PROVIDENCE — Museum shows touting local artists make almost everybody feel good. The museum gets patted on the back for supporting its neighbors and faithful visitors. The artists feel seen and appreciated. The community gets exposed to some of the best work in the neighborhood. Only the critics frown.
“Locally Made,” a festival of artwork and other programming at the RISD Museum, has some terrific art in it. It has some middling art, as well. The show doesn’t cohere.
Providence has a thriving artists community, but no independent art museum. The RISD Museum is the only game in town, and although there has been nothing cloistered or insular about its exhibitions, school pride is palpable. The Rhode Island School of Design is a vital nexus of the visual art world here, and its scope embraces everyone from illustrious alumni such as Jenny Holzer to the many grads who set down roots in the area.
Dr. Joseph A. Chazan, a passionate booster of Rhode Island artists, also plays no small part; many of the works in “Locally Made” are gifts from the collection he built with his late wife, Helene.
“Locally Made” features work acquired by the museum in the last 20 years, plus a gallery of video art. There’s also a daily parade of speakers and demonstrations, an exhilarating mix of local makers and performers that reaches well beyond the visual arts. When I was there, a heritage breed farmer from Newport chatted with me about his work preserving the eggs and semen of endangered livestock.
That lively programming outpaces the visual art on view upstairs. “Local” is not a substantial enough theme around which to build an exhibition. If you’re going to feature area artists, why not curate a show about sense of place? Or identify a trend and capitalize on it? Just tossing up work from the museum’s collection, rather than going out into Providence and taking its pulse (the way the performance and speakers series does) feels lazy.
Still, some of the art gleams. Dean Snyder’s loopy, delirious abstract sculpture “Daphne's Pendant,” made of carbon fiber and auto paint, looks like an enormous plant spindling up from a plump, red, shiny tuber, like a candied beet. A leafless twig juts from the elegant black stalk, which opens into two delicate red flowers overhead. At once monstrous and sensual, dying and blossoming, “Daphne’s Pendant” could be a gardener's dream, or nightmare.
Perhaps because it’s also red, Entang Wiharso’s painting “I’m the Sweetest Teddy Bear,” from his “Hurting Landscape” series, hangs nearby. An internationally known Indonesian artist who also works in Rhode Island, Wiharso makes bold, surreal installations and paintings investigating how the inner world of an individual collides with social and political forces. In this painterly canvas, a figure in a white teddy bear costume screams as he’s shoved forward. Another figure floats naked on his back behind him. Alarming and mysterious, the painting feels like a detail of a larger work, capturing a moment in a greater mythic story that we don’t get to see, as if it’s in the wrong gallery.
Another big name in the show: Tina Barney, photographer of the dysfunctional upper class, who maintains a residence in tony Watch Hill. Her large-scale color photo “The Reflection” depicts parents and a young daughter on a veranda, connected but each in his or her own world. The girl closes her eyes; the father and daughter are reflected in a glass tabletop. Perhaps it’s the girl’s equivalent of Alice’s looking glass, through which she might escape.
Ara Peterson’s painted wooden wall sculpture “Forced Spiral 3” comprises scores of black-and-white wood slats sandwiched together to form an oval surface that pulses and undulates: Op art meets woodcraft. It looks even snappier from the side, where you can see the curves rippling and tightening in their zebra stripes.
Another surprising wood piece comes from illustrator Jean Blackburn. For “Template,” she carved a child-sized rocking chair from parts of an ordinary one. The chairs face one another. The larger one, left with its glaring holes, draws a sharp picture of what one generation loses as it fosters the next.
All the work in the show deserves praise for its exacting craftsmanship, but concept sometimes doesn’t rise to the same standard. There are a handful of cloyingly whimsical prints, well made but saccharine.
The best stab at humor is more sardonic, William Schaff’s “Providence,” created by scratching black pigment off a board. Figures emerge from the dark as if it's their natural habitat — principally an unfortunate fellow in a bow tie whose head rests sideways on his shoulders. Sleeping dogs will not lie: One of the two depicted stirs awake. The scene captures a party for the dispossessed; nobody looks happy, but a band plays on.
“Locally Made” extends to the museum’s video gallery, where Dina Deitsch, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s curator of contemporary art, has organized three series. My favorite is about materiality — another juicy theme that could have been applied to the larger exhibit. It includes kaleidoscopic animations by Xander Marro, bizarre and poignant little narratives hinging on the moving parts of installations by Megan and Murray McMillan, and J.R. Uretsky’s sweet, slapstick turn garbed in a ridiculous hodgepodge of a costume that makes the artist seem like the misguided offspring of SpongeBob SquarePants and Lucille Ball.