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Benrimon Contemporary, a New York art gallery, will open a group exhibition May 14 that examines the impact of a small liberal arts university on the contemporary art world.             

“Red Country Pictures,” curated by Dr. Bradley Jessop and Justin Irvin, will feature works on paper, paintings and sculptures from 11 artists who are all linked to East Central University in Ada, Okla. The exhibition is a glimpse at the art of ECU over several generations and will run through June 11.           

Jessop is director of ECU’s School of Fine Arts. Irvin is the registrar for Benrimon Contemporary and an ECU graduate.           

“Basically, I had the idea for this show because, being an ECU grad, I knew about all the great artists that have passed through ECU over the years,” Irvin said.            

‘Red Country Pictures’ is a lot like ECU’s annual long-running faculty show, he said, just on a bigger stage. In addition, including emerging artists and past students makes it more of a generational survey of ECU.             

“I showed Leon Benrimon, the owner/director, and Molly Sampson, assistant director, some work from the artists I wanted to include and they loved it all,” Irvin said. “I told them that for several possible reasons, every 10-15 years or so this small school in Ada, Okla., has a great group of artists come through. And I just wanted to highlight some of these artists in a group show. Leon loved the idea of focusing a show on one particular institution’s impact on the art world, and said he didn’t remember a show doing something like that before, particularly in a contemporary gallery setting.”           

Founded in 1909 as East Central Normal School to serve the former Indian Territory, the school transitioned into a liberal arts college in the late 1910s and early 1920s. As part of a liberal education, an art department was created and staffed by Columbia University graduate Ida Hoover. She was joined in the late 1930s by another Columbia graduate, Emma Box, who brought to ECU the teachings of Hans Hoffman.            

The result was the first significant graduate from ECU, Leon Polk Smith. Early in his career he distanced himself from his Oklahoma and Native American roots, but later in life, he admitted that he was highly influenced by both. Leon Polk Smith has joined the art historical canon as one of the founders of hard-edged painting from the 1940s through the 1980s.           

As time progressed Hoover and Box were joined by Kenneth Campbell and DJ “Pete” Lafon.  Lafon was chair of the Art Department from 1964 until 1984.  Under Lafon, the faculty exhibited widely throughout the Southwest and was collectively known as the Ada Trio. In his work, Lafon was able to combine classical realism and social commentary.             

Deloss McGraw attended ECU during this period and picked up on Lafon’s lyricism and wit. While McGraw attended a number of other institutions, this lyrical quality is still a part of his complex, literate and intensely colorful oeuvre.           

From the 1990s to the present, the artists from East Central University have gone on to teach at more than a dozen different colleges.           

Artists from this period are represented by California-based Gerald Clarke, a former ECU faculty member who explores concepts of native sovereignty and legacy; Bradley Jessop, current director of ECU’s art program, who biographically records his life with art as a vehicle for nexus; Kate Rivers, who assembles the debris of the culture to create a personal anchor in collage; and Aaron Hauck, whose work encompasses his fascination and annoyance with consumerism and how the resulting energy waste, material consumption, transportation methods and litter affect the culture and the environment.             

Four ECU graduates join them in the exhibit. Vance Wingate manipulates a self-imposed set of rules to investigate the tension between rigid systems and intuitive intervention. Justin Irvin’s collages offer something recognizable yet unfamiliar and are the whimsical results of an interest in Surrealism, religion and astronomy.            

Mark Hatley’s work ranges in style, yet is consistently modern, focusing primarily on manifestations of physical and chemical energy as subject and nature as the source. Blake Morgan’s deep, almost Baroque surfaces add new dimensions to the landscapes and figures that populate his work.           

“Red Country Pictures” includes artists who are at different points in their careers, established artists such as Polk Smith and McGraw, mid-career artists currently on staff at ECU and elsewhere who are showing in the Midwest and on the West Coast, as well as emerging artists who are just beginning their professional careers.            

Irvin also wanted to do the show to bring more recognition to “middle America.”           

“There are countless talented artists between the coasts and hopefully this show will give a little more credit to this group and the region in general,” he said. “I think people on the East and West Coasts are interested in that part of the country, I just don’t think it’s an ‘active’ interest. But I do think if something like an art show or film or Broadway play focuses on a place like Ada, Okla., and is presented well, people are interested to see what it’s about.           

“And I truly believe people will be interested in Red Country Pictures once word gets around.”           

A portion of the proceeds from the show will go toward a scholarship fund that set up in honor of DJ LaFon and the other members of the Ada Trio.           

Benrimon Contemporary is located at 514 W. 24th Street, 2nd floor, New York, N.Y. between 10th and 11th Avenues. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. by appointment.          

For further information or images, contact Justin Irvin at 212-924-2400 or

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