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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The best movie of the year so far ...

Jimmie Fails stars as a young man trying to recapture an imagined past
in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
My frequent movie-discussing companion Dick said it, and I agree: The Last Black Man in San Francisco  is the best movie of the year so far.

Dick and I have often noted that originality is the holy grail of contemporary filmmaking, and we value it above other qualities (e.g., production values) when rendering a judgment. In the case of TLBM in SF, no compromises need to be made.

This debut feature co-written and directed by Joe Talbot is miraculously successful as a story, as a visual experience, as a vehicle for some very fine acting, and - most important - as an original, heartfelt, poignant, and challenging work of art. It tells about a young man (Jimmie Fails, played by Jimmie Fails) whose day-to-day existence is rooted not in the reality of his circumstances (lacking home, family, career) but in the greater reality of his love affair with a Victorian house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in San Francisco.

Along with his sidekick, the budding artist and writer Mont (beautifully portrayed by Jonathan Majors), Jimmie maintains and then, after it's been abandoned by the current owners during a contentious estate battle, squats in the house he believes his grandfather built with his own sweat in the 1940s.

What follows is worthy of Shakespeare. Masterfully photographed by Adam Newport-Berra, and sensitively scored by Emile Mosseri, it belongs on the big screen. Don't wait for streaming or video - see it now.

Jimmie peers into the house he would love to re-occupy

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Basquiat x Warhol at The School

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol - Eggs, acrylic on canvas, 1985
Summer in the greater Capital Region means blockbuster art exhibitions, and 2019 is no exception. However, despite Renoir being at the Clark, Sloan at the Hyde, and Ritts at the Fenimore (all sure to attract a great deal of worthy attention), this year's top draw surely is Basquiat x Warhol at The School in tiny Kinderhook, a venue that has been a project of the New York City art dealer Jack Shainman for the last five years.

Warhol - Campbell's Soup Box, box constructed
with acrylic, canvas, and silkscreen, 1986
It's a testament to the lucrative NYC art trade that Shainman can afford to offer this tremendous gift to all art lovers within reach of Columbia County. Though the exquisitely renovated former public school is only open on Saturdays from 11 to 6, admission is free, staff are plentiful and professional, and printed checklists are there for the taking. Like other modern spaces (MASS MoCA, for example), The School features many galleries on multiple floors, high ceilings, white walls (except where original pastel paints remain gloriously peeled and layered) and plenty of distance between the artworks and their labels (an approach I like for its lack of intrusiveness).

While previous shows at The School featured gallery artists and the works were generally for sale, this iteration is made up entirely of privately owned pieces which, considering the exalted historical status of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, gives it the aura of a museum exhibition. Though these facts don't guarantee universal appeal, it is a very likable show for anyone who can handle Pop, abstraction, and expressionism, along with a generous dollop of adult content.

Basquiat - installation view of 45 Marker on Ceramic Plates, 1983-84

Per the gallery's press release, the crux of the exhibition lies in the collaborative paintings and interconnected practices of the two artists. Widely criticized when the collaborations took place in 1984-5, this re-examination proves that time passing is the best method for judging the true value of a work of art.

Beautifully installed in the venue's most expansive room, eight large jointly made paintings are augmented by more than 100 individual works, including Warhols from as early as 1964 and Basquiats from 1980 to 1987 (the year Warhol died). A large chunk of the Warhols are Polaroids (many of them quite wonderful), and there are also three Warhol short films and a 2018 PBS documentary on Basquiat running continuously.

Warhol - Installation view of 16 Polaroid Torsos, 1977
Surrounding the centerpiece of the show with so much individually made work has multiple effects: First, it puts the collaborative work in context by presenting many examples of work by both artists from the same period; it offers the opportunity to consider each of the artists on his own; and it invites the viewer to compare the two artists.

Each facet of this process is rewarding. There are rooms where Warhol's or Basquiat's pieces stand alone, as well as spaces where they are intentionally juxtaposed.

