Exhibitions of art are the kinds of things that patrons, collectors, curators, academics, and mass audiences hold dear. The reasons for this have more to do with how culture-at-large works than with how art and aesthetic experience are produced.The so-called “art world” assembles itself around artists and works of art like a nearly impenetrable fortress. Besides creating series of obstacles, status-rankings, fashion-conscious canons, and critical baggage, it feeds on the natural egoism of artists and nurtures it to supersize proportions.In general, artists are all too pleased to take part in exhibitions – starved as they are for attention and the desire to be understood, accepted, and rewarded for their prodigious and mostly solitary efforts. Of course, by so doing, artists participate in competitive status-seeking endeavors. These are in many ways anathema to the aesthetic process.The fact that the actual creation and appreciation of artwork are not necessarily about any of the considerations mentioned above creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in artists and viewers alike. Erroneously, we come to believe art is like other forms of social activity – a feeding-frenzy food chain topped by a select group of famous celebrities.The cult of celebrity ruins our view of what art and artists are about. It has reduced the definition of an exemplary, creative human life down to a place in official histories, showboat appearances in cultural media, critical attention and approval, mere popularity, and economic reward. A “famous artist” is another version of the celebrities we are more familiar with: royalty, rock stars, sports figures, actors and actresses, and so forth.The alternative to all this useless and counter-productive competitiveness, isolation, and alienation is a spirit of collaboration that can subsume the childlike artistic ego and engage it within a higher and more socially relevant purpose.The event that inspires me to write about aesthetic collaboration as a much-needed antidote to the cult of celebrity and the unhinged creative psyche is a recent visit to the Freedman Gallery of Albright College, where I encountered, Affinities: The Separate and Group Efforts of Six Artists.The show has all the trappings of an “art-world” event but I sense something larger going on here – something that is worth very special consideration – and that is the spirit of collaboration suffusing the entire exhibition. Organized by Nancy Sarangoulis, an artist whose work I have followed for decades, this show presents her own work and the work of artists with whom she shares affinities (and whose work I have also followed for years): Anna Kuo, Karl Klingbiel, Beverly Leviner, Valetta, and Ron Schira.Several of the major pieces on display at the Freedman Gallery are collaborative in that up to a dozen artists worked on them. Others, such as works from Sarangoulis’ Recycled Paintings Series, are collaborative in more subtle ways. (This series is composed of found paintings gathered from flea markets, trash bins, and other sources. Sarangoulis adds painted imagery to them – thereby “collaborating” with their original creators.)It’s enthralling to view the work of several or even many artists seamlessly integrated into a single work of art. It is also compelling to witness the production of a group of artists who share a communal vision, notwithstanding their individual differences. To experience a sense of community that transcends personalities is most gratifying – especially in an art context. It’s as if we no longer need the conceptual crutches that have supported Art History – from the Renaissance “genius who creates a masterpiece” to the Modernist “art star” who creates a sensation. We see, perhaps for the first time in epochs, that it takes a village to make art.*Vessel Wall, an aggregate work by Sarangoulis, Beverly Leviner, and Valetta, presents more than thirty half-bottles of low-fired, glazed terra cotta arranged in a loose oval pattern. Colorful archetypal scenes – dancing, hunting, loving, traveling – cover the surfaces. The impression is atavistic – the primal and metaphysical narrative and spiritual essence of pottery produced by some ancient culture reappears anew via the intercession of these inspired collaborators. I want to redefine the word “primitive” here – or at least to reorient it. Speaking anthropologically, “primitive” is a concept now mostly absent from the lexicon because it has implications that are distasteful to current modes of cultural relativism. However, as humans, we have primitive structures in our brains that fill us with particular emotions and perceptions. The roots of human behavior and experience – communal, magical, fantastic, and phantasmagoric – originate in these parts of us and they are present in the majority of the pieces in this show. A sense of the “primitive” (defined this way) informs the exhibition and adds resonance to its postmodern, multivalent nature. It’s not so much that we’re confronted by contradictions – such as contemporary artists employing ancient archetypal narrative – but more that these subtexts are naturally present and come to the fore in their production. They appear as central concerns and accompany the sense of collaboration and aesthetic affinity shared by this creative group. And they reflect a holistic view of humans, society, nature, and art.* Archetypal narrative elements coursing through works such as Valetta’s Bridal Path can evoke the primal sensation that we are disconnected from our conventional bearings and walking through a dreamscape. Physically moving through this pivotal multi-media sculptural work pinions viewers between a densely illustrated picket-like fence and a domestic stations-of-the-cross. Scenes from a marriage – from love and trust to lust and conflict – bump up against each other with inexorable rhythm. We don’t so much read the images as feel them. They correspond to universal sensations inside of us, those that animate and also decimate us. Anna Kuo’s beautiful, evocative, and logically inscrutable paintings evoke a mental and emotional landscape that appears intensely personal. And yet, it is as accessible as our common human heritage – the pre-literate interior consciousness that spawns and supports the superstructure of words and logic with which we are habituated to experience most of our waking lives. Other works echo another elemental aspect of art and aesthetic experience – a non-verbal and immediate connection to nature. Karl Klingbiel’s expressionistic abstractions reveal more truths about nature than do most literal landscapes. They are direct, unmediated celebrations of living in the world and of the deeply connected creative process.In much of Ron Schira’s visual art, the same deep subjects dealt with in his colleagues’ works are quoted, contained, displayed, and confined within glass enclosures. Schira presents conceptual conundrums referencing the seemingly contradictory relationships between art and life, nature and culture, and ultimately between the interior personal experience of being human and its poor doppelganger, the external culturally-defined persona. Schira holds a mirror up to himself as a contemporary thinker and artist and thereby allows us to view those contradictory aspects of ourselves as well. His inclusion here provides the conceptual underpinning necessary to comprehend the problematic relationships between culture and nature vis-à-vis the personal and the communal on a rational, verbal level. *“Community-oriented” has many meanings – some local and some universal. This community-oriented exhibition reflects the best meanings of both senses of the phrase. In the end, I see all experience and all art as local. Ironically perhaps, it is this intimate microcosmic essence that gives art a universal relevance. Most significantly, this collaboration of six inspired individuals affirms the notion that where both human life and art are concerned, it takes a village.Affinities: The Separate and Group Ef
forts of Six Artists is on view at the Freedman Gallery of Albright College through July 31 and also from August 30 through September 11, 2005.*Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis and courtesy of the Freedman Gallery (not for reproduction).

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