360/365 and 50

Oh, the associations one can bring to the viewing of art does lead down some unique paths.  At the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival we saw Julie Taymor receive her Susan B. Anthony Award and we heard the gracious comments from Garth Fagan about Ms. Taymor’s vision and work ethic.  Then we get to see Helen Mirren star as Prospera in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.  As the film opens, Mirren raises her staff – and on a distant stormy sea great waves hit a foundering boat, thus setting the scene for marvelous storytelling and poetic alchemy.  I couldn’t help thinking that Taymor has the eyes of a painter like Joseph Mallord William Turner (think of his “SlaveShip” of 1840, oil on canvas), and in fact the sprite Ariel, in this film version of “The Tempest”, is a change agent – who has powers not unlike that of a great artist.

The following day we look in on the introduction of C.Scott’s documentary film “The Woodmans”; and stay for the presentation of Francesca Woodman’s photos, the testament of her parents – Betty and George, and the episodes that follow leading up to a tragic ending.  The epilogue for this family of artists highlights how vulnerable we are, and how we struggle to deal with mental distress.  George’s artwork changed as a result, from pattern painting to a photographic art that has eerie similarities to his deceased daughter’s ouevre. Betty’s ceramics get bigger and bolder, and yet she appears not willing to address on camera issues of guilt and regret about her daughter’s illness.

Betty Woodman goes on to have major exhibitions at MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then off to Beijing to add her art to the new American Embassy being built there.  But the art of their daughter seems to transcend this all – and hold in it some core of enigma, and elusive personality.

Demuth “The Figure 5 in Gold”
courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bill Santelli ” 5-0 in Gold”
courtesy Oxford Gallery, Inc.

We are left in a retrospective mood bolstered by the fact that this is the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Oxford Gallery in Rochester, celebrated by the opening of a spring exhibition honoring many of the participants past and present.

I was aware of the reputation of the Oxford Gallery way before I ever set foot there.  Artists who I knew in New York City like Morton Kaish were represented by the Oxford Gallery, and an artist and printmaker – Zevi Blum (I was his graduate assistant at Cornell in the 1970’s) had many shows at Oxford.  What is the Oxford Gallery known for, and why has it had such endurance over the years?  First, over all there is enlightened management, a passion for the art it shows with remarkable consistency, and a deep respect for the traditional craft of image making.  The Oxford Gallery offers mainly representational art for the wall and some noteworthy sculpture featuring artists from central and western New York.

When you walk downstairs and visit the Oxford Gallery you are immediately ushered into the gallery space by Jim Hall, the present owner.  At a distance one sees what looks like Charles Demuth’s “The Figure 5 in Gold”, now updated by Bill Santelli to commemorate 50 years in business; the painting is clever and eye catching.  Demuth made the original in 1928 in response to his friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, in a momentary observation of a ruckus caused by a passing fire truck.

Observation is crucial to the artists at the Oxford Gallery show, so many of the works succeed ( or fail ) at holding your attention – by either presenting you with something commonplace that is beautifully rendered such as the tree in Phil Bornarth’s “Wadsworth Oak”, or the still life by David Dorsey “Flowers From Another Year”, or else giving you something entirely new like Jacquie Germanow’s sculpture “Lacuna” .

History was written on the walls and this 50th birthday for the gallery includes a recent find “The Centennial” -by Lilly Martin Spencer, an American painter ( 1822-1902) of genre scenes known primarily here in Rochester for her work “Peeling Onions” usually on view at the MAG.  “The Centennial” is a large unfinished canvas depicting age and youth at a party; it was found on the artist’s easel at the time of her death.

On the elegiac note one must acknowledge the passing of Nancy Buckett also a former owner and director of the Oxford Gallery who died earlier this month, and the aforementioned Zevi Blum whose print hangs in the entry vestibule.  Both were friends and a part of the fabric of the visual arts scene and they will be missed.

Wishing the Oxford Gallery well for all the support that has been given to the artists whose vision is celebrated with this and what one hopes will be many exhibitions to come.  Go and enjoy the show.

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