About once a year, Sierra Arts Gallery asks local art academics to show their work. Past exhibits have included some fantastic individual pieces by teaching artists from Sierra Nevada College, Truckee Meadows Community College and University of Nevada, Reno. This year’s exhibit is no different—but that’s the problem. Or, at least it is if you think that themed shows should deliver something more than disparate works. The show is titled Touching the Third Rail, and Sierra Arts has taken the metaphor of the untouchable political issue and offered it to these artists to embrace or ignore at will. The result is two exhibitions advertised as one.
Show number one contains art pieces created for the theme, or—in some cases—preexisting work that checks all the boxes. Here, the stuff that stands out combines the idea of hot-button issues with work that doesn’t deviate too much from the participants’ artistic interests.
This is present in Rick Parsons’ “The Hidden Canary (The 2018 State of the Union Address,)” a multimedia piece that airlifts the artist’s body-part-in-a-jar aesthetic and drops it into the very American moment where the President addresses the country with a message of optimism and strength. Here, Parsons subs out the leader of the free world for a three-foot-tall test tube filled with the floating, crumbling bodies of ceramic canaries. Sitting atop a steel podium and suspended in a toxic-looking liquid, the canaries break down into an ashy mass at the bottom of the container, rotten, bloated and orange. Behind this portrait of the President, 12 wooden panels hang in grid formation. They are meant to represent the length of this year’s 5,800-word address, though they contain only the punctuation from the speech’s text, leaving each page wordless and meaningless.
Nicole Miller, a newcomer to the group show, displays “Full Stop,” another piece that connects. At first glance, this cadmium orange doorstop appears pretty normal, despite its color. A closer look reveals the raised profile of an upside-down closed mouth on the vertical side of the sculpture. Divorced from its household purpose, Miller’s object is rendered useless as a way to keep doors open and becomes a commentary on limited access and communication.
On the east wall, four paintings by Julia Schwadron contain stylized text that resemble book covers. With titles like “Earth in Upheaval” and “Women and Madness,” it’s possible to associate Schwadron’s dramatic words with hot political topics in a superficial, book-cover sort of a way. However, looking at her other two titles—“Secrets From a Stargazer’s Notebook” and “Journey to the Other Side”—it becomes apparent that we’re supposed to do more than read the words as controversial statements. Questions arise about our somatic relationship to text, what books promise to give us, and how paintings function as objects. The pieces’ proximity to Samantha Buchanan’s “Permanently Closed”—a paper and mesh monotype that uses two-and-three-dimensional elements to conjure up vertical colored stripes—helps transition the viewer from a posture of active reading to a space of passive seeing.
Show number two should simply be titled “New Work” because that’s what it is. Some of the best pieces in the room belong to this exhibit. Like Paul Baker Prindle’s “Cruising Series, Olin Park,” a photograph from a body of work resisting the mainstreaming of gay culture.
Or there’s the 20 watercolor paintings that hang in the corner of the gallery, taken from Eunkang Koh’s recent “What I Eat” series. The artists’ meals become an analog version of Instagram brunch pics, each painstakingly rendered for a decidedly smaller audience than social media.
Anything you care about can be elevated to “third-rail” status if you think about it long enough, but audiences shouldn’t have to twist themselves into knots to figure out what’s going on when they attend a group show. On the flip side, no one should envy Sierra Arts’ task of curating 18 artists who don’t have a whole lot of material or conceptual overlap. Why can’t we just call it “New Work” and be done with it? It’s better to get an annual report from this group of artists than a dialogue that none of them set out to have.
“Touching the Third Rail” is on view at Sierra Arts in Reno through Sept. 29.
This article was updated on Oct. 2 to correct the details regarding which body of work Paul Baker Prindle’s photograph, “Cruising Series: Olin Park” comes from.