A timely tour

A timely tour

DAI dispenses a spotlight show of contemporary art

By Jane A. Black

Brian Calvin, 'Turtlenecks,' 2007

There is much to enjoy in the Dayton Art Institute’s current special exhibition, Creating the New Centruy: Contemporary Art from the Dicke Collection. The galleries are filled with bold imagery, contemplative abstractions, vibrant colors and lush surfaces. Social commentary is prevalent, but often leavened with humor, and there are also quiet moments of beauty and thought.
This is a carefully curated show, culled over a two-year period from a very large and diverse collection that continues to grow. Dayton Art Institute Director Janice Driesbach spent countless hours visiting the homes and offices of James F. Dicke II, who has joyfully and skillfully assembled an interesting mix of artwork. If you wonder about the breadth of this collector’s taste, simply tour the museum’s permanent collection; the Dicke family has donated artworks from many styles and periods. The special exhibition, on view through July 10, however, is targeted; it is focused on the 10 years  from 2000 to 2010.
While looking at contemporary art is a pleasurable pastime, there is something to be said for having the myriad of offerings vetted by a knowledgeable party or two. If you have tried to negotiate your way through the galleries or art fairs in New York, Los Angeles or London, you know: it’s daunting. An exhibit such as this offers a selection of some of the most accomplished, best-known artists working today.  Chances are, unless you regularly visit galleries in major cities, you won’t know many of the names. But, if you are at all interested in how the world we live in might be remembered, this is a show to see.
It is nearly impossible to tell who will make it into the history books in the next century. It may not be those who are widely known today. Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light,” may be the name everyone knows now, but perhaps Amy Sillman’s gestural, discomfited lines and swaths of color or Brian Calvin’s impassive faces on elongated necks will become the images that stand the test of time.  “There’s so much variety now,” Dicke said during a recent panel discussion. “Later, they will sort it all out.”
That is not to say, however, that the artists represented in the show are not well regarded. Jaime Frankfurt, an art advisor with whom Dicke has worked for years, said they are often looking at work that is somewhat difficult to acquire. “Sometimes the question is, ‘Will they let you buy one?’ But it’s a lot easier to buy from the artists who are hot,” he said. “Because Jim lends (the work to museums), he’s not buying a commodity to resell.”
Frankfurt and Dicke make a regular practice of visiting artists’ studios, museums and galleries to see the shows they find intriguing, but not to purchase. “We never have a day when we set out to go buy something,” said Dicke. “We are seeing where it takes us,” Frankfurt added. Buying does, however, occur. Dicke has long collected both contemporary and late 19th/early 20th century artwork. Lately it’s more contemporary. “You don’t find as many wonderful (older) pieces,” he said. “And you remember what you would have paid for them 30 years ago.”
While they watch for pieces that have the right sensibility to fit into the collection, they help each other identify what is most original. What do they look for? “Ambiguity is what makes a piece of art compelling,” said Dicke. “You are reminded of art history, but it looks like a new development, a departure. “
One of Frankfurt’s favorite acquisitions for the Dicke collection is Variable Value, a smallish oil on linen by Daniel Lefcourt, described on the title card as “a painting of a rock, about the size of one’s head.” “It may be the least valuable painting in the show,” said Frankfurt. “I don’t know why some things stay with you.”
In viewing the collection, it is easy to find threads that weave art history with pop culture, and the referential with the expressive. In a piece such as Candy Curls (Melissa) by Will Cotton, you might be drawn to the Vermeer-like light, or, if you’ve ever had sticky candy in your hair, maybe you just feel a little queasy. Either path will likely lead to a rumination on consumption – but by whom and of what, one must decide for oneself.  Just around the corner, Inka Essenhigh’s Spring is a fully realized landscape of imagination with a surface like glass. It certainly ties to current modes of kitschy, fantasy art, but there are also rounded, slightly idealized forms that may bring to mind Thomas Hart Benton and American Scene painting from the 1930s.
The exhibition offers all sorts of add-ons, from videos of three of the artists talking about their work, to audio tours by cell phone and web-based content that is accessible on smart phones via QR codes on some of the labels. There is also a lovely exhibition catalog that accompanies the show, written by Ellie Bronson.

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center.  Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at www.daytonvisualarts.org.  Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at JaneBlack@daytoncitypaper.com.

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