A Mixed-Up Bag 

Too many artists with disparate styles muddle the focus of Dead Horse Gallery exhibit.

"Sun Bloc Gal," linocut by Dimitra Pasalis.
  • "Sun Bloc Gal," linocut by Dimitra Pasalis.
Kim Schoel, co-director of the new Dead Horse Gallery in Lakewood, wants audiences to give contemporary art a chance. "Many people think that art is supposed to be obscure and elitist," she says. It doesn't have to be that way, and Mixed Feelings, an ambitious sprawl of a show that includes 115 pieces by 35 area artists, effectively cuts the intimidation level as it introduces Clevelanders to the artists working in their midst. Predictably, the show is uneven. Wildly inconsistent, to be more accurate.

Get any 35 artists in the same space and you're bound to witness a battle royal. Some will say the end of the world is near. Others will say that times are good and that the best is yet to come. Such viewpoints might be faithful to the range of views in the artistic world, but the variety can tear an exhibit to shreds. One is skeptical, for instance, about whether the acidic conceptual works of Robert Thurmer or Michael Loderstedt can peacefully co-exist with the light-as-air confections of Dimitra Pasalis. When Noel Reifel's spare and angular prints are exhibited near Bridget Ginley's swirling, emotionally extroverted abstractions, caution is thrown to the winds, to be sure. However, the result helps neither the artists, since the juxtaposition assumes center stage instead of the art, nor the audience, which is asked to reconcile that which may be irreconcilable.

On the other hand, this feeling of fracture and disorientation is to be expected when so much ground is covered, and when only two or three examples represent the work of each artist. Too, there are some unexpected virtues in the gallery's open-ended approach. The show's failing (lack of conceptual unity) might even be viewed as an accidental strength. Since the gallery's sequencing of the work often feels inept, audience members are empowered to make up their own minds and to substitute their own juxtapositions for the ones the gallery has chosen. This definitely puts an element of creativity and freedom back into the art viewing process. Instead of being spoon-fed conclusions via wordy wall texts and carefully conceived juxtapositions, viewers can ignore everything the gallery has done and create their own experience. Consequently, as a sampler of locally produced art that encourages the audience to think on its own, Mixed Feelings is a fine show. Says Schoel: "I want to set up an atmosphere in which people can enjoy what contemporary artists have to offer, or at least learn to tolerate it."

Here's the conundrum: It might be asking too much to expect the audience to make good use of all this freedom. One might argue that only with substantial gallery-going experience, and a willingness to do some creative work of its own, will an audience be able to look past the gallery's poor juxtapositional choices and see Mixed Feelings as an opportunity to fashion its own tour of the local art scene. Which way is best, then? Give viewers a good structural map and let them fill in the details, or, alternatively, emphasize fracture and chaos and let the audience fend for itself? The first option requires the exhibit organizers to have a firm conceptual understanding of the big picture. Structuring an art show -- or a poem or a short story -- reaffirms, on however small a scale, that there is order in the world. Robert Frost suggested as much when he said that every poem of his solved a problem. By giving the problem form, he was reaffirming that the world had structure. To Frost, the clarification achieved was not necessarily a great one, but it was at least a "momentary stay against confusion." Art exhibits like Mixed Feelings, by contrast, seem to ask the audience to revel in confusion and to make a virtue out of chaos. It can be done, but one wonders whether it is desirable.

Luckily, some of the art here shines, despite the scattershot feel of the show as a whole. One can indeed have mixed feelings about the conceptual underpinnings of an exhibit while appreciating each individual piece on its own merits, and that is probably the best way of viewing this show. Patrick Kelly's oils, for instance, are impressive. Drawing on a tradition established by mid-century American artists like Jasper Johns, Kelly, in a work called "What Goes Around Comes Around," offsets a series of black concentric circles with a rich background consisting of hot oranges and white highlights. Just when one begins to feel that the circles are humdrum in their austerity, the coloristic and textural detail elsewhere points out the human element in the painting and lends the whole thing emotional immediacy. Like Johns before him, Kelly seems interested in what happens when one contrasts basic, symmetrical objects with texturally complex painted surfaces. It's like a question-and-answer structure, with the circles forming the question and the hot orange surfaces shouting the (emphatic) answer.

By contrast, on the conceptual front, Loderstedt sneers loudly at yuppies in love in a piece that substitutes cynicism for insight. In a three-photograph series with text, he tells the story of Mark and Christine (shown, initially, as a couple of dismembered department store mannequins), who discover that "they are meant for each other," proceed to get married, and have a son with whom they are delighted because "he always seems to remind them of each other." The idea here is to puncture some bubbles. These youngsters, Loderstedt seems to say, are narcissists who are just in love with themselves, even though they think they are relating to others. The tone of this piece is strident and harsh, though it aims at black humor. "Damn kids, what do they know about love?" is about all it says.

Better are some of the neo-Dadaist works of Sheryl Hoffman. One of these, an enigmatic piece called "Cutting Ties," consists of an ax mounted on a surface of multicolored bird feathers. Some of these feathers are predominantly silver like the ax blade, while some are a dusky yellow like the ax handle. These rhymed colors add a spurious logic to a piece that is essentially illogical, and this disconnection gives it its witty mood. Equally whimsical is the cartoonish "Sun Bloc Gal," Pasalis's Betty Boop for the new millennium. Elsewhere, Marvin Jones impresses with a set of meticulously painted figures that riff on forms found in Joan Miro and Paul Klee, and Marvin Smith displays "Step Out of Harms Way," a well-balanced abstract print featuring dark orange surfaces and passages of olive green interrupted by splashes of black. The piece suggests a rusted industrial exterior, though one that has been carefully altered by the artist.

Mixed Feelings is a mixed bag. Though one wishes that it were split into two, perhaps three exhibits and that more care had been taken in juxtaposing works, there are several rewarding pieces here. The show is an organizational feat. Schoel has cultivated contacts with many area artists, which should bode well for the future of Dead Horse Gallery.

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