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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts at MASS MoCA

Jim Shaw - The Rinse Cycle 2012 acrylic on muslin
Have you ever tried to describe a crazy dream you had, or tried to follow someone describing such a dream? Then you will have some idea what it's like to experience the large exhibition Entertaining Doubts by California artist Jim Shaw at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Shaw draws a great deal from his dreams, and attempts to manifest them physically through sculpture, painting, and installation.

Alas, it is not an entirely successful effort, just as none of us has ever really adequately articulated our own dream or understood another's, but a lot of compelling and enjoyable art is created along the way, so it's also not a failure. Shaw has great skills in drawing and painting, and a good understanding of the theatrics that go into effective installations, and MASS MoCA gives him plenty of space to spread out in.

Jim Shaw - Frank Frazetta Figure 2013 - installation view
A signature of the show is Shaw's re-use of discarded painted theatrical backdrops. The worn texture of these huge curtains of muslin, and their time-softened colors, are very appealing, and Shaw makes the most of this appeal by limiting his interventions to partial overpainting or, in some cases, simple reinterpretation by the placement of flat figures in front. Shaw also takes smaller cuts of the backdrops and paints on them like stretched canvases. These are some of the best works in the show, perhaps because it is easier to digest them, or because smaller works can concentrate the idea better. (Mind you, in this context, small is relative: say, six feet rather than forty.)

Jim Shaw - Blake/Boring 2010
ink on paper 
Another key feature of Shaw's work is his impressive mastery of comic-book style inking, which he applies to various obsessions. Clearly, he is a child of the '50s and '60s, and is completely, unabashedly in love with Superman, whose image is captured, transformed, fractured and fragmented in many ways here.

Sources as disparate as William Blake and Walt Disney are blended into the Superman myth as processed by Shaw, connecting the visionary's Songs of Innocence and Experience to the Seven Dwarves and then linking it to Kryptonite.

Jim Shaw - Fire Female 2012
faux hair wigs with airbrush
Again, I think these elements come across best when simplified, as when Shaw groups giant cutout drawings of Superman's body parts into a wall-mounted installation, or in another installation where the black-ink area of the superhero's costume shorts turns out to be a portal into a plastic dreamworld of glowing colored crystals (shown below).

Shaw also shines in book-page-scale drawings of vortices, swirls of hair, and others of his many obsessions (architecture, the human body, American Indians, snakes, and Wagner's Ring series among them).

Shaw's sculptural forays include architectural dioramas, amusing surrealistic furniture designs (such as a nose-shaped wall sconce), and bizarre wigs, which also appear in a series of paintings made over inkjet prints, rather than discarded muslin. These paintings extend Shaw's technique of altering given imagery and introduce a self-conscious reference to art history in the form of a white rectangle cut out of the colorful image, then replaced outside it as a gray-toned expressionist swirl.

Meaning what? As with the dreams, I couldn't quite get inside Shaw's head to understand the point. But I'm grateful that it's such an active place, and that an artist of Shaw's ability makes the effort to take us there. Entertaining Doubts continues through February 2016.
Jim Shaw - The Issue of My Loins 2015 (installation detail)

In addition to Jim Shaw, MASS MoCA is currently featuring several other exhibitions. Two that are particularly worthy of note:

Eclipse is a remarkable, immersive video installation by Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris in collaboration with the ecological writer Elizabeth Kolbert that commemorates the passenger pigeon on the 100th anniversary of its extinction (image at left).

Not only a powerfully moving experience of what the incredibly numerous birds were once able to do (i.e. blot out the sky), Eclipse is a brilliant example of digital technology put to an innovative purpose as art. It also offers a beautifully produced oversized publication free to visitors. Eclipse is a must-see; it continues through Sept. 1.

Bibliotecaphilia is a group show curated by Allie Foradas with support from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute that brings together six very diverse artists around the theme of books.

It includes a complex interactive installation by Jonathan Gitelson that invites visitors to spend time with a great variety of books annotated by their former owners; Dan Peterman's wonderful sculpture titled The Polymer Catalog - one ton archive, which looks like massive stacks of books but is just slices of colorful recycled plastic boards; Meg Hitchcock's painstaking and beautifully transcendent collages made of individual letters cut from holy books; and a large-scale carved wooden screen by Susan Hefuna.

