Thursday, April 24, 2008

When the CUE Art Foundation asked me last year if I would curate a show this spring for its Chelsea gallery, a number of possibilities immediately jumped to mind. The rule as I originally understood it was that it had to be an artist who either had not previously had a show in New York before, or at least not in ten years. When I checked further, I learned that it had to be an American artist and they needed to be living – there went, for example, Australian-born, Zurich-based media artist Jill Scott (an important figure in the San Francisco performance scene in the 1970s) as well as modernist wood worker Wharton Esherick (1887-1970), both of whom I would love to introduce to wider contemporary audiences. Even with the expansion of galleries that has accompanied the evolution of Chelsea as the post-downtown visual arts vortex, the number of superb artists who haven’t shown in New York remains overwhelming. Just to keep the process manageable, I restricted myself to those whose work has been important to me, generative in contributing to how I think about my own work as a poet. That list got a little shorter as I discovered that a couple of the people I’d been contemplating had recently had shows in NYC. And once I had finally gotten my list of possible choices down to two people, one of them, photographer Zoe Strauss, told me she had been offered a show in New York even earlier than would be possible with CUE and was going to go forward with that. Her decision had the advantage of keeping my selection from becoming a completely wrenching one.

Cynthia Miller has been a key figure in the Tucson art scene for quite some time. While many readers of this blog probably know her work already from its association with Chax Press and many of their book covers (including my own Demo to Ink), traveling to Tucson is what really gives you a sense of the scope and reach of her work. This show gives me the opportunity to do the next best thing to taking the New York visual arts world to the American southwest to get that context. I’m bringing Cynthia’s most recent work to the CUE Art Foundation, starting today and running through the end of May.

Here is a little statement I’ve contributed to the gallery’s catalog for the exhibition:

Blending so-called high and low genre, the Arts & Crafts Movement anticipated much that we now think of as postmodern. Many of the forms that concerned William Morris, for example, including wallpaper, carpets & floor runners, were not only designed for domestic use, but also engaged visual traditions that deployed imagery as pattern, muting or deflecting the narrative of a "scene." Many other "Other" traditions likewise share exactly these features, from the cubism of African sculpture to the pottery & tapestries of Central & South America, and of course the American Southwest. Tucson's Cynthia Miller, a painter whose work reproduced on book covers has been a visual signature of Chax Press for 20-plus years, pulls these different elements together with what I think she might call a Southwestern eye, and most definitely a Southwestern imagination.

The objects envisioned are simple – quail, a tea kettle, a flower pot – but seldom used simply. Rather, like the blue deer, the red pony or the red and yellow birds, each is cast so as to let in many possible connotations. Two crows represent two crows, yet they completely reframe the spatial relations of the two vases, one white, the other not (or the third vase, half hidden red against orange in the leftmost field). The result is a painting that conveys a sense of anxiety without ever telling why. Yet look at the lush leafwork about the crow on the right, or the transparent foliage about the darker vase.

The fields on which these translucent images sit are themselves visually rich, not unlike the flowers surrounding the road behind the blue antlers of Out West. The background tones often proceed from pink or red or red-orange to blue or blue green. At times I think this figures the seasons, at times the hours in a day, at times I think it is there precisely to resist figuration.

The opening reception is tonight from 6 until 8 PM at the gallery, 511 W. 25th Street (between 10th & 11th avenues). Tomorrow, Charles Alexander & I will give readings at the gallery – this starts at 6:30 PM – followed by James Fei on saxophone. You need to RSVP for that event, as seating is limited. And you really need to bring your eyes, ears, mind and subconscious to both of these events.