Thursday, 11 September 2008

Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

A visit to the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art , Cornell University, New York, was a small exquisite window on a disparate group of minor masterpieces.
This Museum is some way out of the town of Ithaca, at the end of Cayuga Lake, New York State. It is part of Cornell University. Entry is free. We visited it in August 2008 for the first time. You need a car to get to the Museum from Ithaca.
I was particularly fascinated and impressed by the exhibition of black and white photographs by Mary Ellen Mark (b1940) entitled The Prom Series - and on show from August 9 - October 26.
Please take a look at the web site link above. Unfortunately it does not give a very good idea of the size and scope of the photography exhibition.
But I have found Mary Ellen Marks own web site which gives all the images, and here it is
These photographs are large, and well hung in spacious galleries. The presence of the teenagers that she captures epitomizes dignity combined with flamboyance and exhibitionism. I guess that Mary Ellen is able to bring out these qualities in young people who may not be experienced in displaying their bodies so openly - a great quality in a photographer of people. The stories of these couples is hinted at and I found myself wanting to know what happened next. They are just the beginning of the story.
Do go and see these photographs if you get the chance.


20 August to 6 September 2008

Just made it to see the exhibition of those selected for this show, said to be a ‘major new arts award’, before it closed. The Foreword of the catalogue quotes Lewis McNaught (Director) as saying ‘If the work our selectors have chosen can meet Lucien Freud’s requirements to astonish, disturb, seduce and convince, then we’ve made a good start’.

The resulting exhibition was disappointing - the works certainly did not astonish, disturb or seduce me at all. It was a big build up for a lot of mediocrity. I must explain that I have a vested interest in this view, as I was one of the 1500 or more artists who submitted work and did not have one of my three paintings selected. Nevertheless, it is not just a case of sour grapes!

I am surprised that the Selectors included Richard Cork, (a friend of Francis Bacon), Angela Flowers of the well-known gallery of the same name in London and New York, and Brian Sewell, the art critic, who often has very thought-provoking and scathing things to say in his column in the Evening Standard. I expected a somewhat more interesting and exciting display from these Selectors. Also included was Hew Locke and William Packer, the painter.

There were three works I admired. Duncan Wood, with a square canvas, ‘Sunset off the M40’. Delicious colour, atmospheric and sufficiently representational to appeal to a sense of nostalgia for townscapes of the Euston Road School. Also notable was Judith Barton’s ‘Siblings in black hats’, a bigger work. Nice dense blacks, a psychological comment on ageism perhaps, with two elderly women facing out with very challenging stares. This claims attention and closer regard, unlike most of the other works. Also worth a closer look was Jennifer McRae’s ‘Roberta’s coat, Southwark Street. Beautifully painted, a composition in a long rectangle which fills the space economically, well balanced and of aesthetic merit. All three would be good to live with.

The exhibition was well-hung. I was interested to note that there was a large proportion of female-sounding names in the list of artists, I counted 29 as opposed to 32 who sounded male- unusual. Most paintings and some sculpture were medium or large size, the size that will appeal to buyers who own large houses. I wonder if the salability was an influence on the selectors?

There was some work from established Royal Academicians. I recognized Anthony Eyton, Anthony Green, Ken Howard - there may have been others. The shortlist for the prizes did not include artists I am familiar with, except for Anthony Green, who submitted a large three-dimensional object. The reproductions in the show catalogue were very poor quality, and I noted this in particular. The colours were not true. In particular the winner, Nina Murdoch, with ‘Untitled’ had a painting which was definitely greenish overall but a dull ochre brown in the reproduction. Even seeing the work in the life, though, I could not understand why this painting was chosen to receive the major prize.

I found it quite astonishing that there were two paintings and two watercolours hung, by two of the artists, instead of the usual one. What was the reason for that, I wonder? None of these pairs was particularly interesting.

I guess it was a difficult show to select and hope the next one, in 2009, packs in a little more of the astonishing, the disturbing and the seductive.