Manus manum lavat. (One hand washes the other.) -- Petronius
The obvious role of politics in the uneven "Side by Side" show at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is so shameless it eclipses a serious discussion of the art. Any artist would, of course, be a fool not to accept an invitation to show at the Brooks, and the participants deserve no blame for accepting. Therefore, I apologize to them in advance for the following non-review.
"Side by Side" is predicated on "Departures," which showed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A. a couple of years ago. Regional artists were invited to create an artwork inspired by a piece in the Brooks' permanent collection. The works were then installed alongside their inspirations, sprinkled throughout the museum, initiating a veritable Easter egg hunt that exposes viewers to the entire collection. But the invitational is stunted by the same old dull curatorial mandate to represent all constituencies, academic or otherwise. It begs the question: Has the committee that selects the annual Arts in the Park invitational found something to do in the off-season?
That's harsh, you say? Back in 1998, a Fredric Koeppel review in The Commercial Appeal summed up Brooks' 10-year retrospective of Arts in the Park under the subtitle "Dubious selection process degrades honorees." Taking in the decade-long survey, Koeppel observed that, year after year, artists were not "chosen because they were essential, indispensable, and indisputedly talented, not because our community would be inconsolably diminished if they weren't working in our midst, but because that year happened to be their turn."
Little has changed about the prejudiced criteria Koeppel cited in his article; if anything, they are more firmly established. The regional artists selected for "Side by Side" are so boringly predictable, particularly in the deference paid to educational institutions. How not-so-ironic that, of the 32 artists invited to participate in "Side by Side," Koeppel's math in '98 still applies perfectly today, in that "slightly more than half that number are (or were) teachers at Rhodes, U of M, the College of Art," etc. Of course, the implication is that artist-teachers are ipso facto meritorious artists and that art institutions are the undisputed heart of the art community. If the world were just, it might be true, but the corollary between institutions and excellent art is circumstantial at best.
That fraction of "Side by Side" artists not typified by academic standing is conspicuously filled by one of several other categories equally irrelevant to compelling art. How about a shout out to the South Main Arts District? If Jay Etkin of Jay Etkin Gallery is in the first half of the exhibit, which he is, then, of course, the second half, opening this summer, must include Ephraim Urevbu, proprietor of Art Village Gallery across the trolley tracks from Etkin. Ironically, the calculated attempt in "Side by Side" to not leave anybody out uses up the opportunity for authentic diversity.
The cut-and-dried lineup of "Side by Side" is, with few exceptions, the easy choices, the obvious choices, and the same choices. Several contributors are veterans of the Brooks' two other recent exhibits showcasing Mid-South artists -- 2000's "Do It," in which an advisory panel of artist-managers enlisted artists to create work following the written instructions of famous artists like Yoko Ono, and last year's excellent "Perspectives," a juried survey of local art. "Perspectives" stands out because it benefited from the integrity of an outside curator and because persuasive art was what primarily motivated his selection process, as opposed to the unsuccessful outcome of "Do It"'s trickle-down theory or the milquetoast boosterism of "Side by Side."
The real casualty of the selection committee's fixation with political correctness and inclusiveness is, as always, the art. That is not to imply that "Side by Side" doesn't feature some estimable art, just that it is undermined by the equal regard paid to lesser efforts.High points like the stellar installation after Luca Giordano's painting The Massacre of the Children of Niobe by Tom Lee of MCA or the exquisitely painted Café by U of M's Jed Jackson are attended by a gnawing suspicion that their inclusion is founded on some pathetic notion of democracy rather than their individual contributions to the exhibit.
I wonder what works realists Kathryn Manzo, Marc Rouillard, or Adam Shaw would respond to in the museum if given the opportunity. Or whether the selection committee is familiar with Pam Cobb, Don Estes, Mark Gooch, Nancy Hall, Greg Haller, Jeri Ledbetter, Mark Nowell, Jonathan Postal, Frank D. Robinson, Brian Russell, and Johnny Taylor. Will Charlie Miller be recognized for his fabulous paintings in this lifetime? How about the young guns Bob Burdette, Brook Grant, Marci Brown-Frye, Jason Story, Emily Walls, and Tad Lauritzen-Wright? Is the best they can hope for is hocking their work at the Playhouse On the Square art auction?
Through June 9th.