Connecting through art

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Using gravel as a medium, Parcel 5 will be transformed into Midtown Maze 2.0.
(Homepage photo: Mural by Shawn Dunwoody and other photos of artwork courtesy of Current Seen)

In an effort to connect Rochester through art and give voice to visual artists, downtown’s small and midsize venues have coalesced to fashion Current Seen. The program will bring treats for the eye at a string of venues that stretch from East Avenue to West Main Street.

“The visual art community is a huge part of Rochester,” says lead organizer Bleu Cease, who is also executive director and curator of the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. “This is about establishing a real framework, a real structure celebrating and acknowledging the visual arts, and bringing it downtown.”

Cease calls it a big step for the local art community.

Starting on Oct. 4, all who enjoy sculptures, drawings and other forms of visual art will have six weeks to peruse more than 20 exhibitions at multiple sites. They will line a narrow section of Rochester that begins at Prince Street, runs down East Avenue and Main Street, and ends at King Street. An array of partners and sponsors have been lined up.

Current Seen draws on various models with a goal to connect downtown Rochester. The program harkens back to efforts like the Berlin Biennale in Germany, a key international forum for contemporary art, that began in 1996. Each edition of that forum, organizers say, brings together influential current positions of artists, theorists, and practitioners from a variety of fields.

Current Seen knits programs near some of Rochester’s landmarks, and offers a new history of the corridor by Gerry Szymanski and Kyle Semmel. The program features artists ranging from the legendary British filmmaker John Maybury to regionally emerging artists exhibiting in their first solo exhibition.

Instead of making use of Rochester’s large, well-known galleries, Current Seen will shine a light on smaller showcases for the arts. Four midsize venues are core sites: RoCoRIT City Art Space, (formerly Gallery r) the Visual Studies Workshop and the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. Several smaller sites, such as the Art Gallery at 540WMain Communiversity, will also exhibit art. In addition, there will be “pop-up” shows at places that have never been part of the art community—one is a West Main liquor store. Finally, temporary public art works will be placed in various locations up and down Current Seen’s territory.

“They’re intended to move people throughout the Main Street-East Avenue corridor,” Cease explains.

All the program’s works will relate to a general theme: our current moment/our changing city. Current Seen aims to offer something for most tastes—there’s even going to be a maze downtown, on Parcel 5.

A collaborative spirit

Current Seen builds upon two local, well-known artistic programs: First Friday, a monthly, one-day collaboration among Rochester’s nonprofit, university and commercial art organizations; and the Rochester Biennial, which once offered the works of some of the region’s best artists every two years. The Memorial Art Gallery ran the Rochester Biennial until RoCo took over the program in 2015. 

Cease is the mind behind First Friday and was the lead organizer of RoCo’s first and only Biennial in 2017. VSW and Gallery r (now RIT City Art Space) collaborated with RoCo on that six-week, multivenue exhibition of contemporary art.

“We each did shows and programming related to partnerships and collaboration,” says John Aäsp, RIT City Art Space director. “It was just kind of us putting our foot in the water to see, ‘Could we collaborate do something that focused on mid-sized venues?’”

After that last Biennial, RoCo and the other venues involved decided to develop a larger exhibition with a different focus.  

“We could work toward building … a multivenue exhibition, multiple different locations dedicated to contemporary art, and advancing the contemporary art community here in Rochester,” Cease says.

Current Seen was born. Its geographic location will very much be a part of its character. 

“East Avenue and Main Street have long been known as a dividing line,” Cease explains. “This is about connecting our community.”

The program also will give a voice to visual artists whose works haven’t made it into Rochester’s large galleries.

540WMain Communiversity has long sought to achieve those goals, in part through monthly exhibitions of the artworks of people of color.  

“What we’re, as an organization, trying to do is highlight the culture, and the people who are driving the culture, who may not be in the circle of community that we’re used to talking about,” says executive director Calvin Eaton.

Staying current

Calvin Eaton, executive director of 540WMain, co-curated three exhibitions by women of color for Current Seen.
(Photo by Mike Costanza)

Eaton co-curated three exhibitions by women of color for Current Seen. Not Your Object, by Rochesterartist Siena Pullinzi, will be at the nonprofit’s small gallery. The exhibition, which Pullinzi co-curated, features drawings and prints by the artist that focus on the objectification of the female body, and on sex, loneliness and isolation. The other two exhibitions will appear at the Douglass Auditorium at 36 King St., which 540WMain manages.

