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The Juror’s Viewpoint: The Skylark Prize

January 28, 2009 by Fabrik Editor in Art, Artists, Features, Painters with 0 Comments

<img class="alignright size-medium wp-image-37" title="Skylark Award designed by Vermont sculptor Richard Erdman" src="http://fabrik.la/wp-Travel Tea Sets
DomiTeacontent/uploads/2009/01/SkylarkAward-150.jpg” alt=”Skylark Award designed by Vermont sculptor Richard Erdman” />My colleagues at Skylark honored me by asking that I judge the first Skylark Prize, to be awarded, as they put it, “to an artist whose work has proven to be innovative, while consistent in quality.” The on-line announcement of such an award attracted exactly that kind of artist – quite a few of them, in fact. The award package was tempting enough: a cash prize of $2000, but also a six-week fully paid fellowship at Sias International University in Zhengzhou, China (which includes trips to Beijing and Shanghai) and, for winner and runners-up alike, an exhibition, complete with catalogue, at Skylark’s Los Angeles gallery, optimally located in West Hollywood. The award itself, a sculpture designed by Vermont bronze master Richard Erdman, iced the cake.

Judging is never easy, at least past the first round or two during which the chaff separates from the wheat. The submissions that survived that shake-out process were many and imposing. I’ve found, interestingly enough, that international competitions can’t always be depended on to yield such substance. The regional shows I’ve judged have invariably been strong, as the word gets out through the local grapevines, but shows with broader grasps don’t always have the reach. In this case, we brought in superb artists from all over the country, and many parts of the world. Indeed, I wondered about my own bias: three of the six finalists, including the winner, are southern Californians (and two more from northern California), so I wonder if working as a professional art-taster in this state for over 2 decades hasn’t tilted me into the Pacific, as it were. No, I reason, we got a good response from all over the United States (if perhaps less so from abroad), and the ultimate selection simply argues for the particular vigor of artistic activity in this state – especially down here in the Southland.

David McDonald, Fly In Fly OutThe Sias University link is an especially provocative aspect of the Skylark Prize. Sias International University is the first such institution in the People’s Republic of China to be established according to American university standards, while also incorporating aspects of European collegiate instruction. The arts constitute a major part of Sias University’s curriculum, and their newly-built and ever-expanding campus includes remarkable facilities for all the arts. The school has been maintaining a visual artists’ residency program that has favored artists from the States, and it now draws on Skylark and the Skylark Prize for some fresh outside-the-mainstream faces. As it turns out, Sias will bring over not only prizewinner David McDonald, but Nancy Braver, a runner-up whom Sias officials also regard as especially appropriate to their program. Is it a coincidence that both McDonald and Braver are based in Los Angeles?

It is not a coincidence that I knew both McDonald’s work and Braver’s before judging the contest. As usual, many artists entered the contest upon learning that I would judge it, aware of the fact that I already knew their work. It was frustrating, in fact, to be able to include so few applicants I knew to be of merit; that is to say, you shoulda seen the ones that got away. But that could be said as well about applicants entirely unknown to me whose images intrigued me. One of the main motivations for judging such shows, after all, is to make new discoveries. I did that, certainly, and two of the runners-up, at least, were unfamiliar to my eyes until now.

David McDonald, La Calle De Mi CiudadSkylark Prizewinner David McDonald has established himself nationally with an ongoing body of work that conflates minimalism, “material abstraction,” and an emphatically painterly sensibility. The roughness and obduracy of the object’s ingredients gives it evident weight, but its self-containment proves endearingly graceful, and often surprising, as it partly blends in with its architectural surroundings. Indeed, the work’s gritty modesty and low-key sensuality save it from self-conscious formula. McDonald’s art does not pose as abject; to the contrary, it asserts the dignity of its form and substance.

Nancy Braver, Column 8Nancy Braver, the runner-up headed for Zhengzhou, builds on her own experience as a sculptor and contemporary artist to create elegant, witty, logical yet playful and even magical structures whose myriad segments mirror and elaborate one another with an almost biological logic. Braver’s forms are stark, their presence is forceful, their colors are bold and sweet, but the light that animates all these is soft and gentling – a modifying factor that makes every other element cohere.

The third Angeleno in the mix, performance artist Jamie McMurry, takes an approach to performance art (yes, performance art!) that frees the discipline from the stage and returns it to where it began in the context of art: out in life itself. Renewing the efforts of Allan Kaprow and the artists of Fluxus, McMurry conceives of and carries out tasks and efforts whose sense of spectacle resides in their absurdity, their surprise, and their often sport-like expenditure of energy. Such compactly conceived, efficiently realized activities infer the engagement of their audience (and gratify their performers) with their brevity, their skewed but apparent logic, and the dissolution they effect between quotidian existence and the “special realm” – the realm of unanticipated entertainment and heightened awareness – that art provides.

Connie Goldman, Arena XConnie Goldman maintains a reductivist formal vocabulary, producing clearly described forms in single colors, albeit in eccentric relationship to the angled shapes of the canvases themselves. For all their starkness, Goldman’s paintings, if anything, temper rather than agitate the eye; indeed, they can function as objects of contemplation whose presence infers harmony and balance. This is not the aggressive, obdurate Minimal Art theorized in the 1960s, but the transcendent minimalism explored earlier, at least as far back as Malevich. Goldman does not freight her icons of absence with spiritual import; but in their resonance they can provide something of the perceptual shift we associate with metaphysical insight.

Joan Schulze, Women in BlackJoan Schulze is best known as a quilt-maker; but the quilts she makes function physically like collages, the collages she realizes depend heavily on fabric, and her prints, too, embrace both the formal balances and discontinuities of collage while radiating quilt-like sensuality. Schulze is dedicated less to a particular discipline than to a particular sensibility, the “collage aesthetic” that mirrors the disjunctive quality of modern life and seeks to determine coherence and harmony within such disjunction. The presence of photographic imagery in her quilts, fabric patterns in her prints, and painterly passages in her collages all attest to Schulze’s unified approach to these disparate media.

Tommy White, Cake Pan MorningThe exuberant abstractions of Oklahoman Tommy White, composed of diverse forms arrayed in rhythmic counterpoint across and around the picture plane, have their source in a vision that manifests what can only be called a childlike sophistication. They subtly depend on a kind of syntax of shapes, as if the linear fragments and burgeoning silhouettes – posed against one another like collage elements but not allowed to touch – were pictograms in hieroglyphic tablets. White’s paintings effervesce with a doubled animation, an animation you can imagine projected on a screen and an animation you can feel percolating throughout life itself. White’s carefully reasoned and yet thoroughly ingratiating paintings aren’t the kind of abstractions your kid could do; they’re the kind of abstractions your kid should do.

Visits to the artists’ Websites, of course, will provide substantial background and, at least in a couple of cases, illuminating videos (or links to same). McDonald and Braver head for China later this spring. Meanwhile, Skylark is gearing up for the 2nd Annual Prize competition, which will hopefully link West Hollywood that much more with the rest of the art world – and, for that matter, the rest of the art world with the burgeoning art scene(s) of Los Angeles.

David MacDonald: http://www.davidmcdonaldart.com
Nancy Braver: http://www.nancybraver.com
Jamie McMurry: http://www.mcmurryperformance.com
Connie Goldman: http://conniegoldman.photoshop.com
Joan Schultz: http://www.joan-of-arts.com
Tommy White: http://www.tommywhiteartist.com
Skylark Prize: http://www.skylarkprize.com

Words Peter Frank, Art Critic and Curator of the Riverside Art Museum

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