Since it opened in June of 2019 on Buffalo’s West Side, The Crucible Art Collective has admirably achieved its mission of providing opportunities for primarily young emerging or under recognized artists to show their artwork. This well designed and unique space – a multiple station tattoo studio on one side and a fine art gallery on the other – was a long held dream of fellow Daemen College art alumni; accomplished tattoo artist Taylor Heald and equally talented painter Alicia Malik.
Their concept for sustaining an exhibition venue by pairing it with an adjacent creative business is smart, and seems to be a growing model for other small gallery spaces in the City. That is encouraging news considering the unfortunate loss of several galleries in the last year. I’ve been impressed by their exhibitions to date that bring attention to the next generation of artists in our region, and Gallery Curator Malik deserves praise for her curatorial vision and oversight. She capably balances giving exhibiting artists freedom and flexibility with maintaining a high standard of the work presented.
Just a few years ago, artist John Latona was a star pupil in the fiber design program at Buffalo State College who received a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence and was offered a Fulbright Scholarship. This current exhibition of his newest sculptural fiber works and prints is an exemplary body of work that illustrates what a promising young artist can achieve when he takes his art practice to the “next level.” The focus of Latona’s work had been and continues to be transforming common found materials through traditional weaving or printing techniques.
An installation that he envisioned for a cancelled indoor art event last year involved filling a room with balloons. It was intended to evoke all the connotations of play and celebration that we associate with inflated balloons. The notion of using balloons in some way in his work lingered, and he began to experiment using un-inflated balloons to make collagraphs (prints made using found objects).
Seeing the “deflated” balloon as a form capable of taking on other meanings – described by Latona as “loss, emptiness and the representation of phallic form” – allowed him to use these objects to create abstract works open to interpretation. Drawing on his own experience, he was interested in alluding to the parallels between the challenges facing LGBTQ youth and their coming out experience, include feelings of isolation, loss of family relationships and frequent testing, and the universal life trauma experienced around the globe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The three dimensional works are constructed of simple commonplace materials. Vertical bands of black or white plastic zip ties function as the warp of the square forms. The deflated balloons are trapped within this rigid structure thus rendering them even more nonfunctional. The constriction and restriction of the balloons are potent metaphors for the human emotions Latona is trying to invoke. This conceptually driven handling of the media is heightened by the fact that the materials he is working with are found objects that so readily recognizable. Using the familiar in an unfamiliar way strikes just the right note of ambiguity to makes the work intriguing.
Bookending the exhibition are hanging woven translucent fiber panels. These read as large grids designed to support a quasi-scientific taxonomy of the various shapes that the balloons can assume when lying flat. This can also be seen as an attempt to create order out of disorder by organizing the forms in some fashion.
The strength of all the works is the unique visual language that Latona had developed for this new series and how he encourages the viewer to make their own associations. He achieves this in part by using either brightly colored, black, or beige flesh colored balloons in the respective works. It’s fair to say that sometimes a deflated balloon is not just a deflated balloon.
With an eye toward paying it forward, Latona is donating 50% of his proceeds from the sale of the works to Gay and Lesbian Youth Services in Buffalo to support their mission.
Deflated by John Latona is on view through April 26. The Crucible is located at 334 Connecticut St. and their gallery hours are Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 6pm. For more information, visit thecrucible716.com.