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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Future Perfect at UAlbany Art Museum

A group of drawings by Alexander Ross as seen in Future Perfect
The exhibition Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene at the University at Albany Art Museum is a grand compendium of ideas
that handily meets its purpose to "explore and inform," but falls a bit short simply as an art exhibition.

Curated by Associate Professor Danny Goodwin, Director Janet Riker and Associate Director/Curator Corinna Ripps-Schaming, the show features significant individual pieces or bodies of work in a variety of media by 12 artists, augmented by 11 additional artists whose prints, drawn from the museum's permanent collection by participants in a class project, create a sidebar exhibition within Future Perfect.

Three sculptures by JoAnne Carson confront
three photographs by Miljohn and Heltoft
The anthropocene is the label now affixed to our current geological era, so named to reflect the changes to the earth's climate and ecology that human activity has caused. Much of the work that has been selected to represent this concept here leans toward the futuristic, including animated science fiction film projects by Colin C. Boyd and Jacolby Satterwhite, and colorful, cartoonish critter paintings by Alexander Ross.

Other improbables, in the form of fantastic plants, are presented in sculptures by JoAnne Carson and silver-print photographs by Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft. But not all the work shown in Future Perfect is obsessed with the future. I found the more interior-looking artists in the show were more effective.

An altered photograph by Letha Wilson
Several altered landscape photographs by Letha Wilson and three freestanding resin-bound sculptural montages by Amy Brener are both elegant and thought-provoking - the fact that these two groups are installed together suggests the curators also see a connection between them. I really liked seeing four leaning painted planks by Jason Middlebrook, an artist I first encountered in a 2007 solo show in this same space; and a quasi-narrative photo series by Dana Hoey that uses naturalistic subjects to evoke a chilling future.

A photograph of salamanders by Dana Hoey
The best part of the show for me, however, was the students' effort to make a statement along one long wall, where they sequenced photographs and prints in a way that clearly communicates a point of view and clearly articulates unanswered questions. This part included outstanding works by both widely known and local artists such as Marilyn Bridges, Michael Marston, Robert Smithson, and Ken Ragsdale.

Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene, which runs through Dec 10, has featured a busy schedule of related events, including weekly programs in the gallery, since it opened in July; the next event is a poetry reading and discussion at 7 pm on Nov 29 - check here for more details.

Colin C. Boyd works on an animation project on-site at Future Perfect

Monday, November 7, 2016

Breathing Lights

A Breathing Lights house in Schenectady
photo by Cindy Schultz, stolen from the Times Union
On  a recent Saturday night I took a truncated bus tour of a few of the Breathing Lights houses in Albany, offered as part of Historic Albany Foundation's annual Built fundraiser. It was good to finally get out and see some of the illuminated vacant houses, and I plan to go again soon - on foot for the real experience - and hopefully in all three participating cities (adding Schenectady and Troy).

In case you have been living under a rock, Breathing Lights is the local winner of a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, part of its national "Public Art Challenge," and comprises a collaboration among three city governments, several nonprofits, and numerous neighborhood organizations. It is the brainchild of UAlbany art professor Adam Frelin, in partnership with architect Barbara Nelson, and consists of a very elegant, broadly distributed installation of glowing panels in the windows of more than 200 vacant houses, which represent less than 10% of these three cities' unoccupied housing stock.

photo: hyers+mebane
The installation is (obviously) very ambitious, but it is also simple, which I can't help but like. And it passes the "Is it art?" test quite easily, as the work transforms the subject matter and gives viewers a new experience of something old. All the better that this new experience comes directly out of one's own presumably familiar local raw material. (Those who know my personal photography of some of these same neighborhoods will understand this approach is not unlike my own as an artist.)

But Breathing Lights is also so much more than an art installation. It seeks to help correct the widespread social and economic problems of vacant and deteriorating inner-city housing in our region, by raising awareness as well as energizing the grass roots of these communities. And this is where I start to get a little uncomfortable with it.

So, I'll ask a few more questions:

  1. Is it the job of art to make our world a better place?
  2. Should art be a community organizing activity?
  3. What would be the best use of $1 million for art in the Capital Region?

