Traversing the vast expanse of Audubon Terrace always brings on a sense of exhilaration. There just aren’t that many wide open public spaces surrounded by imposing Beaux Arts architecture to be found these days. So, last Tuesday night, passing the statue of El Cid on a rearing stallion, I took a deep breath of brisk air and soaked up the scene as I made my way to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the opening of their annual invitational exhibition.
The Academy’s premises have just undergone an enormous expansion, and the new exhibition space is impressive. There’s a lot of work in this show (116 paintings, photographs, multi-media works, sculptures, installations, and works on paper by 30 artists), up until April 5th, so I’m just going to point out a few highlights:
A trio of neon pieces by Stephen Antonakos infused the east gallery of the new space with their jewel-like glow. This mature artist not only knows how confident, modern, & minimal can still be engaging, warm & welcoming in terms of art, he lives it!
In the south gallery, three portraits (one of herself) by Ann Gale assert a subtle, yet undeniably strong presence. The canvases coalesce animism of paint and the energy of the living human. These paintings evince a kindred connection to Lucien Freud, but perhaps more importantly to both Cezanne and even Giacometti in the attention paid to locating a mark or bit of paint in a very particular physical space, with the paint simultaneously describing and deconstructing. When much portraiture relies on photography and digital resources, becoming flat and lifeless, these portraits hum and buzz and bristle with the intensity of living and looking — the experience of the eyes, interpreted by the mind behind them, without any intervention. The portraits’ subjects are rendered alive and real, and the recognition of these daubs of paint coming together to convey an individual with such psychological power is to wonder at how our own cells happen to hang together to create the assumed reality of self.
Artists ultimately selected to participate in this exhibition have first been invited by one of Academy’s members to submit work, so it’s a generally high bar of peer recognition. In this year’s show, there are a number of big-name artists such as April Gornik, Gregory Crewdson, Roxy Paine, and Beverly McIver. To these eyes, the biggest surprise and stand-out of the exhibition came by way of paintings bearing titles like “To Crack a Smile,” and “Vaudeville Hook” by David Nelson, an artist with whom I was not familiar. Nelson’s non-objective canvases are both technically and aesthetically seductive in a manner as modest, genuine and self-effacing artist as the artist himself. I’ve rarely met anyone who seemed so truly touched and surprised to receive well-earned compliments and congratulations. Unfortunately, my camera was out of juice, and I couldn’t find any other images of his work on-line to show you, so you’ll have to take my word for it or go see for yourself!
[images above: Audubon Terrace looking east, c. 1950, courtesy American Academy of Arts & Letters; Installation view of work by Stephen Antonakos, “Departure” 1993-2007, 61 x 51 x 5″; “Arrival” 2008, 88 x 46 x 5″, and “Respite” 2000-2001, all pieces white paint on versacel, neon, copyright and courtesy of Stephen Antonakos; Ann Gale, “Self Portrait with Blue Stripes”, 14 x 11″, oil on masonite, courtesy of Hckett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, copyright Ann Gale.]