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How art talks to itself 

In one form or another, the biennial Rochester-Finger Lakes exhibition has been a showcase for Western and Central New York artists for over 100 years. And this year is no exception, as the exhibition celebrates its 59th anniversary.

            Of course, what exactly the exhibition showcases has often been a source of controversy. And in that regard, this year, too, is no exception. However, this time, the controversy is not so much about what's in the exhibition but rather what's not. From 806 entries by 440 artists, two jurors --- Bernice Steinbaum, owner, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Miami, and Jean R. Mineo, executive director, New Art Center, Newton, Massachusetts --- chose a total of 40 works representing 31 artists. Do the math and that's a lot of rejected submissions.

            The rejected artists, however, provided one of the most interesting aspects of this year's Rochester-Finger Lakes exhibition. For one evening and the following afternoon (and opening the same night as the exhibit at the MAG), the museum-going public had the opportunity to view over 100 rejected works in an exhibition entitled the Salon des Refusés. "See more of what the jury saw. See more area artists admired for years whose work escaped jurors' favor. See more of the odd or outrageous or tender." These rejected artists may have missed the mark with the jurors, but their statement is right on --- at least in acknowledging the vagaries of taste.

            In this way, the Rochester Salon des Refusés, or Room of the Refused, established a position that was critical of the selections of the jurors and consciously compared itself with an exhibition of the same name held in Paris in 1863. That year, both the official academic Salon and the Salon des Refusés were sanctioned by the government of Napoleon III (who apparently saw little aesthetic difference between accepted and rejected work, which included paintings by James Whistler and Édouard Manet). What followed was a debate over the politics of selection, a form of which continues today.

            Of course, there were no easy answers in the 19th century. And there are just as few today. The Rochester Finger Lakes exhibition calls itself "one of the most prestigious juried art exhibitions in the region." If this is true, what, then, is the basis for selection criteria? If an artist has been accepted in the past, should that have any bearing on future entries?

            We often forget that art is much more than the product of individual artists. In one way or another, making art has always been a collaboration between artists and the institutions that both present and represent them. (Could Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling paintings have existed without Pope Julius? Could Pope Julius have existed without the Catholic Church?)

            Whether or not you aesthetically connect with anything on view, you would be hard pressed to deny the fact that the jurors had a specific "look" in mind. Call it "thought-provoking," as did exhibit organizer Chiyo Ueyama. Indeed, visitors we spoke with all agreed that although they weren't sure if they liked the exhibit, they would definitely "have stuff" to think about later. For example, Jeff Kell's What Insect Problem? (2002), a lidded earthenware vessel, is initially evocative of neoclassical pottery, particularly the work of Josiah Wedgwood. But it soon asserts an intriguing tension as you contemplate the army of ants that begins to emerge and cover the vessel's surface.

            100 Human Skulls (2002) by Doug Anderson is another example of a contemporary work that makes no bones about its art-historical references. The skull has long been a symbol for death and the contemplation of mortality. Here, however, not only are you presented with five rows of 20 painted skulls, but each is different. Some have their craniums removed, with several becoming "containers" for unlikely objects like red potatoes and what appear to be gumballs, while others have a bandage-like wrapping covering eye sockets or tied around the length of the entire skull. Taking them in one by one, Leonardo da Vinci's personality studies came to mind. It is not surprising that Anderson was honored with the Memorial Art Gallery Award of Excellence.

            The encaustic medium, where pigment is suspended in wax and must be applied and worked quickly while the wax is still hot, is also art-historical in nature. Although used by the Greeks as early as the 9th century BCE, it is probably best known for use in painting funerary portraits on wood during the Roman occupation of Egypt in the second century CE. The popularity of encaustic gave way to more manageable tempera and oil paints until the 1950s, when Jasper Johns revived the technique. Speaking of Johns, pop art is yet another reference that comes to mind when contemplating Anderson's skulls: The multiple skulls are reminiscent of Andy Warhol's multiple soup cans.

            Perhaps the best or most overt examples of a recurring provocative tension are two black-and-white photographs by Matthew Cottom of Rochester. Cottom documented his friend's breast cancer reconstruction but not with brutally frank and viscerally raw images of a woman's body ravaged by cancer and chemotherapy, but rather with subtly sexualized images of a woman's triumph over her cancer and her life-affirming desire to get back to being a woman.

            Art exists not only because of artists, but because curators, jurors, exhibition designers, publicists, corporate interests, and the viewing public all contribute to the way in which an art object is perceived. The meaning of any work of art does not lie solely with the intent of the artist, but stems from a complex system of interactions. In a group show, works of art become multiple and varied voices. Each is dependent on the other for context and meaning. Where and how a work is situated in the gallery space, the lighting, and the spacing all play a part in this multivocal arrangement of ideas. And like it or not, what makes the Rochester Finger Lakes exhibition a success is the collaboration of all those voices.

The 59th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition is on display at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Avenue, through October 5. Hours: Tuesday 12 to 4 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Tix: $5-$7 (kids 6-18, $2); $2 Thursdays 5-9 p.m.

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