1. My answers to these questions are not off the cuff - when I was a young artist growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, I wished that art could make the world a better place. I thought it could open people up, make them more sensitive to their surroundings, maybe raise their conscious levels and even change their harmful behaviors.

from Breathing Lights website
But, as time went on, I recognized that big business and politics, and education and religion were the forces that made things go, and that art in American society was an afterthought, a decoration, an entertainment. Yes, art can make you think, it can make you feel, it can make you understand. But I decided it can't change the world, and neither should it try to.

Instead, it is the job of art to be the best it can - as art - to reach the viewer and then to let the rest of the process go as it may.

2. When I see artists out there working with kids and community members, I get thinking about time and money. Many artists and arts organizations are struggling financially, and they often turn to the relatively abundant cash cow that is education for financial relief, and to build an audience.

So a dance company, for example, does a lot of reasonably well-paid school visits throughout the year, designed to enlighten the kids as to the wonders of dance and its creative potential. Or an arts center offers classes in pottery and jewelry making and drawing and creative writing, thereby bringing in some cash, and some interested bodies, as well as providing a little income to the artists who teach those classes.

from Breathing Lights website
And, truth be told, I've done a fair amount of that stuff, myself. But it did nothing for me as a creative artist, and it did nothing at the time for my real work, either (which would be - you got it, making art). This is the sort of thing that nonprofits call "mission creep": You set out to cure cancer but, along the way, in order to raise money, you find yourself spending all your time organizing road races.

Arts in education should be a normal part of the curriculum. But, instead, it has become the mission creep of everyday artists and arts organizations. I say get back to your core mission and leave the community organizing to social workers and political activists.

3. If I had to decide what to do with $1 million for art in the Capital Region, I would want it to have the most impact. And I think that would be best suited to a myriad of projects, rather than one ambitious project.

What about $50,000 each for 20 artists? Or $10,000 each for 100 artists? Do you think that the 100 best Capital Region art projects that could be done (or at least carried significantly forward) by a $10,000 grant would potentially have more impact and broader appeal and be more lasting than one (admittedly very nicely done) project that is essentially about real estate?

You already know what I think.

Find out more about Breathing Lights here. The lights are on from 6 pm to 10 pm nightly, through the end of November.

From Breathing Lights website

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick take on The Accountant

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck star in The Accountant
OK, so it didn't get the greatest reviews, and it's a Hollywood action thriller (not my thing), but I couldn't resist the topic, so I went to see The Accountant this weekend - and it was fun. Too violent, yes, with a plot full of holes, but entertaining and in some ways really well done. (BTW, if you're still wondering why this art reviewer couldn't resist the film's topic, see my profile.)

Ben Affleck stars as a sociopathic killing machine with autism, who also happens to be a CPA, and who - we learn gradually - operates according to his own moral code (just like all Hollywood sociopathic killing machines). But how often do you get to see a leading man with autism? (Pretty often, now that I think of it, considering Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, The Imitation Game ... .)

Anyway, I laughed at all the accounting jokes (reasonably accurately presented), felt compassion for the kids with autism (not too unlike my 6-year-old nephew), and grimaced from behind my fingers at all the shootings. Affleck does a heck of a job realistically presenting the low-affect of the man on the spectrum, a formidable challenge for any actor (i.e. to un-act), and Anna Kendrick is perfectly cast as the lovable geek who ultimately inspires a lot of the accountant's mayhem. Other stars include Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, and J.K. Simmons.

The Accountant asks the question "Do you like puzzles?" and gives you two of them - first, a goodly number of plot twists purposely placed, and then the aforementioned holes that you can spend a few hours trying to fill in. Highly recommended to anyone in the profession, if only for the Crazy Eddie Antar reference. Or to folks who get off on brutal gunfights.

Add note: The Accountant's final scene is played over a song written and performed by local music hero Sean Rowe, and it's going to make him famous. You can check it out here.

Affleck's accountant files a tax return, and makes an emotional connection.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Paul Mauren at Albany Center Gallery

The local art mafia came out in force last Friday night for Paul Mauren's exhibition Where Things Go at Albany Center Gallery, and with good reason. Yes, many of the seeming hundreds of guests were this longtime College of Saint Rose professor's colleagues, counterparts, current and former students, friends and fans, but the show alone is an event worthy of major excitement.

Paul Mauren - Speak to Me 2016, assembled mixed materials
Mauren, a stalwart of the regional arts scene (and beyond) for several decades, has operated under the radar for the most part. Still, he has built up a presence through steady inclusion in important shows - going back to the 1979 Mohawk Hudson Regional, a 1981 solo at Emma Willard's Dietel Gallery, and the seminal Water Works exhibition, held in 1982 in an Albany public bath house that eventually met the wrecker's ball.