Warhol - Ladies and Gentlemen, acrylic and
silkscreen ink on canvas, 1975
In one broad hallway, extended bodies of work on paper by each of the collaborators hang separately but equally in a balance of black and white (see the example by Basquiat at the end of this post). And, now that I said it, one has to consider the aspect of this story that addresses being black or being white. Basquiat, an African American of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, didn't hold back on expressing his rage at racism (even within the highest levels of the art world, to which he was admitted so young, and where some would say he was treated as a very highly paid mascot). Yet Warhol, as white as they come, was also an outsider - gay, with a strangely neutral affect, inhabiting the NYC underworld of gender benders decades before it became popular, he crossed boundaries easily.

This is evident in a number of the works shown here that may surprise people who know Warhol primarily from his factory-made Pop art, in which his masterly hand at drawing is applied to beautifully rendered portraits of drag queens and transvestites - all of them black.

Aside from race, the show delves into another taboo subject - that of death. Indeed, this is its true core. Especially in the collaborative paintings, but elsewhere too, the preoccupation with death is palpable – images of skulls litter the exhibition, along with other direct references to the end we can't escape. The Basquiat that opens the show, a football helmet adorned with human hair that he advised Warhol to wear in order to understand the black experience, is itself a proxy skull.

Basquiat - Il Duce, acrylic, oil stick,
and spray paint on canvas, 1982
Death is also repeatedly referenced in paintings and silkscreens that address the fragility of the human heart. The largest collaborative painting (13 feet long) is titled Heart Attack, and several Warhols in the show directly depict the organ. A small but potent Warhol silkscreen from 1984 re-creates a public health poster that explains How to Tell You're Having a Heart Attack. Basquiat's work, though often humorous and colorful, is nevertheless persistently ghoulish.

Though it's sad to recall both men's deaths, just a year and a half apart (Warhol from complications after gall bladder surgery, and Basquiat of a heroin overdose at age 27), this exhibition shows the lasting legacy of their extraordinarily vital energies, and leaves the visitor uplifted by the joy they clearly took in sharing their artistic pursuits. To paraphrase my friend Margo, who joined me there, we just loved it.

Basquiat x Warhol continues through Sept. 7.

Note: Images reproduced here are © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; or © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, New York 2019

Basquiat - Anatomy, set of 18 framed screenprints on Arches 88, 1982

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fence Select 19 at ACCR

Installation view of Fence Select 19 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region
Each year in the Capital Region two big shows provide an opportunity for local artists to expose their latest work and for art fans to see a broad range of what the regional scene has to offer. Those two shows are the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, which rotates venues, and The Fence Show, hosted annually by the Arts Center of the Capital Region (ACCR) in Troy. Each show serves these purposes in contrasting ways.

The current edition of Fence Select (a curated selection of 62 pieces pulled from the 400+ works submitted to the all-inclusive, salon-style Fence Show) has a quite a few of the same artists you might find in a typical Regional - but that's where the similarity begins to fade. Most notably, Fence lacks gravitas - it's casual. The artworks are arrayed in straight lines, but with little apparent relationship among them (see example in view shown above). It's possible that this quirky arrangement was done in homage to the Fence Show's origins - it began several decades ago with the artworks being hung from the spikes of an iron fence that surrounds Troy's Washington Park, where the ACCR was located at the time.

Jeff Wigman - Pug Chihuahua Mix, oil on paper (detail)
Also quirky: Several of the included artists (juried by Art Omi Curator Nicole Hayes) had two pieces chosen, but none of those pairs are hung together. Meanwhile, somewhat counter-intuitively, all but two of the prizes went to artists who had just one piece chosen (the exceptions being Runner-Up Jeff Wigman and Honorable Mention Catherine Austin).

On the plus side, those prizes were numerous and rich - a total of about $3,000 was awarded to 11 recipients, including a Student Best in Show and a Student Runner-Up, who received $100 each. That kind of encouragement to young (or, for that matter, established) artists is invaluable.

Then there's the numbering system. Rather than re-number the works after re-hanging them from the Salon installation, the ACCR has retained each piece's original submission number, making for a whacked-out game of seek and find when attempting to locate works by referring to the numerically ordered checklist. Additionally, at the time of my visit, the checklist was missing five of the selected pieces altogether, so I couldn't even identify those artists or their works' titles (hopefully, that's been rectified).

