'Tis the season, and the walls are decked--with art. Art Critic Luke Gehring weighs in on the NPAA show currently on display at the Erie Art Museum.
The Holidays at the Old Customs House: NPAA Style
One of the great landmarks of downtown Erie is the Old Customs House, which has newly been restored and opens its doors again for the first time to host the Northwestern Pennsylvania Artists Association's annual Holiday Exhibition and Sale.
The Customs House, famous for its marble steps as a great place to sit and eat lunch outdoors during summer, was built in 1839 as a branch of the US Bank of America and remained so until the bank went out of business in 1843. Architect William Kelly elected to work—typical of public buildings of that period when the United States considered itself the new Athens and the new Rome—in the neo-classical style. Based on a Roman temple or treasury design, it is perched on top of a podium with a staircase leading through a colonnade of engaged Doric columns to the cella with its Virginia marble façade. The architect was not short on ego judging by the size of his signature, which he nonetheless hid high on the portico, which can be seen looking up from the front door. Additional classical elements that can truly be appreciated for the first time in years are the strict symmetry of the building, the Greek key, and the egg and dart motif used as trim embellishments.
In 1849, the building was sold to the U.S. Government to become the Customs House, which it remained until 1867. The building was bought by the Erie Art Museum in 1983, having outgrown its previous home at the Wood-Morrison House.
NPAA was formed in 1974, and from its inception, has enjoyed a close relationship with the Erie Art Museum. This included having its annual Holiday Exhibition and Sale at the Wood-Morrison House until the Museum's move. So it is strangely fitting to have this year's Holiday Exhibition in the Hagen Family Gallery of the Customs House and as the first exhibition in this gallery since its restoration.
I first experienced the sheer loveliness of this space, before its completed renovation, during the intake of the Spring Show this year. The GLORIOUS federal-style windows, with the shutters now opened for the first time in over 20 years, allowed me to experience the beauty of the morning light and the view of the snow melting from the fur trees outside.
This space, now without the gallery partition walls, is particularly good for sculpture and pottery (and perhaps a ballroom dance or two). The walls are limited by the large doorways and windows. NPAA, being sensitive to the uniqueness of the space, didn't want to distract from its integrity and instead made it an indispensable part of the exhibition experience.
This has led to some rule changes for the show this year. Previously it has often been of a limited run and on a cash-and-carry basis. Being that the Museum has graciously allotted a month to this show, all work will remain in place until the close of the exhibition. With the limited wall space, the 65 exhibiting artists were permitted one work, and though there was no firm size restriction, the Gallery Committee retained the right to decline work deemed too large for the allotted space.
There is a lot of variety given the size of the show. Personally, I feel that the strongest work in the show is an oil on panel painting by Justin Elliot Poole. A relative newcomer to NPAA, Justin's earlier work was very painterly with a thick impasto. With some life transformations, his work transformed into a tightly controlled, almost atelier style, with a touch of surrealism. His work, as in the case of many artists, is a kind of autobiographical therapy, which beyond the forcefulness of the piece, might never be detected by the viewer. Here we are presented with what appears to be a Native American, or perhaps a Hispanic woman, in late afternoon light, which also reveals what is a rarity for Justin—a rich autumn landscape, darkly reflected in the water. The storm clouds are gathering behind an even darker surreally floating rectangle. The title, "Sojourn" (to stay for in a place for a short time) gives an added poignancy to the piece.
Therapy shows up again in a totally unexpected way with Ron Bayuzick's "Renegade." He told me that he had been feeling down when he began this sculpture but better by the time of its completion. These disassembled and reassembled pieces of the sculpture suggest a go-cart crash. It has received a lot of attention, and interestingly, a lot of smiles as well.
Stretching the definition of art, there is a piece of "Social Sculpture," a form originating with Joseph Beuys to mold and shape our environment. Here it takes the form of a stack of the "Erieland Times-News's" inaugural issue put out by the Back to Erie collaborative, of which the anonymous NPAA member is a part. This paper highlights the Bus Company's plan to demolish the Cold Storage Building and block Division Street. The intent here is that you are welcome to take an issue—making this the only free work in the show—with the understanding that you will share it with another to help in the community consciousness raising transformative process.
But all good art has a transforming power on some level, and with the range and quality of the work, not to mention the venue, this is a show not to be missed.
This exhibition continues until December 20, in the Hagen Family Gallery of the Customs House, 411 State Street, new entrance for the Erie Art Museum is on Fifth Street between State and French streets; hours of operation are Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.