A curious exercise in “found art” is occurring now through Oct. 15 at Northside’s Thunder-Sky, Inc. It’s called The Goodwill Biennial 2015 and, while it has insights and pleasures, the results aren’t consistently as hoped for.
Thunder-Sky is the six-year-old nonprofit space primarily dedicated to preserving, archiving and promoting the work and legacy of late visionary outsider artist Raymond Thunder-Sky.
Thunder-Sky’s co-directors, Keith Banner and Bill Ross, have sought in their gallery’s exhibits to show the work of self-taught artists in tandem with those who are trained, or to see their art — and more mainstream contemporary art — in different ways.This is an admirable and important intellectual pursuit, part of an international questioning — by artists as well as critics, curators and viewers — of what constitutes art.
The Goodwill Biennial is part of that outreach. It’s based on a clever conceit: For about a year, Thunder-Sky had Ohio Valley Goodwill set aside donated artworks that appeared to be handmade — paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, embroidery, etc. Banner and Ross then convened a jury of themselves, The Carnegie’s Matt Distel and Melanie Derrick of 1305 Gallery to select 76 objects for gallery display. (The rejects are in a big bin and can be picked through.) The work can be purchased through a silent auction.
Looking around, I quickly found one discard I really liked. Someone had embroidered on linen cloth a map of the U.S. with the states neatly outlined. Bordering the map were boxes showing the official flower of each state. The colorful details and overall precision of the workmanship were impressive. Assuming that this really is something that one person made by hand, who would give it away? Why?
The mystery of why people give away their art deepens with a portrait of a blonde young woman, smiling and confident in a black dress that leaves one shoulder bare. She is wearing a white flower. She is painted with loving care; someone really liked her. The flower less so — it looks like it fell onto her dress — and I hope the murky green backdrop wasn’t her real wallpaper.
Curator/juror Distel has installed this work to serve as the show’s centerpiece, surrounded by some nice watercolors of 1960s suburban homes.
Banner and Ross want you to ask questions about all the pieces’ provenance when looking at the art. Banner writes in a statement that he hopes we find “some kind of meaning/redemption in them that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm.”
But The Goodwill Biennial doesn’t have enough good art to sustain that quest for deeper meaning. Too often you wind up being amused by what’s bad. Sometimes good bad, mind you — I found myself laughing at one painting’s bifurcated perspective of the Cincinnati riverfront. It offered a credible perspective and rendering of the urban skyline, but made a tugboat plowing through the frozen river look like small toy on a table. And there seemed to be an ocean just behind downtown.
In a pamphlet accompanying the show, Banner explains The Goodwill Biennial was conceived partly as a parody of all the high-prestige, high-status contemporary-art biennials around the world. He writes: “…Satirizing something so contrived and so integral to the way serious art business often gets done (or doesn’t get done) gives us a chance to worship at the altar of Pure and Gorgeous Serendipity, as well as the sad and blurry cathedral of Musty-Smelling Ghostliness.” (Banner is an excellent writer.)
But before categorically dismissing biennials as “pretentious and serious,” attention should be paid to their efforts to change. The 2013 Venice Biennale’s main exhibit, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of New York’s New Museum, mingled trained and outsider work because, as Gioni told Huffington Post, “If you just stick to the masters and professionals, you sort of frame art as visual entertainment. I wanted to see art as it is, as a matter of life or death.”
Maybe that is pretentious, but I find it moving.
And maybe Thunder-Sky’s own mission isn’t as oppositional to contemporary-art biennials as some would have you believe.
More info: raymondthundersky.org.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]