And Yet The Object Persists: Contemporary Showcase At SoFA

Just when you thought contemporary art was all about digital media and installation, three shows concede the persistence of the objet d'art.

  • Karen Baldner's German/Jew

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: Karen Baldner

    A piece in the CBAA Juried Exhibition, Karen Baldner's "German/Jew" is made of text stenciled handmade paper, in an edition of ten.

  • The Fulcrum Lost Its Feather:  A Collaborative Work by Daniel Evans and Shu-Mei Chan

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Daniel Evans and Shu-Mei Chan

    The promotional image for "The Fulcrum Lost Its Feather: A Collaborative Work by Daniel Evans and Shu-Mei Chan", part of the Blank Slate Series at the SoFA Gallery.

  • Installation view of the College Book Art Association Juried Exhibition at the SoFA Gallery

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: SoFA Gallery

    Installation view of the College Book Art Association Juried Exhibition at the SoFA Gallery.

  • Jason Lahr, Plexi

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: Jason Lahr

    Jason Lahr's Plexi (oil and acrylic on panel) is included in the exhibition Digital Error, on view at the SoFA Gallery.

Just when you thought contemporary art was all about digital media and installation, three exhibitions have opened at Indiana University’s School of Fine Arts Gallery that cling to, or at least comment on, art’s old standby: the object!

That’s right, there are paintings and books in two parts of the gallery. The third section is, admittedly, occupied by an installation—but it’s an installation that was created by a couple of potters.

Starting With A Blank Slate

Two of the shows on view are part of a short series of exhibitions by contemporary Indiana artists. Funded by the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Blank Slate series begins with a show of new work by Jason Lahr, who teaches painting at Notre Dame and is represented by Packer-Schopf Gallery in Chicago.

Grouped under the rubric Digital Error, Lahr’s paintings are brightly-hued panels that incorporate both text and image, employing commercial sign-painting techniques. The panels are populated with visual imagery appropriated from the sources as disparate as comic book worlds, heavy metal subculture, and gaming.

Lahr amalgamates the heterogeneous material in a slick way that’s mostly free of the trace of his hand. It begs the question of why he makes paintings in the first place, rather than—for example—digital prints or web pages.

Keeping One’s Hand In

“There still is some satisfaction in making things by hand,” suggests SoFA Gallery Director Betsy Stirratt. “These paintings have a presence. Looking at a print or viewing something on a screen is completely different from seeing something in a physical space.”

In the era of the Kindle, that distinction may be helpful to remember when visiting the second show currently on view at the SoFA gallery, a showcase of contemporary book art. You won’t see any eReaders in the College Book Arts Association Juried Members Exhibition, but you’d still be hard-pressed to identify most of the entries as “books” as we know them.

This Is Not A Book

Instead, there’s a Bible that looks like a ball of twine, a pair of shoes made of pages, and prints that retain a book’s sequence but translate the pagination into a linear format. You’ll find examples of fine binding and artfully printed classics. More often, though, the exhibition showcases contemporary art that reinterprets the idea and structure of a book in entirely new ways.

Does the popularity of reading books in an electronic format threaten the genre of the livre d’artiste? Not at all, according to Stirratt. A book artist herself, Stirratt served as one of the exhibition’s judges.

“The fact is, people still love books,” Stirratt avers. “Books are objects. You can hold them. Of course you can hold your Kindle too. But there’s something about the tactility of a book—particularly a well-designed and beautiful book—and its presence as an object, that people still enjoy. It’s just like art: They want to see the real thing.”

Conspiring Against Gravity

If it’s real handmade pottery that you want to see, you’ll have the chance to look at that too, albeit mostly broken in pieces on the ground. Completing the gallery’s offerings this month is another show in the Blank Slate series—The Fulcrum Lost Its Feather: A Collaborative Work by Daniel Evans and Shu-Mei Chan.

The husband-and-wife team behind the Bloomington Clay Studio collaborated in a call-and response fashion for Fulcrum. Evans tends to be an object-maker; Chan, an installation artist. Evans’ production of several heavy clay discs without hanging mechanisms prompted Chan’s dreams of weightlessness.

“What I had to do was get them up in the air,” Chan recalls. “And you can think of that metaphorically.”

Chan/Evans’ meditation on gravity is on view at the SoFA Gallery until January 29, 2011, along with Digital Error: Paintings by Jason Lahr, and the College Book Arts Association Juried Members Exhibition.

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Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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