Get Visual is the proud recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Shows seen, and to be seen

Luis Molinari Flores Unititled II 1971 screenprint
I'm putting this one first, because it will be the first to end: When We Were Young, Rethinking Abstraction from the University at Albany Art Collection (1967-present) lives up to its two-breath title by presenting a nice, beefy slice of strong, colorful work in various media (mostly prints). It will hang at the University Art Museum only through Saturday, Dec. 16, so get there if you can.

I took the opportunity to glimpse the show after stopping there recently to hear New York City-based art critic and poet John Yau speak, but the show without Yau would also have been worth the trip. The  works include world-famous names such as Josef Albers (a tasty folio screenprint in which ochre confronts gray), and locally famous artists such as Jenny Kemp (a gorgeous gouache that also features gray and yellow) as well as one great untitled print from 1979 by Garo Antreasian, an artist previously unknown to me and a very happy discovery.

Speaking of Yau, he showed slides by a dozen or so painters he has written about, including Williams College professor Barbara Takenaga, who has a retrospective show currently at the Williams College Museum of Art through Jan. 28. I loved the examples of her work that Yau presented, and will make every effort to cross the Berkshires soon to see that exhibition.

An unidentified Civil War officer
Troy's Photo Center of the Capital District, a gloriously or grotesquely cluttered space (depending on your point of view), has quite a different display on view through mid-January, titled Unknown Military. Here are nearly countless pictures of many sizes dating from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, along with related objects and ephemera, as well as examples of the types of cameras that would have taken the pictures, all presented as if in a cabinet of curiosities.

This is not an art exhibition - it will be of interest primarily to history buffs, veterans, students, and so on, in addition to enthusiasts of documentary photography. One word of caution: Unknown Military is intended as an ant-war presentation, and it has some challenging, graphic content. I personally found it overwhelming, but others will surely revel in its excess.

Installation view from The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness 
Almost as overwhelming, though much more spaciously installed, is a museum-scale show featuring well over 100 artists at The School, a project of New York City's Jack Shainman Gallery that sits upstate in Kinderhook. The exhibition, entitled The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness is sprawling, both physically and conceptually, with pointed juxtapositions that crisscross the centuries, and full-wall constellations that mix contemporary photographs with traditional African sculptures, along with just about everything in between.

It's a bit like cracking open the mind of a collector on steroids (and it may be just that, more or less), but the exquisitely renovated former public school building is so pristine and perfectly designed that it softens the impact of what otherwise might seem utterly chaotic. Please note, The School is open only on Saturdays from 11 to 5, and the show is slated to end on Jan. 6.

The last show I'll mention is also a rather vast display, in this case a showcase exhibition of the Albany Institute of History & Art's superbly impressive collection of Hudson River School paintings. I always knew the Institute had a great collection of this movement, featuring the top stars (Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Asher Durand) and the rest, but that knowledge did not prepare me for this feast of 88 works in one big gallery.

The level of detail and the overall quality of these paintings are both immediately pleasing to the eye and demanding of intense scrutiny. There are many delights to discover, including some views that feature sites within the immediate vicinity of the Capital Region, not to mention the Catskills and the Adirondacks as recurring themes.

The Hudson River show will remain on view for an unspecified (though surely lengthy) period, but I recommend that you go sooner rather than later, because you will want to return. It's that good, and it's that difficult to take it all in at once. I've been twice, so far, and I will be back.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Just in case you were wondering ...

Pink Wall, Deruta
It's been about nine years since Get Visual debuted, first as a feature of The Daily Gazette online edition, then independently on this platform. In that time, I've published more than 260 articles, most of which have been art reviews. I've also published only one of my own photographs, in August 2010 (see it here). At that time, I wrote that I would "very probably" never do that again.

Today, I'll break that pledge, with five examples from a recent trip to Italy. Just in case any of you were wondering whether I still take photographs, here's proof that I do. Hope you enjoy! -DB

Adriatic coast near S. Vito
View of the Majella from Chieti

Houses and Canal, Comacchio
Portico, Bologna

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dazzled by Millennia

View of the interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy
When it seems that contemporary art is over-hyped, too gimmicky, or just generally full of crap, it can be a tonic to go back a few centuries - or more - to experience some of the art that has stood the test of time - and that's just what my spouse and I did on a recent trip to Italy.

