Yesterday I buzzed up to the Northern National Art Competition at Nicolet Technical College in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. It's okay if you've never heard of it (I hadn't either). For the past 28 years, Nicolet College has held a national art competition of 2D work, without a theme, which now includes everything from textile to painting to photography and the occasional wall-hanging 3D piece. Over $8500 in prizes is the reason most artists are interested, I'm sure, and the winning entries came from mostly Wisconsin and the Midwest, but a fair number of out-of-state artists were represented as well.
The technical skill of some of the artwork is what caught my attention here--and there was a lot to see. Theme-less art shows are really difficult to wrap one's head around, especially when the work along the walls goes from intricate carved wood to quilted squares to abstract expressionist painting to printmaking to digital prints. My brain was a little melty. In my mind, though, it was the photorealist/hyperrealist work that stole the show. Most of it was overlooked in favor of more sentimental pieces for the larger prizes, but I can only say good things about a tiny Northwoods town showing politically and socially charged works about shootings, politics, and violence, such as Chris Valle's Packaged Series: Strip Loin.
Rhinelander, like much of northern Wisconsin, is rural and conservative, and the opening was attended in vast majority by the 65+ crowd with the exception of a few artists. I was there with my dad, who had a piece juried into the show, and who falls solidly in the former crowd. The age ranges of the artists is much broader. I find this interesting, too, as the divide between who submits the art and who sees the art is, at least age-wise, quite vast. Not to mention who's buying the art...
A rather overextended juror's talk took place after a generally basic "dinner" of buffet-style chicken wings, cheeses, fruit, and Swedish meatballs of all things. As one with an art history background, I was interested initially when the juror, Robert Kanyusik, who happened to be a co-founder of the art competition as well as the recently-retired head of the art department at the college, decided to take an art historical context to explaining the work in the show. Ultimately I would have been much more interested to hear why he made the choices he did rather than getting an extremely longwinded explanation of Renaissance-through-contemporary art history and hearing phrases like "Now, Claude Monet was an interesting artist" or "Leonardo Da Vinci was an inventor." Considering the crowd was obviously into visual art by virtue of their presence there, and also several decades through the turnstile of knowledge, I imagine the talk could have been just a bit more original. But I digress. I disagreed with some of the rhetorical comments made, such as, going back to Chris Valle's Strip Loin, that while it raises questions about violence against women and is controversial, "does it promote violence?" Since that was the only commentary on it, I must beg to differ. Rather than really discussing the controversiality of the pieces in the show that were (and there were several), the topics were nervously skirted for the most part, and this could have made for something worth throwing down $20 on an entrance ticket for.
Since I'm so entrenched in so-called "contemporary art," which tends toward the Break All The Rules end of the spectrum, I was happy to find some very skilled academic realists out there that, in their own way, even approached some challenging topics. One piece that I wish I was able to reach through your computer/phone screen to show you in person is Steven Leahy's 19 Seconds, which might just be the best hyperrealist acrylic painting I have ever seen. No more than about 3 x 5in or so, it was so finely detailed that when I had my nose literally two inches from its surface, I still couldn't be sure I was looking at a painting and not a photograph. My mind didn't want to believe it. Acrylic is a finicky medium since its plasticky quality makes it less malleable and quicker to dry than oil, but this could have been oil as easily as it could have been a photograph. Its small scale put the punch in the bowl.
I also loved the beautiful Geyser by Jaron Childs, a local artist. It was the first piece I saw and it stuck with me the entire time. Not only was it beautifully executed in oil, but I found myself entranced by this woman, stepping along the puddled edge of a geyser, with other figures shrouded in the steam in the background. She's dressed wrongly for this location, and I see her step as tentative, and yet she appears to be walking closer to the wetter part of the rock, wearing impractical shoes for this sort of exploration. Not only that, but a rope separates her from the others in the background. What is she doing there, and why is she alone, cut off from everyone else?
Overall it was a predictably eclectic exhibition, and the 100-or-so works that were juried in out of well over 400 submissions were, for the most part (IMHO!), quite worthy, and representative of what wall-hanging artwork can be.
More information on the Northern National Art Competition can be found at nicoletcollege.edu.