I had heard of Cincinnati Art Underground, an Over-the-Rhine commercial gallery that opened in late 2015, but not yet visited it when I received a press release in November announcing the current show, Khalilah Birdsong’s Amalgamation.
It impressed and surprised me because it came with a photo of a colorfully abstract painting that had a striking similarity to the work of Gerhard Richter. It had that look of paint engagingly applied, perhaps rolled, onto canvas and then carefully scraped to achieve a sense of movement, of action, to make it seem alive.
That probably would have been enough to interest me. You don’t see that much work by Richter around here (although the Cincinnati Art Museum has a lovely small painting, acquired during Aaron Betsky’s tenure as director), so a show by an artist influenced by him gets my attention. It sho
ws sophisticated taste. But it also could be called “derivative,” not a word that the Contemporary art world likes to use, although artists are naturally influenced by others.
So I was further intrigued that the email about the show acknowledged and addressed the Richter similarity head-on. “Many of her works remind people of Gerhard Richter, but she is inspired by different circumstances,” it said. “Further, she has been branching out in her experimentations with materials and in her juxtapositions of different techniques.”
Having now attended the show, which is on display through Jan. 21 at the gallery at 1415 Main St., I can see that. I can also see beyond that — this is a commercial Contemporary gallery trying to make an impact by offering coherent, focused shows by artists local and national. As the gallery owner Rachael Moore, who is working with artist/creative director Andrey Kozakov on programming Cincinnati Art Underground, explains in an interview, she wants this to be a place that presents shows in a serious way. That means they have a limited number of artists — even just one — and also firm opening and closing dates. The work is presented like a cultural event, not as inventory in a showroom.
“Maybe an artist working in a studio is coming up with a new philosophy or a twist on some strand of Contemporary art,” Moore says. “This gives them a chance to showcase ideas and engage people. When you have too much art going on in a gallery, or on display for too long, it becomes more about the visual (presence) than the ideas. Nothing really strong comes through.”
Birdsong has strong ideas that come through in her work. A resident of Atlanta who took up painting as a diversion from her job as an executive with Tyler Perry’s film and television business, she has deep talent.
The large painting “11:11,” for instance, has acrylic paint applied in a roller-like way and then scraped to create a textured appearance. But then she has put the canvas under a large roller that inks a mysterious symbol onto the finished work — it looks a little like a freeway interchange gone mad. It is, as Moore says, “a twist on some strand of Contemporary art.”
In the painting “Frayed Edges,” Birdsong has applied remnants of old scripts and call sheets, used in her entertainment industry job, to her canvas. It’s novel.
Cincinnati Art Underground is a work in progress still. The appealing Richter-like acrylic painting that initially interested me, “The Myth of Significance,” never actually made it to Cincinnati. Birdsong sold it in Atlanta before the show. (A smaller one with a similar hypnotic approach, “Into the Hollow Feigns 3,” is on display.)
There is the issue of whether Cincinnati has the collectors to support the artists Moore wants to show. But she is continuing onward with her dedication to her approach. Opening Jan. 27 and continuing through Feb. 4 is an exhibit of paintings by David Gerena, who established himself in 1980s-era New York as a street artist. The opening will feature a DJ.
“I thought maybe being on Main Street might be a way to get some of the younger people living downtown who really want to be connected to cool things to do,” Moore says. “I want to give them a chance to engage with the visual arts world and maybe connect with the artists we’re showing.”