Social Curiosities: An exhibition of new work by the 2008-2009 Fellows of the New York Academy of Artby Sharon L. Butler
New York Academy of Art
October 28 – December 6, 2009
Social Curiosities, work by the 2008-09 New York Academy of Art postgraduate fellowship recipients—Matthew Miller, Annie Wildey, and Phillip Thomas—gives me hope for what has become a dire situation for the art profession. Tens of thousands of debt-ridden art students are scheduled to graduate this year. When they started school, the art market was thriving. Galleries, curators, and collectors trawled MFA open studio events for new talent. Jobs were plentiful. Being an artist seemed like a legitimate, practically defensible career path rather than an eccentric calling that would lead to noble pauperism. Now, tenured professors can no longer afford to retire, and university art departments and art schools face staff reductions despite the inexplicably growing number of applicants. Art school graduates can’t even count on finding low-level positions like studio assistant, university studio technician, art handler, or gallerina. A good many of them will shake their heads, plead temporary insanity, cast off the whole idea of the artist’s vocation as frivolous and head to law school. The upside, of course, is that Darwinian times force the fittest—the most dedicated and ambitious as well as the most talented—to shine. Social Curiosities comprises three young artists determined to find their voices during these difficult times.
For the past year Miller, Wildey, and Thomas have been afforded studio space, an annual stipend, tutorial support, and opportunities for teaching assistantships. The New York Academy is known for its classical figurative curriculum and unswerving commitment to rigorous perceptual study, so the challenge the three have faced is to find relevant content and inventive approaches while continuing in the classical tradition. To varying degrees, they have all succeeded. Wildey, who paints monochromatic perspectival studies of road and subway trestles, and Gordon, who mashes up references from paintings past, are still finding their way, though with considerable promise. The standout is Matthew Miller, who has clearly hit his stride.
Annie Wildey’s foreboding paintings and monoprints depict the lonely spaces created by dark overpasses and other little-considered elements of the urban architectural landscape. She eschews a full color spectrum in favor of a grittier monochromatic strategy that enables her to forge illusions of shadow and light through both additive and subtractive means. Wildey builds the shadows with thicker, darker applications of paint, while scraping down and thinning to create the impression of light. What her paintings lack in aesthetic and conceptual diversity they make up in energetic paint handling, the dynamic use of perspective and composition, and a poetic sense of light. Wildey draws our attention to the desolate urban spaces we tend to regard as mere conduits of travel but which, she suggests, need to be experienced more profoundly.
Phillip Thomas sees himself as a “meta-archeologist,” creating large-scale paintings that lift images from art history while incorporating new narratives and characters from his Caribbean upbringing. His aim is a “radical misinterpretation” of well-loved European paintings, and at times, passages of virtuoso paint handling fulfills his ambitious agenda. Other times, the result is an indecipherable medley of hastily painted images and ideas. The fact remains that Thomas has energy and ambition as well as real ability. With these tools, he has plenty of time to sort out and refine his aesthetic.
Where Thomas’s paintings are loud and brash, Matthew Miller’s are quietly compelling. Miller, who grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Mennonite community, paints portraits that recall the largely unknown and self-taught early American itinerant painters who traveled the countryside in search of commissions. Miller’s portraits, like those of the early limners, have a convincing feel of three-dimensionality, and yet, at the same time a waxy, brushstroke-free flatness that is visually and emotionally stunning. In these pieces (three self-portraits, a man, and a woman), the sitters, in their deep stillness, naked from the waist up and surrounded by a shiny pool of inky blackness, convey a palpable sense of worry and dread, but with a hint of balefulness.
The firmness and conviction of Miller’s work leaves little doubt that the studied yet muted ache it conveys is existential in scope, for he seamlessly combines in his paintings the universal weight of mortality, the stoicism of Middle America, and the otherness of his own background. I suspect, as well, that particular concerns about the grim outlook for young artists like himself come into play. Paradoxically, the impressive results of his efforts are near proof that any particular worries he may have about his viability as an artist are groundless.
ContributorSharon L. Butler
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.