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Given Five Common Objects, Fifteen Artists Produce Uncommon Results

March 3, 2009

This piece originally appeared in The Pulse, Nov. 23, 2008

The chief conceit behind the Hunter Museum’s [recent] headline exhibit wasn’t drafted on a director’s desk or a curator’s conference table. It began in the minds of some of the show’s featured artists. Their idea was simple: 15 painters would be given five objects to incorporate into a series of original works.

"Me and the Moth," Janet Monafo (theobjectproject.com)

"Me and the Moth," Janet Monafo (theobjectproject.com)

How the objects could appear in their compositions was left up to the participants. They could be “painted as they are, smashed, attached to the canvas, altered, etc.,” said a letter from the steering committee. The objects were to be seen not as a constraint, but rather as a common point of departure, from which each artist would set to work in his or her respective style, be it landscape, still life, portraiture, or figure composition. United by a ball of string, a hand mirror, a water glass, a bone, a moth, and a commitment to contemporary realism, the painters would demonstrate how a small set of items, placed before the right eyes, could elicit an array of creative responses. These responses—all of them interesting, several of them stunning—are on display at the Hunter until December 28 in a fine show, aptly titled “Object Project”.

While “Object Project”’s driving concept was easily envisioned without the aid of a suit and tie, the exhibit still needed an executive endorsement to steer it into a fitting gallery space. So the team launched a search to find a financier who shared its vision. Museums were targeted, lists of directors compiled, and queries made. The responses began coming back: Some had enthusiasm for the project but few funds to match; others had little of either.

Depending on whom you talked to, the project was a gimmick or a great idea. For John Streetman, director of the Evansville Museum of Art, History and Science in Evansville, Indiana, it was the latter. When the steering committee found Streetman, they’d found their man.

“It was an easy decision to partner with some of America’s most distinguished artists in organizing ‘Object Project’,” said Streetman. “Our museum has had a longstanding commitment to champion contemporary realism.”

The project also reminded Streetman of another successful exhibition hosted by his museum a decade ago. “Four Objects, Four Women, Ten Years”, featured in 1999, had generated a “strong interest,” he said. And he was confident that “Object Project” would make a similar mark on his community.

Nevertheless, Streetman was taking a risk in backing the project. It was an exhibit that existed as an idea only. Though preparations had been underway for some time among steering committee members, paint still sat unmixed before blank canvases and boards in the artists’ studios. The program had to develop, as M. Stephen Doherty of American Artist Magazine put it, “purely on faith.”

“Clearly, the concept was so compelling and the roster of participating artists so strong,” says Doherty, that Streetman was sure in his decision to step out with these artists. Other venues soon followed in Greenville, South Carolina, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Englewood, Colorado, and, of course, here in Chattanooga. Visitors to “Object Project” are likely to agree that this exhibit makes good on its initial promise to turn a gallery space into a fascinating study of formal diversity.

"Still Life with Tomatoes and Lemons," Jeff Uffelman (theobjectproject.com)

"Still Life with Tomatoes and Lemons," Jeff Uffelman (theobjectproject.com)

In Janet Monafo’s hands, the appearance of a moth occasions a still life and a self-portrait, both of which evidence her able use of varied patterns and textures and her keen sense for the interplay of pastel shades. In “Me and the Moth”, the insect in question hangs just over the artist’s turned shoulder, drawing our eye curiously away from the shawl whose vivid pattern first pulled us in. Deep red and blue flowers intertwine purple paisleys and gold outlines on the fabric of this shoulder wrap, an accessory whose warm hues counterbalance the almost icy surprise in Monafo’s eyes.

In one of Jeff Uffelman’s still lifes, that same moth is placed face-up on a framed white mat and surrounded by lemons, tomatoes, and the ball of string, bone and glass of water that appear in some permutation in each of the exhibit’s other pieces. Uffelman, who briefly studied architecture before taking a full turn toward painting, allows an aerial view of his objects that calls attention to their angles and the geometric value of their placement. Such a move brings to mind the optical stunts of Escher.

The glass of water, which becomes a shining sphere suggestive of cylindrical depths when seen from above, forms the painting’s centre. From it emanate bands of protracted light that call the other shapes into a sort of orbit.  The lemon and the bone appear to be pulled in toward the core of this watery force. The lay of the threads in the ball of string, however, spins against the luminous rings, imbuing the whole arrangement with a gripping tension.

The strength of such works as these kept the critical edge of my mind away from the one weakness big enough to compromise this exhibit. Admittedly, paintings of lesser achievement might present the program’s shared objects as divisive props or tasteless gags. To the credit of the artist’s involved, most of these works avoid any tinge of contrivance.

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