As is usual with a juried show, there are a few odd choices here, including several that are - forgive me - plain awful or, at best, pedestrian. It seems Hayes has curious taste. I'll leave it for you to decide which may be the weaker players, but let's just agree to accept the show as a bit underwhelming overall and move on to the highlights.

Lori Lawrence - In the Light, oil on canvas
Among my favorite pieces in this selection are non-prizewinners by artists I've known for a long time. Lori Lawrence, emerging from a prolonged hiatus, has two particularly strong paintings of natural scenes with gloriously unnatural coloration. Also glorying in unbridled color sense is a large painting on paper by Wendy Williams that, wisely, was given pride of place at the start of the exhibition. I also discovered a few new names worth keeping an eye out for, including Janet Barnett, whose delicate, pedestal-scale wood sculpture entitled Autumn Wind captures movement remarkably well; and Aindrea Richard, whose mystically complex and adroitly painted untitled gouache received an Honorable Mention from the juror.

Mary LaFleur - ceramic
Other prizewinners include Jamie Rodriguez (Best in Show), whose amusingly titled combination of painting and sculpture stretches boundaries of medium, expression, and - possibly - decorum (see image at bottom of this post); Catherine Austin, who makes drawings from old Polaroids (I think); and Mary LaFleur, who received a staff award for her expressive ceramic horse (shown at left).

The show has a fairly small selection of photographs (most of which, regrettably, are forgettable) but three stood out to me: Chris Demarco's study of a kudzu infestation; Theresa Swidorski's negative image of a forest; and Robert Coppola's color picture of a tiny house in Maine.

Fence Select will remain on view through July 7. Also on view in the ACCR's Foyer Gallery is a crowd-pleasing collection of works on paper by Mary Sherwood entitled Drawing on Experience, which will remain there through Sept 6. An artists' reception for both exhibitions will be held Friday, June 28, from 6-8 p.m as part of the monthly Troy Night Out events.

Also of interest in Troy is a retrospective exhibition of photographs by Eric Lindbloom, extended through June 30 at the PhotoCenter (example at right, above). Fans of traditional black-and-white photography will be thrilled by the craftsmanship and ethereal quality of Lindbloom's masterful work.

Jamie Rodriguez - It's unfortunate what happened to Peter Stuyvesant and his peg leg, mixed media (detail)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

In Brief: Yura Adams at Lake George Arts Project

Yura Adams speaks in front of her 12-part installation Fast Earth Wall at LGAP
I first became aware of Yura Adams' paintings when I saw them on the final day of a solo exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson last year. So, naturally, I was excited recently to learn she would be showing at another favorite venue, the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery in Lake George Village, this spring.

Cold Morning Foggy Glow 2018, oil on canvas
The show, entitled Fast Earth, features some of the best work from the John Davis exhibition, as well as a good portion of very different new work created in handmade paper and mixed media. The contrast is striking, both in style and content, as Adams has chosen in the new work to confront our global climate change crisis by constructing a storyboard of free-form pieces on one large wall of the gallery. The 12-part installation requires decoding, handily provided on a printed sheet, and nicely written in a terse almost poetic style. Adams describes the piece as a "speculation on the redesign of earth by climate change" and as "a transition of meaning." This challenging and complex effort is unusual in abstract art, and incorporates a range of materials including vinyl, inkjet printing, and acrylic.

Twilight Flourish 2018, oil on canvas
Meanwhile, on the other side of the gallery, three of the earlier  paintings shimmer brilliantly (two are shown here). Though they read as abstract, they are inspired by and aim to depict rare and specific effects of light. Here, Adams indulges in her love of science, from which she has learned the causes of the visual phenomena she has observed and attempted to recapture in paint: crystals in the atmosphere or on the ground.

The results are not just interesting as strong color compositions; they are also worthy of greater attention, as they reveal unknown truths about the world we think we see, but don't really understand.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons; the show continues through June 14.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Like Sugar at Tang Teaching Museum

Installation shot of Like Sugar at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum
photograph by Arthur Evans
The exhibition Like Sugar, on view through June 23 at Skidmore College's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in Saratoga Springs, is an unusually thought-provoking show that, like its namesake, still somehow comes off seeming insubstantial.

