One For the Ages

Posted October 22, 2009 in Arts & Culture

As the Claremont Museum struggles with its funding issues, the current exhibition at the Claremont Museum of Art should be cause for celebration and anticipation of future growth. Nevertheless, the dire situation weighs heavily on the latest exhibition, “An Enduring Legacy: New Acquisitions to the Permanent Collection.” The curatorial statement crystallizes the museum’s highest purpose as a public trust, yet it is difficult to read without feeling more than a little sadness, irony and even outrage: “The paramount role of the museum in a democratic society is to preserve, present and interpret the heritage of the past for the benefit of the public, for which it holds its collections in trust.”  


However, the bone to pick is not with the guest curator. The show is well laid-out and provides a sense of history. The unstated narrative is one of artistic DNA: teachers, students, influence and succession. The work spans several decades and continues through to the present in a manner that seems to say, “Stick around; there is more—much more—to come.”


John Edward Svenson’s Sea Spirit, carved from a block of California redwood, appears like a masthead on the gallery wall. This piece conveys qualities of neoclassicism and primitivism and it seems well placed in relation to Alfredo Ramos Martinez’ serigraph on the wall in the next gallery. The blooming flower shapes in Svenson’s Sea Spirit echo the floral arrangements in Martinez’ serigraph, and both works call to mind the wonderful Martinez mural in the Margaret Fowler Garden at Scripps College. 


A plaster sculpture by Albert Stewart—whose work may also be seen at nearby Scripps College—features two figures huddled together under a large obscuring blanket, which heightens the anonymity of the figures. The work shares some of the expressionistic sensibilities of Kathe Kollwitz’ gaunt drawings. The plaster is beautifully textured with rasp marks, and the piece creates an enormous gravity.


Harrison McIntosh’s work looks as if it is made to be touched. And perhaps it is; his pieces are elegant, refined, and heartbreak beautiful. The functional titles—Lidded Jar, Compote/Raised Dish, Large Bowl—invoke, in their utilitarian, descriptive sensibility, domestic rituals like the preparing and sharing of food, or large communal meals around elaborately dressed tables. At the same time, McIntosh’s ceramics are objects of abstracted form; Platonic in the way they define characteristic plate-ness or bowl-ness.  


Towards a Portrait of Jim Fuller, Michael Woodcock’s ephemeral graphite drawing, probes a fundamental activity for visual artists: looking.  Woodcock’s drawing sits visually somewhere between Vija Celmins’ obsessive and exquisitely crafted drawings and the large scale portrait paintings of Chuck Close from the late 1960s—but on a less intimidating scale. Woodcock’s drawings of people are both an intimate enterprise and an act of cold objectivity. Inflected with the perspective of photography, which provides an air of authority, his drawings of people exude an air of familiarity with the sitter. Delving into how we record sensory experience, and what we make of it—whether fabrication or narrative—Woodcock’s drawings touch on the trickiness of how we construct memory.  


Roland Reiss’ Second Nature, an art object that blurs the distinctions between painting, sculpture and light and space installations, is a clear acrylic plate which casts an intricate pattern of shadows and focal points on the wall behind it, corresponding to the clear acrylic marks Reiss applied to the surface. Transparent except for several pigmented acrylic shapes, the surface looks like the splayed-out contents of a cell. This object has the capacity to charm and to aggravate, retaining an intentionally offending, dare-you-to-like-me attitude. 


Next to Reiss’ work is Alex Couwenberg’s accomplished painting, The Jinx. The layers of knifed-on paint have smooth, glossy surfaces, where oranges shift to decaying greens and blacks. Couwenberg’s generous use of acrylic medium creates depth in his surfaces. His built up layers of interlocking lines, surfaces and shapes, and the smooth and scraped textures of paint play off the visible knap of the canvas surrounding the intricate geometric patterns.


Much of this work has been seen at the Claremont Museum in other shows organized by guest curator Steve Comba. Comba’s restrained hand lets the work speak for itself and allows his audience to make up their own minds, and the shows Comba has curated demonstrate a commitment to the art of this region.


“An Enduring Legacy: New Acquisitions to the Permanent Collection” exhibition at the Claremont Museum of Art, 536 W. First St., Claremont, (909) 621-3200; Thru Jan. 10. $5 adult admission.


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