Leeds Artist David Cotton Working in Western New York

I met David Cotton, an artist from Leeds, last summer when he was a resident artist on campus at Jamestown Community College (JCC) where he was working in the new biotechnology labs. At that time he was painting bacteria on the sterile media surface of petrie dishes and playing with microscopes equipped with cameras. The college lab techs showed Cotton how to genetically modify E. coli bacteria with jellyfish DNA so that they ‘glowed’ under UV light. He then grew cultures of the bacteria and photographed them under various conditions. Cotton shot over a thousand digital photographs, or “bacteriographs,” over about nine days. For this first series of creative lab experiments, Cotton brought a painter’s sensibility to the lab materials. With a fine horsehair brush he drew abstract designs on the surface of growth medium and exploited the florescent palette of the lab.

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Why was Cotton in rural Western New York? He and other members of the SCIBase collective had traveled to Jamestown to participate in Colinized, an exhibition presented in two local galleries: The 3rd on 3rd Gallery  and the Dykeman-Young Gallery (April 4-May 15, 2014).  SCIBase is a collaborative project between BasementArtsProject, Leeds and the SCI collective based in the Northwest of England, which includes members from Leeds, Merseyside, Sheffield, the Midlands, Sweden and the USA.  Deb Eck, a British artist who lives and works in Jamestown, organized Colonized and arranged short community-based residencies, like Cotton’s, for most of the British and Swedish artists who traveled to Jamestown to participate in the exhibition. It was wonderful to meet so many international artists during my first summer in Western New York and it was entirely unexpected!

Cotton recently returned to Jamestown during the spring of 2015 for Colliding Worlds, another exhibition organized by Eck, which mixed science, medicine and art. For this exhibition Cotton showed a set of C-prints that related to his JCC lab work but which differed from it in interesting ways. Cotton purchased his own microscope and shot images of slides that he either prepared himself with readily available materials like seaweed, cabbage or the skin of a blueberry, or purchased through eBay. Cotton’s second series of microscope photographs differ significantly from the first, in that they read more like ready mades. Although Cotton has gone to the trouble of crafting each circular image from a series of square format digital files, each image in this series reads as a ready made of sorts. Each is a kind of matter-of-fact found object, be that an antique slide purchased from eBay with a funny title like “rad irridis” or “pimento,” or a bit of fruit or veg grabbed from the fridge. Shown together this series of eighteen 12 inch square C-prints hung horizontally across the gallery wall was lush and beautiful. Each photograph a gem on its own. As a series, the luminous orbs read as planetary spheres documenting newly discovered worlds. Embodying as they do both a micro and macro perspective, as well as both abstract and ready-made aesthetic sensibility, Cotton’s new series are hard to forget. In fact, I absolutely loved them.

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Studio Visit: Anne Muntges

Anne Muntges, Skewed Perspective, 2014. Installation in The Center Gallery, Jamestown Community Campus, Olean.

Anne Muntges, 2014

When I visited Anne Muntges in her Buffalo studio last year she had just finished up a Bemis Art Center residency where she had been working on a weird “kitchenette” drawing installation. This was not a drawing of a kitchenette, but rather an actual kitchenette transformed by drawing. To begin, Muntges covered all of the surfaces of things that make up a kitchenette with white paint: a section of wall with cupboards and a counter, a microwave oven sitting on the counter, a rotary telephone with coiled cord hanging on the wall, a circular table, salt and pepper shakers, a wooden chair, a broom and dustpan, etc.. All of these are painted white, their surface decor and detail erased so that they can serve Muntges as a continuous drawing surface or vast blank page.

Inspired by the black and white drawings of Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein, Muntges uses black line to cover every square inch of the installation, bringing into being an odd whimsical drawn world comprised of crosshatched patterns in varied shades of grey.

Intrigued by her work, I invited Mungtes to install an expansive installation in a small gallery—The Center Gallery—located on JCC’s Olean campus. She spent months preparing and with the help of gallery staff (that is, with the help of Colin Shaffer) Muntges filled the gallery with the contents of a small furnished apartment, all of its surfaces encrusted with her obsessively drawn patterned crosshatchings. What the viewer encountered when they walked into Muntges Olean installation entitled Skewed Perspective was a surreal in-between place, made of readymade objects that no longer seem solid or “real.”  By changing the surface of things,  like surrealists Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim, Muntges managed to deconstruct the normal existence of things and reconstruct them as part of an uncanny imaginary world.

Talking about Skewed Perspective, Muntges said that she is currently trying to figure out ways to place herself inside the drawn space of the installation and has gone so far as painting her hands and drawn on them. Hearing this I began to understand that the practice of drawing (she works for hundreds of hours on the installation) and the drawn space are an immersive place of fantasy for Muntges. Very interesting.

Studio Visit: Marvin Bjurlin

I’m announcing my intention to write more regularly.

My plan is to post shorter pieces more frequently, to worry less about my prose and more about sharing the art that I am privileged of encountering in the course of my work as a curator and gallery director.

