in chocolate: Jenny McShans The Twelve Realms
By Rebecca Shepard
Mohawk Hudson Regional
University Art Museum,
through Nov. 1
There are many strong pieces in the 2003 Mohawk Hudson Regional,
juried by Maura Heffner, director of exhibitions and programs
at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. But, while individual
works are compelling, the show as a whole is not. This rather
contradictory situation provides food for thought in considering
what makes an exhibit work.
But first, some of the singular successes. Michael Oatman’s
The Birds is a giant collage using illustrations from
old- fashioned avian guidebooks, whose graphic style and pastel
hues evoke a pleasant nostalgia. But times have changed. Here,
birds of every sort, from sparrows to falcons and ducks to
vultures, are seen wearing helmets and packing weapons of
all kinds: rifles, bazookas, howitzers, grenades, spears.
A large central panel presents a battlefield under a vivid
blue sky, with birds camouflaged in dense thickets, weapons
bristling from under each wing, and gun-slinging ostriches
running in pairs. Twenty-eight smaller panels surround the
central one, each presenting a wry or enigmatic vignette of
its own: Gun-toting parent birds hover over their helmeted
babies; an armed turkey vulture stands guard over a drab wintry
farm; a fishing boat bears a giant egg on its stern, with
a seagull flying in attendance. One panel contains images
of avian-themed badges, like the heroic eagle in profile;
all of the panels are connected by a heavy welded-steel frame
whose shape, from a distance, resembles a military emblem.
Clearly, The Birds is a statement about militaristic
culture, and birds are a particularly apt metaphor for this
subject. The diversity of bird species suggests the diversity
of human cultures, while their clannish tendencies and sometimes
foolish appearance—small head, large body—
extends the comparison, suggesting that human development
is also rather primitive and foolish. But with its over-the-top
sensibility and its teenage-boy exuberance in the profusion
and variety of weaponry, The Birds is as much about
the deep- seated passion and fascination for militarism as
it is a judgment against it.
Among the other pieces to delight in is Christopher Cassidy’s
From Albany to the Adirondacks. Cassidy transforms
a file cabinet into a terrarium, with living flora samples
from each of 15 stops between his studio on Railroad Avenue
and Snowy Mountain in the central Adirondacks. Topographic
maps, snapshots, and extensive plumbing support the endeavor.
The piece seems a meditation on how to reconcile two different
realities, the urban and the wild, and on the extreme contortions
necessary in order to “file” the experience of nature.
There are a number of interesting photographs. Kenneth Ragsdale’s
Farmyard Series are images of rustic but methodically
precise paper sculptures, including a pickup truck, a pole
barn, and a couple junked cars, arranged into stark dioramas.
The pieces have an odd, once-removed feeling, as you consider
whether the “art” lies more in the intriguing sculptures or
the tasteful, softly lit photographs. The animals in Allison
Hunter’s striking Zoo Animals series, photographed
at the Catskill Game Farm, are spot-lit in enveloping blackness,
giving them a vulnerable, isolated quality. And David Brickman’s
Albany street scenes achieve a tense balance between poetic
arrangement of color and the rough subjects of poverty and
Highlights of work in other media include Harold Lohner’s
Long Sleep, a 21-foot-long monotype of sleeping male
figures drawn in varying color saturations, from transparent
grays to the deepest velvety blue. The piece evokes fluid
states of consciousness and the sensual oblivion of sleep.
Justin Baker’s Untitled, a fragile woodcut spiraling
out of a handmade book, lies flat on a low table, looking
like a seismographic record or a relic of the Dead Sea scrolls.
And Jenny Mc-Shan’s The Twelve Realms of Purity parodies
conventional ideas of racial and sexual purity with 12 bride-and-groom
figurines in Victorian garb, carved out of chocolate. They
are identical but for their coloring—the series is a “brown-scale,”
with shades moving in even gradations from ivory white to
Now, some of the problems. A number of pieces in all media
are a little too familiar, too reminiscent of styles that
have recently been in vogue in the contemporary art world,
and this gives the show a slightly perfunctory feeling. Some
of the paintings lack real painterly expertise and enthusiasm.
But most important, the works feel isolated from each other,
not in communication. The number of works selected for the
show is smaller than usual, and the gallery walls are sparsely
populated. This can work well with some exhibits, but here
it seems to exacerbate a feeling of randomness and disjunction.
The indefinable connection that can happen between disparate
artworks, a connection that can be subtly emphasized through
insightful exhibit installation, rarely occurs here. The exhibit
does not manage to become more than the sum of its parts.
This said, there are some very worthy parts, and the
2003 Mohawk-Hudson Regional is definitely worth a visit.