Also included in Bibliotecaphilia are Jean Prebe's site-specific sculpture titled The Secret Lives of Books (pictured below), and an adults-only series of nine videos by Clayton Cubitt titled Hysterical Literature, in each of which a woman sits at a table and reads aloud from a book of her choosing until she has an orgasm (you don't see what's going on below the table, but it apparently involves a skillfully wielded vibrator).

Bibliotecaphilia continues through the end of 2015.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nicholas Krushenick at the Tang

Installation view featuring the painting titled Electric Soup at left
photo by Arthur Evans
It was 1979: Punk rock was at its peak, rents in SoHo were still cheap, and Nick Krushenick was nearly a forgotten man. My college painting class was on a field trip to New York City, where a visit to Krushenick's studio had been arranged. The artist showed little enthusiasm, reluctantly pulling a few paintings from a leaning stack, far less interested in talking about his work than he was in bragging about his son's band, which had just cut their first record.

Nicholas Krushenick - Battery Park, acrylic on canvas
Flash forward to 2015, and the late Krushenick is now the subject of a solo show at Skidmore College's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, such a rarity that the 20 major pieces it has brought together represent the biggest collection of his work ever seen publicly. Nicholas Krushenick: Electric Soup, on view through Aug. 16, is a brash, bold exhibition that spans over 30 years of output with pristine, large-scale acrylics that appear so fresh they just about jump right off the wall.

Krushenick is considered a pioneer of Pop abstraction, but is not easy to label: Wall text at the show explains that he "developed a distinct style that straddled the lines between Op, Pop, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Color Field." Krushenick himself is then quoted as saying, "They don't really know where to place me, like I'm out in left field all by myself. And that's just where I want to stay." Rightly so, as that's exactly where a truly original painter belongs. Krushenick's work, being mostly hard-edged and flatly painted, would be easy to copy yet still appears innovative and unique.

Quick Red Fox, acrylic on canvas
But Krushenick didn't work in a vacuum - he took direct influence from Matisse's cutouts, making paper collages himself as he experimented with style, then picked up the habit of outlining every color in black (check out some Matisse paintings and you'll see a similar technique employed there - it makes the colors look purer, richer, and brighter). Krushenick also severely restricted his palette (as represented here), using only black, white, the three primaries, and the three secondaries (and, of those, mainly orange).

Though square and angular geometry is prevalent, Krushenick also used softer forms, curves, flowing lines, and shaped canvases. Four of the earlier pieces in the show, from about 1962-3, are painted freehand, so the black outlines are irregular, and they have a lot of painterly texture below the surface, a touch that disappeared in all the later works. The four also share an element of woven forms that do not reappear in the later work, except as flat grids. Among these is Quick Red Fox, the Tang's signature image for the show, and one that also uniquely features the color silver (shown above at left).

CBGB  acrylic on canvas
The latest piece included, which is among the few horizontals here and much smaller than the rest of the work, is 1994's CBGB. The title presumably refers to the legendary music venue in New York (where I'm guessing the younger Krushenick may have performed) and the painting presents a distinct proscenium. Indeed, a number of these works suggest curtained openings, and at least one, Battery Park, is notably vaginal or sphincter-like in its forms. Others suggest flower petals, clouds - or word balloons - and the type of splots you'd see in a Batman comic. These call to mind another painter of the same era, Peter Max, whose style was famously used in the animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. So I'd say the Pop label really does fit Krushenick best.

In the end, I found the work speaks with a clear voice across more than 50 years of densely packed history, and was a real pleasure just to hang out with. But you can still take this art seriously - I'd argue that one painting in the show, 1993's Space Map, is influenced by both Willem DeKooning's and Wassily Kandinsky's later works - and if you do take art seriously, or just want to enjoy a fun show, then don't miss this one - it passes both tests with flying colors.

Jeffrey Elgin -Thus Passed Some Days, mixed media on paper
Another show of paintings at Skidmore that should not be missed is a 20-year retrospective by Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Elgin, presented in the art department's Schick Art Gallery.

