The National Academy building on Fifth Avenue

Contemporary artists — especially those who make objects, like painters and sculptors —live in the past. We study art history, freely friending artists from different generations, appropriating styles, and creating imaginary salons of like-minded spirits both living and dead. The National Academy Museum’s Annual Exhibition, often seen as the Whitney Biennial’s dowdy cousin, still privileges the rich traditions that bigger museums, galleries, and curators often overlook when they focus on younger, sexier media like video, installation, and social sculpture. This year, due to the economic downturn, the 185th NAM Annual includes less art than usual, but has continued to choose outstanding artists deeply engaged in traditional studio practice.

At first glance, the show looked so awkward that I worried that the exhibition diminished the work selected. Since 1942, the museum has been housed in a Beaux-Arts style mansion on the “Millionaires Row” portion of Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. The galleries, originally living quarters for the philanthropic Archer Milton Huntington family, were renovated for exhibition use years ago, but much of the original architectural detail and hardware remain intact. The walls were designed to hold small-scale easel paintings in heavy frames, perhaps stacked salon-style to the ceiling. They don’t work so well for six-foot tall abstract work that begs for breathing room. Large-scale paintings like Judith Bernstein’s aggressive “Dick on a Head #1” hang incongruously on drab curving walls, overlapping the waist-high wooden molding.

Petah Coyne, ”Untitled #1287 (Tati)” (2009) (Courtesy artist & Galerie Lelong) (click to enlarge)

Chris Martin’s “Untitled (Glitter Painting),” one of his fantastically exuberant compendiums of neon spray paint and glitter, hanging in a larger room on a flat wall, fares better. Even so, it still anxiously overhangs the molding and seems cramped next to Petah Coyne’s darkly gothic five-foot tall mixed media relief, which breathlessly comprises a taxidermy Canadian Goose, silk flowers, specially formulated wax, pearl-headed hat pins, pigment, tassels, silk/rayon velvet, thread, plywood, chicken wire fencing, quick-link shackles, cable, and metal hardware.

Blame it on Dada. Context has played an important role in how we apprehend contemporary art ever since Duchamp unveiled “Fountain” at the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Yet each iteration of the Annual Exhibition at NAM seems to implore that we ignore context, and look only at the work itself. Seen another way, however, the anachronistic gallery spaces at NAM function as time-capsules, presenting an additional conceptual component in which we can imagine the artwork interacting freely with that of previous generations. Like ghosts of art history past, the architectural details of the Huntington mansion remind us that the work in this exhibition, like that in the 184 that preceded it, is not just the art of our time but part of art history.

Andrew Cooks, “And in the Ponds Broken off from the Sky VI” (2009) (click to enlarge)

Observed individually, plenty of well-crafted, thought-provoking pieces grace the off-white walls. Notable works on paper include Elise Engler’s “Everything I Brought Back From The Galapagos” (2008). Engler, who recently returned from an austere artists’ residency with the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, creates illustrated lists of the objects in our lives, suggesting that meaning can be found in the material manifestations of our existence. On the second floor, Andrew Cooks’s “And The Ponds Broken Off From the Sky” (2009), a 60 x 60,” mixed-media piece, mysteriously combines deftly-painted East-meets-West psychedelic patterning and ethereal silhouetted shapes. Nene Humphrey, who has been an artist-in-residence at Joseph LeDoux’s neuroscience laboratory at New York University, presents “Small Worlds #030308” (2008), a compact, layered, predominantly black-and-white drawing on Mylar that investigates the part of the brain where fear and anxiety reside. Though it is inconspicuous among larger, louder paintings, the little drawing’s tiny, agitated marks compel a closer look.

Ghada Amer, “For a Friend” (2008) (Courtesy Cheim & Read)

Stardust Atkeson, “Night Watch – Bernie Mac” (2009) (Courtesy (click to enlarge)

On canvas, veteran painter Timothy App brings non-objective geometric abstraction to the party with “Nuptial” (2008), a handsome, refined meditation on shape, line and color relationships, evoking a quiet, single-minded classicism. Ghada Amer’s crewel-and-paint “For a Friend” (2008) brings to mind both the domestic and the obsessive. Stardust Atkeson’s small oil painting, “The Night Watch—Bernie Mac” (2009), wryly depicts an old molded plastic portable television on a dresser, tuned-in to comedian Bernie Mac’s TV show. The image of Mac, who died prematurely in 2008, poignantly reminds us that there are ghosts in the house.

The 185th Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue – at 89th Street) continues until June 8, 2010.

An artist and writer, Sharon Butler blogs at Two Coats of Paint.