ITHACA, NY – Cornell University hosts a variety of under-the-radar art exhibits, scattered across campus and often quite casual or fleeting in nature. Two shows – one recent, the other ongoing – represent diversity.
Held recently at the Art Department’s Olive Tjaden Gallery, ‘Bound Books Unbound’ (February 21-25) was co-curated by 2022 MFA candidates Erika Germain, Christine McDonald and Erin Miller (all with work included), alongside fine arts librarian Marsha Taichman. This is Taichman’s third book art exhibition at Cornell.
Curated by urban and regional planning professor Neema Kudva, “Close Work, Distanced: Pandemic Collaborations” (February 21-March 11) showcases the work of diverse teams: information design, personal storytelling and activism as well as the Visual art. With apologies to other contributors, I will focus here on the joint efforts of local painter Melissa Zarem and her longtime collaborator Elise Nicol, of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
With nearly 100 entries from participants from Cornell and beyond, the “Books” open call deliberately evaded the overall summary. The exhibit included relatively traditional gallery-style artwork in the form of wall-mounted and sculptural pieces. Two video inputs were projected in a loop.
But most of the pieces were books meant to be picked up and handled. (Gloves were provided.) Ranging from elaborate handicrafts to commercially produced volumes and inexpensive pamphlets; the show took a decidedly ecumenical approach to the highly controversial field of books as art. Welcomingly, paper decorated with abstract cursive designs by students covered tables arranged for navigation.
I didn’t like everything I saw in an hour or more of browsing the gallery. Many books have shown a cool, hipster sensibility orthogonal to mine.
Among these were many, often tiny, pieces by Ben Denzer echoing Pop Art and Fluxus. His “20 SLICES of American Cheese (musty)” is self-explanatory – thankfully those “sheets” were wrapped in plastic. Two books were made from one dollar bills, while others featured custom printed images.
Much of the strongest work in the Tjaden exhibition draws from the traditions of comics and illustration. “Go Paul Go”, by famous contemporary painter Amy Sillman, was particularly enjoyable. The crudely hand-crafted volume, complete with humorous pen-and-ink drawings and text, mimicked the classic children’s book “Go Dog, Go” scene for scene while addressing the book’s owner, l “social practice” artist Paul Ramirez Jonas. Similar in making and attraction were Bec Sommer’s eerie “The Prom Queen is a Goddamn Problem” and Lindsey Potoff’s mostly grisaille “A Walk Home”, both in watercolor and/or ink . These last artists are students of Cornell.
Held in the Bibliowicz family gallery in Milstein Hall, “Work” includes the work of eleven contributors, many of whom are affiliated with Cornell’s planning department. Computer stations display both the “COVID Glossary” and “Stories of Solidarity” along with a video featuring conversations from various collaborators.
Both Zarem and Nicol have art degrees from Cornell, but work in a distinctly different cultural sphere, with a history of exhibitions at independent local galleries. Zarem is an accomplished visionary abstract painter, working on paper in an innovative combination of painting, drawing and monotype techniques. Nicol’s work, equally rich, encompasses photography, drawing and engraving. Here, the focus is on his black and white photography.
Collaborators for more than a decade, the two artists found their longstanding practice of regular mutual studio visits disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Seeking to continue their call-and-response experimentation, they redoubled effort to work by mail. One artist would send the other a personalized postcard and the other would respond with a similar but divergent piece of work.
Displayed on a wall, “No words: Conversation 1” and “2” present the work of the two artists, mounted on paintings and displayed side by side, touching. They cover early 2020 through early 2021, with the second series having started due to postal delays. Like a children’s telephone game, the pieces, presented in exact sequence, feature shapes and textures that resonate and transform, creating an engaging sequential work of art that conveys movement and transport. Zarem’s predominantly black and white pieces play teasingly against Nicol’s monochromatic photos. The latter alternate between rural scenes and small towns and close-ups of nature, in particular trees and shrubs. Flashes of color – pink, red, turquoise, purple-blue – offset the black and white, creating rich visual music.
Also on display at Bibliowicz are five framed diptychs from “Riposte”, another collaborative series, as well as an opportunity for gallery visitors to create their own “collaborative” work. Most engaging are two larger, unframed, untitled pieces – one by each artist. Zarem’s, done on a large piece of heavy drawing paper, features thick snaking black stripes, a more delicate graphic trellis, clouds and streaks of pink and gray, and a dense curtain of vertical drops.
Zarem, a major artist from Ithaca, has kept a low profile on the local scene in recent years. The opportunity to see his work – especially with that of Nicol – is a good reason to visit the campus.
Exhibits at Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning typically take place in the Tjaden, Sibley, and Milstein Halls, located on campus’ Arts Quad. To see aap.cornell.edu for a full list of current and upcoming shows. Most are free and open to the general public, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.