Out of focus

Even with perfect vision, it’s hard to see what 20/20 Vision is about

“Fishing for Pettey” by Fred Reid

“Fishing for Pettey” by Fred Reid

The concept show, like conceptual art, is a dangerous thing. Occasionally, thematic installations are dangerous in the political sense, with works so biting or defiant or cruel that they ultimately help usher in social change, or at least turn one viewer’s world upside down. But typically, concept shows are dangerous, not because of the messages they communicate to their viewers, but because of what they fail to communicate—inside the artist’s head there’s cleverness and shrewd intellectualism; inside the gallery there’s art that is, at best, loosely connected and vaguely evocative of some theme or general feeling.

The flyer for 20/20 Vision is thick with theme—it’s an eye chart featuring sets of numbers and letters that get smaller with each row. “20 Northern Nevada artists—Art work created in 20 inch dimensions” the flyer reads.

“20/20 vision, as you know, is clear eye vision, and 20/20—it’s what’s hip now,” says Jim Zlokovich, who co-organized the show with John Martin. “So it’s a pun.”

The hip obliqueness of the flyer must have worked, because the small gallery space at 39 Saint Lawrence Ave. was practically un-navigable on opening night, filled as it was with artists and onlookers—most of whom were in fact doing more talking and drinking than looking-on. It was somewhat difficult to get to the art, and once there, to view it without being jostled.

Upon surveying the work, it quickly becomes clear that little—if anything—unifies the pieces, either in form or in content. Some works are large, others petite; at least a quarter of the art is three-dimensional. Abstract and mixed media works pervade, augmenting the show’s hodgepodge feel.

“Mine is 20 by 20,” comments Max Ezra, whose untitled mixed media work comprises variously colored and textured papers, set in a box frame with rose petals dropped on its sill. He tells me he doesn’t like mixed media, but that “Untitled” is a playful “lightening up” for spring. Ezra notes that it includes two kinds of bodily fluid.

“That’s lightening up?” I ask.

“That’s lightening up for me.”

Many of the works seem like shrugs directed at the exhibit as a whole. I noticed that some of the works had been culled from the artists’ collections, or recycled from prior shows. An untitled work from photographer Dean Burton’s beautiful Vertical Landscapes series, for instance, seems out of place among the mixed media and three-dimensional works, and, when isolated from the other works in his series, fails to convey to the viewer the breathtaking novelty of Burton’s photography.

At the adjacent corner of the gallery, Joe Delappe’s digital print, “Self Portrait in Quglie,” features a machine gun-wielding automaton; next to this is Walter McNamara’s wispy outline of an animal skull in “Ghost Skull Trying to Forget its Future,” which might fit nicely into an exhibit commentating on Nevada ecology but seems bizarre with the robot to its left and Christine Karkow’s forgettable gray and white abstract “Landscape-Roadside” (charcoal and acrylic on paper) to its right.

According to Zlokovich, the idea for 20-inch by 20-inch works came about in response to the space constraints imposed by the tiny gallery, but, upon further calculation, it was found that the works could be larger. Some artists must have been more aware of this than others, since, when I brought up the size stipulation to two artists, both replied that they, too, were confused.

The best concept shows give, to work with 20/20’s metaphor, a new lens onto the world—sometimes an uncomfortably magnified one, other times a purposefully, pointedly distorted one. But with 20/20, I saw nothing new.