My relationship with Italy is 40 years long and just about as deep. Usually, when I go there, it's to reconnect: with friends and family, with familiar places both urban and rural, and with Italian life as it is lived today. Though I try to make a point of also going to new places when I'm there, it isn't my habit to check in with the art treasures of the past that made the peninsula so popular to begin with.

Pattern detail from the mausoleum
But, on this trip, I broke with tradition. The new places we visited, while still lively and lovely in 2017, also featured some not-to-be-missed historical sites. So we bought the tickets and lined up to see the best of those, in Mantova (aka Mantua), a delightful city on the eastern edge of Lombardy, and in mosaic-centric Ravenna, at the Adriatic end of Emilia-Romagna. Both cities are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, and there's no doubt they are worthy. We were well rewarded for our trips there and would gladly go back to both.

Natural detail from the mausoleum
I will not try to describe the mosaics we saw in Ravenna - pictures fail to do it, and so would words. The experience of seeing them for the first time was literally breathtaking. We began with the top draw - the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a modest brick structure built around 425-450 AD that is encrusted over every interior centimeter with the most dazzling images and patterns imaginable from that era or any time since. You duck in from a bright day to an intimate space, your eyes adjust to the soft light that filters in from alabaster windows - and speechless awe is the only possible response.

Detail portrait of the Empress Theodora
in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Equally powerful are the mosaics that adorn major parts of the large Basilica of San Vitale, also in Ravenna. These were installed over a longer stretch of time, and completed in 547 AD. The capstone piece of the group is a rectangular mosaic that depicts the Empress Theodora and her court (across the apse is a matching picture of her husband and his entourage, but the guys are nowhere near as pretty). This image could be right out of Vogue magazine - presumably designed by the Richard Avedon of the day - and it is just as astonishing as Galla Placidia's little tomb.

Mosaics have special qualities that speak easily across time. Because they are constructed of tiny cut pieces of colored stone, there is a directness to them that is absent in painted images - you can see exactly how they are made; there is no mystery to the technique. But in the presence of a work like the mausoleum, you are knocked out thinking of the effort that went into creating this richly beautiful imagery: the collecting and cutting of the stones in so many colors (plus, of course, real gold - after all, this is Byzantine art); the laying out of the highly complex patterns; the planning of the naturalistic imagery, and so on. How many hands, and how many years, were required to accomplish such a construction?

Detail from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova
You think not so much of an artist (clearly, there was a large crew of skilled workers involved) as of a culture that brought this into being. The people of this culture wanted to show us everything in their world - its animals, its plants, its sky, its people ... and then added their own clever illusory patterns of stars and feathers and geometry, maybe just to show off. Unlike paint, the colors in these stones would never fade - and so they are stunningly rich and vivid today, more than 1,500 years later.

But if you did want to think of an artist, our visit to the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantova would provide you with just the right one. Andrea Mantegna, a native of Padova who died in Mantova, worked from 1465 to 1474 on this roomful of frescoes, demonstrating a level of naturalism that hadn't been achieved in European art before that point (and certainly not in fresco, a notoriously tricky medium). Like the mausoleum in Ravenna, this is a room that is decorated over every surface (including the flat ceiling, transformed into a stunning illusory "oculus") and it leaves your jaw hanging open.

Its charms are many, including numerous gaily clad figures, accurately rendered animals, and fanciful images of Rome (a city Mantegna never saw in life). It also features a famous self-portrait by the artist, hidden in the curls of ornamental trompe l'oeil architectural details. In contrast to the egoless immersion of Ravenna, here we have the self-referential Renaissance man on full display. And he was awesome. Sometimes, it's hard to think that any artist working today can honestly measure up.

Fresco of the court of the Duke of Mantova in the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Healing Power of Music

When the going gets tough, I usually find solace in art. Whether it's opening a well-written novel, visiting an exhibition of work that vibrates with life force, or tuning in to the sounds on the radio, these modes of human expression have got the power to heal me. Most reliable among them, though, is live music.

This weekend, for the 34th year in a row, the Lake George Arts Project put on its free two-day festival of jazz, and the music did its thing, as ever, to soothe my soul and revive my interest in life's best moments. I share decades of memories with friends, strangers, and spouse from this annual gift of musical spirit, and look forward to many more. Endless thanks to John Strong and Paul Pines, who make it happen, and to the musicians who have brought their talents to this extraordinary venue year after year (including, perhaps most significantly, the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, when we hunkered together there in shock and pain, and yet were strengthened and uplifted by the musicians' ability to carry on).

