CSMA artists present the Decade in Review: Post-Decade, curated by Executive Director Robin Tropper-Herbel, is on display until Friday, April 30 in the Legacy Foundation Gallery at Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E. State Street in Ithaca. Call 607-272-1474 for more information.
THE NEW YEAR’S EVE of 2009 was a particularly special one. In Ithaca, temperatures hovered in the low to mid-30s, cold enough to allow for a steady downfall of pearly, sparkly snow, but warm enough to stand outside and drink champagne under the lustrous gleam of a full blue moon. The chatter on my Facebook feed was optimistic: the first decade of the 21st century had passed, and finally, something—though as yet impossible to know exactly what—would have to change.
VH1 My Generation Specials, Life Magazine glossy photo retrospectives, and fashion marketing platforms that routinely exploit nostalgia are only a few of the cultural forces that drive consumers to conceptualize ourselves as existing in mathematic chunks of time that grind and gear in patterns that are recognizable and even predictable. But whether the expectation of that ritualistic change shapes our reality or vice versa, the 2000s were quite different from the 90s, and the 90s distinctive from the 80s, and so on, and so who can blame us for anticipating the first decade of the 21st century, eager and hopeful for improved economic and social conditions.
But before we move forward, it’s prudent—and cathartic—to look back and reflect. This kind of conscious retrospective is currently underway at CSMA in a show called Post-Decade, in which 20 local and regional artists share their responses to the 2000s in a collective show that comes down at the end of this week.
The chosen theme is highly emotionally charged, given that we’re talking about an era that Time magazine dubbed “The Decade From Hell” in one of its 2009 year-end issues, the cover boasting a photo of a screaming baby with a screwed-up face and saggy little fat rolls, wearing nothing but a diaper and a party hat, and surrounded by the debris of a maxed-out New Year’s party – streamers, confetti, balloons, tipped-over champagne bottles. A decade this rife with social trauma is de facto ripe for unembellished artistic interpretations. Perhaps this theme even poses a trap for dogged literalism, and indeed, some of that is on display here. It’s as though collectively, we thought of 2000s, and we thought: catastrophe, without consideration for complications or nuance. Among the depicted ruins on display at CSMA are recurring references to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, ongoing and ambiguous wars, military industrial complex, George W. Bush, global warming, wind farm controversies, sudden poverty, and abject financial scandal.
The extent to which great suffering provokes great art is both debatable and highly subjective; one person’s visualization of a grief process may evoke only the slightest flicker of recognition in some viewers. Still, under the guise of witness, even the most obvious statements of grief or outrage may be valuable as cultural artifacts because they were made at all; their very existence prompts the viewer to ruminate on their implications.
Cherry Rahn’s sculptures stand on adjoining pillars that hug the walls but are placed along the central line in the plane of the gallery space. These two act almost as beacons for the show; because everything else is flattened and hung on the wall, these seem to jump out and interact with the empty space of the gallery itself, thereby setting the tone. “Survivor 9/11” is a bronze cast of a businessman in mid-stride, one of the haunted faces we watched march uptown in a grim parade of sudden pedestrians covered in ash, while “After the Flood,” hydrocal and acrylic, features a series of businessmen, again in mid-stride, all balding and carrying briefcases, up to their ankles in a thick sludge of water. A note from the artist clarifies that she was taking aim at the sharks and neo-Carpetbaggers who descended on New Orleans to capitalize on the disaster.
Monica Franciscus’ vaguely titled pieces, “War” and “War Again,” display amorphous, ominous shapes composed of acrylic and sand, the very element of the region we’ve invaded and occupied for much of the decade in question. James Spitznagel’s giclee prints, “A Curious Point of Reference” and “Development and Cultivation of a Curious Mind” give a good impression of the Zeitgeist: the former shows a smattering of tan color that appears to be in the process of being erased, seared by ever-bolder streaks of white, while the latter looks like a mess of digital scramble, a chaos of neon dots, points and particles.
Amidst the bluntness of direct references, more ambiguous works are appreciated: In Brody Burroughs’ “The Storm,” for instance, the scenario is not entirely clear. Children in a school crouch in a duck-and-cover position against a wall while a schoolmarm, hands-on-hips, stands over them. Her stance seems to indicate that the situation is not a true emergency (we assume she’d also be in a protective position if it was). But still the scene is fraught with a definite anxiety, supplemented by the suggestion of the title.
Andrea King’s “Credit Crunch / Treasure Trash” photo collages are perhaps the most thought-provoking in their seemingly nonsensical mix of cultural references: photos of trailer homes, some rusted out, some pimpled with satellite dishes, all slightly woeful, perhaps, but more or less neutral in their visual connotations. These trailer pictures, taken in the summer as displayed by green grass and lush trees, were then pasted onto indistinct background photos with mildly sexual overtones.
King’s pieces are lined up on two sides of a pillar and seemed to be distinguished by male and female themes, with cutouts of bulging packages and pecs on one side and butterflies, bejeweled wine glasses, and hourglass curves on the other. The “crunch” and “trash” of the materials themselves can be teased out of the title, but difficult to read into the images. The relationship between a credit crisis and a trailer home, or trailers and sexy images of the human form, are implied by association, but not explicit.
Amidst the ruminations on and depictions of widespread devastation were a few quiet, dignified responses to the static of large dramas taking place on a massive social scale: namely Carlton Manzano’s oil paintings and Nancy Ridenour’s giclee prints. Both show an elegant attention to craft and a subtle, but beautiful, understated style that makes evident the pleasure of a rich interior life maintained through times of national trauma. Manzano’s “Foreclosed,” particularly, is a lovely abstract architectural portrait of a house seized from its previous owners. There is an apparent sadness in the gentle curves of the tree branches and the sagging lines of the porch, but poignant pleasure in the blend of pinks, purples and greens that streak the struts and nearby foliage.
Ridenour’s “Sister’s 80th Birthday” is the standout optimistic piece in the collection, the one that bears not even a trace of devastation, but instead pulses with celebration. It is a portrait of the artist’s sister being presented with a cake decorated with flowers while seated in her verdant garden during her landmark party. The rosy-skinned subject is wearing a petal-pink t-shirt and a beaming smile. She seems to cast off a certain glow in her evident joy. It was this piece, dated 2010, that got me thinking of the dichotomies that shocking social disturbances can force on us. In the midst of social chaos, those of us fortunate enough to escape direct impact have an opportunity to come face-to-face with one of life’s starkest choices: to find and create a personal narrative and imbue it with unique meaning, or to let the Culture Machine spin a one-size-fits-all tragic story told over and over again on our behalf.
Danielle Winterton is Content Editor of The Ithaca Post and Co-Founding Editor of Essays & Fictions.