Aspen Art Museum: I hear America painting |

Aspen Art Museum: I hear America painting

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesThe Aspen Art Museum's Roaring Fork Open features Shelly Safir Marolt's "The 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders," oil on canvas, and Khaila Derrington's "Khaila's Thinker," acrylic. The exhibition, created in collaboration with artist Eric Fischl's "America: Now and Here" project, opens with a reception at 6 p.m. Thursday.

ASPEN – A year ago, when the Aspen Art Museum agreed to collaborate with artist Eric Fischl’s “America: Now and Here” project for the museum’s Roaring Fork Open exhibition, the time seemed ripe for a show designed to take an artistic look at America. Last October, President Obama promised the end of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays; Wikileaks disclosed secret records regarding U.S. commanders allowing torture during the Iraq war; and regulators launched an investigation into foreclosure practices by financial institutions.

The Roaring Fork Open, featuring one work apiece by 125 local artists, opens Thursday, and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the Aspen Art Museum, believes the theme of American identity is even more relevant now than when the exhibition was planned.

“It feels very timely, frankly,” Jacobson said. “There seems to be a Republican presidential debate every day. With that and the Occupy movement, it’s even more timely than when we decided to do the show.”

Fischl’s “America: Now and Here” project is designed to create a dialogue among artists about America: “individual experiences, ideas, and points of view about our country,” as the Aspen Art Museum put it in an invitation to Roaring Fork Valley artists. Fischl was in Aspen in May to rally local artists, and to further refine the vision. “Eric explained his concept in a very succinct manner, to say it’s intended to be about America right here and right now – not 1776, or 2076, but right now,” Jacobson said.

The pieces submitted range across a huge spectrum – an appropriate response, Jacobson said, given the fundamental diversity of the U.S., and the individualism ingrained in its population. There are images of horses against a mountainous landscape, of dressed-up little girls holding American flags, of African-Americans being baptized in a lake, of a group of people dancing in a field as a jazz band plays. “American West,” L. Stewart Lindamood’s photographic art print, takes American chest-beating to an extreme, with shiny images of an eagle, mountains and military jets in flight.

Then there is the provocative side, with most of these pieces addressing the issues of money and corporate and government misdeeds. There are multiple representations of the dollar bill and of the Coca-Cola logo. “Give Me Debt,” an oilgraph by Joel Belmont, depicts a gleeful, bare-chested man surrounded by credit cards, against a literally hellish background. Annette Roberts-Gray’s paper sculpture “Fungus,” a mushroom made of credit card offers, hints at the cancer-like growth of the debt industry. Michael Tullio’s “The Modern Scream” is a dollar bill that references oil, the military, Wall Street greed and diminished expectations of America, with a dazed George Washington in the center. It adds up to a considerable strain of disillusionment revealed in the exhibition.

“Americans are characterized by optimism – that’s the American dream, that you can come from nothing and be something. And when you come from that, in a country that’s always been optimistic, the disillusionment can feel more raw,” Jacobson said. “If you grew up under communism, if you got a piece of bread that day, you were happy.”

For all the pointed criticism, Jacobson finds an overall sanguine tone in the exhibition. Part of that may stem from the mere fact that 125 artists created fresh work for the show, and there were more on the waiting list – a sign that a robust, unimpeded marketplace of ideas is permitted, and exists. (An acrylic diptych by Lucy Tremols is a straightforward celebration of that most American of ideals, freedom of expression; the piece includes the phrase, “The only valid censorship is the right of the people not to listen.”)

“I don’t see a lot of anger in the show,” Jacobson said. “In general, it still feels more celebratory than anything else. And reverent – there are lots of flags. The flag is still a symbol of what our country can be.”

Jacobson was struck by the notable absence of political figures. There are no Obamas, no Bushes, either being vilified or lionized. “Traditional, American party politics – there’s none,” she said.

“America: Now and Here” launched this past spring, with 150 artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets – all acquaintances of Fischl’s – participating in events in Kansas City. A tour to other cities has been put on hold, apparently to allow time to build trucks to haul the exhibition from city to city.

Which leaves the Aspen Art Museum as the first “America: Now and Here” participant to rely on local artists. And Aspen has put its own American touch on the concept. Jacobson said that the Aspen exhibition was “installed democratically” – the first piece delivered to the museum got spot number one.

“It seemed wrong to impose my curatorial perspective on the work,” she said.

Jacobson believes that instituting a theme doesn’t change the primary purpose of the Roaring Fork Open all that much; the idea remains to expose the work of local artists. She calls this year’s exhibition a variation on that idea, rather than a drastic altering of it.

Affirming that view is the handful of images of the Maroon Bells – no different than in years past.

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