Representation, Now: “Art Now 2019: Painting” at Ann Arbor Art Center


Judith Bemis' painting Waiting for His Grace

Judith Bemis, Waiting for His Grace, oil on canvas, 60" x 48". Roula David and Judith Bemis at the opening night for Ann Arbor Art Center's “Art Now 2019: Painting” exhibit. Images courtesy Ann Arbor Art Center.

Continuing with the fifth installation of its semi-annual exhibition themes, the Ann Arbor Art Center’s Art Now 2019: Painting illustrates the vitality of this perennial art form in our contemporary arts.

Given the dramatic permutations that some art mediums have experienced in the last century -- fabrics and ceramics come readily to mind -- the transitions that painting underwent are seemingly under the radar. But this statement, of course, is not the case.

After all, it was only a little more than one brief century ago that the fury of expressionism was beginning to be felt in European art. Ultimately, various abstractions were going to rule the cutting-edge roost for all intent and purposes through mid-century to be supplanted by the playful shock of Neo-Dada in the 1950s and then branch into the various -isms that would amaze audiences through the balance of the 20th century.

Representation -- expressive or otherwise -- was always a predominant force in painting that worked itself around these flashier kinds of headliner aesthetics. And as the Art Center’s Art Now 2019: Painting heartily shows us, representations -- expressive or otherwise; particularly portraiture -- are still front and center in the visual arts same as it ever was. 

Artists from around the region, our state, and country selected for Art Now 2019: Painting are Jean-Paul Aboudib, Yusser Al-Qazwini, Elliot Avis, Douglas Barron, Justin Bean, Jody Beighley, Josh Berliner, Laurén Brady, Beth Brown, Heather Brugger, Jordan Buschur, Jeanne Ciravolo, Taimur Cleary, Vanessa Compton, Ann Marie Curley, Tara Daly, Hector Del Campo, Jack Delaney, Ani Garabedian, David Giordan, Eric Goldberg, Tatsuki Hakoyama, Kelly Hansen, Ryan Herberholz, Leanna Hicks, Douglas LaFerle, Maxwell Majoros, Chadwick Noellert, Onzie Norman, Michael Pfleghaar, Christine Ritchie, Mike Ross, Krysti Spence, Nick Stamas, Taylor Stewart, and Nathan Stromberg.

Ann Arbor talents in the show include Judith Bemis, Grant Czuj, Rocco DePietro, Deborah Eyde, Meg Goodman, Barry Nelipowitz, Chadwick Noellert, and Peter Sparling. Ypsilanti artists selected for inclusion are Cecilia DiFranco and Claudia Selene.

This year’s juror is Roula David, executive director of Murals in the Market, an Eastern Market, Detroit-based street art festival that has produced more than 125 outdoor murals since 2014. And David’s selections for distinction run as follow: Best of Show, Judith Bemis (Ann Arbor), Waiting for His Grace (oil on canvas); Second Place, Jack Delaney (Tyler, TX), Psychoanalytic Road Show (oil on canvas); Third Place, Beth Brown (Dearborn, MI), Girl with Paint Brush, Parade Co. Studios, Detroit (acrylic on canvas); with two Honorable Mentions, Yusser Al-Qazwini (New Hudson, MI), Jarrat Kohl (acrylic, oil on canvas) and Maxwell Majoros (Highland Park, MI), Lincoln St. Art Park (oil on canvas).

Douglas La Ferle's painting Balloon Dart

Douglas La Ferle, Balloon Dart from Circus Series, oil on canvas, 24" x 48"

Interestingly enough, for a show whose gallery statement says the “exhibit highlights artists that employ painting techniques, as well as artists who move across disciplines and push the boundaries of what defines contemporary painting … through the application of hybrid processes and use of mixed media,” juror David has chosen to highlight paintings that largely stick to representational topics that use traditional oil on canvas. There are plenty of artworks that run the gamut of contemporary art using mixed media in abstraction and other hybrid processes, but David’s taste runs remarkably consistent with an interest in art that tells a story.

As her Best of Show illustrates, Judith Bemis’ oil on canvas Waiting for His Grace is a story within a story. The painting features a quite-near photo-realist oversized portrait of a family standing before a mottled stucco wall, the face of each of four kids and mother registering differing emotions to the artist. But framing the painting is a written letter describing a harrowing militia raid.

The painting’s understated contradictions -- so palpable; heartfelt and heart-driven -- turns Waiting for His Grace into a powerful masterpiece. Bemis’ handling of both aspects of her painting balances context with portraiture; as a result, the painting is as much social commentary as it is representation. It’s an interlocking narrative that tugs emotionally at the viewer as much as it states its situation.

My informal critic’s choice of the exhibit follows along the line of David’s thinking for this show. As many of the works she selected have what I described as an interlocking narrative, I’ve selected Royal Oak, MI resident Douglas La Ferle’s marvelous oil on canvas Balloon Dart painting for distinction.

Balloon Dart is a fabulous study of the natural verging on the eerie supernatural. Ostensibly depicting a familiar carnival game, La Ferl elevates his tableau of this summer activity into a study of loneliness that heightens its common locale.

The painting’s stall is placed centrally in the composition with two families engaged in their participation with an additional man looking on from aside. Yet the darkness surrounding the stall gives the stand’s vibrant interior an otherworldly ambiance. Communal yet curiously isolated, Balloon Dart finds its unordinary magic in the minutia of the all-too-ordinary.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

Ann Arbor Art Center 117 Gallery: “Art Now 21019: Painting” runs through March 16. The Ann Arbor Art Center 117 Gallery is located at 117 W. Liberty St. Exhibit hours are Monday-Friday, 10 am to 7 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm; and Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For information, call 734-994-8004 or visit