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Sunday, February 26, 2017

#Oscarsoirrelevant

Lucas Hedges, left, and Casey Affleck both received Oscar nominations
for their roles in Manchester by the Sea. Neither will win.
OK, I admit it - if I really thought the Oscars were irrelevant, I wouldn't be writing about them. But, wait, I am more precisely writing about movies, not the Academy Awards, and movies are definitely relevant. So, as the title of this please implies, I do think the Oscars are relatively irrelevant.

This evening, as is my annual habit, I will not watch the awards show on TV - I will go to the theater and watch Oscar-nominated fare instead, and I will crane my neck around the standing and departing patrons to read the credits when they roll. In this way, I refresh my lifelong love of movies and rejoice in the fact that we can still go see them in a dark, public place.

Most would agree, 2016 was a pretty good year for the movies. A look at the nine "Best Picture" nominees shows an unusually broad selection that includes small-story indies, big budget sci-fi, a star vehicle or two, even a foreign film (Lion is foreign, right?). In sharp contrast to last year's controversially white slate of nominees, three of these films feature nearly all-black casts. Less unusually, a shameless paean to Hollywood is also on the slate (and it will sweep the awards tonight).

More important, these films are actually quite good (or reputed to be so - I have seen just six of them thus far). What do I mean by good? No doubt I've said it before in this space, but I will repeat the age-old formula for a worthwhile movie: A good story, well told. Yes, that is still the measure. And, while it's always possible that this will include a lot of car chases or senseless violence or CGI, these nine films generally don't rely on spectacle to hold the viewer's attention.

Instead, they feature a lot of really great acting, by (again) a very diverse slate of all ages and types, many of whom received nominations for awards (in addition to a number of outstanding performers in films that themselves did not garner a "Best" slot). The fact that the young and the beautiful will win the major awards (as always) doesn't diminish the positive value of a nomination for the never-fails Jeff Bridges or the ever-enchanting Isabelle Huppert or the otherworldly Ruth Negga (who also happens to be young and beautiful, but she still won't win).

So, nice going, Academy!

Now, here's why I have not seen three of the Best Picture nominees (Note to readers - I forgive you if you hate me for my biases. Then again, if I didn't have them, would I be worth the pixels?):

  1. La La Land - First of all, I hate the title. Second, you may remember 2014's Best Picture Birdman, which was brilliant, worthy, and my own second pick of that year (right, Boyhood got robbed) - and which had one serious shortcoming, which was Emma Stone. She sucked in Birdman, and I am not convinced that she would be worth seeing in La La Land. The press calls her likable - sorry, I find her totally unlikable. La La Land is the Titanic of 2016 - the movie everyone will look back at and say "they nominated that for HOW many Oscars?!?" (BTW, I still have never seen Titanic.)
  2. Hacksaw Ridge - This is probably an excellent picture, and I liked Andrew Garfield a lot in The Social Network (where he plays the first guy that Mark Zuckerberg screwed out of a lot of money). But I couldn't bring myself to go see a film that is, basically, the story of a religious fanatic. Yes, a really nice guy, sincere, selfless, etc. But I couldn't shake the feeling it would get all pious on me in the end. Atheist angst got the best of me there. 
  3. Fences - Liked the preview, love August Wilson. But do I need to budget my precious movie-going time to what is, essentially, a stage play presented onscreen? Will catch it on DVD once the library picks up a copy. Expect to love it.

As for the rest, it's very easy to point out the best: Manchester by the Sea absolutely kills. You know when smart people tell you a film is too long, or too sad, that it must be a great one. This film is perfect.

Also excellent: Lion, Moonlight, and Hell or High Water. Why? Check the formula ... they all fulfill it. So, why not perfect?
Lion skews ever so slightly commercial, by making all the characters way too pretty to be real, and by purposely playing the emotional notes.
Moonlight is a fascinating film that has the courage to try a difficult approach - dividing the story into three parts with different actors for each. A fantastic effort that falls the tiniest bit short.
And Hell or High Water is a bit too reminiscent of the Coen Brothers to be considered truly original, which is what it seems to want to be. But it is a fun ride.

As for the rest: Arrival is very good - an understated almost-actioner that uses subtlety rather than sensationalism to make its points. But it stretched my credulity rather too far.
Hidden Figures - yep, it fulfills the formula once again - but I felt played by its Hollywood style. Too cute for its own good.

OK, gotta go to the movies! Have a good night.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Caroline Ramersdorfer at Opalka Gallery

Installation view of Gravity & Light at Sage Colleges' Opalka Gallery
all photos provided by Opalka Gallery
A world-class sculptor is on view at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery  - so please go see the wonderful retrospective solo show Gravity & Light: Caroline Ramersdorfer Sculpture, 1985-2016. It opened on Dec. 2 and will be there through March 5, so no excuses.

