The Foster Prize finalists at the ICA Boston

The Foster Prize at the ICA Boston is one of the perennial Boston happenings where we take part in our favorite pastime: complaining. We complain about it from beginning to end investigating the minutia, gossiping about the motivations behind nominations, and frowning at the notion that any of the art could be worth our time. This worthwhile award has been slighted in recent years as a launching program for conceptually based artists who work for certain galleries. If that were true in the past, it is not true this year.

The nine Foster Prize finalists work and (with one exception) teach in the greater Boston area. The prize reflects the reality that for Boston, teaching is one of the more popular day jobs. It also reflects the dearth of commercial opportunities available. If I am not mistaken, only two of the nine artists have long-term gallery representation locally, and the vast majority provided work from their own archives for the show. Not that the conspiracies should be thoroughly discounted, but it’s time to pay attention to the work.

Fred Liang-- courtesy of ICA Boston

Fred H.C. Liang’s papercut wall pieces, accordion book, and sculptural table look great in the ICA. His work can overwhelm a given space and look out of place, but the ICA yields to his grand gestures and the work looks at home here. His work is highly constructed, both formally polished and coded with personal meanings. His table sculpture, a stand-in for the cultural break that is inevitable when emigrating between countries lays in two pieces, broken and rendered unstable. Though still connected and related, there is now a gulf between the two ends, and the role of support and the linked bond is erased from this object.

His cut paper installation relies on the techniques of ancient craft (Jian Zhi) while contemporary abstraction forms his distinctive visual language. He codes messages of family, gender and communication in the patterns that mix geometry and natural motifs. A box laying on the floor included with the cut paper points to the relationship between women in his family, and invisible knowledge handed down between the generations.

This installation is very private, and could be faulted for being abstruse. Rather than directly expose all the information he leaves hints that reveal themselves with further study. Walking past quickly, you could easily see a bunch of stuff that looks pretty, but with patience it discloses powerful substance.

Eirik Johnson, Ficus Tree Grove, 4:02 Minutes Exposure-- courtesy of ICA Boston

Eirik Johnson’s long-exposure photographs of the rain forest complete with recorded sounds stands out as one of the most conceptual works in the show. Easily confused for a piece of memorabilia from his time visiting Peru this installation challenges the viewer’s focus. Instead of Johnson presenting the things in front of him, he asks us to be inspired by transforming our experience into a self-aware moment. We mentally transition from Boston to Peru for the time it took to take the photographs. The wall text disagrees, but I believe the wall text protests too much. The photographs and recorded sound locate the artist in space and our experience is secured with his.

Unlike a video, which rewards the viewer with motion and change, this static image tests the viewer’s stamina to listen and look. This furthers the formal photographic practice that he has become known for. Though we can happily view works on display for 5 minutes, when faced with the time based experience of this series, we become self-aware and uncomfortable. The work produces a nervous energy, awkwardly timing your engagement with it. Our need to see the entire museum in the time we have conflicts with the idea that we should experience this work fully and exclusively focus on one work at a time.

Rebecca Meyers Night Side-- courtesy ICA Boston

Rebecca Meyers is the one non-professor up for the prize. She didn’t escape the pull of our local colleges though, as she is the director of film programs at Emerson College. Her 16mm films rely on strong and romantic visual language. She speaks in a visual poetry, distilling experiences down to heightened moments of awareness.

Glow in the Dark seems as if it started as a camera test of low light conditions that grew into a metaphor of seasonal change and productiveness. This film was an adjustment after walking through the light-soaked galleries. The shades of darkness and distant glowing electric orbs in windy and freezing conditions create an emotional emptiness. These lights burn in the open cold and illuminate nothing. Instead of the light reflecting off of things, we are left with the intensity of the light vacant against a dark background. These autonomous suspended lights, seem unsettled and incapable against the world around it.

In Night Side she focuses on windows. and division.  Windows allow us visual access to the world but protect us from it at the same time. In her film we see various animals outdoors– the squirrel is protected from the wind and cold behind its bushy tail like we are protected behind our windows. This thin buffer is challenged when she records the lights reflecting off of the window’s double pane. As the window creaks and flexes, the double reflection of household lights sway and move for the camera. The light’s dance goes in tune with the wind that cannot reach us.

Meyers’ visual language is effortless, relying on elevating everyday items we may overlook into expressive motion captured by film. One of the more haunting motifs in Night Side is of lights concealed. The same hopeless lights from Glow in the Dark are burning in this film, but now they are also blocked from reaching our eyes by things. What may be the moon peaks out from behind the frost on a window. Another light pokes out from behind tree branches that veil it. What that light is we don’t know.

The Foster Prize is a Biennial award and exhibition. This year’s finalists are Robert De Saint Phalle, Eirik Johnson, Fred H. C. Liang, Rebecca Meyers, Matthew Rich, Daniela Rivera, Evelyn Rydz, Amie Siegel, and Stephen Tourlentes. The exhibition is up through January 17, 2011. The winner will be selected in December.

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