Visiting artist and critic Gary Stephan helps 11 local artists gain new insight into their work at 1708. 

The Artist as Teacher

Cary Stephan, a New York artist and critic, was Sally Bowring's mentor early in her art career. According to Bowring, former director of 1708 Gallery, Stephan's remarkable base of knowledge, astute aptitude for delving beneath the surface of the art, and generous spirit gave her a resolute and sustaining sense of artistic purpose. Last month, Bowring invited Stephan to Richmond to visit with 11 visual artists to offer them some thoughtful responses and techniques for gaining clarity in assessing their own work.

The exhibition that evolved from Stephan's visit "The Artist as Critic" is on view at 1708 through June, and the documentation of the critical and curatorial process is currently underway. The artist checklist includes Pam Anderson, Andras Bality, Lora Beldon, Kristin Caskey, Steven Clark, Chopper Dawson, Joan Gaustad, Chris Gentile, Jay Paul, Anne Savedge and Heide Trepanier. Arlington's Elipse Art Center director, Trudy Van Dyke, was invited to write about the process for a gallery handout, which summarizes transcripts of Stephan's conversations with the artists.

Using his acute observational skills, Stephan's Zen-master technique of drawing out responses from the artist in a spontaneous series of perceptive questions enabled each to arrive at a more or less revelatory experience regarding their own art. At least one artist - Bality — felt it to be a pivotal point in his career.

The transcripts of the meetings between Stephan and the 11 artists describe individualized scenarios that seem, in some comforting respects, quotidian. Personal objects and music are commented on before getting down to business, and everyone talks in the guarded language of the late 20th century with "sort ofs," "kind ofs," and the ever-present "like" tempering much of their discussion. However, the rare and perfect occurrence of two parties making room in the air for each other's thoughts, listening, reacting and honoring, is fully evident throughout the transcripts. One understands in these conversations that Stephan, too, is still learning while he is teaching.

The exhibition itself, is a decidedly pink affair in the front gallery. And why not? Michelangelo dressed God in the color for his Sistine Chapel appearance. It's a burgeoning, embarrassed, coquettish, sexy color, and Heide Trepanier and Chris Gentile use it to gain dominion over the impact of the installation. In the rear room, the mood is impressively blue, thanks to Kristin Caskey's stirring tribute to oral incontinence. Her video of a person emitting a continuous blue drool is contrasted with a child's sweater, pristine white and decorated with blue-beaded drool stains.

While this is not the kind of show where some form of theme is developed, I always start to look for patterns and tendencies, in search of the perpetrator's psyche or the serendipity of the cosmos. In this show, there does seem to be more than a slight gastric bent. In a nation of all-you-can-consume opportunities, perhaps Anabolism is the next art-ism to watch for. In which case, Pam Anderson's collages with her waitress notes superimposed with exquisite drawings of the digestive system, Jay Paul's disquieting, if somewhat cliche "Young Meat Eater" (his other two pieces are more original), Gentile's "Digest" series, and Trepanier's viral "Innuendo" may serve to shape the movement.

This mini-direction by no means characterizes the entire show that Stephan assembled following his studio visits. It is an exhibition with many facets and dispositions. These range from the blessed to the obsessed. It's a broad and open-ended blend of art approaches and maturing philosophies. My one complaint about its format, given 1708's method of numerical identification rather than wall labels, is that the interspersion of works by different artists is disorienting. It insinuates interchangeability, such that Clark's work might be confused with Anderson's (though they look stunning together), or that Dawson might have experimented with his excessive graphite (or whatever — he's not telling) lines and invented that inventory of charred arrows that actually belong to Gentile. And then there is Paul's fine little mermaid marooned in the corner next to Trepanier's mighty mural. Some of the pieces, like Gaustad's, Bality's, Savedge's and Beldon's work, withstand the mix-master effect. Given that Stephan always forces the artist's hand when he or she claims that some decision is not made in the name of purpose, is there some covert intention going on here? Aided by this design, this handsome show is in the Shakespearean sense "a pageant."


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