Meet The New Century

May 15th, 2011  |  Published in On View  |  4 Comments

Same as the old century. (thankfully)

Anytime an exhibition promises The New –whether by title or press release- I hear alarm bells.  My immediate thoughts conjure up images of artworks that question, examine, provoke, or reconsider some previously ill-considered idea; and above all else, I expect to have my expectations challenged.  So when I received an invitation to attend the press preview for Creating the New Century: Contemporary Art from the Dicke Collection at the Dayton Art Institute, I envisioned the clichéd: galleries bursting with post- consumer detritus, obnoxious video displays, and funhouse style installation.  Considering that the trip north on Interstate 75 is treacherous even in the best of weather, hesitation preceded acceptance.

After several cups of coffee and the obligatory thanking of sponsors, I entered the still virgin exhibition and encountered a pile of garbage bags.  Bingo, I thought, this is going to be exactly what I imagined.  On further inspection, what I mistook to be a humdrum example of contemporary ambition was in fact, carved of rich, black marble.  In an age where few sculptors seem willing to spend the time necessary to craft anything, the care and attention to detail evident in the clean contours and buffed surface of Lars Fisk’s Trashbags struck me as a minor revelation. A study in contradictions, Fisk plays the insubstantiality of a pile of garbage against the weight and solidity of the marble, morphing the transient life-span of refuse into a permanent monument.  Trashbags is a thoughtful inauguration to show that features a pantheon of artists rarely seen in the Southwest corner of Ohio.

In the next gallery, the smooth, polished surface of Will Cotton’s Candy Curls (Melissa) glows like a New England lighthouse.  Evocative of baroque excess, Candy Curls is a lively portrait of a young woman laden with Cotton’s trademark confections.  Demonstrating a clever hand, Cotton pushes areas of the painting in and out of resolution, an effect that pulls the eye across the picture plane. Simultaneously rich in social content and perceptual beauty, this charming portrayal explores desire and overindulgence minus the posturing that often goes with the territory.  Cotton may be best known as the artistic director for Katy Perry’s California Gurls video, but don’t let his association with celebrity mislead you; unlike artists who bask in the reflected glow of Hollywood stars, Cotton has the talent and the discipline to make him one of the sharpest painters of his generation.  The presence of this picture is only heightened by its proximity to a more difficult sibling, Cecily Brown’s New Bunnies (El Greco).

Like Cotton, Brown’s work touches on lust and sexuality, but in contrast to some of her more explicit pieces, New Bunnies suggests the pleasures of the flesh without a wealth of legibility. Brown’s sumptuous approach to paint is on full display (despite the modest size) recalling de Kooning, Mitchell, and Hoffman without being evidently cynical or ironic about the ghosts of the past.  A painter’s painter, Brown creates craggy, billowing surfaces ripe with agile brush strokes and swipes of the palette knife, resulting in a dejeuner sur l’herbe that is an orgy on several levels. While some of her most recent efforts tend to collapse pictorial space to an almost nonexistent depth, New Bunnies projects a plausible conception of action in the great outdoors.

Glancing through the catalogue (thoroughly researched and written by critic Ellie Bronson) I noted that the ensuing room –the exhibition occupies five gallery spaces with 70 works in all- included a work by John Currin.  Currin is renowned for buxom, distorted, and sexualized images of women that can run just shy of objectification, but on turning the corner I was baffled.  A far cry from the enhanced breasts and vague lesbianism I was anticipating, Rebecca is a sensitive work on paper that has more in common with Edgar Degas than Larry Flynt.  A perceptive rendering of a woman’s torso, this soft, poignant drawing makes use of economical line and touch; actually lending credence to the claims of virtuosity routinely heaped upon Currin.

Creating the New Century defies expectations for a collection of contemporary art for several reasons.  Foremost, this show unabashedly celebrates painting, something of an anomaly in and of itself. In the recent Selections from the 21c Collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the paintings on display felt like an afterthought at best. Secondly, the quality of the works gathered here are unusually high. It turns out that collector Jim Dicke II, in addition to running a successful family business and being a local benefactor, is something of a part-time painter.  This may seem like an amusing trifle, but this small fact has deep ramifications.  Despite claims to the contrary, art making is primarily a physical process.  Great works are borne out of repeated engagements with materials, involving the body as much, if not more so, than the mind.  As a painter, Dicke is familiar with this physicality, and his involvement has educated his eye and his taste.

By no means is every work in the show a stroke of genius; large paintings by Sue Williams, Francesco Clemente, David Ratcliff, and Jacqueline Humphries run out of steam in short order.  Their greater surface area demands more surface incident, something these pieces are unable to furnish. And Dicke’s eye is not infallible; after all, Richard Prince is represented.  But by and large, the Dicke collection embodies appealing and often atypical examples of work by some of the most well regarded living artists. Pictures by John Currin, Dana Schutz, and Alex Katz stand out precisely because they don’t look like signature works; they possess a distinctiveness that reflects a discriminating eye, not fleeting trends.

Creating the New Century delivers a show that delights the senses and engages the intellect.  While some artists and curators resort to overt pandering, existential crises, and cheap one-liners in a hasty effort to describe the way we are now, the majority of the pieces in Creating the New Century exude confidence and maturity.  These works don’t represent a radical break from the past (as if one were even possible) or present the last decade as a cutting edge rife with 40 year old “new” media.  This is an exhibition of self-assured painting and drawing that affirms art is a string of continuities. To expect that anything dubbed “contemporary” must by necessity look unfamiliar is silly. Some of the best new art of the 21st century looks suspiciously like that of the 20th, just as some of the best art of the 20th looked like that of the 19th, the 18th, and so on.  And thankfully, it’s in Dayton, Ohio.

-Alan D. Pocaro

Creating the New Century: Contemporary Art from the Dicke Collection on view at the Dayton Art Institute through July 10, 2011. 456 Belmonte Park North. Dayton, Ohio 45405.  937-223 5277.




  1. James Lourie says:

    May 16th, 2011at 12:59 pm(#)

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and fine review.

  2. Chelsea Gerber says:

    May 17th, 2011at 12:22 am(#)

    i look forward to your observations and dissections every month.

  3. brian edmonds says:

    May 23rd, 2011at 11:06 pm(#)

    It would be so easy to be dismissive of Cecily Brown, Currin, Saville, and the rest of the brash artist of the late 90’s early 2000’s based on an image from a catalogue or monograph. Once you are standing in front of a Brown or Saville you realize how good they really are. The only one of the group I don’t really care for is Inka E. Her work is fair but not as good as the rest. Thanks for the article.

  4. Alan D Pocaro says:

    May 24th, 2011at 9:00 am(#)

    Brian, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment. I remember encountering my first Saville in London about 10 years ago, and I was completely blown away. It was nothing like the reproduced images I had seen up until that point. As far as Essenhigh goes, I’ve never been a huge fan of her work, and they seem less interesting in person. She has a piece in the “New Century” show and it just fails to launch. A colleague of mine thought she was doing something interesting with scale, a point I’m willing to concede, but in general her latest works look like something out of an 11 year old’s bedroom. Thanks for your comments!