Local Artists in Survey Show at Ross School

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Once again at the Ross School’s annual exhibition curated by seventh-grade students featuring works by local artists, the aesthetic and thematic sophistication of the presentation serves to belie the curators’ youth while at the same time offering lessons in scope and sensitivity to professional curators many years their senior.

Now in its 14th year, the event allows students to completely design and execute an exhibition in the school’s gallery space, including interviews with the artists, the design of a catalog, installation of the works, and developing a complex and challenging theme mixing art and their own studies in other disciplines (this year focusing on the narrative tradition in Mayan, Greek, and Roman art).

Titling the show “Narratives Real and Imagined” and featuring the work of eight local professional artists, the students specifically selected essentially figurative painters and sculptors whose contributions center on the presence of story lines in their works, albeit not necessarily overt or obvious ones.

The exhibition illustrates, in essence, the perpetually engaging mysteries of ambiguity that can be created in figurative art, wherein the viewer is presented with a specific scene yet its understanding is left clouded in uncertainty and the eventual analyses of its underlying narrative are inevitably as diverse as those who view it. Exemplifying the “Rashomon effect,” a psychological phenomenon named for the film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa—in which a crime is described differently by four separate witnesses—the exhibit lays bare the subjectivity that perceptions bring to each individual’s own interpretation of an artist’s particularly unique vision.

Perhaps the most subtle and technically engaging works in the exhibition are Randall Rosenthal’s two marginally trompe l’oeil carved sculptures, which create a remarkable melding of art and craft. Conjuring a striking measure of nostalgia in their referencing of school era pastimes such as baseball card collecting and doodling in school binders, the works are particularly notable for their avoidance of being perfectly rendered, allowing the viewer an insight into the artist’s manipulation of materials as well as his intellectual intent.

April Gornik’s “Turning Waterfall” (charcoal on paper, 1996), is another work that is extremely subtle in its use of narrative elements, yet nevertheless creates a story line in its understated sense of pictorial conflict. This is established through the artist’s accomplished balance of shadows and shapes, leading the viewer’s gaze deeper into a landscape that, in the absence of any human presence save that of the viewer, becomes reminiscent of many of the painters of the Hudson River School.

This approach embodies, as Jonathan Gilmore wrote of Ms. Gornik, “the Romantic vision of nature as being like a cathedral: a space that transcends everyday human concerns even as it invites one to regard oneself as part of a larger whole.”

Eric Fischl’s “Year Of the Drowned Dog” (etching, aquatint, 1983), on the other hand, creates a significantly more immediate narrative framework but one that is nevertheless, by its structure of six interchangeable panels, the very picture of the Rashomon effect at work.

The effect of allowing the possible story lines to change depending upon how the panels are sequenced is as dramatic as the imagery itself, with the juxtapositions in the various figures’ nonchalant body language contrasting with the image of death in the body of the drowned dog. The work succinctly reflects Mr. Fischl’s talent in developing images that offer a plethora of narrative possibilities within the framework of a frozen moment that is filled with both anxiety and ennui.

John Alexander’s “Blind Ravens” (oil on canvas), by contrast, is similarly disturbing and thought-provoking, but it offers allegorical and interpretational references to Goya in its evocation of painterly subjectivity and subversion, rather than contrasts in emotional tenor.

Also featured in the Ross School exhibition, “Narratives: Real and Imagined,” which continues through June 13, are paintings by Jim Gingrich, Michael Butler, and Lounah Starr and photographs by Lisa Kiss.

On a personal note, I want to thank four of the student curators; Taylor Cohen, Grace Gill, Leo Turpan, and Maisie McInerney for their time and effort in giving me a tour of the exhibition. Their dedication to the project was obvious, as was their enthusiasm and intelligence in explaining it.

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