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Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Healing Power of Music

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

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

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

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

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

The Cookers

Monday, September 4, 2017

A double shot of Frankenthaler at The Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Shift 1990 - acrylic on canvas


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Passage at Albany Center Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Ellen Riell Meet me At the Crossroads screen print

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Out of Site: Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt LaFleur The Camp, wood and paint

Sunday, July 23, 2017



Eugene Mirabelli
Eugene Mirabelli, the author of Renato After Alba and several other books of fiction, is among the two or three best novelists living in Delmar, N.Y. If you think that is damning with faint praise, think again - the others from there that I know personally and have read (Paul Castellani and David Vigoda) are also terrific. Could it be something in the water?

Renato After Alba, which was recently published by McPherson & Company and has received several independent publisher awards this year, is a bittersweet elegy of a novel. In it, Mirabelli gives us a new glimpse into the heart and soul of Renato Stillamare, an orphan of unknown origin adopted into a colorful Sicilian-American family who he introduced to us as the narrator of The Goddess in Love with a Horse and who became the protagonist, as a mature but vital, and rather conflicted gallery artist in Renato the Painter.

Now we have Renato as an older man, struggling to make sense of the sudden loss of his wife, Alba. Mirabelli employs the skills of descriptive narrative with aplomb, but the depth and breadth of this short book (188 loosely filled pages) is a special achievement, made more effective by its ostensibly narrow focus into the thoughts and feelings of one man for one year.

That the man is a ferociously talented painter, and that the year is possibly the most important one in his long life is what gives the book its kick. The tight narrative of the story is expanded by well chosen digressions into astrophysics, Italian culture, and small-business economics. But it is the quality of the writing that makes it great - with masterly craft that hides all its sweat to produce an immersive exposition of an inner life.

As with all excellent books, you can open Renato After Alba at any page and get lost in its flow of words. Here, they invoke the fugue of grief:
Sometimes it was me who had died and Alba who was living and I'd see her walking solitary in the quiet before sunset, walking slowly along the empty sidewalk in the little college where [our daughter] Skye and her family have their home, or I'd see her at the table in our kitchen where she had set out two or three yellow place mats, but only one dish, eating alone in the silent kitchen, and my heart would contract in pain.

And, here, they recall a long-ago family conversation:
"This French philosopher, Albert Camus, he thinks life is absurd," Zitti said. "Absurd and with no purpose."
"We make purposes as we go along," Nicolo said. "We keep changing that purpose, but the important thing is to have a purpose, a goal. Making progress toward our goal gives us pleasure, and as soon as we get there, we discover another goal, further ahead."
Aunt Marissa, his wife, said, "Always going and never arriving. I don't know if that's so good."
"The purpose of life is to work," my father declared. "Work saves more souls than Jesus."
Zitti continued, "Camus says that death makes life absurd and pointless."
"You think your mother's life was pointless?" Candida asked him.
"I didn't say that. We're talking about Camus' beliefs, not mine."
"Camus is absurd," Candida murmured.
"Maybe the poor man has no family life," my mother suggested.
Zitti shrugged and opened his hands, palms up, to show he didn't know what to make of any of this. "Or maybe he says those things simply because he's French."

As Mirabelli unfurls Renato's slow walk through desperation, his ever-present folly (after all, he is a man) and, ultimately, his decision to paint again, we walk with him in sympathy. This may be a book about grief - that's the peg it hangs on - but it is really, like all novels, simply a book about life and how we live it.

Despite his advanced age, Renato discovers something new along this journey: That we don't just live life by accident - we choose to live it. He may have arrived on a snowy doorstep in Lexington, Massachusetts, by accident, and his wife may have died by accident, but Renato's decision to go on is entirely his responsibility. That the book helps us truly understand his reasons is its gift.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Less is More: 2017 Regional at AIHA

Richard Barlow Roadside Picnic II - chalk on blackboard paint on wall
The 2017 edition of the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region (popularly known as the Regional) is on at the Albany Institute of History & Art and, as ever, it is a must-see for all local fans of contemporary art.

Victoria Palermo Reds - wood,
poured resin and colored plexiglas
This year's show was judged and installed by Jack Shear, a photographer, curator, collector of photography, and the president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. You may recall Shear's gift last year of over 500 photographs to the Tang Teaching Museum (reviewed here); now he has given the region a different sort of gift by providing an unusual, sharp perspective on the Regional, and by adding a couple of unique elements to the show that I found most welcome.

First, Shear mined the Institute's collection for works of art that had been purchased from past Regionals over many decades; these pieces (more than 20 of them) were then installed salon-style at the entrance to the exhibition, providing a refreshing reprise of those past purchase-prize winners. I will describe Shear's other innovation a bit later.

Niki Haynes To What End mixed media collage
So - how is the show? With just 87 works by 32 artists selected from 600 submitted by 268 artists, this Regional is unusually spare - and that's a good thing. All but a few of the artists have three pieces on view (the rest have two, except for two artists with a single, very large-scale work on view: Richard Barlow, whose 27-foot wall drawing is shown at the top of this post, and Tatana Kellner, who is represented by a 12-foot grid of 30 monoprints). This added depth allows the viewer to understand each artist's point of view much better than would be possible in a broader-based, more inclusive and, presumably, more cluttered curation.

