Richmond, VA

“31st ANNUAL”

The obvious boons and banes of having a regional exhibition curated by an outsider gave an edge to this strong mix of media and styles. Albert Stewart, at the time of the show the director of this art center a little east of San Francisco, chose New York curator Patterson Sims, of the Whitney Museum of American Art, to select work from a California-wide submission of slides. The result was a presentation of many little-known artists and an annual of atypical substance. The freshness and individuality of a large proportion of the works made it astonishing, therefore, that in his talk on the show Sims paired images by each of the 29 artists he had chosen with works he thought similar by known artists. This procedure emphasized connections between artists local and national, unknown and familiar, but it would seem to encourage overlooking work that does not fit into predetermined categories. And in fact the weakest works here merely dilute preexistent genres.

For the scale of the artists’ vision, Warren Muller’s and John De Fazio’s collaborative tour de force dominated the show. This cast-resin painted relief, Studio Visitation, 1984, represents a wacky meeting of disparate beings in a cluttered artist’s studio, where a Renaissance angel appears before a lively figure made of tree branches. The title suggests an artistic Annunciation, with the haloed visitor acting as a muse to announce—or, more properly, to inspire—a probably not-so-immaculate conception from the creative imagination. The stick sculpture becomes a dancing man, and at the other end of the panel a nubby strand of seaweed passes through a conglomeration of marine life to be transfigured into a smooth spiral. Multiple optical perspectives and the detailed setting entice further iconographic decoding. In another unusual investigation, Jamie Brunson painted schematic silhouettes of the four objects named in her title, Bouquet/Blade/Fan/Rotor, 1984, around one of a splayed hand in the center. The structural similarities between the objects—all five display a zigzag edge—are contradicted by their varying functions. The grid composition and navy and black colors produce a sober and constrained mood; the work presents both a naive comparison of forms and an intriguing, highly conceptualized image.

The widespread contemporary tendency toward primitivism was manifested by the animal/human mergings in some works—Rachel Dutton’s bird-women in plaster-and-paint-covered straw, for example. Elizabeth Kendall’s painting Dark Horse, 1982, of a nude riding bareback, also joined female and animal sexuality. In contrast to the prevalent darker moods, Pegan Brooke’s Red Vine, 1983, is a florid painting of a landscape entwined by serpentine tropical leaves. The radiant image connotes a pantheistic spirituality, which Sims aptly termed part of a “new vitalism.” Overall, in fact, Sims’ selection was perceptive, and despite his offensive tactic of validating his California favorites by comparing them with New York pick hits, I was pleased to see these new talents revealed among local artists.

Suzaan Boettger