Fragments of conversation: Art and discourse in a new exhibition at McGuffey

The work of Jim Respess (left) and Steve Fishman (right) makes up the collaborative show, “Fragmentation,” at the McGuffey Art Center through January 31. The First Friday opening reception will take place on January 8. Image: Courtesy Artists The work of Jim Respess (left) and Steve Fishman (right) makes up the collaborative show, “Fragmentation,” at the McGuffey Art Center through January 31. The First Friday opening reception will take place on January 8. Image: Courtesy Artists

Scrawled on a chalkboard in Jim Respess’ studio in the basement of the McGuffey Art Center is a Sol Lewitt quote that reads, “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.”

It’s a reminder that the artist has used for years, seeking to push himself to higher levels of expression. In lieu of aesthetic perfection, Respess craves the dialogue that art can create between artists and the work, as well as the viewer. It’s what continues to move his art forward, and it’s one of the factors that led to a new exhibition at McGuffey this month, titled “Fragmentations.”

The exhibition is a collaboration between Respess and his longtime friend, Steve Fishman, an artist based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The two met as students at Virginia Commonwealth University more than 20 years ago, and their efforts as working artists have kept them in contact ever since. “We were both older graduate students and it was a great help to have an ongoing dialogue about the experience and our individual processes, because we work very differently,” says Fishman.

Both artists are members of the McGuffey Art Association and so their dialogue on art continued despite geographical differences. The conversations take a different form these days, however.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing that I’ve found very valuable is studio FaceTime [meetings] and really looking at the work and saying, ‘Lend me your eyes and your brain on this,’” says Fishman. These tele-critiques have become a ritual over the last couple of years, imbuing fresh energy to their friendship and each artist’s work.

While Respess has been a renting member at the downtown art center for more than 20 years, Fishman is an associate member of the organization. “I lived in Richmond for a long time and found my way to McGuffey in the late 1970s,” he says. “I would walk the halls and meet the artists. I’m honored to be part of it now, and I’d like to be more participatory from a distance. I feel like I’m kind of the Chapel Hill ambassador.” Though he can exhibit work at the center and participate in McGuffey’s expansive network of artists, he didn’t have a physical presence in the Charlottesville arts community—until now.

Fishman and Respess’ FaceTime exchanges will be the focus of “Fragmentations,” which features artwork that has grown out of the artists’ dialogue. “I think we are both very cognizant of the fact that we’re both just learning,” says Respess. “I try to take on new processes to be stupid. I try to make myself stupid. The idea is the thing that’s driving what I’m trying to do, and the materials are secondary.”

The work is heavy with the honesty of experimentation, imperfect at times but clearly a demonstration of the process for each artist. While Respess creates colorful, oversized sculptures, Fishman focuses on two-dimensional prints that occasionally dip into his background in painting, etching and drawing.

“We help each other because my technical understanding of materials and his thinking abilities make a pretty interesting fit,” says Fishman. “We can bounce ideas and come to new understandings of what we’re trying to do.”

Respess is the philosopher of the two, using his art as a tool to grapple with specific concepts. Fishman is the craftsman, seeking to perfect the expression of ideas through his medium. Both produce work that is abstract and conceptual rather than a faithful reproduction of reality.

“I can make things look like I want them to, but so what,” says Fishman. “I want to say something more. So, the work that I’ve made involves using forms and shapes and spaces.” His work is less about portrayal of physical reality and more of an exploration of abstract ideas and texture. It’s an additive process, and one that constantly grows alongside the work.

“Some of [the pieces] are prints gone awry that grew into more interesting things,” says Fishman. “I feel like I don’t want to be closed to what the thing can grow into. It can sort of have a life of its own.”

A print that was slightly off becomes the inspiration or base layer for a new drawing, which might then continue to evolve with future layers.

Respess embraces a similar approach in his sculptures. For any single sculpture, “I can keep pushing that, changing it around, changing the scale,” he says. “There’s a lot of information and ways that I can alter it. I’m realizing that I can push this a lot further. This is just a starting point.”

For this exhibition, there’s a final element of collaboration and dialogue that comes in the arrangement and hanging of the show. With luck, each artist’s work will spark further conversations, between the individual pieces but also among other artists and community members who view it.

“We can have that conversation here,” says Respess. “I think that’s one of the functions that McGuffey serves in the community. And that is much bigger than anything that I do or that Steve does.”

Tell us about other unique collaborations in the comments below.

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