Artist Don Lambert, who wants his work to reach a wide public, is a perfect choice as the inaugural winner of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s new 4th Floor Award. Don Lambert: Supernova Terra Firma, the first 4th Floor Award exhibition, has just opened in the museum’s Vance-Waddell gallery and remains up through Nov. 29.
“This is new territory,” says Jessica Flores Garcia, the museum’s associate curator of contemporary art. “It’s the first big project for the 4th Floor group.”
This represents an innovation in the way that Cincinnati museums — and museums everywhere — plan shows, by letting curatorial choices be made by interested art lovers rather than professionals.
The group, formed in 2008, is named for a non-existent floor at the museum, and thus immediately suggests “in-the-sky” thinking. The 4th Floor group, also known as Friends of Contemporary Art, is open to museum donors at the $500 level and above. Its events include visits to artists’ studios, behind-the-scenes gallery tours and other special programs. The 4th Floor Award will be biennial, specifically designed to promote regional artists. The idea is to encourage those artists in their development, Flores says.
“It’s not only an award for the art but recognition of an artist’s career,” she says.
Lambert’s show consists of three wall-installed pieces. “Lawn Jobs” is artificial turf, laid in diagonals so the light catches the stripes as alternately dark and light. As the viewer moves, the light changes and dark stripes become light and light stripes dark.
“Yard work is the thing you’re supposed to do in America,” Lambert says. “Then you start to realize how artificial this thing is. But I remember how mesmerized I was, at 15 years old, creating patterns mowing around trees.” The piece mimics the patterns that can be made by mowing or by the mischievous teenage game of driving across a lawn to leave tire marks.
“Changing Landscape,” from 2003, is the only one of the exhibition’s three works shown previously.
It is made up of sliding block puzzles that pack neatly. It has an unusual museum dictum attached to it: “Please Touch.” The work demonstrates “the shifting state of our world by using the seemingly correct but always inaccurate flat map … trying to reflect a three-dimensional world,” the artist has said. In moving the blocks, the viewer exposes discrepancies and inaccuracies.
Lambert’s art falls into the sometimes-offputting category of conceptualism, but it is open, often playful and invites interpretation. A voracious researcher, he read Edwin Abbott’s 19th century novel Flatland in 2005.
“It opened a huge can of worms for me — how the universe got here, where it’s going,” he says. “Flatland: VL Array” is his response to the questions of multiple dimensions raised by the novel, with a modern reference to Very Large Array radio telescopes (VL Array). “‘Flatland’ and ‘Lawn Jobs’ are my two largest ideas geminating over the last few years,” Lambert says.
The 4th Floor group visited Lambert’s Maineville studio in Warren County last spring after having narrowed the nearly 70 award entries to seven semi-finalists. Lambert, 32, says he “likes to engage with people, likes to have dialogues,” so he thought it was terrific when 4th Floor members came to his studio looking questioningly at his art.
“I was excited to win,” Lambert says, smiling broadly. He wears a straw hat with a striped ribbon band and has dark hair and eyes. “Of course, it’s always good to get recognition, but involving the members of the museum is a really fascinating thing. It’s exciting to get lay people involved in selection, going outside these four walls. My work is often about engaging with people who are not professionals. I love to have the work interact with people who are not expecting it.”
His father, also named Don Lambert, is a custom furniture maker who influenced his son’s art-making. “Cabinet-making is a family tradition on my father’s side and my mother’s family did decorative iron work in the Southwest,” he says. All this hands-on making of things culminates in Lambert’s art, which he says “deals with perception, trying to understand our place, our world, how we translate it.”
Lambert grew up in Pleasant Ridge, went to Walnut Hills High School and received his BFA from the University of Cincinnati and his MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lived and worked in Chicago until returning to Cincinnati with his wife a few years ago.
The four other finalists were Kate Kern of Cincinnati, Ana England of Felicity, Latitia Quesenberry of Louisville and Matthew Weddington of Lexington.
“For this first award, we cast a broad net,” Flores says. “We were looking within a specific radius, by county.”
Fourth Floor members initially reviewed the entries at an event in February. Studio visits were made in March, followed by member discussions and voting. On April 1, Lambert was announced as winner. He receives $1,000 and the solo exhibition at the museum, from which one piece will be chosen for the Museum’s permanent collection. The four finalists receive $500 each.
Don Lambert will discuss his work in a free Fresh Perspectives Gallery Talk at 1 p.m. Saturday, September 19 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.