The Wassaic Project’s Summer Exhibition currently on view at Maxon Mills brings together a dynamic group of international artists in all media – painting, sculpture, mixed media, video, charcoal, collage, neon, textile, and more. What’s striking about the show is the range of disciplines on display and the innovative use of materials, from traditional oil paint and charcoal to soda cans, tufted hand-dyed wool and sand. The survey show is one of the most exciting I’ve seen this year, fresh in perspective and hopeful in how artists have persevered through a couple of hard years. Many works are installed or displayed in the unique nooks and crannies of Maxon Mills, lending them added idiosyncrasy.
Maxon Mills as an exhibit space is an art project in and of itself, now in its fourteenth year of operation. Walking through the seven floors of the former grain elevator – over plywood floors and roughhewn construction, ever mindful of watching your step – actually sets the viewer up for heightened visual discovery of the show, I think; surprises lurk around every corner. The art viewing journey here is interesting and serendipitous, full of potential for wonder.
The Wassaic Project has hosted summer exhibitions for 14 years inviting emerging and mid-career artists to the campus through word-of-mouth and open calls. Some artists represented in the current show have spent a residency here, others are new to the organization and very early in their careers. The summer shows “take the temperature of the art world in a way,” says co-director, Jeff Barnett-Winsby. By hosting an open call, they receive submissions from artists at all levels of practice from all corners of the world working in just about all media. For this year’s summer show, the Wassaic Project received more than 500 submissions. Though this represents a high-water mark in submissions, Barnett-Winsby is quick to say the quality of the summer exhibition has always been high even though the submission process has evolved over time.
This summer’s show
This year’s show offers something for everyone; there are challenging works as well as delightfully pleasing ones. Heidi Johnson’s large, visually rich paintings of colorful birds pique curiosity on the ground floor. Nearby, Mariana Ramos Ortiz outlines resistance tactics against colonialism in Puerto Rico in works of sand blocks. I saw several children fascinated by the textile devotional of Libby Paloma, Gorgeous (Just About) Anywhere! created out of fabric, chicken wire, pom poms, and sequins. As I made my way up floor by floor, many pieces demanded attention and admiration.
The show opened May 21 but preparations began last fall. There’s no theme to the show, so deciding on a name for it came once most of the pieces had been selected and installed.
Though the show is a survey show, each floor has a loosely curated theme that makes best use of the unique Maxon Mills building layout. And, as anyone who’s seen an exhibit here knows, there are seven floors of exhibition space each with its own personality and dimensions. The top floor is reserved for one artist, in this case, Stephen Morrison and his unforgettable DOG SHOW #1: The (After) Party. This final stop delivers a multi-sensory reward to viewers who have made it all the way up seven flights of steps. The title of the show, A Tournament of Lies was decided upon after the show was curated by Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, and Will Hutnick. If the exhibition notes give clarity to the show’s title and expectation, these works are about “harnessing the infinite energy of the life imitates art imitates life imitates art dynamo.”
A Tournament of Lies comes from the R.E.M song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”
Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught
in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to
Lock him in uniform and book
burning, blood letting
Every motive escalate, automotive
Light a candle, light a motive, step
down, step down
Watch a heel crush, crush, uh oh, this
means no fear
Cavalier, renegade and steer clear
A tournament, a tournament, a
tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alterna-
tives, and I decline
The show includes work that asks some big questions while reflecting the complexities and contradictions in the American experience today. Concerns about colonialism, environmental neglect, and an automated future are a few themes that emerge.
Rafaela Lopez’s oil-painted raccoons on cans encased in resin suggest a metaphor for marginalized groups in a disposable culture. Michael Hambouz’s hand-cut paper works question whether objects that have been quietly observing human behavior will pick up where we left off when humans cease to exist. So much of the work is visually pleasing and accessible, it’s easy to contemplate these larger questions while standing in appreciation of the work. Craft has a place here too, with Eleanor Anderson’s gorgeous Dream Portal hanging majestically on floor #4 and Rachel Collier’s hand-tufted wool series.
From painting to embroidery to animation/installation to mosaic bricolage, the show includes a cornucopia of artistic practice. After taking in Richard Saja’s delicately subversive embroidery on the third floor one enters a video installation that honors native species and makes a plea for the conservation of abandoned public space. Works speak to the fatiguing condition of pandemic isolation as well as hopefully envision better worlds. Maxon Mills seems to uplift the art by imbuing the show with its own vibe of intimacy and immediacy.. A corner of 2b is reserved for Amy Vasquez’s grouping of vibrant gouache on canvas pieces. These works are set against a checkerboard floor and give the feeling of entering an intimate world of sunny veneration.
Having seen the show a couple of times now I can confidently say that the first six floors of exhibits do not prepare the viewer for the seventh floor, an elaborate installation dedicated to the work of Stephen Morrison. To say more here would be to spoil the effect. Morrison’s work is both accessible and shocking, humorous and disturbing. But it certainly is the reward for making it up six flights of steps.
Among the artists represented here are past residents as well as artists new to the Wassaic Project. The summer exhibition often begins a relationship between an artist and the Wassaic Project, one that can be fruitful for both parties for years to come. For some artists, this is their first group show. I was told that a few artists install their work themselves once invited to the exhibition. This collaborative process is in keeping with the Wassaic Project’s mission of supporting emerging artists and offering them community connection. Summer and winter residencies include studio visits and critic visits and expose working artists to collectors, art critics and other professionals vital to the art ecosystem. A foundational principal of this organization has been building an infrastructure of support for emerging art and artists. “The quality of work at the Summer Exhibition has always been high,” says Barnett-Winsby, “but it has evolved. Some artists are getting picked up by collectors after exhibiting here but giving artists the experience of peer network development has been important to our work from the beginning.”
Many artists have these experiences for the first time at the Wassaic Project and this helps them gain confidence, advance in their practice and connect with other artists and supporters. Many artists experience such a welcoming community here they come back and participate in other ways by teaching classes or workshops. Seeing the summer show I was left feeling that the Wassaic Project holds onto its belief that, “connecting artists of diverse disciplines and viewers of varying backgrounds inspires new ways of looking at art and the world,” very visibly here with this show. The show delivers high quality contemporary art in an accessible way for viewers of all levels of interest – collectors, critics, art students, children and passersby. And true to its mission, A Tournament of Lies is free and open to all.
The Summer Exhibition will be on display through September 17. On view Saturdays and Sundays 12-5pm and by appointment. Summer Block Parties are scheduled on July 23 fand August 20 from 12-10pm and will include a host of free, outdoor activities to complement the show. Music, dance, artist talks, and studio visits take place all day long bringing festivities to all quarters of the hamlet.
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