Ramersdorfer has great international credentials, both in her development and in the exposure of her art - yet, she is also local, having a home and studio in the Adirondacks town of Wells, which she shares with an equally prominent sculptor, John Van Alstine (see my brief review of their two-person show at Lake George Arts Project in 2014). A native of Austria, Ramersdorfer studied art in Paris and Florence and then learned marble carving in Carrara (where else?), and has produced commissioned work for permanent installations in places as fur-flung as China, Iran, Egypt, and Abu Dhabi.

One extraordinary feature of this exhibition is its inclusion of numerous maquettes and sketches for some of Ramersdorfer's major projects, and they are as skillfully crafted as their larger progeny, while also being charming in their tininess. The beautifully produced catalog of the exhibition features lavish illustrations of each foreign installation (plus one on the Sage campus in Albany), telling the story of these remarkable and ambitious creations.

But no number of pictures can substitute for the experience of sculpture in the flesh (so to speak), and this installation of about 30 years of work is an unforgettable opportunity to visit with each piece, large or small, move around it, and see how it works in three-dimensional space, as the artist intended.

The gallery's open floor plan and high ceiling augment the uncrowded arrangement of the show, which presents about 50 individual works (counting models, sketches, and very small finished pieces) in grouped relationships, in cases and on pedestals, or freestanding. It is not strictly chronological, but the earliest work is seen in the far, back corner of the gallery, set off just a bit by a dividing wall, which allows for a sense of discovery in going backward in time to sculptures that evoke very early times with arrow and axe forms in stone and wood.

Ramersdorfer's newer work is thoroughly modern; however in some instances the primitive shapes remain, such as in a large piece sited near the entrance, called Nexus_Open, which reprises the axe handle and blade in polished and rough marble.

Inner_View 5 2002, marble and steel
Mid-career work, some of it much smaller in scale and carved in alabaster, marble, and other stones, explores simple geometry such as cubes, but also incorporates organic forms that suggest body parts or even microscopic life. These pieces can be flowingly beautiful, as in the 2006 carved marble Wave Wing, which marries an open cube with the form described by its title in a delicate game of balance.

Most of Ramersdorfer's later work is part of an ongoing series titled Inner View, which uses layering to develop complex visual and spatial relationships among planar carvings with molecular and geological structures. These stacked sculptures pull the viewer's eye into their center, mesmerizing and fascinating with the play of light and shadow on and between their surfaces.

It is innovative and masterful work by an artist at the peak of her powers.

Inner View_Open 2009, marble

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Art of Seating at AIHA

Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 chair 2003, Kenneth Smythe
Amid the hustle and bustle of the holidays, there's an end-of-year chance to catch a marvelous traveling show at the Albany Institute of History & Art before it moves on after December 31.

Fancy side chair, c. 1820, unknown designer
The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, and is a delight for anyone who has ever sat in a chair or wondered what it would be like to try to improve on that experience. Featuring 43 individual specimens in pristine condition, this collection runs the gamut from simply stated wooden rockers to gaudy stuffed confections to space-age sittable sculptures.

High Stool 1971, Frank Gehry
Though one can easily consider these as works of art, most were production models and widely marketed when they were made. For me, this adds to the joy and intrigue of looking at the creations on view: The designers didn't just solve the problem of imagining a new and visually arresting way to support your rump - they also managed to find a way to sell it.

Of course there are economic failures peppered through the show - this sort of background information is nicely summed up in printed labels set up on stands by each chair - but there are no functional failures presented: Every chair in this selection is stunning, and they all appear pretty nice to sit on, too, though naturally that is severely prohibited here (though, if you're like me, you will struggle to resist the urge to try).

House of Representatives Chamber
Arm Chair 1857, Thomas Ustick Walter
I'll admit bias - I am a fan of design (particularly modern design), so I ate this collection up like a fresh Christmas stollen ... but, objectively speaking, the items shown in The Art of Seating are all first-class pieces in gorgeous original condition or expertly restored, and they are simply beautiful.

And, there are other good reasons to visit the museum now - Joan Steiner's Look-Alikes - vivid and impossibly clever dioramas that are the basis for her successful picture books - are on view through Jan 29; and Rock & Roll Icons: Photographs by Patrick Harbron will be there through Feb. 12. The Look-Alikes are scattered throughout the museum, making a perfect treasure-hunting activity for kids of all ages; and Harbron's show includes a lot of nostalgic artifacts such as guitars and concert posters, along with his excellent photos of the stars, which will please a certain age-range of former kids.

Note: The AIHA is closed on Christmas Day and on the observed holiday (Monday), but will be open from Tuesday through Saturday, Dec. 27 to Dec. 31, from 10 to 5 each day and from 10 to 8 (with free admission after 5) on Thursday.

Large Diamond Lounge Chair, c. 1952, Harry Bertoia




Friday, December 16, 2016

In Brief: Screenprint Biennial at ACCR

Christopher Cannon, Runaways on Hunt Street screenprint
On a recent shopping excursion to River Street in Troy, I abandoned my spouse and ducked into the Arts Center of the Capital Region, where a gallery full of dazzlingly rich colors greeted me. The 2016 Screenprint Biennial, on view through Dec. 23, is also hosted at Collar Works in Troy, and is just terrific. After it closes, a selected portion of the show will be mounted in January at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, Connecticut. I'd say, if you miss it here, it might be well worth the trip to Norwalk. But try to catch it here if you can.