Organized by the Tang's Malloy Curator Rachel Seligman and Skidmore English professor Sarah Goodwin, with input from three other Skidmore faculty members, Like Sugar may suffer from the too-many-cooks syndrome, as it attempts many diverse things. Is it about art? Of course. Food? Check. History? Global economics? Advertising? Health? All of the above.

Julia Jacquette, Two Tiered Cookie Platter, 1997
enamel on wood panel
As an art exhibition, Like Sugar is a bit sparse for my taste, but it features some very good work. Unfortunately, several of the best artists in the show are represented by only one piece each, which can be frustrating. On the plus side, while the show has very much to say, it doesn't overwhelm the viewer with didactic panels or unbearable preachiness - it manages to maintain a light playful tone despite the deadly seriousness of its content.

I think the show makes plain just how conflicted we are as a society - and individually - about sugar. It's killing us, but we love it. Historically, the sugar trade drove the creation and growth of the horror of the slave trade. This is delved into through visceral works by Kara Walker and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and alluded to in historical and contemporary documentary photographs also in the exhibition. Even honey bees get some of the blame - or credit - from both the scientific perspective and the creative one, as a video piece in the show records an experiment demonstrating their preference for sugar, and three fascinating sculptures in the show are a collaboration between a human artist, Garnett Puett, and comb-making bee colonies.

Advertisement by Sugar Information Inc.
Among the most shocking materials in Like Sugar are the many mid-twentieth-century magazine ads collected and presented in a grand collage and also individually, where we can see the audacity of Madison Avenue's efforts to sell a nutrition-free, highly caloric product to an unsuspecting and exuberant post-war consumer. As a child of the '60s, I was the direct recipient of the concepts these ads promoted, and it particularly struck me that the majority of the artists in this show were too - born between 1959 and 1965, a rather narrow demographic band to see in a large group show.

Clearly, we were all affected, and the impacts are still seen in the obesity and diabetes epidemics that plague the United States today. These diseases are explored in a display of public service graphics that attempt to scare people straight off the sugar track, and in photographs and paintings that simultaneously seduce and disgust.

Emily Eveleth, Big Pink, 2016, oil on canvas
One of the strongest pieces in the show, which is used prominently in publicity for it, is a six-and-a-half-foot painting by Emily Eveleth entitled Big Pink, which employs scale, gorgeous painterly flourishes, pastry worship, and frankly pornographic effects to drive home several points at once. Like the ad pictured above, which advises eating cookies rather than a healthy lunch as a weight-loss strategy, it's creepy - and irresistible.

All in all, Like Sugar may be overly ambitious, but it got that way for important reasons. More art exhibitions should make such efforts, even if falling short is almost inevitable.

And, while you're in the neighborhood, check out a first-rate three-person show at the Saratoga Arts Center. Passing Time, on view through June 15, features paintings, photographs, and sculptures by Paul Chapman, Harry Wirtz, and Rebecca Flis (respectively). In a happy coincidence, some of Flis's ingenious cast works are made of - you guessed it - sugar. I promise you will like.

Rebecca Flis Ironscapes, cast iron, crushed red stone, steel perimeter

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagan at Albany Institute of History & Art

Larry Kagan - Hershey Art, 2011 - light and steel wire
all photos by Gary Gold
There's a particularly close relationship between sculpture and drawing. I first noticed this during college, where drawing teachers are often sculptors, and have seen the parallel reinforced regularly ever since. I think this is partly due to the fact that sculptures, like most drawings, tend to be monochromatic, as well as the fact that modern sculptors typically piece together bits of material in an additive process that is far more similar to drawing than it is to painting (where color tends to be the driving force).

Spike, 1977 - cast acrylic
I've also noted a similarity between photography and sculpture, based on other factors, particularly the concreteness of three-dimensional art and the reliance of photography on three-dimensional reality as its subject. Now, in the work of Larry Kagan as presented in a sumptuous retrospective at the Albany Institute of History & Art entitled Shape and Shadow, these connections are made even stronger through a different element altogether: Light.