Elgin's earlier work evokes Cubism in both its rigorous fragmentation of shapes and its dark palette - but as the years go by, he lightens up, resulting in more penetrable and joyous work. I was amazed by Elgin's ability to invent new forms constantly, and to avoid the pitfalls of representational associations - though, when he does appear to have a "subject," such as a window view or a row of common objects, it still works. I liked the show so much, I bought a painting.

Jeffrey Elgin - Thus Passed Some Days: Twenty Years upon an Overgrown Path is accompanied by a nicely produced 20-page catalog, which is available free in the gallery; also, there will be an artist's talk there at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 9. Please take note, the show ends on April 26.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

37th Annual Photography Regional

Beau Comeaux - Rubble
The 37th Annual Photography Regional is both a glimpse of the past and a window on the future. Hosted this year by The Sage Colleges' Opalka Gallery, the Photo Regional's present iteration is a truly fresh experience that also speaks clearly to the show's long and influential history.

Steven Fink - SX-70 iPhone, 2014
Featuring 80 works by 39 artists, the show was ably and amiably judged by the collaborating duo Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, who filled the capacious gallery with a broad sampling of styles, often choosing three or more pieces by individual makers, which gives the show a welcome depth often missing from such juried affairs. Prizes, chosen by the ParkeHarrisons, went to nine recipients, including two prizes given to student work, a first for the Regional in my memory.

Overall, I got some very strong impressions of where art photography is at in 2015, and I liked what I saw: A lot of black-and-white work (whether digital or traditional); a good amount of strong color abstraction; a great deal of personal documentary; and some experimental/technical stuff - but very little of what I would call "postmodern," especially of the often annoying "created to be photographed" genre.

Erin Shipley - Yielding Defects #3, 2013
In other words, if this is the photography of the future, then the future is having a healthy reconsideration of the deeply felt and, to me, quite righteous photographic concerns of the past. The fact that 11 of the 39 included photographers are students (blindly chosen) is particularly encouraging - actually, some of the best work in the show is by students, and that includes both old-fashioned and progressive styles of work. There are also appearances from some of the Regional's earliest regulars (i.e. folks who showed in the Regional as far back as the late '70s) and, in another possible first, a father and his son (Steven and Jeremy Fink) are both included.

Larry White - Mantle, 2014
And, speaking of Steven Fink, I was surprised that his five large, boldly vibrant color prints, which introduce the installation with a happy shout, did not get even an honorable mention; though I have no quibble with the jurors' prize picks on the whole, I just don't get how you can like it enough to give it that much space, but not better than some other work that was otherwise rather modestly featured. Bold color also makes an appearance in the form of a terrific one-liner from the ironically surnamed Larry White, in which a wild painting above a mantle announces itself with a tiny but sharply visible signature.

Brian Williams - Pieces of 2, 2014
Also appealing are a handful of collaged, montaged, or digitally painted pieces by Liv Zabka, Treha Myth Downey, Brian Williams, and George Guarino. All make great use of a few of the zillions of possibilities that digital photography offers, without overdoing it. Beau Comeaux, a Sage photo professor, also uses the new technology, but he makes moody, timeless, almost spooky images with the big color printer, and they are toned down rather than pumped up, color-wise.

Jess Ayotte - Lucid Dream
But it's the more traditional work that steals this show - whether monochromatic, subtly colored or, as in several cases, using both color and black and white in the same presentation, these works delve into the personal stories and histories that make up so much of the great photography of the past. None is more effective than top prize winner Daesha Devon Harris, who pairs very fine square-format color portraits with small, grainy black-and-white transparencies of the same people seen in earlier times, then adds poetically evocative titles. Her works succeed by making the personal universal, in this case projecting black history onto the black individuals she lovingly portrays.

Also outstanding are three creepy Joel-Peter Witkin homages by Jess Ayotte in delicious black inkjet on paper, and Matthew Klein's lush prints that evoke the great Chicago street photography of Harry Callahan - or that of William Klein (a relative perhaps?), both working in the '50s and '60s. I'm not on a nostalgia trip, but I love seeing this excellent work from so many photographers who may very well be dreaming of the past, or at least look as though they do.