Jeffrey Dell, Dreamland III screenprint
Organized by printmaker and RPI lecturer Nathan Meltz, the show handily demonstrates that a blue-collar medium that grew up in the golden age of advertising and was adapted into a fine art in the '60s and '70s is still wonderfully alive and well.

Also called silkscreen, the squeegee-centric process is conducive to a great variety of applications, including the use of hand-cut templates, highly detailed photo-based matrices, and printing on fabric. It is also relatively cheap to do (requiring only well-ventilated space, a big sink, and some drying racks - no printing press needed). This leads to endless possibilities, many of which are explored in this second edition of the East Coast Screenprint Biennial (as some sources refer to it), which debuted in 2014.

Among the applications on view at the ACCR (sorry, I still haven't seen the Collar Works part of the show) are gag hair product packages, rough-cut monoprints, a fanciful stuffed-fabric landscape, and 2D work ranging from the flat and cartoonish to the photo-realistic to the elegantly abstract. The one thing it all seems to have in common is that irresistibly rich color that comes from pushing juicy ink through a fabric screen.

Kudos to Meltz and the two hosting organizations for taking on this project - I eagerly look forward to the 2018 edition.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

2016 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region at The Hyde Collection

Installation view of MHR-80
all photos provided by The Hyde Collection
At  this year's 80th annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, hosted by The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, the show's the thing.

Part of MHR-80's Salon section
Juror Michael Oatman, a true local artist who lives in Troy and teaches at RPI (sorry, the rebranding as Rensselaer didn't take), has stepped up as curator - and not just any curator, but a particular post-contemporary sort of curator who uses the art and the venue to build a whole that seeks to be greater than its parts.

Jean Egger Quash, 2016
electric object, earplugs, and video
In this case, the parts consist of 126 works by 106 artists - an almost stupidly broad and shallow swath of our region's best creators - and the whole very smartly includes not only the Hyde's contemporary Wood Gallery, but also its weirdly curved basement space, its world-class historic house, and its lovely grounds. The result, featuring boldly painted walls of bright orange, deep green, and warm grey, is striking, fresh, and - well, a little distracting from the art itself.

The show is installed according to a set of six organizing categories drawn by Oatman from "the history of display": site, vault, salon, cube, mirror/grid, and landview. I have to admit, I'm a little baffled by the concept, and not convinced that it succeeds here, but I give Oatman credit for trying the experiment in front of so many interested audience members. However, they (like me) probably just want to see who got in and what their latest work is like - rather than to receive an academic history lesson in the form of a contemporary art exhibition.

Brian Cirmo, Cat’s in the Well, 2016
oil on canvas
So - who got in? A satisfyingly long list of people, including many names familiar from past Regionals, and plenty of new ones, too. Among my favorites were Daesha Harris, Victoria Palermo, and Stephen Niccolls (all known from prior juried shows); also Anna Roecklin, Matt Crane, and Gyula Varosy (all new to me). In the spirit of the Regional (which, by the way, is one of the oldest continuously running shows of its kind in the country) the selection is very geographically diverse, a feature of the Hyde regionals that I've noted in the past.

Elizabeth Panzer Nasturcium Op. 3, 2015
photograph
A quick review of the numbers shows that no more than 20 of the selected artists have more than one piece in the show - which makes for rather chaotic viewing, despite the organizing principle and a very thoughtful layout. I'm used to looking at a lot of art, but I'm also old-school: I like to see my art in groups that help me develop an understanding of each maker's vision. Here, instead, I felt overwhelmed by the curator's vision, and was fighting to focus.

A few years ago, Oatman co-curated (with Ken Ragsdale, who is conspicuously absent here) the wonderfully stuffed An Armory Show at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery, using a similar approach to this installation. There, however, each artist had a lot more examples of their work included so, despite the chaos, one could delve in. This show feels much cleaner, but is also a tease, especially if you are seeing an artist here for the first time.

Danny Goodwin 3-D Cardboard Box Prototype, 2015
archival pigment print
Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region continues through Dec. 31, and the Hyde is offering "pay as you wish" for the month of December, so it's a good time to go check it out and save a few bucks on the standard entry fee. Don't be put off by my quibbles - the annual Regional exhibition is a must-see, and this one is absolutely worth the effort.

If you go, be sure not to miss the "interventions" by artists in the Hyde House - there, two historic bathrooms have been cleverly altered, and a bedroom has been lovingly updated. There are also three large-scale outdoor pieces, one of which drew me to the back garden area of the house, where my companion and I enjoyed a stunning view of the paper mill that endowed the Hyde, and its vast supply of stacked logs. If it had been entered, we would have given it first prize.

Kathy Greenwood, Paper Dolls, 2016
digital prints, colored pencil, acrylic on paper, cotton cloth

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