With no apologies to Forrest Gump, this year’s exhibit of the 2012 OEAA artist nominees is no box of chocolate confections and sweet nothings. Think instead of a filled-out Scrabble board whose criss-cross puzzle of signs and symbols reflects the diversity, creativity and connectivity that contemporary art aspires to.

For the most part, this year’s nominees who are on display for only two weeks at Hot Shops, demonstrate these qualities when in 2010-11 they experimented with mediums, attitudes and issues in such shows that featured gender awareness (Les Femmes Folles curated by Wanda Ewing), political expediency (Extraordinary Rendition curated by Tim Guthrie and Doug Hayko) and sexual freedom of expression (Body as Text) curated by Larry Ferguson and Sally Deskins).

Not all nominees were this provocative as witnessed with the solo efforts of 2-D artists Joe Broghammer, Vera Mercer and Christina Narwicz and 3-D artists Larry Sosso, Iggy Sumnik and Justin Beller. In fact, one group show, Science Fair, organized by Josh Powell and Kevin Rooney and  represented here by such as Hayko, Kim Reid Kuhn, Christina Renfer Vogel, Rob Walters, Rob Gilmer and Sora Kimberlain succeeded mainly in taking art out of the box and, in this case, into a storage locker.

Gilmer, along with fellow Visual Arts committee member Steve Carter, curated this OEAA exhibit in fine fashion. Known best perhaps as a photographer and proprietor of RNG Gallery, his own Science Fair entry, “Scrabble for Life,” reminds viewers of his conceptual and installation skill. Entering the Nicholas Street Gallery, one’s sightlines are immediately rewarded with images of signature work from Ewing (“Hair Dressing Dummy”), Kristin Pluhacek (an “Untitled” painting of weeds, pods, and seeds) and Narwicz (“Guido”).

All of which encircle a significant sculpture “garden” that includes pieces from Sumnik (“Pipe Blossom”), Kimberlain (“Salt Heads”), Robert Miller (“Compartments”), Les Bruning (“Talk: Hear”), Sosso (“Pig”), Beller (“Untitled”), Jamie Burmeister (many, many wonderful “Vermin”), Linda Garcia (“Flower Child”) and Renee Ledesma (“Oaxaca Flower Girl”).

The latter two were highlights from a nominated group show, Bienvenidos/Welcome at Cathedral’s Cultural Sunderland Gallery. Another interesting group show, Reunion: Old Friends—New Work, is represented here by fine work from Robert Willits (“Fat Pink Men and Victims Series”), Deborah J. Murphy (“The Grass Is Greener Still”) and John Miller (“Still Life with Snow and Candle”). Also visible from a nominated Best Group Show were Walter Reubens (“Female Nude #1396), William Holland (“And So It Is”), Nancy Dobler-Kohler (“Crossing Parallels”), Ferguson (“Sally & Wanda”) and Ngoda (“Sunday Afternoon”) in Body as Text.

Best New Media Artists in this show include Hayko (“Fag Shoot”), Alex Myers (“Barack”), Kjell Peterson (“Artifacts”), Susan Knight (“Sparkle Splash”), Ying Zhu (“Letters”), Burmeister and Guthrie. In the category of Best Emerging Artist represented in this exhibit we have Vogel (“Self-Portrait”), Victoria Hoyt (“Stampede”), Zhu, Leslie Diuguid (“…A Quote from Liz Taylor”) and Bill Sitzmann (“Flood”).

Overall, there are more than 40 pieces in the OEAA exhibit, and though all interesting here, some may not best represent the shows they came from for various reasons. For example, Broghammer and Bill Hoover had two of the most creative and engaging solo efforts at the Moving Gallery and StoneHouse Art Gallery, respectively, but neither contribution here do either justice.

The former’s “Ouzel,” one of several playing card satellites from a recent flock of Joe looks unfinished. It doesn’t sing like his larger works such as the beguiling “Hunt” or “Chicken Leap,” but the artist explained these larger works were not available having been sold or out of state.

On the other hand, Hoover’s “My Garden in Fall” is a fair representative of his fine, introspective exhibit Vision Inhabited House, as it has his usual smattering of personal, folksy iconography, yet not even the presence of his “darker side,” a black specter motif spares the piece its cluttered composition.

Also, Narwicz’s ambiguous “Guido,” a blend of beauty and the obscure, seems an odd choice from one of the season’s most beautiful examples of abstract imagery, Fluid, at Anderson O’Brien which featured primarily the exploration of water and light. “Guido,” with its dual emphasis on surface and depth better represents her more recent show at the Hillmer Gallery which showcased a newer direction for the artist’s imagery.

Works emblematic of their show sources included: Ferguson’s “Body as Text,” “Sally and Wanda.” If there was an OEAA award for best show card, this clever, erotic image of model (Deskins) and artist (Ewing) would take it; Hoyt’s Problems of Getting Together, a digital print of her tableaux in miniature was created at the proper, engaging point-of-view; Willits’ “Untitled” mixed media, two-person portrait that pairs a targeted victim of the 99th percentile with a villainous, pink-cheeked CEO suit and gold tie; two photos of Jun Kaneko’s resplendent Lauritzen Garden show taken by Takashi Hatakeyama. Most effective is “Kuroshio,” a large glazed Dango at center stage in a formal garden that stands magisterially in a meditative blending of nature, modernity and two classical pedestals bearing flower pots; an architectural, mixed media sculpture “Compartments” from Robert Miller, a delicate balance of those physical and psychological “rooms” we store our lives and priorities in privately and publicly.

But perhaps the three most dynamic pieces in this show come from photographer Vera Mercer and mixed media provocateurs Tim Guthrie and Rebecca Herskovitz. Unable to hang one of her large “Still Lifes” in the low-ceilinged gallery, Mercer included an event photo of the Bemis-sponsored dinner that honored her show. “Darech” features the titled waiter, Darech Gaskill,  setting a table that highlights a trail of candlelight and reflective glassware from soft to sharp focus in the background where a large still life bursts in a climax of light, composition and illusion.

Speaking of climaxes and illusion, Herskovitz offers what is this show’s most startling entry, an erotically detailed and emotionally charged mixed media image of a voluptuous woman deep within her own self-manipulated orgasm. The painting drips symbolically as it explores the pornographic debate of exploitation and free expression without a convenient or pat resolution.

Equally provocative and more resolute is Guthrie’s mini-version of his stunning mixed media installation in the Bemis Underground, Extraordinary Rendition that includes a large graphite drawing of victim “Bart” and several “Artifacts.” The video of the staged torture reenactment is compelling but so is the ironic royal treatment given to “Bart” with its purple and gold stanchion that keeps the viewer detached from the reality while giving his tacit approval to this covert government practice.

The 2012 OEAA visual art nominees’ exhibit continues at Hot Shops, 1301 Nicholas St. through Jan. 28. For details about it and the OEA Awards Night Event, Feb. 12 go to oea-awards.com.

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