Matthew Klein - Oh Darling, 2013

Friday, March 13, 2015

Adirondack Artists’ Guild's 17th Annual Juried Art Competition

BEST IN SHOW: Elaine Vollherbst - Highway 28N Long Lake
Last weekend I had the privilege of driving up to Saranac Lake to judge the Adirondack Artists’ Guild’s 17th Annual Juried Art Competition. When I arrived, the Guild’s gallery - a pleasant, functional storefront on Main Street - was crammed with 185 entries in all media. My job was to trim these submissions to about 75 for the show, and to choose prizes to be awarded at the show’s opening reception: Best in Show (which carries with it the opportunity to have a solo exhibition at the gallery in November); 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes; and five Honorable Mentions. Needless to say, it was a daunting task.

A view of the AAG gallery
Here’s a first-person account:
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the quantity (and overall quality) of the entries, I first sought to get my bearings. My hosts were three members of the Guild, a cooperative business whose 15 or so joint owners share the effort, expense, and rewards of such an enterprise, and they were graciously helpful throughout the process. They remained quietly alert as I worked my way around the room two or three times, occasionally answering questions I had as to certain relevant details. At this point, I had not yet begun to cut.

FIRST PRIZE: Shawn Halpern - Blue Cedar Vessel
The entrants were limited to three pieces each (maximum), and in many cases it was easy to tell which two or three belonged to the same artist – but not always. It also wasn’t always easy to tell the medium (and, I am embarrassed to admit, one pair of photographs had me fooled to the very end, when I was told they were not, in fact, amazingly detailed paintings). So my helpers provided clarification where needed.

The show drew a great variety of media, including most craft media (such as clay, glass, fiber and wood), jewelry, sculpture, mixed-media constructions, and two-dimensional paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs. I decided I must aim to maintain the diversity of the submissions in my final selections, as this was clearly the spirit of the show, and I delighted in keeping an open mind as to the intention of the artists.

SECOND PRIZE: Susan Hoffer - Connecting to the Protest
While I made judgments based on my own ideas about quality in art (including technical skill) and allowed my personal biases (or taste, if you will) to influence some decisions, I also tried to be receptive to the various styles and concepts that would motivate the artists. Slowly, I began to clarify which work was surely in and some that was surely out. Post-It notes helped streamline this process, and the helpers began to carry the work that I eliminated out of the room.

HM: Richard Nowicki - Lake Placid Outlet
I’m comfortable with all art media and have curated or written about all media for many years, so that was not an issue for me. However, one issue that did arise is that the Adirondacks region is very different from a city (even a small city like Albany, where I live), so I was confronted with a lot of unfamiliar rural and wilderness subject matter, including a good number of paintings, photos, and other media that depicted wildlife. To me this is a subgenre of art with its own set of rules – rules I may not be privy to – but I tried to give it the best consideration I could. After about an hour, I had picked about 40 things I knew I wanted to stay, and had cut an equal amount, leaving maybe 100 others in limbo.

HM: Lynn Taylor - Lake Lilies
Many artists entering a show like this take up certain strategies. For example, some may try to second-guess the juror and submit work that is calculated to appeal to that juror’s taste. Others will try a variety of styles or subjects to increase the chance of hitting something that the juror likes. But these attempts to outwit the juror are tactical errors, because they often fail to represent the artist’s best work or communicate the artist’s personal vision.

HM: Anastasia Osolin - Look
When I judge a show (or write criticism), I am looking for an individual style and a commitment to a personal vision that clearly communicates who the artist is and what they are passionate about. I seek to understand the artist – in his or her own terms – and then decide how successful that effort is. At this point, it became necessary to move things around, so I could see each artist’s work grouped together (the original hanging was totally random and many artists’ pieces were separated). Now the show was beginning to take on a shape, and I could more easily include and exclude more pieces.

