Art is all about making personal choices, not just for the artist, but also for the audience, the dealer, the collector, the curator, and the critic. What exhibitions am I going to see? What artists am I going to write about? What art do I think is important? What art am I going to buy?
Currently I am collaborating on a new book about contemporary art in Maine, so I am well aware of the difficult and often arbitrary choices made in the selection process. There are thousands of artists in the state. At least 350 deserve to be in the book. There’s only room for about 100. Who’s in? Who’s out? I can only imagine how much more difficult the choices must have been, therefore for Lexington, Massachusetts writer E. Ashley Rooney as she researched and compiled 100 Artists of New England (Schiffer Publishing, Atglen PA, 224-pages, 2010. $45 hardcover.)
100 Artists of New England is a handsome, sturdy hardcover book that features 100 artists in two-page spreads which include an artist’s statement and five or six full-color photographs each. There is a foreward about New England art colonies by sculptor/art dealer Arlene Hecht and a brief introduction by Ashley Rooney.
Though Rooney discusses her selection process in the introduction – cover all six New England states, get a wide range of mediums and styles, consult with galleries, museums and artists, she was probably more accurate when she told me, “It’s kind of like inviting people to a party.”
There is a randomness to the artists featured that suggests it was mostly a matter of who the author knew and knew about. For example, 52 of the 100 artists are from Massachusetts, which may be justifiable based on relative state populations but the number of artists from each state (Connecticut and Maine, 15 each, New Hampshire, 9, Rhode island, 6, Vermont, 3) are not proportionate to their populations. Rooney obviously knows more about art in the Bay State than she does about art in other states.
“I was surprised I had such a hard time with Connecticut,” Rooney said. “Massachusetts was much more forthcoming.”
Having written about art in Maine for more than 30 years, I found Rooney’s Maine choices peculiar to say the least. Five of her 15 are artists I might have selected myself – Kim Bernard, Meg Brown Payson, Noriko Sakanishi, Aaron, Stephan, and Dudley Zopp. And four are artists I had never heard of before – Nance Driscoll, Oana Lauric, Susan McDonough, and Carolyn Walton. Not necessarily a bad thing. But an odd selection nonetheless, running the gamut from a conservative realist like Barbara Ernst Prey to a cutting edge installation artist like Aaron Stephan with lots of craft artists in between.
Schiffer Publishing publishes thousands of books aimed primarily at the collector and collectible market. Ashley Rooney has written two or three a year in recent years. Since 100 Artists of New England, she has written 100 Artists of the Mid-Atlantic and has 100 Artists of the Midwest and 100 Artists of South in the works.
All of these volumes could be very useful, but it would be helpful if they supplied more information about each of the artists and if the information supplied was uniform. There are directories of galleries and museums in the back of the book, some entries have addresses, phone numbers and websites, some just have the name of the institution. And the publishers seem to have been in such a hurry to get 100 Artists of New England in print that they left out half of the gallery list.
A visually entertaining book flawed by sloppy editing and the velocity of its production. As Ashley Rooney said, “It’s one woman’s perception of what I see as fascinating art. Hopefully it represents the region with all its quirkiness.”