However, this could not be further from the truth for the Next Emerging Virginia Artists Show at Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News. Like all degree-holding art historians, I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying the masters of Renaissance, Baroque, and every movement deemed textbook-worthy up to the 1960’s. As a lover of 18th Century French Art, contemporary art and I have never really seen eye to eye. The difficulty in understanding contemporary art lies in the numerous meanings it can communicate. But that same interpretation challenge is also its beauty. ‘Emerging Artists’ met that challenge head-on and did more than emerge – they triumphed.
I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the show’s artists, Kelsey Witt and Hampton Boyer. Kelsey Witt’s energy mirrored her neon tape designs dancing across the gallery walls. Originally a biology student, Kelsey discovered her passion for art during her sophomore year; the combination of these is evident in her art. For her part in ‘Emerging Artists’, Kelsey taped hundreds of geometric shapes on the walls, floor, and ceiling. The effect was though all the neon advertisements that line city streets were simplified to their organic forms, and you were left with colors that provoked the same sense of excitement (sans the pressure of marketing). As a viewer, you’re pulled and woven through the walls, just as though you yourself are a line of tape in the installation. Kelsey’s work is groundbreaking, beyond her use of unique medium. With art influenced by graffiti, Kelsey is shattering assumptions that graffiti is typically only a male-dominated artform. When asked about the perception of her art in the community, Kelsey advocated the blend of social media and art. “[The relationship] is good for people and the community… the way art communicates and the way people communicate through social media is a new artform in itself.”
Speaking of the community, the best selling point of Kelsey’s art is its relatability. Amber Kennedy, PFAC’s Director of Marketing, said this is the first piece where she’s observed children dragging their parents over to look. Sure enough, as we stood there talking, a couple of children ran up and started a version of hopscotch through the tape designs on the floor. For an artist to create a work of art that resonates with children is certainly one of the highest accolades.
Across the gallery, a giant mural invites the casual observer for a more careful study. Its creator, Hampton Boyer, champions art that includes the viewer in the process and meaning. “The basis of my artwork is to save the lives of others,” he writes in his profile. Hampton’s mural is speckled with whimsy and drenched in symbolism. Perched jauntily together on a skateboard are a multi-colored bird, anthropomorphic bottle, apple, and planter. The enormous bird with its rainbow feathers was a symbol of society’s diversity and reminder of equality, just as every feather is necessary for flight. “I got selfish with the color,” Hampton admitted, laughing, “But you get lost in the process, lost in the idea and meaning.” Propped beside the bird are an apple and planter, showing the fruit of the land and what it means to be grounded. For me, the plant’s lack of blooms symbolized the potential growth in being nurtured by one’s environment. A profound component of Hampton’s mural was the empty glass bottle. Hampton explained that its transparency represented how we never really know what’s going on internally with our fellow human. We look at this drink but don’t know how it tastes. And yet we are quick to make assumptions, never knowing how our judgments might affect what’s inside. I stepped backed from this mural with a motivation to love my neighbor even better – an impulse I did not expect from a 10 ft tall bird riding a skateboard.
Other morsels from the show are the large-scale dalliances into abstract expressionism by Harris Johnson, Tim Skirven’s lovechild of woodblock printing and graphic design, and Pat Jarrett’s emotionally gripping photographic journey through his grandfather’s final days.
By this point, I was already impressed with the show’s caliber. But that’s when I met my personal Best in Show.
From across the building, it first appeared as an ode to papier-mâché Chinese dragons. Upon closer examination, I discovered it was a collage of hundreds of finely cut magazine advertisements. Using T-pins as a nod to both quilting and dissecting, Stacia Yeapanis threw every existing idea about collage-making out the window. Throughout her piece were images of everything ranging from iPhones and Tiffany engagement rings, to coffee cups, Gucci ties, and doughnuts. The kaleidoscopic effect spins out before you on the wall, arranged so each layer of related images radiate from numerous focal points. A refreshing sentiment, Stacia did not intend this piece to be a commentary on the downfalls of consumer society but rather a proclamation that ‘yes – it does indeed exist. And let me beautifully arrange it for you’.
And the best, most awe-inspiring factoid about this work? Stacia didn’t even plan it out. It just…happened.
If you’ve ever enjoyed making collages, then this piece is for you. Warning: it will make you feel sufficiently inadequate. And if you’ve never enjoyed collages, then this piece will change your opinion faster than Van Gogh could cut off an ear.
You have between now and October 12th to make that hop across the water to see this show. Do it. You won’t regret it.