Peter Crabtree PFOA Portrait: Loreen Hackett: Activist
archival inkjet print
Further, Shear has organized the exhibition into sections that group the artists loosely under themes (nature, figure, three-dimensional abstraction) that are like curated shows within the show. This also helps the viewer probe deeper into the meanings of the individual artists' work by putting it in context; though the Regional itself is a context, these sub-themes supercede the idea of a regional identity to touch on trends that artists around here (and everywhere) are currently exploring.

Within these themes, there is an additional subset of images set into a smaller gallery (with a warning outside for those with youngsters in tow) which are all photographs of people, some of them nude. Considering that Shear's collection at the Tang includes many such images, this makes sense. One might guess that photographers intentionally submitted work of this nature, or that more people who produce this sort of work submitted to the show. In any case, Shear did the expected by including these examples, some of which are in the slightly shocking realm, but the majority of which are nowhere near that turf (such as Peter Crabtree's wonderfully sensitive portraits, an example of which is shown at right above).

Dave Waite Guardian - archival inkjet print
As a lifelong follower of photographic art, I can say with confidence that, regardless of anyone's predilections, the photos included here are worthy; they also represent a great diversity of approaches, which helps show just how much this medium has done to liven up post-modern art. Among my favorites are three traditional landscape studies by Dave Waite (example shown at center above), Ray Felix's light-infused nude portrait of a heavily tattooed young man, Allen Bryan's masterful digital concoctions, and Laura Christensen's witty, mixed-media transformations of antique pictures.

T. Klacsmann Raptor and Automata
mixed media collage
I should note that not all of the photographs are in this one room - many are also included in a larger gallery with art of other media. Among those other media, sculpture is particularly well represented, as is drawing and other works on paper. Painting has a pointedly slight presence here compared to most Regionals - perhaps a commentary on what sort of approach Shear sees as being relevant in today's art scene. The top prize in the show went to a mixed-media collage (shown at right above), and a number of other collages also are included. Again, as a lifelong follower of collage art, I'm perfectly OK with this.

Jake Fallat 1997568-1
cast aluminum
The only two oil painters in the show are about as different as could be from each other - Jane Bloodgood-Abrams makes 19th-century-style cloud studies and Paul Sattler makes neo-expressionist extravaganzas (example shown at the bottom of this post). Again, this shows the juror's integrity, as he is not following a discernible style in his selections, but exercising thoughtful and tasteful decision-making about what to include.

As for Shear's other addition to the Regional, Back: A Re-Installation of 19th Century Sculpture, is a delightfully engaging intervention into one of the Institute's staple displays, and the first time that any Regional juror has directly participated in the show as far as I know.

The 2017 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region runs through Sept. 3, and will feature three artist talks in the galleries at 6 p.m. on one Friday each month: July 7, Aug. 4, and Sept. 1. Admission to the Albany Institute of History & Art will be free on Sunday, July 2; admission is also free every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Paul Sattler Letters to Cross (Reading the Letters from H. Matisse to H-E Cross)
oil on canvas

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Welcome Scarlet Seven

An interior view of Scarlet Seven Fine Art Gallery
photo provided
Whenever a new gallery opens in the Capital Region, it is cause for celebration. But then comes the inevitable question - will it last?

Julie Branch - Large Fungi with Frogs
pilfered porcelain
A large and enthusiastic crowd greeted the opening of Scarlet Seven Fine Art Gallery at 137 4th Street in Troy on Friday night (during the ever-popular Troy Night Out), giving a strong impression that this space is desired and appreciated. Owners Jon Gernon and Jillian Platt presided over the event, which featured 12 regional artists of strong reputation and diverse work. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be held on May 31, the gallery will be open from 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday; the current show runs through June 25.

The space is grand and nicely proportioned, with plenty of exposed brick, wooden floor, and a solid glass front that puts the venue on permanent street-level display, tantalizing passersby with the challenge of finding the entrance, which is way around back and neatly hidden under a giant, blank wall of brick and ivy. This may be a clever approach - if you make it hard to find, people will be inspired to put in the effort. Feeling like you've discovered something special, perhaps you will buy.

David Austin - Getting Closer, acrylic on canvas
And, yes, the point of this business is to sell the art, however vulgar that may seem to purists. Certainly, let's hope that's the result, if we like local art and nice galleries to show it in. Gernon was until recently for many years the curator at nearby Clement Gallery, so his experience in retail will be especially useful here. He is also one of the featured artists, and has found a broad-based market for his own tempera paintings, which should help this gallery's fortunes.

Co-curator Platt also shows paintings in this first selection, which includes paintings by David Austin, John Hampshire, Willie Marlowe, D. Jack Solomon, Yeachin Tsai, Stephen Tyson, and Jeff Wigman; sculptures by Julie Branch and Susan Spencer Crowe; and ceramics by Randi Kish. If you're not already familiar with this star-filled lineup, then Scarlet Seven will be as good a place as any to catch up and join the folks who follow the local scene and for decades have been enjoying the world-class work it offers.

We'll be keeping an eye on this latest commercial fine art venture, and wish Jon and Jillian the very best for a long, successful run.

Jeff Wigman - The Three Poisons, oil on panel