When Current Seen opens, patrons of the visual arts will be able to head to VSW to view the works of 15 or more contemporary artists on important subjects of the day. 

“There are works … that acknowledge or call for changes to current world subjects including, but not limited to, environment, immigration, health, race, policy, social awareness, feminism, gender, and activism,” says VSW Director Tate Shaw, who is curating the exhibition.

Given the recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that took the lives of 31 people, Ileana Doble-Hernandez’s minimalist video about gun rights might be hardest-hitting piece at VSW. As Your F——— Right is My Biggest Fear (fill in the gap) plays, the title is repeated in text while the video’s narrator says it again and again.

VSW Director Tate Shaw, is curating the works of 15 or more contemporary artists on important subjects of the day. 
(Photo by Mike Costanza)

“It starts in a kind of a low, normal speaking tone,” Shaw explains. “Then, it escalates more and more into a kind of fever pitch, almost scream-like experience of fear and anxiety over rights and nightmares of guns, in terms of public society.”

Mexican-born Doble-Hernandez graduated from RIT last spring with a master’s degree in fine arts.

VSW’s publishing arm, VSW Press, will publish a catalog of the works in Current Seen. 

City Art Space plans to offer a look back at past visual art works for Current Seen—and a glimpse of what’s coming. To begin with, the gallery will host Metaproject: Ten Years of Innovation, a retrospective of an annual exercise that’s held by RIT’s College of Art and Design.

an annual exercise that’s held by RIT’s College of Art and Design. 

“Metaproject is an annual collaboration between industrial design students and industry partners,” Aäsp says. 

The partner, a firm or nonprofit that has signed up for the role,challenges the students to design and create a product or project that meets its specifications. Last year, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street,” set the standards. 

“They said, ‘We want projects that are usable, but encourage play,’” Aäsp explains.

Blockitecture, an award-winning product that was created for Areawear, a gift and home accessories brand, will be at the center of City Art Space’s exhibition when it opens in October. 

“It’s basically a little set of wooden blocks that look like little buildings,” Aäsp says. “You can … pile them up and build, basically, an architectural city. “It’s somewhere between a toy and a kind of model.”

Areawear liked the students’ work so much that it now markets Blockitecture sets. 

Altogether, the Metaproject retrospective will feature as many as 11 past exhibits, while presenting part of a project that this year’s crop of industrial design students is working on.

“They will just have started,” Aäsp notes. “Usually, they’ll work on the project through the fall and spring, and then they’ll reveal the finished product.”

City Art Space also plans to offer Best Foot Forward, a pop-up exhibition, down the hall from its main gallery.

RoCo currently plans to offer seven exhibitions and pop-ups for Current Seen, though that number is expected to rise. Cease will curate three of them, including Observation Towers, a series of large sculptures outside RoCo, and State of the City. Artists from different backgrounds and practices contributed their works to State of the City, which scrutinizes Rochester’s stories, communities and cultures.

Bleu Cease, executive director of RoCo will curate Observation Towers, a series of large sculptures outside the East Avenue gallery.
(Photo by Mike Costanza)

In addition to hosting art exhibitions, RoCo will be the site for the State of Art Writing in Rochester, a panel discussion on that subject. 

“One of the main agendas of Current Seen is to elevate the awareness of, and the need for, art writers in Rochester,” Cease says. “We’ll also be working to find young writers who are interested (in) pursuing the field.”

Those writers could be of great assistance to local artists as they try to scare up the public support for their work.

“One issue we run up against is a kind of conception that the arts are a hobby, and anybody can do that,” Cease says. “That’s just not true.”

The members of the State of Art Writing panel are still being chosen.

Cease and his small staff plan to measure the effectiveness of Current Seen by asking those who attend its exhibitions to fill out brief surveys, and by interviewing them at exhibition sites and other locations. The hope is that the program will become a staple of Rochester’s visual arts landscape.

“Every two years, we can take a big, old spotlight and shine it on these small venues, shine it on these younger contemporary artists, and shine it on this strip of streets, this corridor,” Cease says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

One thought on “Connecting through art

  1. This is an exciting way to activate East Main and yet another reason to attract area residents and tourism to our center city. Business at area restaurants and bars should increase. It’s a great example of how the arts contributes to the economic vitality of the city. BRAVO Bleu and your team!!

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