Pictured Above: The James A. Michener Museum’s main gallery.  Photo credit:  Contributed.

CFEVA at 40, A Celebration of Contemporary Art

By Mandee Hammerstein

Arts News Now’s Mandee Hammerstein writes about her recent time during a press preview of the CFEVA at 40 exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum. CFEVA at 40 runs through May 26th, 2024.

Walls that once represented restriction and oppression (the Michener Museum being formerly a prison in the 19th century) now promotes individual freedom, encouraging self-expression, new ideas and critical subjects. More recently, the museum has opened its latest exhibition, CFEVA at 40: Four Decades of Supporting Contemporary Art, on view now through most of May, in partnership with CFEVA, The Center for Emerging Visual Artists. Within the Michener’s largest gallery, the two nonprofits jointly present contemporary art throughout the Philadelphia region, comprised of over 40 artists affiliated with CFEVA, representing the region’s artistic excellence. In reference to the exhibition’s name, while highlighting over 40 artists, CFEVA is also celebrating its 40th anniversary as well as the delight of its mission of supporting the careers of visual artists, especially those in the earlier stages of their careers, where many artists now can be found within essential art institutions such as the Michener.

Visitors who explore the curated CFEVA collection will find that they are instantly met with a diverse array of artistic expressions, each offering a glimpse into a thriving culture of creative brilliance and statements, where work ranges from that of established members of the avant-garde to rising stars, all through delicate curation by co-curators Maida Milone and Genevieve Coutroubis.

Pictured Above: Co-curators Maida Milone (L) and Genevieve Coutroubis (R).  Photo credit:  Arts News Now.

Gerry and Maguerite Lenfest Chief Curator, Dr. Laura Turner Igoe shared, “I think what is most exciting about the CFEVA at 40 exhibition is that several of these important contemporary artists have never shown their work at the Museum before.” Those selected to represent the over 300 fellows CFEVA has mentored over four decades include Vincent Desiderio, Katie Baldwin, Rita Bernstein, Ziui Chen, Ada Trillo, and Tim Portlock. Also represented are established artists who have given their time and talent as advisors, including the late Ray K. Metzker, Will Barnet, Sidney Goodman, and current advisor Donald Camp.” 

Pictured Above: Photographic artist, Ron Trevor.  Photo Credit: Arts News Now.

As I walk immediately to the exhibit’s right, I instantly discover a vignette that presents the profound exploration of heritage and identity by second-generation professional photographic artist Ron Tarver. In a tribute to his father Richard Tarver’s work and era, Ron discusses how he has embarked on a journey of reinterpretation, breathing new life into the negatives captured during the tumultuous Jim Crow era, which his father experienced first-hand while living in Oklahoma during his professional photography career in the 1940s and ’50s.

Tarver states: “The mission statement for this body of work, I take my dad’s work and think about how I can pull the idea of what Jim Crow was then and how it relates to now, regarding racial relations. A lot of this is still bubbling up in society today, and I’m reinterpreting from then and making new work that relates to the subject now.”

Pictured Above:  Ron Travers collage, Homesteaders  Photo Credit: Ron Tarver.

Upon Tarver’s pieces specifically hangs “Homesteaders,” a sizable collage that embodies a striking testament to his innovative approach to photography, also utilizing Richard’s salvaged negatives by Ron. With meticulous attention to detail, Ron Tarver crafted a visual narrative that transcends time and space. Reflecting on his process, he shares, ‘Homesteaders’ is a different type of series, which consists of making constructions built within the studio, cutting images out, and placing in scenes.” He then continues to delve into the piece’s backstory, revealing how the subjects from his father’s archives now morph into the Homesteaders, who appear to be now emerging from a dustbowl and seemingly departing Earth for new frontiers. Through this piece, Tarver poses a thought-provoking question, asking viewers to contemplate whether these individuals are better off in their new surroundings or where they originated. He continues to mention, despite his encounter with what could be considered a severe setback during the project’s creation involving a surprise influx of water from a storm in his studio, thus damaging over 500 prints for the work, he quickly adapted and transformed adversity into opportunity, finding newly artistic qualities within the water damaged prints, fitting perfectly within the theme of the finished piece. The final result is a meticulously crafted 42-inch by 24-inch collage that seamlessly blends analog and digital techniques, thus inviting viewers to explore the depths of Tarver’s artistic vision and the questioning layers of meaning within Homesteaders.

Pictured Above:  Ron Travers studio set during his construction of Homesteaders  Photo Credit: Ron Tarver.

Through his lens today, it is apparent that Ron carefully and thoughtfully bridges the gap between past and present, shedding light on enduring racial tensions and their reverberations in contemporary society.

After my time with Ron Tarver, I approached a multitude of works consisting of unique, compelling canvases, three-dimensional works, and multimedia installations that stood aglow. Following, I met artist Maggie Mills, who was standing near her eye-catching painting “Winter.” At first glance, Winter quickly drew me in with its serene color palette and the enchanting depiction of a young girl nestled amidst bright yet wintry landscapes. The painting exuded a sense of tranquility, inviting me and imaginably following viewers to lose themselves in its radiantly lit story. However, upon closer inspection, more so with the placement of skillfully colored “Hellbender” lizards, who playfully dot the bottom of the piece, suddenly appear to hint at perhaps deeper layers of meaning, delivering a new view of potential dislocation and unfortunate upheaval, prompting more internal questions. Measuring 48×60 inches and crafted with acrylic and gouache, Winter turns to emerge as a captivating narrative of environmental consciousness, beckoning viewers into a world where subtle themes intertwine to convey a message about today’s children living amidst environmental threats.

Pictured Above: F. Samuel Brainard’s book which inspired the exhibition at New Hope Arts, Reality’s Fugue.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

During our conversation, Mills elaborates on the inspiration and motivation behind her work, stating, “I create art primarily in environmental concern in climate-changing events, or disasters. My work serves as a visual journal, thinking about endangered species and how environmental change dramatically threatens them”. This is where the conclusion could be drawn that the title Winter perhaps is not merely about a season but a metaphor for the chilling reality faced by our children, inheriting a world with environmental upheaval. Mills continues to connect that Winter was created in response to the East Palestine train derailment in 2023, where the Hellbender lizards are one of the endangered species due to the derailment aftermath.

As visitors immerse themselves in the myriad expressions of creativity and expression at the CFEVA at 40 exhibit, they witness the profound narratives woven by artists like Ron Tarver and Maggie Mills and their peers at CFEVA. Through their respective mediums, these visionaries invite us to contemplate the complexities of our shared human experience and pressing issues that shape this world. From thoughtful and trained brush strokes to shutter clicks, amongst many other artistic techniques, the essence of CFEVA at 40 evokes time to pause, reflect, and engage with the transformative power of art.

The James A. Michener Art Museum invites the public to experience “CFEVA at 40” through May 26th, accompanied by related events such as a mixed media collage workshop and a panel discussion with featured artists. This exhibition embodies the museum’s commitment to showcasing contemporary art and supporting artists at various stages of their careers, reinforcing its status as a cornerstone of cultural enrichment in the Philadelphia region.

Pictured Above: The main gallery at the James A. Michener Art Museum showcasing CFEVA at 40. Photo credit: Arts News Now.

For more information on the exhibition, visiting hours, and upcoming events, please visit the James A. Michener Art Museum’s website at www.michenerartmuseum.org

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