More recently, Mauren has been featured prominently in numerous Regionals, in the striking An Armory Show at Sage's Opalka Gallery, and in countless annual and biennial Saint Rose faculty shows. Almost as consistently, though, Mauren has shown at ACG.

A few of those highlights:

  • Mauren was chosen for two Mohawk Hudson Regional Invitationals at ACG - the first in 1994, when Les Urbach still ran the show there, the last in 2005, with Sarah Martinez at the helm
  • In 2007, Mauren was included in the first show at ACG's current space - titled Then and Now, it featured a who's who of local artists, from David Austin to Deborah Zlotsky
  • And now this, his first solo exhibition in nearly 35 years, which fits the space like a glove
It is truly fitting that such an artist would provide bookends to the 10-year Columbia Street run of this beloved institution, and help send it on its way to its next space, just two blocks away, in the freshly renovated Arcade Building, where it is slated to reopen in January.

Where Things Go runs through Nov. 4 (and there will be an artist talk at the gallery on that last evening during 1st Friday). Full disclosure - it was my idea to invite Mauren to do this show, simply because I wanted to see more of his intriguing, wall-hung sculpture. And I am not disappointed. But don't take my word for it - just go and be dazzled.

Paul Mauren works on the installation of Where Things Go at Albany Center Gallery

Friday, September 23, 2016

Steve McCurry Photographs at MWPAI

Steve McCurry - Holi Man. Rajasthan, India 1996, color photograph
My  friend and fellow photographer Ben met me recently at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica to see the Steve McCurry exhibition there and to talk shop.

It was well worth the trip. McCurry is a supremely talented photographer who creates beautiful and compelling color images, often choosing them for their storytelling qualities. The show, entitled The World Through His Lens and comprising 60 pictures from three decades, will hang through Dec. 31. I urge you to find time to go see it, especially if you are interested in this sort of thing, but also if you are a human being, as this work speaks directly to the human condition that we all share.

Terry Slade - Mantra for the Survival of the Earth, fused glass
I'd like to add a suggestion that you go by Oct. 2 to see a joyful installation by Hartwick College painter and fused-glass artist Terry Slade, entitled Dreams and Apparitions, as Slade's work is always good fun and this is one of his most ambitious efforts yet. A large-scale piece hanging in the museum's interior sculpture court is "intended to evoke contemplation of our place as humans in the universe," making it a fine companion piece to the McCurry show that hangs nearby.

Now for the shop talk: Photography is a curious medium - since its invention in the mid-19th century, arguments have percolated, even raged, as to whether or not it is an art form, and whether or not it is truthful. Well over 150 years later, these arguments have not been settled, and McCurry's work is a good example of why that is.

Kashmir Flower Seller. Dal Lake, Srinigar, Kashmir 1996
The press release for the show states that McCurry "creates images that bridge the gap between photojournalism and art." Fortunately, McCurry is intimately familiar with life in a war zone, because with this statement he enters into treacherous terrain. Now, he can be attacked equally by people who think they know what journalism is (count me in - after all, I worked for 13 years in the newsroom of a daily paper), and by people who consider themselves experts on art (yep, that's me, too). Does a mere photographer need that kind of stress? And for what?

The "for what" part I can easily answer - with this show (which I assume will be touring in some form) McCurry is seeking to leap from the pages of National Geographic to establish himself in the art realm. Other photojournalists have tried the same thing - notably W. Eugene Smith and Sebastiao Salgado (both of whom worked exclusively in black and white) - but it is a tricky leap to make.

Woman at a Horse Festival. Tagong, Tibet 1999
This is because the difference between art and journalism is one of intention. If an image is intended to tell a story about the subject, or to document that subject, and if it is intended to be published in a newspaper or magazine (or, heaven help us, on the web) then it is properly labeled as journalism (and bound by certain rules). If, instead, the image is intended as personal expression - and therefore bound by none of the rules of journalism, such as the separation of truth from fiction - then it can be considered art.

I question whether it is possible for McCurry to present pictures taken initially as documents (and, indeed, published as such), and then change his intention after the fact to offer them as art. Call me a purist (or whatever else you want to call me), but I don't think there is a way to "bridge the gap" between disciplines with such distinctly different purposes.

