East City Art Reviews: "19 Ways of Looking at a Painting" at Porch Projects

By Eric Hope on August 17, 2012

As both an exhibition space and experimental art lab, Porch Projects is not easily categorized.  For its founder, artist Mariah Johnson, that is a good thing.  Occupying approximately 105 square feet on Johnson’s enclosed sun porch, the space has given area artists an avenue to explore their artistic ideas in a manner often unavailable in a commercial setting.  For the art lover the space offers a low-key, surprisingly friendly approach to interact with modern, more conceptual art.

Works by Christopher Dolan, Thomas Drymon, Brian Kelly, Emily Do, Becca Kallem and Julia Brown.

East City Readers might remember that Porch Projects was profiled in a column earlier this year.  At the time, Porch Projects was on a roll of one and two person shows highlighting the site-specific experiments of local artists as they worked on new directions for their practices.  It was therefore intriguing to read through the announcement for the first fall show, Nineteen Ways of Looking at a Painting.  For this exhibition, Johnson has literally invited 19 different painters to participate in a group show featuring current work with a slight twist:  the works will be installed in response to the physical shape of the room and the other paintings within it.

As the last works were being installed, I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Johnson to find out how she came up with the concept for this exhibition.  “So many past shows have been a project, that I wanted to try making a show of current work,” she says, adding that artists were told to bring work that they already have.  She put a call out to artists whose work she was interested in exploring, and in a testament to the space’s reputation, the vast majority of artists responded positively to the idea (a complete list of the 19 participating artists can be found on Porch Project’s website).  The show was hung over several weeks, and flipping the curatorial role on its head, Johnson allowed the artists themselves choose how and where to place their works based on the position of pieces that came

"The Fake (me)" by Peter E. Harper.

before them.  The exhibition spans two small rooms on the porch and I struck by two things.  First, the sheer number of works on display and the creative use of the windows and floor – not normally places you’d see painting displayed. Secondly, how the exhibition spontaneously separates itself into an area dealing with emotional relationships and an area dealing with spatial relationships.

Upon entering the space, viewers are bombarded by Laura Elkin’s Perilous Times at Porch Projects, a ceiling fresco and bulbous, three-dimensional effigy rising from the floor reminiscent of a Willem de Kooning figure leaping off the canvas.  While at first whimsical, the piece also holds a slightly sinister message about both sexual politics and personal freedoms in the age of increased government surveillance.  While not intentionally a centerpiece of the show, by dint of size and scope, it (pardon the metaphor) paints a slightly dark note in

Laura Elkins' "Perilous Times at Porch Projects" looms over the room.

the room, casting somber contexts on the pieces around it.  Pat Goslee’s abstract Happy Happy, hung on a nearby wall looks less happy and more sinister, as if the painting is bleeding lines of acrylic.  Likewise, the brushstrokes in Peter Harper’s The Fake (me), hung partially in a window below and behind the Elkin’s work, take on the tone of prison bars, locking the subject away an unknown charges.  Even Deborah M. Carroll Anzinger’s breezy, tropical Seascape (on Powerpoint blue) has a somber note when its photographic inset takes on the role of grainy surveillance footage.  Johnson tells me this whiff of menace in the room was neither intended nor planned, and thus provides an interesting example of how the context of a piece can be subtly altered or influenced merely by the works surrounding it.

While the first room examines how works impact each other emotionally, the second room looks more towards architecture and how both the shape of the room and form of the works influence each other.  This room lacks the feeling of cohesiveness present in the first room, but where works successfully play off one another, the effect is tangible.  Witness for example, the interaction between Julia Brown, Katherine Sable and Megan Mueller.  Making her second appearance at Porch Projects, Mueller’s Untitled paint on wood begins on the floor and marches up the wall where its triangular forms give way to the trapezoidal shapes in Sable’s On Magnetic Desires, then tops the painting off with another wood relief in a whimsical give-and-take.  Viewed next to these pieces, the erotic narrative of Brown’s Untitled (Test Strip)is sidelined by the vertical bands of grays, highlighting the structure of the painting over its more lascivious undertones.  Paintings by Brian Kelley and Christopher Dolan mimic windows looking upon landscapes while Tim Campbell and Katherine Mann literally use the room’s windows as their frames (in a no-turning-back-now moment, Mann cut apart her work to fit the window’s dimensions).

A trio of works by Julia Brown, Katherin Sable and Megan Mueller.

I reached out to several artists in this room to find out how the room’s architecture and prior art placement informed their choices.   Joren Lindholm told me he responded strongly to the room’s architecture by “reorienting the  piece vertically and build[ing] the piece outward by adding an impromptu drawing behind and around it” literally extending the piece onto the surface of the wall.  Lisa Rosenstein felt her two works’ placement was more influenced by prior artists’ choices than by room architecture alone.  She purposefully placed her pieces to create a visual transition between Pat Goslee’s ethereal Another Plover on her left and Joren Lindholm’s more linear Breach/Tilt on her right.

These conversations were helpful in shedding light on the artists’ rationale for placing their works as they did.  Since most viewers do not have access to the artists themselves (aside from the opening), an expanded exhibition statement or wall text incorporating this type of artist dialogue would have been helpful.  That said, even casual observers while find something interesting to focus on in this exhibition!