Ola Onabule
I love listening to many kinds of music, but jazz holds a special place for me, perhaps because it favors improvisation and, so, is an engrossing, real-time display of creativity when performed live. The performers we caught on Saturday beautifully embodied that essence: Ola Onabule, a British Nigerian singer with style, verve, chops and a great sense of humor (best riffing on the Minnehaha's foghorn that I've heard yet); The Cookers, who quite simply and literally blew us into another dimension; and the Dave Liebman Big Band, 18-strong and vividly relevant as they celebrated the great legacy of John Coltrane.

We missed the other four performances of this edition of the Jazz Weekend, so I can only wish for those who caught them that they were half as good as these three (and I'd bet they were every bit as good) - but you don't always get to do everything you want to do. Still, what we caught was more than enough to wash away the soil of the work week (and the rest of our troubles), and I just wanted to pay a little tribute here to the sweet joy we felt there.

Do yourself a favor - whenever you can - drop the phone, get out of the house, and go hear some live music. I guarantee it will lift your spirits like nothing else.

The Cookers

Monday, September 4, 2017

A double shot of Frankenthaler at The Clark

Madame Butterfly 2000 - woodcut on three sheets of handmade paper
Labor Day doesn't have to mean the end of summer, especially when two summer blockbuster-worthy exhibitions of work by the great Helen Frankenthaler are still on view for several weeks to come at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Not ashamed to say, I am a big fan of Frankenthaler, so I went to these exhibitions with high expectations - and I was quite simply blown away.

Milkwood Arcade 1963 - acrylic on canvas
As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, which features 12 major works on canvas, is on view through Oct. 9 in the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a transcendentally airy space that brings the woodsy surroundings into the galleries, making it the ideal setting for this selection. No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts, on view through Sept. 24, fills the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper with 17 virtuosic prints, spanning the artist's several decades of experimentation with the woodcut medium.

Both exhibitions take their titles from Frankenthaler quotes, and both quotes serve well to introduce the viewer to the essence of her thought processes in relation to making abstract art. The paintings can be understood as landscapes - or inspired by landscapes - but to me, that's not important, except where that concept serves to help a viewer uncomfortable with the abstract to open up to it.

Summer Harp 1973 - acrylic on canvas
Here's the quote for As in Nature:
Anything that has beauty and provides order (rather than chaos or shock alone), anything resolved in a picture (as in nature) gives pleasure - a sense of rightness, as in being one with nature.

My interpretation of that quote, along with viewing the works it is attached to, would be to crystallize Frankenthaler's pursuit of beauty, order, pleasure, and rightness in the form of abstract images that are resolved equally as well as are things in nature - and that the painter (or viewer) may feel at one with nature (their own nature, perhaps) in having the experience of the paintings.

The quote for No Rules evokes quite another sensation and understanding of the artist's process and intentions:
There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture ... that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.

Savage Breeze 1974 - woodcut on handmade paper
Now we have a person in pursuit of things distinctly other than beauty, order, pleasure and rightness. Yet these thoughts, this insistence on iconoclasm is equally crucial to the life of any artist worth her salt. Viewing the prints in No Rules, one confronts astonishing breakthroughs - just as promised. First, in the earliest prints from the 1970s, there is the freshness of completely abstract imagery, as Frankenthaler delves into a difficult new medium with a simple approach.

Later, her innovations mount up: Dying pulp to insert background colors into almost absurdly large prints (don't ask where they got wood big enough); combining crazy numbers of blocks and colors into one image (the highest count in this show is 102 colors from 46 blocks, for the print shown at the top of this post); and developing textures and color effects never seen in this medium before (such as "guzzying" the block with sandpaper, dental tools, cheese graters, and gauze).

Cedar Hill 1983 - woodcut on light pink handmade paper
With these works, Frankenthaler exploded the tradition of Japanese woodblock printing into shards, and put it back together as a new, powerful form of modern art, all the while retaining the best qualities of the original medium's craft, through extensive collaboration. It is a stunning achievement.

