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Cycling Down

The NCPAE has a sinking spell



Even the most eagerly awaited annual juried exhibitions often suffer little sinking spells, sometimes becoming so weak that euthanasia should be considered. Such is the current condition of the North Carolina Photographers Annual Exhibition.

A key part of the art world's structure, juried competitions may include works in many media, although often they concentrate on one, so as to better evaluate the state of that art in a certain time and place. As the NCPAE has done so well in the past, these shows give artists opportunities to exhibit and make their names more widely known, and to have their work validated by someone respected in the field. Juried exhibitions give curators opportunities to see and assemble fresh new work, and viewers the chance to look at art by a range of makers, many of whom may be unknown to them. But like all things, juried shows run in cycles.

The North Carolina Photographers Annual is not quite to the point where assisted suicide would be the best option; it just needs life support. Certainly there is good work here, but the exhibition as a whole disappoints. Where are the large, the daring, the ambitious-if-flawed efforts of artists out on their own peculiar limbs? Where are Liz Priestley, York Wilson, Julie Stovall, Stephen Aubuchon, Joyce Sloanim? Where are the vastly accomplished works by the panoply of North Carolina's well-known and well-lauded photographers? Apparently for people like Caroline Vaughan, Bill Bamberger, David Spear, Bill Noland, Elizabeth Matheson, Rob Amberg and John Rosenthal, just to name a few, the NCPAE has become irrelevant--and without the participation of artists like these, both the more and the less established, the exhibition is in danger of foundering.

To be fair, it's quite possible that the absent artists didn't know about the show. The NCPAE is an all-volunteer event (except for the outside juror), and nobody seems to have been doing publicity for the last couple of years. Although it seems particularly odd in this 20th anniversary year, I didn't receive a shred of information about this year's show, and the opening wasn't even listed in this paper or in the Sunday News & Observer the day of the event--so maybe people just aren't getting prospectuses either.

This year's juror was Jan Howard, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a person of wide experience--but she can only work with what's entered: just 360 entries from 111 artists, most from the Triangle--down by nearly half from the peak a few years ago. There's nothing really wrong with the show she picked, unless you know what's not there. Howard's taste and personal aesthetic are in evidence as they should be, and the quality of the individual works is high. What is wrong with the show she picked is the way it is hung.

Each entrant is allowed to submit as many as four works for consideration; in many cases, the juror chooses more than one work by an artist. In some cases these multiple examples of the photographers' visions are hung together. Fortunately this is the case with the works by both the best-of-competition winners, Artie Dixon and Merle Stiles. Dixon's soft, mysterious landscapes seem to indicate a departure, rather than a deviation, from her crisp, stylish portrait work--a observation that might have been missed had her pieces been separated. And Stiles has created a moving series of portraits of very young parents and their babies: Their impact would have been seriously diminished had they been hung apart from each other.

But too often the pieces are scattered around the gallery, and for no discernible reason. This is particularly disturbing with closely related images, but it is not necessary at all. It's not like whoever hung the show was making any brilliant matches or comparisons with the juxtapositions. There are some downright mean arrangements. Maybe the worst is the pairing of Gary Goodman's delicately toned landscape study, "Storm Clouds, Watauga Co., NC" with one of Michael Beaman's Ilfachrome prints in saturated primary colors. I like Beaman's picture just fine, but it overpowers the landscape. Goodman's other picture is jammed up in a corner, again overwhelmed by adjacent pieces.

There was no reason not to place Goodman's two landscapes together, where they would augment each other. And there was no reason to jam any work into a corner--pieces could have been grouped and stacked, with more space opened up around them, instead of run in a monotonous line around the room. Perhaps it is time to move this show to a larger gallery, or maybe to hang it in two galleries. There is so much good photography being made in North Carolina (despite the relatively few entries) that it will no longer fit comfortably in the Meredith gallery--and it's a shame to treat it this way.

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