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl. Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984
Meanwhile, McCurry has been at the center of some controversy regarding the digital manipulation of images that are presented as journalistic documents, which is a very sticky quandary to be in. My own experience in the business leaves me no room for doubt: Photographs presented as documents must not be manipulated beyond the simplest techniques of cropping, lightening, and darkening - and those changes must be only done to make the reality captured in the picture more clear, not to embellish or slant the message. It is incumbent on the publisher of a manipulated photograph to disclose this fact, sometimes by labeling it an illustration. Artists, of course, are not obligated to disclose anything.

So, when McCurry's most famous picture, which is a studio-style portrait of an Afghan refugee, was published on the cover of the National Geographic, it was journalism and should not have been manipulated (follow this link to learn details of how it was altered in that instance). Now, offered as the centerpiece to this museum show, with the subject's eyes brightened and the background color apparently changed to enhance them, it is the work of an artist and perfectly legitimate as such.

Monks Pray at Golden Rock. Kyaikto, Burma, 1994
Speaking of McCurry the artist - his style is well suited to the gallery, being graphic and very colorful, and his subjects - essentially landscapes and portraits - are particularly engaging to the viewer. I found a strong connection to fashion in many of the people pictures, and I think McCurry could probably have had a great career in commercial photography if that were his interest.

But he is more interested in the world and our place in it; he is also very interested in our interior life, as expressed through his ongoing pursuit of Buddhist subject matter (Eastern monks, nuns, and holy sites are well represented here), and in a lovely and sensitive series of pictures of people reading.

Through this last body of work, we have the opportunity to become engaged with McCurry himself, and less distracted by the exoticism of his favored subjects. If my sense is correct, and McCurry has become primarily an artist, then he is moving in the right direction.

Mahout Reads with his Elephant. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Masterworks at AIHA

This 1817 map of the proposed Erie Canal is part of Masterworks: Paper
With trips to all the summer shows winding down, I'd like to recommend a really worthy exhibition closer to home. Actually, this is a pair of exhibitions with the unifying theme of a deep exploration of the collections of the now-225-year-old Albany Institute of History & Art, entitled Masterworks: 225 Years of Collecting and Masterworks: Paper.

Thomas Cole - Button Wood Tree, ink over pencil 1823
These shows were mounted during the past year to celebrate the Institute's anniversary and its own history, with the larger, more inclusive exhibition featuring a thoughtfully constructed timeline of the organization, punctuated with compelling artifacts and objects such as grandfather clocks, a book of wool samples, paintings from three centuries, marvels in glass and silver, a fire bucket, travel posters, etc.

The richness of the AIHA's holdings is well displayed here, and would be difficult to exaggerate. Though I am biased toward contemporary art, I can enjoy a sumptuously festooned French-style bed as much as the next guy, along with almost absurdly decorative cast-iron stoves, Americana in the form of elaborately incised powder horns, ceramics from near and far, and plenty of earlier fine art.

Tea Caddy with paper filigree 1804
The Paper show has had a shorter duration, due to the fragility of its contents, but the restriction to one material still allows for so much diversity that its designers created no fewer than 16 distinct sections for it, with titles such as Landscape on Paper, Weather on Paper, Certified on Paper, and so on. Though this organizing principle has merit, I have to say it didn't really work - in fact, the Paper show is so crowded that navigating through it is a confusing chore - but it is so stuffed with marvels that it's worth every effort.

Among my favorites (shown at left) is an architectural rendering of Albany's "first skyscraper," an elegant bank building on State Street that still stands (though in rough shape), where it is now overshadowed by the much taller, nearly new building next door that I happen to work in. There is also a great range of first-rate works of art in the show, including nearly every paper-based medium - even painstaking cut constructions, along with every sort of print, watercolors, photographs, and drawings by some major names: Charles Burchfield, Jacob Lawrence, Ellsworth Kelly, and contemporary artists Harold Lohner and Phyllis Galembo.

Alice Morgan Wright
The Fist, painted plaster 1921
Meanwhile, back at the 225 Years of Collecting show, there are many, many more great artists, most significantly the heart and soul of this collection - its Hudson River School paintings - but also a spate of other excellent works representing social realism, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop, even post-Modern work.