Let me know what you think.  Are you still interested in reading Scene Unseen?

"Marvin Bjurlin: Swimming in Fire" at Signature Contemporary Craft in Atlanta, Summer 2014.

“Marvin Bjurlin: Swimming in Fire” at Signature Contemporary Craft in Atlanta, Summer 2014.

One of the first artists I met upon my arrival in Western New York, Marvin Bjurlin is a central figure in the arts community here in Chautauqua County. Although he retired nearly a decade ago–he taught ceramics for forty years at SUNY-Fredonia–Bjurlin continues to work every day. He has designed his life so that he is always engaged with the most essential materials– soil and water–and grounded in the most primary actions–gardening and making tools for life.


I first encountered Bjurlin’s gorgeous wood-fired sculptures of fish forms when I saw a cluster of them hung high on a post, like totems, in his huge backyard vegetable garden (see slide show below).  Presented this way,  jutting out perpendicularly from the top of a wooden pole, they reminded me of Japanse carp kites (Koinobori) and Haniwas, archaic Japanese figures made from tubes of clay.


Bjurlin has been making these fish for some time, and is still very much in the groove of repetition and variation;  each piece looks quite different from the next. “All the large fish sculptures start with a known and named species.”  Bjurlin starts by making drawings from actual fish or illustrations but his designs diverge from the original sources as he builds each sculpture. I don’t know anything about fish anatomy, so I mainly see character and personality in the fish.  Some have menacing teeth and look angry, others look friendly, good-natured or happy. Some are sleek and graceful, while others would likely lumber through the water.

Bjurlin, along with a group of area ceramicists, fires work in a big  kiln located on a friend’s wooded property. Having been invited to one of the festive 48-hour wood firings, I caught a glimpses of the red hot fish profiles “swimming in fire” when the kiln doors opened to feed wood or soda to the flames. The sight of the  glowing hot fish standing on end, as if swimming upward toward the sky, was so beautiful I doubt I will ever forget it. 

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Aside from these sculptures, Bjurlin is a potter at his core. Making ceramic vessels for everyday use is as important to him as is growing the organic food he and his wife Tina eat year round. It seems soil is the center of it all for Bjurlin. He cultivates the soil to grow heirloom vegetables and works clay–which is, of course, a fine-grained soil–into tableware for everyday use.

As he showed me his his recent tableware, Bjurlin said “there is a conceptual marriage of my passion for food and for clay” in this work because of “the exclusive use of leaves from plants I have grown for food” and because “tableware is associated with food.”  Here, Bjurlin brings together the two main parts of his life in an intimate way.


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Bjurlin presses carefully placed sage, kale, chard leaves–he uses leaves from all the plants–into a slab of clay making an impressions, then lays the slab over a mold to shape plates, platters and bowls. To make these impressions stand out, after the bisque firing, he brushes them with a laterite wash. In the final firing the iron in the wash darkens the delicate lines of the mid vein and areole enclosures formed by the ribbing of each leaf’s lateral veins. Falling wood ash and soda too can effect their visibility. When I hold one of Bjurlin’s plates or shallow bowls in my hands these veiny leaves seem hyperreal, somehow more real than life.

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See Bjurlin’s website here.

Studio Visit: Liza LaBarge at UB

Liza LaBarge is a second year MFA student at the University of Buffalo. She’s just about to graduate and already has a few gallery exhibitions set up.

When I visited her studio, every surface, including most of the floor was covered by the large charcoal drawings she’s made over the past two years. I was surprised to encounter a young artist’s work so thoroughly engaged with historical art.Holy Family, charcoal on paper, 40" x 66", 2013

Focusing on narratives of femininity in art, LaBarge switches out the mythic characters of Renaissance and Baroque narratives and replaces them with contemporary figures or contexts.  In one work, the Virgin Birth takes place by Caesarean section and angelic nurses preform the operation. In another, plastic hospital tubing entangles the Holy Family.

Reflecting contemporary debates about the origin of Adam and Eve as prehistoric apes, LaBarge  remakes  the first humans in a marvelously strange drawing.  Acting like monkeys, LaBarge’s Eve chomps indelicately on bananas while Adam picks fleas from her hair.

Women’s close relationship with jewelry is another of LaBarge’s favorite themes.  Strands of old-fashioned family jewels weigh small children down, while young women hungerly stuff strands of diamonds and pearls into their mouths or wear them across their faces as masks.

I find LaBarge’s dissonant refashioning of femininity refreshing. It is a pleasure to see a young artist tackling this well trodden feminist territory in new ways.

