A museum often finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to be everything to everybody. Oh sure, some museums -- say the MOMA or the Whitney, both in New York -- get to focus entirely on one specific movement in art history. But other museums, particularly those in mid-size cities, must carefully balance between big crowd-pleasing travelling shows, exhibits that pay homage to regional history and also shows that mark a museum's ability to keep up with the most contemporary of the contemporary arts.
In addition to all that, a museum also often needs to prove itself as a regional resource. Still, it's sometimes all too easy for local contemporary artists to get lost in such a triple and quadruple-pronged approach.
But a new show at the MAC shines the spotlight on eight contemporary artists, seven of whom hail from the Inland Northwest. "Northwest Contemporary/Figuration" brings together an astonishing variety of figurative interpretations, from masterly large-scale portraiture to mixed-media pieces incorporating, glass, found objects and even neon.
"I think that the beauty of this show is that you have a theme, in this case, the human figure, and you take that theme and explore it without any preconceptions," says Jochen Wierich, curator of the MAC.
"Northwest Contemporary/Figuration" shows in two locations. One is at the MAC's Helen South Alexander Gallery (located in the Cheney Cowles/Administration Building). The other is at Art at Work, in downtown Spokane. Wierich says that the show has a strong curatorial influence, and that many of the works were handpicked by himself and Art at Work Gallery Manager Ryan Hardesty.
For regular Spokane art audiences, "Northwest Contemporary/Figuration" is a chance to see unfamiliar works by familiar art "names."
"I didn't want to have the same names you see over and over," says Wierich. "But even when it's a familiar name, I think people will find the images to be fresh."
As a case in point, consider Ruben Trejo, whose "walking nail" railroad spike pieces have been widely exhibited throughout the Northwest. In this show, he has two early-career pieces that exhibit his playful sensibilities and his love of evocative lines. Neither looks like a typical "Trejo" piece.
Ildiko Kalapacs, whose elongated and vividly colored human figures are often found cavorting on the exteriors of such buildings as Lindaman's on Grand, or on large canvases, here offers several bronze sculptures. The pieces are remarkably intimate and challenging, evoking spirituality, sexuality and a raw physicality. Even the way the pieces are put together -- a buttock formed with an extra bit of material, a muscle almost bearing the imprint of the artist's fingerprints -- suggests an artful immediacy.
The one artist perhaps not so familiar to local audiences is Canadian artist Michelle Forsyth (who is also on the art faculty at WSU). Her "Trauma" series, triggered by Internet images of accidents and other traumatic occurrences, uses the typically feminine craft of cross stitch, as well as the pointillism of Impressionist art, to convey ghastly head wounds and nasty automobile accidents. It's compelling, startling work, and of all the figures represented, hers have the most to do with "disfiguration."
Some of the works are older -- for instance, a 1998 painting by Dan Spalding that suggests the elegant and simmering-under-the-surface sensuality of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X. And others, for example Margo Casstevens, did numerous pieces for the show.
"Her work hasn't been out there as much as some of the others," says Wierich. "She does really remarkable work using body casts. I'm glad to see her get more exposure."
At Art at Work, Casstevens' "The Burgher's Wives" is a slightly eerie piece consisting of white plaster leg casts painted with various flesh-colored tints and then given the look of having been scorched. They suggest in some ways the excavated human figures at Pompeii. Her piece at the Helen South Alexander Gallery incorporates an old door frame, glass body casts, photography and painting.
One of the things that makes "Northwest Contemporary/Figuration" so intriguing is how the pieces run the emotional gamut from the playful (Ruben Trejo, Ken Yuhazs) to the more serious (Mel McCuddin, Ildiko Kalapacs).
E.L. (Elsie) Stewart has two paintings in the show, that, with their muddy colors, kinetic execution and more somber subjects, represent the darker end of the emotional spectrum. In particular, Fear is a ghostly visitation -- a rendering of a woman caught in the clutches of some faceless dark thing.
"Elsie Stewart is one of those artists who consistently does interesting work," says Wierich. "Her work with the nude is quite provocative, and there is something very intriguing and mysterious in the things she does. She's one of those artists who doesn't always get a lot of attention, and I'm very pleased to have her included. She deserves to be there."