20 years in the making: Art House at Studio 215 Gallery

Jude Strandquist, “Untitled,” acrylic on canvas.

For its 20th anniversary, Art House is visiting 78th Street’s Studio 215 Gallery to celebrate the artist-educators who have helped its students thrive.

“Several passionate artists and neighbors, understanding the positive impact art could have on peoples’ lives, realized that there was a fundamental need for greater access to rich art experiences,” reads an Art House mission statement hung alongside the exhibition. Since its founding in 1999, the organization has come to serve over 3,000 people annually. Participants range across all age groups and levels of creative expertise. Lectures, hands-on classes, and cultural events travel throughout the region, or take place in Art House’s Brooklyn Centre home base.

About 20 Art House teachers and fellows, past and present, contributed to the Studio 215 show. Their works include painting, video art, sculpture, and assemblage. The moods of their productions range from the poignant to the silly to the surreal. Several participants wrote artist statements to hang alongside their pieces. The diverse motivations they describe remind viewers of the innumerable ways art can enrich a life.

Grace Summanen, “Lace” (top), “Mini-Series” (bottom), mixed-media

In a placard next to her lyrical mixed-media sculptures, Grace Summanen explains that even in her earliest memories of childhood, she was compelled to make art. It was not until college that she realized that art was a vehicle for ideas, a slow and deliberate form of communication. Throughout the last years of her education, she tried to understand why she was so drawn to visual expression.

“Shortly after I graduated with my BFA, I spent an entire day contemplating why I made art? The conclusion I came to was I could not imagine life without it. It is how I think, experience, and understand the world,” Summanen writes.

Gina Washington writes that her approach to life has always been “nurturing and healing,” and that a desire for constructive dialogue drives her artistic creation.

“As a woman, I wanted to create imagery that changed the negative perceptions people have with regards to people of color…My creative process is experiential, and becoming a mother has focused that energy into work with social justice issues in regards to women and young girls,” Washington writes.

The two photographs Washington contributes to the exhibit are images of quiet resilience.  “Silent All These Years” is based off a fairly simple portrait of a black woman. She was shot from above with her head slightly turned away from the lens, not quite in profile. She wears a contemplative expression, and strokes her cheek. Her natural hair in a wide bunch bound with a scarf. The topmost clutch of her curls is superimposed with a circular stained-glass window. We can see little of the woman’s face, but enough to tell it is stern. The ecclesiastic imagery, along with the pregnant words “Silent All These Years” suggest the image comments on women in traditional churches. In both black and white congregations, more women than men fill the pews. But in many denominations, women struggle to occupy leadership positions, or are shut out entirely. But they remain, and assert themselves however they can.

“Window Shopping” depicts the window of a shoe store. We see a display of women’s heels, and a house reflected on the glass’ surface. Both these images are scratched over by cracks, part of spider web-shaped damage on the window glass. The cracks look like they are trying to cross out the shoes, and the neighborhood. But, despite being associated with the “softness” of femininity, the high heels are untouched. Life goes on, despite violence and neglect.

Detail from Ronald E. Shelton’s “Tidy Cat Shield.” Mixed media.

CAN Triennial alumnus Ronald E. Shelton contributes “Tidy Cat Shield,” a piece of personal armory made from yellow kitty litter buckets. Whimsy suffuses the object. It is an invitation and a challenge: Look at what surrounds you with new eyes. Make something joyful out of things you would usually only throw away.

But it is also a warning about plastic waste. Consumer packaging materials can take centuries to degrade. We use so much of it, and errant winds and currents carry it all across the planet’s surface, and even to the deepest regions of the ocean. Our garbage will almost certainly outlive the society which produced it. Knowing this, we can easily imagine the shield as an artifact from a Mad Max-style future, in which nomads piece together weapons from the wreckage of our consumer civilization.

The Tidy Cat bucket features a warning against leaving small children unattended around it. The black-and-white icon depicts a stubby toddler leaning precariously over the pail, about to tip over into the litter. This image reappears at least four times on Shelton’s shield. It seems to say: All of us are leaning over the edge of the wasteland. Be sure not to fall in.

Susie Underwood, “Bathroom Art.” Acrylic.

In the 19th century, artists began exploring intimate, earthy scenes of grooming and hygiene. Berthe Morisot painted a woman combing her hair, without any of the moralizing about the vain impermanence of beauty which characterized earlier vanitas. When Edgar Degas depicted women bathing, they were not swimming in a lake or river, but sponging themselves in metal tubs just large enough to crouch in. Susie Underwood updates and humanizes the body care painting genre with “Bathroom Art,” which depicts nine rolls of hot pink toilet paper. Degas (but maybe not Morisot, who herself was surely familiar with intensive hair routines) kept his subjects at an objectifying distance. Underwood stands in solidarity with the gross, embarrassing reality she knows her audience shares. She’s down in the bog with us. If we were to encounter “Bathroom Art” hanging over a faucet, we would know this is a safe place for business to be done.

Meng-Hsuan Wu’s “Passage” consists of a sequence of basswood pentagons. Across moors swirling with fog colored blue and neon pink, trees with human legs strut naked. Like a griffon or a centaur, seemingly disparate elements combine into a weirdly beautiful whole. “Passage” feels like a fusion of pop art and the sorts of medieval monstrosity illustrations now on display at the CMA. But there’s more at work here than just an aesthetic mashup. Wu’s “Passage” is not a smooth, linear route to a known endpoint. Some trees walk alone, some are in pairs or trios. Some are not walking at all, but standing in place, feet splayed awkwardly apart. Progress is not always planned. It can take detours, or stall altogether. The trees have no faces, and therefore no eyes. They walk forward without seeing what is in front of them. The paths they walk are as winding and uncertain as those we tread ourselves.

Detail from Meng-Hsuan Wu’s “Passage.” Marbling paint and wood burning on basswood.

Detail from Meng-Hsuan Wu’s “Passage.” Marbling paint and wood burning on basswood.

Across the gallery, Claudio Orso-Giacone presents a woodcut which could almost be put into conversation with Wu’s trees. In the print, a barefoot man dances on a hilltop. He clutches a guitar neck in one hand, and with the other applies a brush to a plein air painting. Text at the bottom of the frame command “You Just Got to Keep on Wiggling”. Sound advice, for trees or humans.

Artists of Art House: Art Teaches will be on view during the Sept. 20 Third Friday open house. It is located in Suite 215 Gallery, on the second floor of the 78th Street Studio’s main building. For more information about Art House, call 216-398-8556 or go to arthouseinc.org. The exhibition is curated by Christopher Richards.

Melissa Daubert, “Hen House.” Mixed media.

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