LaBarge’s thesis exhibition will be held at Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
May 18- August 30, 2014
See her work also in VENAT at Indigo Art Gallery in Buffalo.
May 2 – May 31, 2014

Artist Phil Schultz is at home in his studio

I’ve seen Phil Schultz’s paintings and sculptures exhibited at Circa Celest, Remingtom May (Gallery B4S) on 6th street, and in juried exhibitions and have written about his work before. His originality and complete devotion to his art became even more clear to me when I visited Schultz’s home and studio in downtown Racine this week. Schultz has been working as an artist in Racine–where he grew up–since the 1970s. Regardless of his chronic medical conditions and economic stresses, Schultz has pushed ahead and keeps going.

His painting are hung along side the work of his friends salon style in the living room and kitchen of his small apartment. Reminiscent of early twentieth-century American artists like Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley and showing the inspiration of Wassily Kandinsy, the paintings are colorful and highly abstract. His paintings appear to present coded narratives that are waiting for interpretation. His homemade frames are the real surprise here. Built from cast off materials–popsicle sticks, bits of carpet, the blades of mini-blinds, and crushed pop cans; you name it, he uses it.  These frames suggest to me the unorthodox methods and materials of outsider artists, but Schultz is university trained–he received a BFA and MA from UW-Milwaukee–and he describes his painting style as “American Academic Mannerist Abstraction.”

His fireplace mantel and living room tables are lined with the artist’s “table top” welded or cast metal sculptures. Schultz does his wax model and plaster mold making in his home studio and welds in his basement. He has developed a highly personal surrealist sculptural style that is darker and more passionate than his painting style. Throughout his apartment are large sketchbooks filled with figurative abstractions that inspire his sculpture.

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Schultz took me upstairs to the attic, a warm and spacious set of rooms, that he uses as a painting studio. Noting the comfortable feeling of the space, he acknowledged, “it’s conducive” and lead me to two smaller adjoining rooms off the central space where a  hotplate is set up to heat wax for his sculpture models. And, just when I thought the tour was ending, Schultz lead me down to his basement workshop where he welds scrap metal on a grated metal table he made himself and has devised a temperature-controlled room where where he coats wax models in silicone to make molds that will eventually be filled with molten metal that will harden into sculptures.

I left Schultz’s studio dreaming of an exhibition where his artwork was shown alongside his  sketchbooks, hotplate, and homemade welding table.

Racine artist Maureen Fritchen

Fritchen, detail studio installation

Maureen Fritchen works exclusively with shape, form and texture. She’s inspired by the colors and textures in nature, but the most interesting thing for me about her paintings is the way that she suggests directional movement even when the pictorial space in her compositions is very shallow. If you come across her work in local exhibitions, be sure to get close to the surfaces of the paintings; they are often embedded with bits of interesting stuff that you will miss if you don’t.  I visited her studio a few weeks back have only a few jpgs of her work.

Fritchen, Untitled (2011)

Fritchen, untitled painting

Two Painting by Suellyn Scoon in Kenosha Galleries

One afternoon in Kenosha I came across two paintings by Suellyn Scoon hanging in local galleries.  One is a portrait of a young woman, Katelyn, on view at Anderson Art Center in the Racine Art Guild Juried, the other, Red Skirt, is featured at Lemon Street Gallery.

Suellyn Scoon, Katelyn (2011) @ Anderson Art Center

Red Skirt (2011) Suellyn Scoon

Suellyn Scoon, Red Skirt (2011) @ Lemon Street Gallery

Having seen these canvases in-progress in Scoon’s studio in early March, I got a flash of excitement when I ran into them again in public.

Scoon studio, 2011

Scoon studio March 2011

Although they do it in very different ways, Katelyn and Red Skirt demonstrate Scoon’s persistent interest in women’s beauty and fashion. The girl pictured in Katelyn looks out at the view with intense blue-green eyes rimmed in thick black eyeliner. The painter applies a delicate line of black paint to the canvas as if she is applying eyeliner to her model’s face. In other ways too, Scoon’s paint application reminds me of makeup applied to a woman’s body. The flesh tones and pinks of Katelyn’s skin and the slightly darker powdery mauves that make up the background of the image are rubbed and blended in the way that foundation, blusher, and powder are applied to a woman’s face, neck and shoulders. Scoon’s treatment of Katelyn’s fashionable hair color is marvelous. With a few restrained shapes and wispy brushstrokes Scoon sketches in the dark lowlights, and the dramatic red and blond highlights that tell us so much about her model’s personality. It seems that Katelyn has a sense of her own beauty but is not narcissistic. She has a strong sense of self and is ready to meet the challenges coming her way.

Red Skirt was no doubt produced more quickly and one imagines that painting it was as fun as it is to look at it. Scoon works again with a reduced palette—reds and blacks dominate—yet the color in Red Skirt is juicy and dramatic. With quick painterly marks Scoon celebrates the glamour and fantasy propagated by the fashion industry. And although most viewers would never dream of purchasing a gown like the one pictured in this image, most will feel a vicarious thrill as they feast their eyes on Scoon’s brilliant rendering of its rich red taffeta skirt, whose color is echoed in the beads pilled around the model’s neck, nail polish and lipstick.

Scoon studio March 2011

Scoon studio March 2011