HM: Steve Auger - Winter barn
I was trying to find the innate strengths in the work now, more than I tried to decide what I “liked best.” There was a simple but elegant clay bowl; a starkly illustrated woodland scene of an owl with its raccoon prey; a couple of quirky cartoonish drawings in glittery frames; and lots more. Many photographs were submitted - not because I am known as a photographer - but (I was told) because there are a lot of photos submitted every year. So I chose to include many good photographs of different kinds. There wasn’t a lot of non-representational work submitted, but the best of that I opted to include (paintings and fiber art, primarily). And there were many very well executed landscape paintings, including a couple of nearly abstract ones that reminded me of John Sloan; I chose those as well.

HM: Cris Winters - Arc of the Day
Deciding the prizes was a tough challenge that gave me serious doubts, but which ended up being very satisfying. The final cuts always hurt, and some excluded work perhaps deserved to be included, but I feel very comfortable that the best work submitted to this competition is the work that has received the prizes. I think that work displayed the strengths I describe above, as well as representing great skill – whether high or low – in carrying out the artist’s personal vision. Usually, this came across via two or three pieces that worked together as a body, though there were instances of a single piece that was so well realized in itself that I had no doubt about its meaning. Most of the prize-winning work is reproduced here, so you can decide for yourself if you agree or not.

Congratulations to all the artists who submitted work, and many thanks to the AAG for asking me to be their judge this year.

The opening reception for the Adirondack Artists’ Guild’s 17th Annual Juried Art Competition is today (March 13) from 5-7 p.m., with awards to be announced at 6; the show will hang through April 12.

THIRD PRIZE: Phil Gallos - America the Beautiful #17

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

A detail of the Ringlings' home
If you find yourself within striking distance of Sarasota, Fla., any time soon, be sure to check out the Ringling Museum. Originally built as a lavish estate by John Ringling (of circus fame and robber-baron fortune) and his wife Mable, it was then donated to the local municipality in 1936 by the childless couple. The gorgeously lavish seaside site offers changing shows of contemporary art; a significant permanent collection of both circus art and fine art; free and guided tours of the Ringlings’ jazz-age, neo-Venetian villa; parklike gardens; and more.

My friend (and Florida native) John and I went there to see two shows in particular: One was a traveling collection of cutting-edge Chinese photography and video, titled Seeing the Unseen, which we found disappointing; the other is a new Ringling-curated contemporary group show titled Re:Purposed that was outstanding.

Li Wei, Mirror
Why were we disappointed by the Chinese contemporary work? Well, disappointment hinges on expectations, and I admit mine were a bit higher for this conglomeration that featured eight artists but was so narrow in scope as to seem almost a solo show. I’ll blame the curators, not the artists, for that, but it is certain that out of the vastness of the Chinese art scene there had to be more to work with that would have captured our attention. Instead, we moved on fairly quickly, our appreciation for the contemporary Chinese art world somewhat diminished.

Re:Purposed, on the other hand, provided a delightful overall experience and featured, for me, both old friends and new discoveries. The two best-known (and oldest) artists in the mix, Nick Cave and El Anatsui, do carry the show with conceptually sound, brilliantly colorful, exquisitely crafted pieces. But they also have some fine company, especially in the case of Aurora Robson, a Canadian collage assemblist with delicate sensibilities, wry wit, and 21st-century wisdom.

Robson’s pair of works on paper with magazine cuttings and deftly drawn curlicues cleverly celebrates and subverts our ubiquitous advertising media and its unsubtle consumerist messages, while offering playful and meaningful alternatives. Another artist with a message, Alyce Santoro, presents tapestries and dresses made from woven magnetic tape (pulled out of old cassettes), working not just with the shiny material but with the vestiges of sound that they contain and which can still be pulled up by a tape head. I found this aspect of the weavings equally intriguing and creepy – visually, though, the work fell a little flat.

A Nick Cave Soundsuit
Daniel Rozin’s moving wall of fragmentary detritus is probably the most innovative piece in Re:Purposed – via computer technology and little mechanical motors, the work looks back at the viewers and makes a shadow image of the figures it sees. The interaction is a valid way of communicating that we are directly connected to the trash he’s tricked us into looking at.

