Visual Arts

July 23, 2014

David Elliott’s photographs save group show at City Ice Arts

Elliott’s photographs of cross-country runners relieve a pretentious group show that uses theory to justify a collection of lackluster objects by Paul Cowan, Jeff Eaton and Sean Keenan.

On display at City Ice Arts is “Paul Cowan, Jeff Eaton, David Elliott, Sean Keenan,” an exhibition of photographs, paintings and sculptures.

The four artists are longtime friends, area natives who now reside in Milwaukee, San Francisco, New York and Kansas City.

Although David Elliott’s photographs are impressive and unique, the exhibition is mostly a sad exercise in intellectual posturing and pretentious statements.

By far the most interesting part of the exhibition is Elliott’s “Untitled” photos from his “Cross Country Runners” series. Each photo shows the grimacing, squinting, sweaty face of a cross-country runner midstride. None of the runners looks directly at the camera; in fact, they seem oblivious to being photographed.

One feels unusually close to the athletes, uncomfortably close. If you were to see such people running down the street, you’d look away out of politeness, not wanting to gawk at their rather gross exhaustion. No such politeness is required with a photograph.

Slightly larger than life-size, the photos offer a unique glimpse into the physical strain of cross-country running. In a world where photography is ubiquitous, where everyone is posing in front of smartphones and snapping selfies, these candids, however unglamorous they may be, are refreshingly authentic.

If only the rest of “Paul Cowan, Jeff Eaton, David Elliott, Sean Keenan” were so refreshing.

Instead, borrowed theory is used to justify unimpressive objects.

Eaton’s “Untitled (Lattice)” sculptures are constructed from 3⁄4-inch wood slats, painted white and crisscrossing each other in grids. Some of these lattices hang in the air, while others jut out from the walls, forming small dividers between other artworks.

Keenan’s paintings also depict grids. “Untitled (Grid)” is formed from six orange lines dividing a 20-by-20-inch black canvas into 16 black squares. Other grid paintings use dashed lines, reminiscent of stitching on quilts.

Cowan contributed a number of completely white canvases to the exhibition.

A few collaborations among the four artists are also mixed in — most consist of picture frames holding the exhibition postcard stacked behind a few other magazine clippings and photos of indeterminate subjects and patterns.

Perhaps the most infuriatingly pretentious portion of the exhibition is a collaborative work by all four artists called “Untitled.”

Behind one of the nonstructural walls of City Ice Arts is a narrow space, the kind of space that most viewers would probably avoid, assuming it’s off-limits and for employees only. Past yet another one of Paul Cowan’s blank white canvases, in the far corner of the narrow space is “Untitled,” which is made from a number of posters rolled into a tube and shrink-wrapped so that only the blank white backs of the posters are visible.

A one-page excerpt from Vilem Flusser’s “Towards a Philosophy of Photography,” available as a handout in the exhibition, describes how “photographs are loose leaves which can be passed from hand to hand. There is no need for them to be stored in technically perfect data-storage systems.”

How exactly this kind of philosophy applies to the exhibit is unclear, though the exhibition’s press release attempts to make some connections, writing that the exhibit “is not a group show, but a collective performance of exhibition.”

The statement concludes: “The sharing and circulating of images has become a kind of instrumental pretext for the representation of our ideas. Images are exchanged as fragments, stand-ins, referents, or as Vilem Flusser terms ‘loose leaves.’ In the exhibition, the visual reality of the works, as images, experienced in passing through the gallery exposes their impermanence. Therefore, rather than acting as an ‘installation,’ which denotes fixity, this project implies this temporality — we’re all joining together here for a matter of days, hours, minutes — a visit of sorts.”

This indifference to meaning is conceptual art and formalism at its worst.

Of course photographs can be “loose leaves” without stable meaning, but the point of an art exhibition should be exactly the opposite of viral, meaningless circulation. An exhibition should strive to bring clarity to a topic, to offer real ideas about real things. One almost wonders if the artists are trying to pull a fast one on the viewer, similar to in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Perhaps the trick to viewing this “collective performance of exhibition” is to merely “perform viewing” as well — to pretend one is looking at art as if one were an actor in a movie in which the real artwork would later be added as a digital special effect.

If it weren’t for the photographs of David Elliott, this exhibition would be a complete travesty.

On exhibit

“Paul Cowan, Jeff Eaton, David Elliott, Sean Keenan” continues at City Ice Arts, 2015 Campbell St., through Aug. 1. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment. For more information, call 816-820-4105 or visit

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