Investing in Process 

A new exhibition at Reynolds Gallery pairs blue-chip artists with emerging talent.

click to enlarge “Time Setting,” by Esther Ruiz is among the works by young talent featured at Reynolds Gallery.

“Time Setting,” by Esther Ruiz is among the works by young talent featured at Reynolds Gallery.

Know of any young artists? Bring them to Richmond, where the latest tag line is “We give exhibitions to emerging artists.”

Since the 1970s, it has been done by 1708 gallery. The under-construction Institute for Contemporary Art is the newest kid on the block to court this green market. And the list of nonprofits between those chronological bookends is long.

For-profit galleries, too, are cautiously seeking young, undiscovered artists. Reynolds Gallery has taken a few bets with its current exhibitions by placing blue chip artists alongside emerging ones.

One exhibition, called “Tongue in Cheek,” offers prints by John Baldessari, a miniature “Split Rocker” (2012) by Jeff Koons, and E.V. Day’s dolls next to prints, videos and interactive sculpture by younger artists Thu Tran, Dean Fleischer-Camp, and the Canadian-duo Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins.

A second, called “Almost Famous,” and curated by doctoral candidate Owen Duffy, features work by four emerging artists: Esther Ruiz, Adam Sultan, Matthew Warren and Levester Williams.

The Baldessari and Koons are fine — these seem to be included for the sheer fact that they offer an “affordable” alternative for those who want a work by either artist but can’t stomach the seven-plus-figure investment.

Baldessari’s “Soup Can” screen prints (all 2012) mix Matisse’s “Goldfish and Sculpture” (1912) with Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” from 1962. With the sans serif font underneath, each is ironic in a rather benign way: This is Baldessari the established artist, not Baldessari the provocateur. Same thing goes for the Koons.

The more compelling works in “Tongue in Cheek” include those that take on a disquieting undertone, tied to politics and identity: Fleischer-Camp’s “Smile” (2012), Marman + Borins’ “Google 2.0” (2010) and Day’s “Mummified Barbies” (all 2007).

Day is an installation artist known for “Bride Fight” (2006), which paired two deconstructed wedding dresses exploding beside one another. Her dolls elicit a host of conversations, including ones about contemporary craft, feminism sexuality and violence — I only wish it were a room-sized installation.

Fleischer-Camp’s iPhone video, which prompts people to smile for a photo and then takes a video instead, seems dismissively silly but really raises questions of identity politics, by asking the viewer to consider how we perform self.

For “Almost Famous,” Ruiz’s neon sculptures steal the show. Grouped in the front corner, Ruiz’s simple totemic objects, called “Lapse,” “Blue Sun” and “Time Settling” (2013-2014), each feature a sparse rod of pulsating neon grounded into a thick concrete base. Although sold individually, the objects work best in tandem. The stark contrast in materials creates a strange dichotomy that musters up feelings of fragility, timelessness and hope.

Something about “Almost Famous” is strongly couched in the art of the 1980s, specifically neo-expressionist painting. Maybe it’s the colors or the anxious but playful lines in Sultan’s painting or Warren’s “Light Boxes” (2015). Either way, there’s an underlying sense of discontentment and uneasiness present that stands in stark contrast to the works’ bright and cheerful color palette.

Perhaps this restlessness is best felt in Levester Williams’ “Dogpiles” (2014), each a mound of unclean bed sheets from a Virginia prison, over which the artist then poured tar. Williams, a master’s of fine arts student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s sculpture department, has used other found materials from the penitentiary, most notably toilet bowl water.

Betting on emerging artists is like any risky investment: Some thrive while others break even. And some just fail. I was reminded of this the other day when visiting the Whitney Museum of American Art’s massive, inaugural exhibition, “America Is Hard to See.” For nearly a century, the Whitney has given precedence to exhibiting artists from across the United States in an effort to offer up slices of America. That’s why the multifarious collection has such rich variety — and at least a few works lingering in a storage unit that probably will never see the light of day.

The title comes from a 1951 poem by Robert Frost. Though it specifically highlights Christopher Columbus’ problematic place in American history, the idea more generally describes how we write, miswrite and rewrite history. As Frost notes, “They could not see it from outside — / Or inside either for that matter.”

According to the poet, to even have a chance at seeing America, you keep looking. Likewise, to make it as an artist, you keep working. Emphasis rests on the process, the new beginnings, false starts and dead ends, over the arrival. And that’s something any emerging artist — or young person for that matter — is learning all too well. S

“Tongue in Cheek” and “Almost Famous” are on display at Reynolds Gallery through July 17.


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