If you're going, you need to hurry, as Masterworks: 225 Years of Collecting ends on Sept 4. For Masterworks: Paper. there's a bit of breathing room - it continues through Oct. 16. And there's a bargain to be  had: Through the end of 2016, Saturday admission to the AIHA is just $2.25. Go and discover - or remind yourself of - the treasure in our midst.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Swan Song

Installation view of Staying Power - photos provided by Albany International Airport Gallery
It's entirely appropriate that the final exhibition organized and installed by outgoing Director Sharon Bates at the Albany International Airport Gallery expresses the value of its title, Staying Power. Bates has the same qualities as the 11 venerable artists she has assembled for this excellent, elegant show - and she will no doubt amply demonstrate that in the next chapter of her life, when she sets forth in retirement as a full-time artist.

Barbara Takenaga - Tadanori Meets Hiroshige
acrylic on linen 2013
Her swan song is a paean to perseverance, a celebration of agelessness, a fascinating collection of excellence and diversity. The artists presented here have but two things in common: They are all located in the greater Capital Region; and they all have been at it for quite some time. Oh, and they're all darn good. Naturally, I have my favorites among them, but I am reluctant to sully the unified purpose of this show by picking and choosing.

Instead, here's an overview:

Margo Mensing - J. Robert Oppenheimer
cut security envelopes on paper 2005
One feature of the show (which will hang through Jan. 2, 2017) is a series of video interviews with the artists that has been placed on monitors in several spots throughout the gallery, as well as in a larger projection room. It underscores the purpose of the show to not only display the work these artists have created, but also to plumb their minds and their motives, as they discuss matters within the lifelong pursuit of an artistic career.

Before entering the gallery proper, one can stop to watch a few minutes of several of these artists telling about their first memories of making art, a great way to prepare for the exhibition's thematic feel. Elsewhere they discuss success, failure, fame, etc. It's not necessary to hear the commentary to understand what's on view, but it adds depth to the experience.

Susan Spencer Crowe - Sweeet, cardboard, encaustic, 2015-2016
Bates founded the Art & Culture program at the airport, and led it for 18 years, typically organizing shows with themes both quirky and grand, so this last one from her is cut from the same cloth - perhaps leaning toward a final statement, but really more open-ended - just as the included artists are working in a flow of continuity from their pasts to their futures. Many of the exhibitors include prior as well as current work, while some have only current work in the show. It's a testament to the vigor of ongoing artistic exploration and expression, and to the simple fact that art knows no age.

Paul Katz, 10 sculptures from the Prelude series and a painting
gesso, oil, sand on found objects and canvas, 2010-2016
The installation is scattered throughout the gallery's far-reaching spaces, held together by the glassed-in central apse that allows visitors to gape down upon the TSA's security screening zone and to see through and across to most of the rest of the third-floor exhibition area. As in a shopping mall, one walks around the perimeter with the big gap in the middle - unlike shopping, however, here one has the opportunity to be absorbed into experiences far more original than mass consumption.

Examples: Jeanne Flanagan shows a series of drawings that delve into identity as represented by her own enlarged fingerprint; Bruno LaVerdiere, also working in series, reiterates a decades-long obsession with spiritual dwellings as expressed in clay sculptures and painted panels; and painter Harry Orlyk immerses himself daily in the Upstate rural landscape - 10 of his Impressionist-style, unframed works reveal the results.

Benigna Chilla, installation view
(note, the piece in the center is currently not on view
as it was stolen, recovered, and is held in evidence by the police)
My one quibble with the show would be that a few of the artists have too little work in it: Barbara Takenaga is represented by just three (marvelous) paintings and so is Benigna Chilla (though her works on fabric are very large). Just six of Walter Hatke's subjectively realist visual puzzles are included (four of which are modest variations on his pun-worthy surname). This left me wanting more.

One of my favorite things about the show is the decision to illustrate each wall-mounted artist bio with a black-and-white photo of the artist from a much earlier time (shy one, which had no photo). Though a sweetly charming approach, it also hammers home that this show is very much about the passage of time. In contrast, I had the pleasure of attending the show's opening reception in mid-June and of seeing nearly all 11 artists in their current appearance - older, yes, but still very vibrantly alive.

Edward Mayer - Walking A-Round, mixed media site-specific installation, 1994-2016
Note: The Albany International Airport Gallery is accessible to all without passing through security, and is open from 7 am to 11 pm daily. Parking in the short-term lot is free for the first half-hour - for more time, you can get your ticket validated at the Departure gift shop on the first floor of the terminal, no purchase necessary.