From Joe Seipel's amazing installation at 1708 Gallery to the windows of Pink in Carytown, truly great art knows no bounds. 

1999 Critics Choice: Public Art

A great many exceptional and edifying art shows were presented this year throughout Richmond. A few that especially stand out include the Marsh Gallery's "The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen: Painting and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters," Trudy Van Dyke's curatorial project for 1708 Gallery's anniversary in January, "A Fire for Ceramics" at the Hand Workshop and Gregory Barsamian's kinetic installation at the Anderson Gallery.

However, I want to recommend one particular exhibition as the "Best of the Year." It came and went in three short weeks last May and was tucked quietly in the rear gallery space of 1708. It received no local publicity, so many people may have missed it. It was Joe Seipel's biographical installation piece "18,621 Days." The modest invitation to the show featured a detail from an old black-and-white photograph showing a working man's hand, stained from labor, holding — offering — a glass jar of dark liquid. This, for the uninitiated, was Seipel's father. The title refers to the number of days in his father's life, a number that halted abruptly when Seipel was 11, and the number of days old that Seipel was when he began to plan this exhibition.

Nothing about this installation was overt. In a constructed maze that summoned viewers, hypnotized by a mechanical heartbeat, to follow the muffled crunch of their own feet across a floor of salt (4,600 pounds of it), the haunting memory was slowly interpreted. It was a telling that was so carefully executed as to be slightly outside of itself. It could take on any number of tangential personal histories while translating its own truth.

Seipel permitted a dearth of signifiers in the blue-lit landscape: a sandbox with a toy truck beside a small, potentially ominous hole made in the sand; the rhythmic strike of a hammer in another room; a swinging light bulb observed through an inaccessible screen door. These tableaux offered anxiety and a cold comfort as they described the kind of place that once existed, freeze-framing a childhood memory. Its distant quality assured us that while the loss of this place and the meaning it offered is rationally accepted, the pull of it remains sorrowful.

What I find "best" about this work has to do with three requisites of art when it is really doing its job. Its first requirement is to express something original that is experientially or intellectually genuine. The second is to expand the intuition of the recipient or viewer. And the third, admittedly a prejudice, is to negotiate the passage between those two promiscuous harpies, Nostalgia and Irony, who turn many large artistic efforts into sentimental or historical ones. The first out of fear of reprisal, the second from disinheritance of the original creative belief. This is, I think, fear of the public vs. fear of the art. Good art should at some point be able to succeed as a stimulating receptive public experience. Art should be set out prominently in the world to teach aesthetic value and to demonstrate the kind of joy that it can offer to those who will see it.

And so, I am using this opportunity to recognize the year's best visual art to identify the special visitations of it that have appeared this year in the public arena. These occurrences are small extraordinary gifts that businesses and individuals, through the force of their own investment in genuine creativity, have provided the community. They may at their core be marketing tools, but when and if they are, there is no purchase necessary. They are wonderful in themselves, and they make this city more wonder-full, too. I hope that their inspiration will trickle into other ways of remaking Richmond so that its new monuments, gateways and plazas will exhibit the same kind of invention, intelligence, expanded sense of context and awe.

These examples include: John Malinoski's charming billboards and posters seen around town for the 17th Street Farmer's Market; The changing and always amazing window displays at Pink in Carytown, done by Jessica Dutton; the graceful, sophisticated directional sculpture in the Virginia Museum lobby designed by Kennah Harcum; the witty reinterpretation by Bill Altice of a barbershop pole outside of Alyssa Salomon's accounting office on 304 W. Cary St.; and the utterly transporting environment of World of Mirth, also in Carytown.

Thank you to Seipel for the exquisite show at 1708, and thank you to the businesses that have taken what they have learned from art and applied it to their style of


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