As for her innovations in painting, Frankenthaler was the first to stain thinned paint directly into canvas, a technique that greatly influenced the more celebrated Morris Louis, and may also have been the spur that influenced Jackson Pollock to work in drips above a canvas placed on the floor. Needless to say, being a great abstract woman painter in the 1950s had its complications in relation to the dominant art movement's insistent macho characteristics, and she therefore struggled at times to be considered on their same level.

Snow Pines 2004 - woodcut on handmade paper
But she came through. And the pieces in this show do a great job of demonstrating why, as they span the '50s to the '90s without even the hint of a loss of power. These paintings are a joy to behold, particularly for their colors, which range from greens and browns through primaries to the hottest pink you ever saw - and a totally grey painting of equal oomph.

Returning to the prints for a moment: Be sure to understand these are not in any way efforts to reproduce Frankenthaler's paintings; rather, they are fabulous immersions into color and forms all on their own. Yes, they resemble the style of the paintings, and provide similar pleasures - but they also offer distinct characteristics due to their birth as woodblocks inked onto paper, and are delectable as such, as well as technically jaw-dropping.

Extend your summer of art - go see these two shows.

Red Shift 1990 - acrylic on canvas

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Passage at Albany Center Gallery

Nori Pepe Waiting - Moscow, Russia 2012 linocut
In case you weren't aware of it, Albany Center Gallery relocated in January of this year to a more visible, bigger, and far better retail space in downtown Albany. The current show in that space, entitled Passage, is a collection of work by eight printmakers that was ably curated by Alana Akacki, who is a College of Saint Rose graduate, a UAlbany Art Museum staff member, and a printmaker herself. It is the second show that Akacki has curated at ACG (the other was a few years ago in the old location).

Joan Dix Blair Color Code #11 2015
There are so many reasons to recommend this show: First, because it shows off the new exhibition space better than any show that's been in it so far. Other shows in the new gallery have been exciting (the grand opening Members Show), challenging (the Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational), and vital (the 39th Annual Photography Regional), but all of those were rather crowded installations. This one is spare (some would say too much so, but I would not), elegant, and rather gorgeous - fulfilling my own hopes for the potential I saw for this lovely new space.

Second, it is a rare treat to see a carefully curated exhibition of contemporary prints - more often, they are big surveys or juried shows - and I think the various media that we call prints (in this case, etchings, linoleum cuts, photo-lithographs, silkscreens, color lithographs, woodcut and woodblock prints, and artist books) are often undervalued. This compendium of a good range of the many print media helps to bring the craft to the forefront, in a way that honors the makers' superb technique and incisive exploration into many types of imagery.

Nancy Haver Venice etching
Third, this show exposes a bunch of new regional artists (at least to me - only one was already familiar), and that's perhaps the best thing of all about ACG's mission over the decades. One can never know all the worthy artists in the greater Capital Region - it's that rich of a scene - and no other publicly supported gallery is dedicated to promoting regional artists like ACG is.

Passage has taken travel and memories as its theme, represented directly by literal interpretations, such as Nori Pepe's and Sandy Wimer's photo-based images, conceptually by Annie Bissett's geography-inspired work and Thorsten Dennerline's literary graphics, and abstractly by Sarah Pike and Mary Ellen Riell, both of whom evoke a sense of place with color and geometry. There are 28 pieces in all, more or less evenly distributed among the artists, though a few of them are a tad underrepresented with just two or three works included.

Sarah Pike 4 Figures in 10 Colors 2013
lithograph, screenprint
This is a show for contemplating - some of the work is bright, some is big, but none of it is loud. Pepe's four starkly black-and-white linocuts and Dennerline's three books have the most presence. This is due partly to scale (one of the books, an accordion construction snaked out on a large, low pedestal, verges on sculpture) but also to the strength of these two artists' visions.

Pepe uses her simple medium (an example is shown at the top of this post) to maximum effect - far from reproducing the photographs she takes for reference, they reinterpret the forms of the scenes in a way that makes perfect sense in solid black ink; then she prints them on fragile rice paper, contrasting their robustness with delicacy.

Dennerline's two bound books are elaborate composites of poetry (some in translation) and imagery, much of it montaged, that carry the viewer into his world. Though these are too precious for paging through, a nearby digital tablet allows the viewer to scan through all the page spreads from each book, a worthwhile exercise.

