We've been seeing some interesting stuff happening at the New Gallery, the only art gallery on the University of Miami campus. In the past the exhibition hall was used mainly to showcase students and faculty. Then, in November 1999, the art department, to provide a much needed direction and curatorial presence, hired Elizabeth Withstandley as director. The soft-spoken and laid-back Withstandley seems well suited for the tensions that come with the job. In truth she is walking a tightrope between a faculty that may react negatively to some of her new views on art (and who have various vested interests in the gallery) and others who may see her as "too soft" to give the gallery that fresh vision.
Withstandley is believed by some to be "too pop-oriented." Whether that's true shouldn't really be a hindrance for this job, as long as she brings diversity, quality, and increased visibility to the New Gallery.
One of the biggest hurdles is the perception among important people in the art community that the New Gallery does indeed lack direction and substance. When the issue is brought up, Withstandley agrees: "I've sensed this attitude at some of the grant meetings open to the public. People perceive us as a showcase for students and faculty, but we only show three student shows a year. They think we're not serious, but we show regional and national artists." Asked if this reflects a recent trend, she sticks to the middle of the road: "The gallery can exhibit work of students and faculty and still make a substantial impact for the community." So far she has shown signs of diversifying, bringing in Beth B, Wendy Gitler, and Ilona Malka Rich, and showing a video series featuring artists such as William Wegman and Gary Hill.
On view through April 23 at the New Gallery, University of Miami, 1300 Campo Sano Ave, Coral Gables; 305-284-2792
"This job is not easy," she admits. In the past there was no centralized curatorial power, "which is not bad, but this kind of plan may have not exhibited much cohesiveness." Withstandley chooses her words carefully -- prudence comes with the job. "We try to connect with projects that originate in Miami, while bringing quality people with national recognition."
An example of the new effort to reach out is the "Stalker" event. Stalker, an interdisciplinary group of Italian artists that was invited to Miami by the Miami Arts Project, was featured at the University of Miami as part of the Visiting Artist Program (which Withstandley also directs). The members of Stalker spent days walking and absorbing the moods along the Miami River and came up with Meantime, which dealt with that tedious Miami experience of sitting inside a car waiting for the drawbridge to lower. In a sort of art-in-public-spaces event, they passed out coffee to the stalled motorists. (Stalker's Miami experience is documented at http://stalkerlab.homepage.com.)
According to Withstandley she also has tried to make connections with local nonprofits such as the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. Last year she brought in three of their fellows to lecture. "These artists from abroad mean a great opportunity for interaction with students and faculty," she explains. "Yet few students from the university showed." Asked why this was the case, she responds resignedly: "Things take time."
The critics are right -- the New Gallery needs direction. Whether Withstandley can provide it is a matter of great consequence for the students and the public in general. She remains hopeful she can do it.
The latest exhibition at the New Gallery comes from Virginia Scotchie's kiln: the ceramic display "Domestic Abstractions." Ceramics are sensuous. They cover a wide range of senses: touch, smell, sight. But when the form gravitates toward predictable utility (another clay pitcher!), the aesthetic encounter becomes pretty safe. Not with Scotchie's work, though. She takes the object back to an instant when forms are still in a state of metamorphosis.
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Scotchie may turn a bowl into what the bowl is not. Her pieces resemble kitchen appliances, witty hats, masks of various kinds, jocular abstractions of animal skulls, even huge telephone receivers. Yet within this profusion of forms she exhibits a cohesive whole. Scotchie changes the shapes of things encountered in her daily experiences: objects "with sentimental value," as she puts it. "An old pipe from my father, a funnel from my mother's kitchen." From a funnel, a knob, a cup, the ceramist creates a funnel-cup, a knob-bowl, a spout-cup, and so on, and achieves this with a kind of playfulness. Most of the pieces are perforated, which may indicate her amusement at the idea of incorporating and letting go.
Most pieces juxtapose bronze and clay, Scotchie's way of revealing two approaches to creation. The eye stops at these colored objects with cracked rough bits of clay set against the bright smoothness of the bronze surface. One senses age, suggested perhaps by removing the material from the kiln while still hot and cooling the glaze rapidly. They bear witness to the flames and smoke that rise during the process.
In the bronze knob/bowl series, the knob works as a handle and the bowl is remade into a funnel. In each piece the colors (indigo, green, slate, and orange) play an important role; through slight variations in shape and color, one discovers the pleasure of details.
Virginia Scotchie is successful because she can reduce expressiveness to a minimum. Her simplicity enhances the movement of form and provides distinctiveness (presumably she arrives first at a form, which she then explores for its possibilities and limitations). To top things off, Scotchie's penchant for the abstract helps with her work's presentation.