Satisfying an Appetite for Charisma Print
Art - Reviews
Written by Steve Banks   
Tuesday, 04 April 2006 18:00
A mighty princess constructed from painted nails, fabric, and costume jewelry stands proudly with her rusted sword-like scepter overhead. Her spontaneous presence tells us that she is the product of a visually inquisitive soul with a sincere enthusiasm for image making. And she is not alone. She is just one of many entrées waiting to be sampled at the visual smorgasbord within the 30th annual Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition at the Augustana College Art Gallery.

The “she” in question is the piece African Princess, one of several pieces that were awarded prizes by juror Fred Jones, a retired art faculty member from Western Illinois University and founder of the Western Illinois Folio Press. In his juror’s statement, Jones talks about how art “meets a subconscious need to satisfy an appetite for visual charisma,” and with that in mind, sees his task as a juror as “a search for images that have this kind of potency and poetry.”

The “visual charisma” that Jones speaks of can also be described as a piece having a sense of presence or personality. It becomes more than just pigment on a surface or a collection of found scraps. These simple components are transmogrified into something that actively engages the viewer.

Jeanne O’Melia displays a heightened level of visual sophistication with her “found object” figure African Princess by infusing it with that sense of personality. Even though the poetic princess is constructed from rusted metal, purple nail links from a nail gun, bits of golden jewelry, two-toned purple fabric, and a crown made from some type of gear or circular cutting blade, she becomes more than a collection of just these objects. She becomes a “she” and not an “it.”

While most of the colors are the “found” colors of the objects, the nails have been painted (either by O’Melia or a fashionable carpenter) not only to simplify and consolidate the tones within the piece, but to tap into some of the traditions of Mardi Gras – whose colors are gold, purple, and green (representing power, justice, and faith, respectively). Is this sword-wielding African princess a counterpart to the Zulu King?

The first prize of $1,000 was awarded to Mary Koenen-Clausen for her engaging mixed-media piece Her Prayer. Near the center of Koenen-Clausen’s dream-like world we are presented with a softly toned photograph of a cherub-like child whose body is outlined with type and whose hands are pressed together in prayer. The child and the colorful butterflies that surround her are anchored by two large blocks of textural mass created by dense rows of Chinese characters.

The figure is further accentuated by being visually pinched between the red background, which is struggling to push forward, and the cool electrified blue of the table in the foreground, which is trying to recede in space. These elements are gently held in place by a background that is made up of shaky stratified lines of musical notes almost frantically placed in a personal code-like shorthand.

Her Prayer successfully establishes a surreal and contemplative mood through use of warm and cool colors, hand-drawn and photo-based elements that share the same level of visual importance, and a shallow sense of space that erratically obeys the rules of three-point perspective. The unplayable music and the foreign script create a layer of unanswered questions, potentially laden with important information but remaining untranslated.

Although there are some religious underpinnings with the praying girl whose body is haloed by typed prayer elements, the physical environment reads more like an exploration of either the spiritual or the subconscious. Her Prayer gives us a glimpse into the personal balance between being spiritual and being religious. Its charismatic presence draws your attention repeatedly.

In Karen Blomme’s Dog Gone Blue, we see how the rhythmic recurrence of a motif – in this case bluish squares with spunky dogs – can bring order to near-chaos. The base of the image is established by a thickly layered tapestry of screened images dominated by splotches of azures, indigos, denims, and purples. This overall cool palette is wisely balanced with a slight, but important, contribution from peaches, pinks, and yellows.

While the underlying visual activity is what infuses the piece with vitality, it is the dialogue between the simplified squares, and the dogs within them, that subdues the otherwise hyper-kinetic base.

The layer of fragmented silkscreen images is like a giant crashing wave, and Blomme’s thoughtful rhythmic placements of the foreground squares and simplified overall color palette are what let her ride this otherwise skull-crashing wave into land.

Bruce Walters’ digitally composed image Lachesis is stunning in its effective simplicity. Essentially, it is a drawing of the upper torso of a statue; it’s the execution that makes it so eloquent. Walters uses soft grayish tones, cool blacks, and luminous lavenders to sumptuously render the shoulders of a woman whose arm is cocked upward to hold her flowing hair, which melds with the veil on top of her head. Walters’ treatment of color and tone imbues the image with a glowing feeling of chalk pastels.

Walters includes a subtle, but crucial, element by adding intersecting lines that divide the image into four panels (two large and two small rectangles). The diagonal thrust of the exposed shoulders and the wavy mass of hair and veil converging on the head coupled with the linear divisions deliver our attention to the soft face in profile. The much larger mass of the back retrieves our attention only for it to be drawn back to the face again.

The energetic pencil-on-paper piece Winter Stone Women earned Don Bulucos an honorable mention. He presents us with the intermingled bundle of forms that describe a bear with its claws extended, two face-like mask forms, and a contorted human female with “possession eyes” – the bugged-out look that happens when a spirit takes over your body.

Strong gestural lines cause the viewer’s eye to dance in a spiral around the composition, stopping each trip at the fascinating facial grouping in the center of woman, mask, and beast. While the cryptic phrases “masks with sleep, tongues the bear into hibernation” and “one mask breaks away only to reveal another mask” help set a solemn and spiritual mood. Much of Winter Stone Women’s personality resides in the strong and confident pencil work, which serves to not only direct our attention but also establish the mood.

These were just a few of the pieces that were awarded prizes by Jones. Kristin Quinn and James Walker Henry earned second- and third-place honors, respectively. Les Bell, Ann Coulter, Bruce Walters, Karen Blomme, Jeanne O’Melia, and David Zahn also received honorable mentions.

The strength of the Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibit comes from its diversity of artists and their ability to take us on a journey brimming with individual insights translated into strong visuals full of personality. Since it is an unthemed juried show, it is more about showcasing dynamic talent than exploring a topic, theme, or motif. The artists supply the ingredients and the juror composes the meal. The selections indicate that Jones is a visual chef with a broad taste palette and a desire to share his wide-ranging passion.
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