Ever since I moved to New York, I’ve been telling people that great contemporary art is coming out of my homestate of Oklahoma. Benrimon Contemporary in Chelsea is finally bringing some evidence to New York in the group show Red Country Pictures.
While a selection of Oklahoma artists would have been an interesting change of pace for Chelsea on its own, the exhibit goes further by homing in on one particularly influential little college on the plains, East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, which is an hour and a half outside Oklahoma City and three hours north of Dallas.
Those who imagine the Kiowa Five group of Native American artists or cowboy portraits when thinking of Oklahoma art (if they think of it at all), will be surprised to find not a single flat figure or buffalo in the show.
Curated by Justin Irvin, an ECU alumnus and registrar at Benrimon, and Brad Jessop, director of the school of fine arts at ECU, the exhibit features eleven artists connected to ECU: Aaron Hauck, Blake Morgan, DeLoss McGraw, DJ Lafon, Gerald Clarke, Kate Rivers, Leon Polk Smith, Mark Hatley, Vance Wingate, and Jessop and Irvin themselves.
For a school with only 90 art students at a time, ECU has had a prolific roster of alumni and professors. Its uniqueness is also helped by the fact that Ada is an oddly diverse town for Oklahoma, with the rural culture combining with a strong Native American community, along with the academia of ECU and science of the local EPA lab.
Ada’s artistic tradition started back when Columbia University graduate Ida Hoover created the ECU art department, and was joined in the 1930s by another East Coaster, Emma Box, who had studied with famed artist/teacher Hans Hoffmann. Like growing a family tree, those color theory roots of modernism can be followed up in Red Country Pictures to the hard-edge paintings of Leon Polk Smith, branching out to Vance Wingate’s geometric line studies.
Aaron Hauck’s environmentally conscious sculptures were my favorite pieces. Hauck is an assistant professor at ECU who uses discarded consumer and construction materials to comment on society’s waste. That sounds like it would be rather annoying, but he does it in a clever way that stays clear of lecturing. All three of his works in Red Country Pictures carefully mimic consumer objects, with little reminders of how the tide of mass produced consumption has flooded Oklahoma. At the entrance of the gallery is “1985” (2009), a wood sculpture of a McDonald’s happy meal box decorated with the motto “Oklahoma is OK!” (2008). The style and colors of the text are directly taken from a style of Oklahoma license plate that was used from 1982 to 1988, and it’s built from MDF, an engineered wood product that’s known to be very uniform in its appearance, just like fast food meals everywhere. Oklahoma unfortunately is one of the top consumers of fast food in the country, and McDonald’s in particular dots the highways and Oklahoma license plated cars pack their drive-ins.
Also in the front half of the gallery is Hauck’s styrofoam model of a Hummer entitled “Even Smaller Footprints Have Large Footprints”(2008). Hauck seems to be saying that those massive Hummers that plod down Oklahoma roads consuming ridiculous amounts of gasoline may have a huge carbon footprint, but synthetic materials like Styrofoam, even in as small a form as the model car, are just as hazardous. It’s interesting to think that of all the works in the exhibit, this one may exist the longest. (I tried to find the decomposition rate of Styrofoam online, with estimates going from 50, to 500, t0 2,000 years, to “never.”) Maybe more artists looking for an “archival” medium should give Styrofoam a try?
Hauck’s bear rug made from Wal-Mart sacks, Styrofoam and steel called “Save Money Live Better” (2009) is in the second half of the gallery. The polar bear rug, considered a luxury object, created out of bags discarded from the biggest of big box stores, reminds me of how so many people in Oklahoma flock to Wal-Mart and buy cart fulls of useless objects that have the fake sheen of luxury. It’s rare to come upon a town in Oklahoma where Wal-Mart hasn’t completely taken over, running most local grocery or hardware stores out of business by promising big savings, that in turn will make you “live better.” I remember when the “super” Wal-Mart opened in my hometown Bartlesville, and for months after one of the first things people would ask in conversation was, “Have you been yet?” It was suddenly the center of town life, and it was a promise of a happier lifestyle to so many people through its convenience and cheapness. I like that in addition to commenting on all those electronics, clothes and feasts of processed food that pack the cavernous megastore, Hauck’s bear rug also makes it seem like he’s done the impossible, skinned the unkillable consumer beast.
In several corners of the exhibit, artists’ work is displayed alongside that of their professors, emphasizing the echoes of style and technique. DeLoss McGraw’s gouache on paper works of stick and rocking horses with childlike figures play on the wall by his teacher DJ Lafon’s whimsical and witty oil paintings of birds and people.
While Leon Polk Smith is a staple of modern art museums around the world and DeLoss McGraw has exhibited widely in contemporary galleries, DJ Lafon has had little recognition beyond the West. As chair of the ECU art department from 1964 to 1984, his artistic lyricism and intense work ethic were rooted in several generations of alumni. He often explained that he treats art like an everyday job, so it is any coincidence that his favorite subjects were businessmen. I remember writing a story in 2008 for the Oklahoma Gazette on his solo show at JRB Art at The Elms, and being told by the gallery owner that he was “Oklahoma’s master artist,” and no other artist in the state could be jealous of that, so respected was his work and teaching.
On January 18 of this year, only shortly after Benrimon started to put together Red Country Pictures, DJ Lafon passed away. Even if he did not get to see his New York show, his students and colleagues who gathered at the opening of Red Country Pictures were able to see his legacy living in the art, and with the continuing art program at ECU, it is sure to be one inherited by future alumni.
Red Country Pictures continues at Benrimon Contemporary (514 W. 24th Street) through June 18. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit goes towards a scholarship fund set up in honor of DJ Lafon and the other members of the Ada Trio.
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