Blockbusters: Retrospective 25
Miriam Preston Block Gallery
Raleigh Municipal Building, 222 W. Hargett St.
Through Nov. 16

The wide variety of works now on display in the Block Gallery in downtown Raleigh reflects the diversity and ambition that have marked the gallery’s exhibitions. Initiated in 1984 as the Municipal Building Art Exhibition program, the then-new marble lobby walls were designated a perfect spot for community-oriented visual art displays. Four shows per year were planned to support the city’s cultural life by providing a prominent public venue for local artists to exhibit their work and also to allow for spontaneous encounters with visual art by citizens and city workers alike. (In 1996, the gallery was renamed in honor of former city councilwoman Miriam Block and her commitment to civic outreach.)

This show reflects the gallery’s first 25 years. Yet it also has presented an intriguing opportunity for the artists who have previously shown at the Block to present their work anew. Many of those who exhibited work at the gallery in the ’80s and ’90s are showing very recent pieces in this show. Seven of the 25 works in the show are from 2009, with four more dating from the previous year. (On the contrary, the late Joe Cox’s painting “Squatting Man” wins the antiquity award, dating to 1960.) Paintings comprise the bulk of the show, but a sampling of photographs, fiber works, prints and other mixed media round out the mix.

A few standout works are worth the visit: Marty Baird’s “Old Milburnie” possesses a lyrical juxtaposition of text and tone, while Mary Shannon Johnstone’s “Self-portrait” is a tender reworking of one of photography’s mainstay subjects, intriguingly tinged with ambiguity.

The presentation of so much recent work is a refreshing curatorial move on the part of gallery coordinator Sarah Blackmon, in essence keeping the exhibition more vital, responsive and alive. (The Raleigh Arts Commission, which oversees gallery operations, has also printed a dandy catalog for the show, with a timeline of exhibits and an essay by Penland directorand 1988 Block exhibitorJean McLaughlin.) The tactic also affirms the gallery’s mission to present ongoing work to the community in one of its most democratic spaces.

But let’s face it: The entrance lobby of the building, containing local governmental administration offices, is not the kind of glamorous public space that comes to mind when one thinks of city identity. It’s a tall order to present engaging artwork in such a utilitarian setting. Despite this challenge, there are compensations: A constant flow of city workers will move through the space for most every show, and there will always be the occasional, random passerby attending a City Council meeting or paying a visit to some other city office who will unexpectedly pause and check out a picture or two. Not a bad outreach cross section to strive for, really, if the art can handle it. Thankfully, in Retrospective 25, the work seems up to the task.