Ringling curator Matthew McClendon gave a big space to Jill Sigman for a site-specific installation of a hut constructed out of stuff culled from local Sarasota trash (including some discarded Ringling signage). Colorful and unsurprisingly chaotic, the hut felt forced – too artificial to be truly engaging. Visitors showed their discomfort by hesitating to enter it (despite a clear entrance and no prohibitive warnings) until I broke the barrier and walked in. This lack of audience interaction is symptomatic of the sterile, churchlike environment that museums have cultivated, but it also speaks to an absence of excitement about the Sigman work presented here.

The other artists in the show (Matt Eskuche, Vanessa German, Emily Noelle Lambert, and Mac Premo) all are well represented by a good sampling of work that ranges from elegant glass reproductions of crushed cans to mechanical constructs. The show is augmented by a few items from the Ringling’s permanent collection, including a first-rate wall relief by Robert Rauschenberg and several Marcel Duchamp readymades.

Also on view at the Ringling is a permanent installation by James Turrell titled Joseph's Coat that is a super-flat 24-foot-square aperture in the ceiling of a courtyard, through which viewers can see the ever-changing sky above. Periodic nighttime LED shows designed by Turrell are the real event, but just to stand under the opening during the day and look up through it is a transcendent art experience well worth the effort.

Seeing the Unseen ended on Feb. 28; Re:Purposed will be on view daily through May 17.

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City - Bird's Nest

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The best films of 2014

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
With the awards season in full swing, I'm ready to weigh in on my favorite films of the past year. 2014 was an excellent year for movies, and that shows in the truly tough-to-handicap Oscar races. Luckily, I have so far seen six of the eight Best Picture nominees, and they are all worth the time. I've missed American Sniper and Selma, but plan to see the former very soon. As for the latter, I'm just not that interested in a dramatic alteration of Civil Rights history, so I'm skipping it.

1. Boyhood - How anybody can not be completely blown away by the achievement of this 12-year project by Richard Linklater is beyond me. It's a drama about a kid growing up, in which all the actors actually age in real time through the course of the filming. More than that - it's a really great life story, beautifully performed. Patricia Arquette will win the Oscar for this one, and if Linklater doesn't, it's simply wrong.

Agata Trzebuchovska in Ida
2. Ida - Gorgeously shot in black and white, this Polish production was rightly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, deep, original and refreshingly unresolved. Your local library probably has a copy you can borrow for free.

Michael Keaton in Birdman
3. Birdman - I expect this to win Best Picture, but who knows? From the opening credits, the solo improvisational drum soundtrack is just plain brilliant. The film's immersive shooting style draws you immediately into the has-been main character's desperation and never lets you go. Keaton has a shot at Best Actor, except the competition is brutal. I have one quibble with the movie, which is that I can't understand why they felt it necessary to tack on a blow-job for social media in the midst of an existential struggle. Sorry, the rest of this movie is just not so superficial as the message it pushes that you don't matter if you're not being re-tweeted, and that brought it down - unnecessarily, in my estimation.

4. The Imitation Game - This was the film that was recommended to me more than anything else this season, and it does not disappoint. Benedict Cumberbatch deserves the Oscar for  his highly nuanced portrayal of a conflicted gay autistic savant who paid as dearly for his sexual proclivities as for his OCD pursuit of a machine that can think. Keira Knightley is tolerable but not on the same level as her co-star. Daunting British accents for the hard-of-hearing; otherwise very enjoyable and extremely moving.

5. Force Majeure - A Swedish film shot in French Switzerland will never do well in the US market - however, this is exactly the sort of movie that shows what Europe does so much better than Hollywood (and apparently, always will). Force Majeure is a Hitchcockian thriller about a bad marriage that makes you very uncomfortable about life, civilization, humanity, and child-rearing without showing you anything shocking or truly negative. The actors in it are amazing. Borrow this one from the library, too.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel - Super-quirky, especially when it goes (literally) off the rails into a sledding fantasy. Anything this original that gets an Oscar nod should stand very proud. Will not win, however.

Mark Ruffalo (center) and
Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher
7. Foxcatcher - Classic Indie film - quasi-major actors, a true story that's stranger than fiction, topics nobody thought they could be interested in (wrestling, disapproving mothers). Steve Carell's performance as nut-job billionaire John DuPont is career-making; Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are terrific (as always). A real downer, but vividly great.