The remaining artists in Passage are also excellent, whether holding to centuries-old tradition, as with Nancy Haver's etchings (one is shown above at left), or planted solidly in the modern, as with Riell's two tasty color compositions (one is shown below). Go and enjoy - but hurry: the show ends on Sept 1.

Mary Ellen Riell Meet me At the Crossroads screen print

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Out of Site: Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood

Amelia Toelke Home Sweet Home, wood, auto paint, steel support
There's simply no excuse for me to have put off visiting Chesterwood so long - in fact, for my whole life until, at last, this summer. What a place to have overlooked!

Daniel Chester French's home and studio in the Berkshires is sublime. French was the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, and being the top dog in his field at the time, was able to create an enviable place to live and work in rural Stockbridge, Mass. The spoils of that success are now on gracious display, beautifully preserved and maintained, and the site has bridged the centuries to remain a vital resource for contemporary sculptors today.

Brian Kane & Michael Oatman
The 8th Wonder, inflatable
The annual summer show of site-specific work known as Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood is now in its 39th year, and is a fun compendium of current ideas and approaches to outdoor sculpture. This year's show was curated by Sharon Bates (recently retired from running the Albany International Airport Art & Culture Program), who has a bit of history with Chesterwood, including having been an artist in residence there in 2016. Bates has always been a witty curator, and that is abundantly in evidence here.

The show includes 14 works of art by 14 artists (with two pieces by one artist, and one piece by two) and is sited along a manicured woodland path. This path and other elements of the grounds (such as a flower garden) were among French's ongoing efforts in this "work-in-progress" of a summer studio, and it adds to the delight of the experience to think about such a classical, workmanlike artist as French in contrast to the way we make and interact with sited sculpture today.

One is immediately struck by the lighthearted tone of the show upon arrival at the entrance to Chesterwood, where a monumentally scaled, gold-tone nameplate necklace announces Homesweethome from a grassy berm. This neo-Pop statement by Amelia Toelke is among the minority of pieces in this collection that was not made specifically for the occasion, but it is so apt and so perfectly sited that I'm glad she didn't hesitate to use it again.

Douglas Culhane A Ghost House
wood, paint, hardware
The rest of the works in the selection echo Toelke's postmodern attitude. Many use non-traditional materials, engage the viewer with irony, or eschew three-dimensional form altogether to engage with the setting in ways that probably would have confounded the 19th-century sensibilities of French. But that, of course, is a good thing.

What French would surely approve, though, is the fact that this experience requires a lovely stroll through the woods (for which you may want to bring bug repellent). In a few cases, the works really aim to capitalize on this aspect of the installation. For example, Colin C. Boyd's prehistorical obsession finds form here in a display of ancient deer-like critters that almost look at home in these woods; and Debra Zlotsky's Just a Minute! directs visitors to study a tiny patch of the local flora, and then mark it with a string-tied red label (leaving me sorry for the staff who will have to untie the hundreds of tags already employed).

Derek Parker Between the forest and the trees
wood chairs, trees 
Derek Parker's piece was one favorite, not least because it interacts with the woods and the path and the viewers who travel it. His seven or eight wooden chairs impaled by standing trees at various heights are dotted through one area that connects two parts of the path, making for multiple discoveries, and delighting over and over like the rise and fall of a roller coaster. Roger Bisbing also engages the space and the walker with a tall, wide grid of welded steel that blocks off part of a field and woods, but also has openings you can pass through; it is almost intrusively bright in its colors, but so easy to see through as to be almost invisible.

Roger Bisbing Pass Through, painted steel
Other eye-catching works include Chrissy Scolaro's bright plastic towers, Amy Podmore's absurdist pseudo-bronze concoction, titled WHIPLASH, and Portia Munson's two floating banners made from her scanner photographs of deceased birds. I really liked the effect that Munson, an artist in two dimensions, was able to achieve in that outdoor space by floating two translucent images high up in the trees, in essence returning the spirits of an owl and a hawk to their rightful place, soaring above the forest floor.

Another favorite is Matt LaFleur's The Camp, which places several wooden tents into the woods, exactly like a scouts' camp, but not like one at all, as they have no entrances and are painted with bright, multicolored stripes. The piece is at once nostalgic and brand-new.

Out of Site: Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood continues through Oct. 9 and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Events associated with the show include walking tours on Fridays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 11.

Matt LaFleur The Camp, wood and paint