According to catalog material provided by the Institute, the Troy-based Kagan began as a printmaker before switching to sculpture in the 1970s. One can see evidence of the tactile qualities of prints in some of his first steel works (more on that later), but the earliest body of work represented in this exhibition uses colorless cast acrylic, a medium that plays directly with light within its transparent and translucent forms.

We're Losing Our Ozone, 1989 - steel
In several of the acrylic pieces on display, Kagan has added electric lights to the pieces, energizing them in ways that exploit the particular light-transmitting qualities of the material, while defying the viewer's received experience of viewing a sculptural object under illumination from without. One of those pieces, Wormholes, also seems to break new ground by adding twisting tubes to undulating folds of flat acrylic. Another, entitled Spike, uses hyper-geometric forms and contrasting textures - but no special lighting - to play with our perceptions.

Later, Kagan would return to playing directly with light, but a middle period in which he picked up industrial scrap as a medium would find him flattening his forms into wall reliefs, in effect drawing with steel. One example, shown above at left, perfectly exemplifies that period in a piece entitled We're Losing Our Ozone, which belongs to the Institute, and is displayed to good effect with a smaller maquette of similar design that led to the monumentally scaled final version.

Smoke, 1980 - steel
Crevice, 1979 - steel
First, though, Kagan held onto the robust three-dimensionality of his acrylic work in rough-hewn plate-steel works that emphasize simple forms and heavily rusted textures. A group of eight miniatures from 1979-1981 are presented near the start of the exhibition on two shelves, like friendly toys that beg to be picked up and played with (in the museum it's strictly "do not touch," but these pieces were in fact intended to be handled). These are the tactile qualities I was referring to earlier in relation to Kagan's start in printmaking. The two examples shown above represent the spirit of that group.

Cousin Rose, 1997 - light and found steel
Kagan's wall reliefs (such as Ozone) are the first works by him that I recall seeing when they were being exhibited locally in current exhibitions in the '80s, and I recall that there was shadow play going on then, but it was subtle and not particularly directed. In a striking exception, unique in this show and perhaps unique altogether, Kagan's 1997 Cousin Rose combines two wall-mounted found-steel forms of wire and mesh with the unfocused shadows cast by standard gallery spotlights to make an amusing and affectionate portrait of a lady whose flowery hat draws her face and whose fluttering scarf renders her shoulders.

Hibiscus, 2015 - light and steel wire
This presages what would come ten years later, as Kagan began to craft his steel-wire constructions to cast astonishingly precise shadow drawings from focused spotlights, and is reprised in some of the later shadow pieces in which Kagan takes a simpler and looser approach. For example, Hibiscus, shown at left, much more closely resembles Cousin Rose than it does the work that comes between them in time, such as Stiletto II, shown at the bottom of this post.

Several other of the more recent works in the show also reveal a softening of the starkly illustrative style Kagan had adopted with the earlier shadow works, and with that they also add a looseness to the handling of the steel wire that draws the eye away from the shadow image and back into the sculptural form that makes it.

Light Bulb, 2013 - light and steel wire
While the images cast by these more recent works are still quite representational (including a wry portrait of Andy Warhol), their simplified armatures and freed-up gestures make them more appealing and engaging than the earlier shadow works. It's a subtle shift that shows Kagan continues to evolve and improve, a welcome development in what is already a distinguished career. The show will remain on view through June 9.

Stiletto II, 2010 - light and steel wire

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Photography Regional 41 at Collar Works

Jeff Lansing - Albany Warehouse District 1 (with text added by Collar Works)
Every Photography Regional is unique, but the 41st edition of this popular and often controversial annual is even more different than most, due to a new venue and particularly tight jurying.

This year, the peripatetic show has found a Troy home at Collar Works, a raw and ample nonprofit space that opened for business a little over three years ago under the guidance of Executive Director Elizabeth Dubben, and quickly made a name for itself as an innovative hub of the local contemporary arts scene.