Jones and Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
8. The Theory of Everything - I'll admit, this one disappointed me, though it is still a very good movie. The problem is, it's about Stephen Hawking's first marriage - not about his work in physics. It's a romance. Which is fine, once you accept that it will not get cosmic in any real way. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne (who is generally expected to win Best Actor) does bring the extremely fascinating younger Hawking startlingly back to life (the older Hawking is still with us), and Felicity Jones is completely irresistible as his first love, Jane.

9. Whiplash - Who knew music school could be like boot camp, only worse? I'm a huge fan of jazz drumming, but this is not the way to form a great artist. Another Indie-style film featuring terrific performances, especially by the Oscar-nominated and likely to win Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons as the brutal taskmaster.

10. Big Eyes - I have a bias in the case of this film, because it almost impossibly combines the three extremely disparate pursuits that are at the core of my three careers: art, newspapering, and fraud. The story of con man Walter Keane, as told by a gossip columnist nicely voiced by Danny Huston, is not shocking. Keane's fraudulent pose as the artist behind his wife's kitschy paintings is fairly well known now - but it is shocking to learn, via a tour-de-force, Oscar-nominated performance by Amy Adams, that Margaret Keane believed completely in her art as the true expression of her soul. An unexpected delight, with director Tim Burton's usual surreal flourishes.

Special Mention: The Lunchbox is a 2013 film out of Bollywood that was missing at last year's Oscars because India refused to nominate it. Still, it earned my top rating of four stars for its combination of charming romance and rare entry into the day-to-day life of working and middle-class Indians. The plot focuses around an unlikely glitch in the Six-Sigma perfection of India's system of "dabba wallas" - the largely illiterate deliverymen who transport millions of home-made lunches to office-bound workers' desks every day. The delivery error leads, naturally, to quite unexpected love. A must-see movie for anyone with a heart or an interest in everyday India.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mike Glier at Opalka Gallery

December 29, 2008: Stream, Hoosick, NY, 30ºF, 2008 Oil on aluminum, 24" x 30"
The title of the current show at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery - meander, because you can't see much while marching - could simply express a philosophy, but I feel it also aims to serve as a sort of explanation. This 35-year survey of Mike Glier (extended till Feb. 8) features several rather disparate bodies of work - the titular meandering - each of which displays technical mastery, intellectual rigor, and engaged passion. Glier paints, brilliantly. Glier draws, with consummate ease. Glier conceptualizes, deeply and effectively.

Satisfaction: Untitled, 1989
Charcoal on paper
12.5" x 9.25"
But there remains the sticky problem of Glier's diversity, and it can't be overlooked. We want our artists clearly recognizable - the market dictates this, and people's overworked minds and hearts demand it. How then do we view an artist who refuses to present a unified vision, who is - inconstant?

I'm not very familiar with Glier's career history, but I expect this variability - or the appearance of variability - has plagued him. I also assume he has chosen not to let the perception of others affect him very much - otherwise, why run the risk of changing tracks? In this very ambitious presentation of great swaths of his best work, Glier and curators fearlessly place portraits next to abstracts, text-splashed sticks next to landscapes, and political commentaries next to familial musings.

Garden Court: Summer, 1994
Acrylic, charcoal on canvas 120" x 90"
The overall effect is impressive, but confusing. While Glier's skill and commitment are undeniable, one must read the wall text and label details to grasp the singularity of his vision, which is more about ideas than images. In the end, his message is primarily as an environmentalist, expressed by a talented painter who is as deeply sensitive to humans and other creatures as he is to the land they inhabit, who is worried about political and economic power-mongering, and who strives to make these concerns apparent in his lushly beautiful art.

Rather than try to describe it all to you, I offer a few choice examples here (leaving out the overtly political work, which I find caricaturish) and urge you to go see for yourself what Glier does so well, and has done for all these decades.

Also, at 3 p.m. on the last day of the exhibition (Sunday, Feb. 8), the gallery will host a talk by Sage professor Steven Leibo on the effects of global warming in this region. After the talk, Glier will be on hand to answer questions about his work. That should provide a great opportunity to understand this complex artist a little better.

Shade Turf with Nine Mice, 2001
Charcoal, oil on aluminum panel  60" x 60"