The Practice of Thinking 

Artspace's "Radius250" has some compelling work hiding in its corners.

click to enlarge "Trinkets" by artist Andrea Vail.
  • "Trinkets" by artist Andrea Vail.

In its fifth year, "Radius250" again offers a selection of sculpture, paintings, drawings and installations culled from within a 250-mile radius of Richmond'. Artists hail from as far away as Trenton, N.J., Pittsburgh, Charleston, W.Va., and Wilmington, N.C.

Curated by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, deputy director and curator of exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums, the exhibition includes work by mostly emerging or midcareer artists in an effort to define the zeitgeist of art making in the mid-Atlantic. Prizes go to the top four works, as well as three honorable mentions.

All this information, plus several images, I receive in the news release — which means I expect the prize-winning works to be the highlights of the exhibition. Indeed, I'd already pigeonholed the exhibition as nothing more than an excuse to say, "Hey it's summer, why not have fun?" But when I visit Artspace, I'm pleasantly surprised to discover overlooked works that quietly — but demandingly — fix my attention for their subtle subject matter, critical engagement and aesthetic quality.

"Trinkets," by Andrea Vail, a master of fine arts candidate in crafts at Virginia Commonwealth University, hangs unassumingly in a back corner, perhaps why it's easy to bypass. It's composed of discarded pieces of rusted metal, some still recognizably functional and others scraps of once-larger objects. Each is hand-wrapped in pale, pinkish-peach thread and fastened to the wall, forming a large circle. When I lean forward to examine the small, intimate — even fetishized — objects, I feel as though I could be consumed by the installation. Swept away into a world of sacred objects chosen by an anonymous curator, the installation causes you to create a narrative that considers the standards for inclusion and history of each object.

click to enlarge Catherine Day's "Urn and Tracks" shows empty chairs at a memorial service positioned in front of an urn.
  • Catherine Day's "Urn and Tracks" shows empty chairs at a memorial service positioned in front of an urn.

Narrative also is explored in Catherine Day's digital photographs, "Urn and Tracks" and "Urn and Flowers." Each is printed onto four layers of translucent fabric stacked on top of each other to form a composite image. Because the layers are only sewn together along the top perimeter, the individual pieces of fabric loosely separate along the bottom. This allows the images to oscillate between unrecognizable blobs of color and finished photographs, depending on where you stand. Day has chosen a somber scene: empty chairs at a memorial service positioned in front of an urn. Devoid of people or grief, the photograph unemotionally captures a pervasive fear, namely, will I be remembered or honored when I die?

Elegiac subject matter is found in Jon Mallis' "Da-Lite Silver Flyer" as well. The title lists the media as "salvaged projection screen mounted on stretcher frame," but the work is more than just reclaimed materials. Its horizontal lines and subtle grayscale gradation appropriate the language of landscape in a way similar to Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes. Mournful and still, the two-dimensional object begs lyrical interpretation.

Other notable mentions include a pair of paintings by Ed Dolinger, and May Britton's installation at the entranceway. Dolinger's layered, laborious surfaces under a highly polished sheen offer records of historical sedimentation, while Britton's cheesecloth cones hearken back to Eva Hesse's use of the same everyday media.

Admittedly, juried shows almost always lack cohesion. It's exceedingly difficult to siphon more than 450 entries into an exhibition that retains focus, high standards and critical appeal. Coming up with a list of winners from such a diverse audience is even more insurmountable. "Radius250" offers a compelling show that should be examined by each individual viewer. Don't fall prey to only noticing the highlighted works but instead spend some time exploring, discovering and critiquing for yourself.

At the end of "Four Quartets" (1943), T.S. Eliot admonishes his readers to "not cease from exploration [because] / the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." The viewer has a responsibility and cannot merely ingest others' perceived values, assumptions or ideologies; this has far deeper implications than just artwork in a gallery. Instead, the process of exploration — here, the decision of aesthetic value — is an individual journey not about arrival, but self-discovery. Finding an alternative world or a moment of hope. Practicing this process of discernment and critical thinking in a gallery is a small exercise. Taking it and applying it to one's life becomes a much larger case study that is well worth the endeavor. S

"Radius250" runs through Aug. 18 at Artspace, 0 E. Fourth St. For information, call 232-6464 or visit artspacegallery.org.

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