Themed exhibitions have been the focus of the Cornell Art Museum since the galleries transitioned to a contemporary art aesthetic in the 2010s—a tenet that has, like so many, been disrupted by the virus. Instead of artists curated around a central concept, those selected for the museum’s winter exhibition “See Art and Be Happy!” share few common linkages. A couple of them upcycle their materials, and some are abstract expressionists, but these similarities feel coincidental. For once, the artists that hang together do so randomly.
This has much to do with Curator Melanie Johanson’s last-minute rehiring late last year after months of shuttered galleries; there simply wasn’t time to conceive a theme and to discover and contact the artists that fit it. Though contrary to her normal M.O. as curator, there’s an ironic sense of liberation to “See Art and Be Happy,” in that there is little sense of a beginning, ending or narrative in general, and that each artist’s work can be interpreted on its own terms as opposed to where it lands on a thematic continuum of ideas.
To that end, here are a few random thoughts on the artists and works that most captured my attention this week, in my first visit to the Cornell since the pandemic.
• When I read the name of the artist Tyler Levitetz, I knew it rang a bell from somewhere outside the art world. His bio revealed it: He is the founder of the artisanal 5150 Chocolate Co., which has earned some ink in Boca magazine. Though more accustomed to working with cocoa than canvases, he is a bona fide artist, as evidenced by “Keith’s Tractor,” an abstract totem made from welded plow discs in the Cornell’s central atrium. Who knew?
• Melanie Johanson usually lets other artists dominate the spotlight, but this time, she conceived the installations filling two upstairs galleries, working a collective 100 hours to create “Winter Forest” and “Giftwrap Disco.” In the former, Johanson worked with an X-Acto knife and Tyvek paper for a series of immersive banners featuring paper-cut trees, foxes and deer, sometimes unpaired, sometimes in little families, their antlers merging with the foliage. Supplemented by professional lighting from theatrical designer Jayson Tomasheski, it’s a lovely, cocooning piece. In the interactive “Giftwrap Disco,” Mylar-wrapped walls frame a central array of wrapped presents ideal for photo ops, while a disco ball twinkles overhead and delicate acoustic music plays, in an installation whose magic still carries past its yuletide expiration date.
• I have encountered Jonathan Rosen’s linguistically investigative work elsewhere, and it never ceases to impress me. “Dream Machine” is a two-way mirror on which the word “celebrate” and then a succession of phrases flashes across at fractions of a second; I think I saw words “fake news,” “hot sauce” and “booze” flit by. Like tarot cards by way of a random number generator, spectators are encouraged to snap smartphone photos and see what message comes up. The four photos I shot recommend I celebrate “your in-laws,” “justice,” “our freedom” and “my death.” I am totally on board with the middle two!
• The gallery dedicated to Sonya Sanchez Arias showcases an artist so eclectic that the room feels populated by three or four diverse voices. Her florid, almost three-dimensional works on metal, vibrantly enhanced from her own iPhone photography, offer a vision of South Florida as a neon-lit alien paradise, while abstract sculptures like “The Protest (Good Trouble),” comprised of reclaimed wood pieces arranged like the force of bodies on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, offer subtle provocation. I was especially taken with “Thinking Out Loud,” one of Arias’ quarantine projects, in which small found figurines, painted white, are positioned chaotically in the cubbyholes of a display case, the entire scene cordoned off by red string. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the disorderly tangle of thoughts we all shared for months last year.
I can’t say I missed the traditional theme, per se. We have an open museum that is filled with great art. That’s more than good enough for now.
The Cornell Art Museum, 51 N. Swinton Ave., is open Thursdays to Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $15 general and $8 children ages 4 to 17. On Valentine’s Day, the adjoining Pavilion at Old School Square will host country singer Easton Corbin for a 7 p.m. socially distanced concert; add-on tickets include flowers, chocolates and a choice of red, white or sparkling wine for an additional $75. Call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschoolsquare.org.