Justin Baker - Frodo's Ghost II
Historically, the Photo Regional has always rotated among sponsoring organizations. When it began in 1979, responsibility for it was shared between Albany Center Gallery and the former Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (RCCA) in Troy. After RCCA (now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region) bowed out in the mid-'90s, other venues took up the cause, including Fulton Street Gallery and the PhotoCenter in Troy, and the Albany Airport Gallery in Colonie. Albany Center Gallery has continued to be in the mix since it first hosted in 1980; Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery has held the show every three years since 2003; and now there's Collar Works, which I hope will remain as a regular host in the cycles to come.

Natasha Holmes - Babble, Bubble
Regular followers of the Photo Regional will be struck by how different in scope the current iteration is from the previous 40: With only 18 works by 15 artists, it's by far the sparest version ever. The only comparison I can make would be to the 2003 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region Juried Exhibition at UAlbany's Art Museum, which had just 17 artists and 35 works in it (trivia buffs may note that one artist, Justin Baker, was selected for both). Typically, either of these Regionals will include far more work (for example, two years ago at ACG, the 39th Photo Regional included 72 pieces by 51 artists).

That said, whereas the 2003 Mohawk-Hudson Regional was overwhelmed by the UAlbany Museum's vast, two-story space, Photo Regional 41 sits fairly comfortably in the low-ceilinged Collar Works gallery. On my first visit, having heard about the small number of works included, I doubted they could hold the space - but I found that dividing walls, along with sensible pairings and groupings of related pieces, have given the minimal selection enough support to stand up.

Theresa Swidorski - Forest Gate
Chosen by Brooklyn-based curators Kathleen Vance and Daniel Ayecock from submissions by 88 artists, the show hews to the traditional; few of the images deviate very far from the camera-made, though the collection feels contemporary in style, subject, and coloration. Only three of the 18 pieces are monochromatic and, of those, just one is black and white (the other two being a cyanotype, which is blue, and a digitally-reproduced toned darkroom print in a range of dark browns). Overall, the technical and visual quality of the images is high but, as with all such shows, there are a few clunkers (I'll leave it to the readers to see the show and decide for themselves which ones those may be).

Coby Berger - Albany Super Storage
Another distinction of this Regional is that, though it was juried from an open call (i.e. not an invitational), no prizes were awarded, apart from the jurors' decision to give the "top three" among the accepted artists two pictures in the show, while the other 12 selected artists have one picture each. Those three - Justin Baker, Chris DeMarco, and Jeff Lansing - are all worthy of the distinction, and the pairs of pictures included by each make strong presentations.

With so many variations on the usual theme, this Photo Regional provides a lot of food for thought. Is it better to see more or fewer artists in a large group show? Does seeing two or three of an individual artist's pieces help you understand and appreciate their work better, or could more time spent with just one piece provide greater insight? Can 18 artists adequately represent a region? For that matter, can any show represent a region at all?

Chris DeMarco - Test Site 2
As in most Regionals, this show includes a number of familiar names as well as a few new ones. In addition to the jurors' top three choices, I particularly liked George Guarino's geometric and heavily textured digital photo assemblage titled Daughter Mother; Natasha Holmes's Babble, Bubble, a fun-filled concoction of commonplace objects; Robert Coppola's colorful bit of Americana from Santa Cruz, Calif.; Theresa Swidorski's spooky reverse-printed Forest Gate; and Coby Berger's painterly urban study Albany Super Storage.

Other work that caught my eye included unrelated mist-shrouded night scenes by William Gill and Christopher Herrera, and a quiet suburban scene by Monica Hamilton. The other artists included in the show are Kieran Barber, Hannah Alsdorf, Scott Keidong, and Hillary Raimo. It's worth noting that Hamilton and Barber are both college students (at Skidmore and Saint Rose, respectively), showing that even a very tightly juried show can offer first-time professional opportunities for up-and-comers. That kind of openness is one of the things that makes an annual Regional like this both popular and vital to the community.

Photography Regional 41 runs through April 27. Please note, Collar Works has limited hours: 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Monica Hamilton - Layers of Green, Layers of Wheels, Leadville, Colorado