set. Knobby towers, elaborate staircases and entryways, miniature fences of nails and wire, details in wan white paint, haphazard supports in back — this the artist at her most ludic.
In contrast, her later sculpture here is more compact, often taking totemic forms and emphasizing the vertical. “Sarah Bernhardt debates method acting with Eleanore Duse” (1986) and “Controversial aspirations” (2015) have been mounted on mock-Doric columns that echo those along the TCFA’s front façade.
Like Ithaca’s Community School of Music and Arts, the TCFA more commonly deals in “inclusive,” unfocused group shows. It’s surely necessary fodder for a community arts school of this sort. Still, Ithaca and Trumansburg alike have more than their fair share of artists that can fairly be called masters: ones that have created bodies of deeply compelling works stretching back decades. Local galleries ought to emphasize their contributions more often.
The Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts has upcoming gallery hours for “Romanoff Redux” on November 19, 21, 27, and 28. The show, free and open to the public, can be seen between noon and 4 p.m.