Harlem's Studio Museum: the tricky business of identifying new talent

Identifying new talent in art can be a tricky business. What may appear to be a new idea or a fresh approach may turn out to be nothing but a shrewdly calculated modification of an existing idea or style. And what appears hopelessly old-hat may in fact represent a powerful talent unfortunately bogged down by a rigid adherence to tradition -- or it may even be a subtle parody of the very thing it so closely resembles.

There is also always the tendency on the part of the artist, curator, or critic asked to identify such talent to select only works reflecting his point of view.

Confronted with all this, the Studio Museum in Harlem came up with an excellent solution in choosing the six young artists included in its current invitational exhibition here, "Enroute: Works by Six Contemporary Artists."

What it did was to ask four professional artists to name several promising new painters, printmakers, photographers, and artists working in three-dimensional media, from the New York metropolitan area. And then to ask Patricia Moman-Bell, the museum's curator, to make the final choice.

The result is an elegant show of six young artists of promise, the first of a series of similar exhibitions featuring emerging artists from various regions of the United States the museum intends to hold in the near future -- something that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the museum's commitment to new talent (witness its annual artists- in-residence program and its focus on community education).

The show itself consists of 10 to 15 pieces each by printmaker and collagist Nanette Carter, sculptor Howard McCalebb, assemblagist Janet Henry, painters Stanley Whitney and Leon Waller, and photographer Curtis Bunyan. None of these works are large by contemporary standards, and none of them are derivative.

The latter fact should not be surprising in an exhibition of new talent in which originality ought to be common currency -- but it's rare enough to be worth commenting upon nevertheless.

Also worth comment is the fact that this show reflects the recent trend in the visual arts toward diversification of influence and style. No longer is the young artist expected to belong to a particular school or movement in order to be taken seriously. On the contrary, he is made to feel free to follow his own creative intuitions wherever they may lead -- or to borrow whatever he wants from whatever combination of sources interests him.

This openness of spirit is this show's major attribute. Nowhere does it show to better advantage than in the collages and prints of Nanette Carter. These are muted, highly sophisticated works in which narrow color strips play dramatically against softly textured (or plain) backgrounds. The effect is of a contained explosion, with the energy held in check or released by extremely subtle adjustments of the length, placement, color, or texture of the narrow strips of collage material. This balance of passion and control is always a pleasure to watch in art, but the fact that Carter manages it on such a modest scale gives her work a special quality of discretion and mellowness quite unusual for one so young. "Metronome 8" and "Suite in Brown" are especially outstanding. And her long, narrow prints indicate she would make a superb muralist.

Leon Waller's charcoal and mixed-media drawings are based on the human figure , and are marked by extreme economy of means and subtle psychological overtones. They are powerful in line and form, but profoundly (almost painfully) sensitive in conception. The smaller watercolors, especially, have the probing, persistently subjective inner voice quality so typical of the early Paul Klee or Odilon Redon, and project a privacy of vision that could take him far if he remains true to it. I would suggest, however, that he concentrate a bit more on the drawing of hands.Those on view have a mannered and academic look quite out of keeping with everything else. Outside of that, I have nothing but praise. "December Drawing" is one of the best drawings I have seen in quite some time.

Stanley Whitney shows several good-size paintings in color and a few excellent ink drawings. The former are freely executed, vibrantly colorful, and a bit boring. I spent more time with them than with anything else in the show, and I came to the conclusion that Mr. Whitney is not quite clear in his own mind about what color is supposed to add to what his black-and-white does so admirably.

His drawings are masterly, magnificent -- and final. They would hold up anywhere. The paintings, on the other hand, look tentative and incomplete, especially when seen in conjunction with his work in black-and-white.

I found Janet Henry's assemblages of tiny clothing, personal belongings, everyday objects, etc., charming and fun -- a kind of miniature world laid out for all to see. "Daisy's Christian Colored Lady." an eight-unit assemblage that is both a composite portrait and a veritable catalog of diminutive memorabilia, is especially intriguing.

Howard McCalebb's painted steel sculpture and Curtis Bunyan's photographs round out this exhibition. Both artists know precisely what they are doing -- and why. And both are good at it.

All in all, it's a very worthwhile show. There was nothing I did not like in it, although I found a few works outstanding -- most especially the pieces by Nanette Carter, Leon Waller, and the drawings of Stanley Whitney.

The show will remain on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Fifth Avenue and 125th Street , New York, through March 22.

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