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Sunday, February 9, 2020

The best films of 2019

George McKay, center, probably deserved an Oscar nod for his lead role in 1917.
Well, I'm a little late to the party, but I have a couple of good excuses - and, anyway, at least I get to publish my list before the Oscars are announced this evening. Proud to say, this year I actually saw every Best Picture nominee (and all but one in an actual movie theater - the one being Joker, which I caught on DVD the day after it was released in that format).

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
star in Everybody Knows
As usual, I have a quibble or three with the Academy, but it looks like the front-runner this year is 1917, which is also my top pick, so you never know. Following right behind, however, is a film that got zero notice from the Academy (though some critics gave it due props), which is sadly ironic in that it's an all-black production that easily deserved the attention and could have helped to save the annual hue and cry about Oscars-so-white if it had been properly recognized.

Instead, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is this year's most-overlooked movie at Oscar time (see my full review here). Honestly, I'm not cynical enough to think that Academy voters disregard good material just because the people who made it are black; rather, I think they are simply too self involved to be able to appreciate a lot of fare that isn't right up their alley - hence, outstanding non-traditional or foreign material often gets overlooked.

That said, you may notice that the much-ballyhooed Korean film Parasite didn't make my short list (though its Oscar success may have helped the Academy dodge the racism bullet this year). I acknowledge that Parasite is extremely well made, but it is too brutally dehumanizing for my taste. I've gotten the impression that many people found its class-struggle story to be groundbreaking - however, 2018's Japanese production Shoplifters told a very similar story, while humanizing all its subjects, which to me was both more difficult and much more worthwhile. (Then again, a movie-savvy friend told me that Parasite was his favorite film of 2019 and Shoplifters his favorite of 2018, so maybe I'm just confused.)

Other films that the Academy liked more than I did were Ford v. Ferrari, which told a very good story, but in such a drawn-out fashion and with so much time spent inside a race car that I got bored (despite great performances by Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and others, as well as a lot of unsubtitled but perfectly executed Italian dialogue - a surprise treat for me); and Little Women, which also featured some very good acting but was almost unbearably twee and, at times, so anachronistic as to be groan-inducing.

But the rest of Oscar's favorites made my list - so, here we go:
  1. 1917 - This is what a truly great movie is supposed to be. Advice to anyone who a) hasn't seen it and b) hasn't seen the trailer: Don't watch the trailer, it will ruin the film - just go see it. And, yes, I mean GO to a movie theater and immerse yourself in the darkness for an unforgettable experience.
  2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco - A stunning achievement by a crew of first-timers, strikingly original and deeply personal. Will hold up just fine on video, so borrow this one from your library or (if you must) stream it.
  3. The Irishman - Scorsese and his team of regulars do it again. Forget what they say - it's not too long!
  4. Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood - Tarantino does it again, only this time with a bit more subtlety (though not too much of that, after all, it's Tarantino). Leonardo DiCaprio is really good here, but Brad Pitt is even better, and ought to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.
  5. Jojo Rabbit - Imperfect, but enhanced by extreme originality, it's gratifying to see a film this quirky get noticed by the stuffy ol' Academy. Probably won't win anything but, in this case, the nomination is the prize.
  6. The Farewell - Nominated for a bunch of less prestigious awards (and winning quite a few), this movie was inexplicably left out of the running for Oscar, despite being a near-perfect indie film by an American (albeit Asian-American) director. The story would fit any family, especially any family with recent immigrants, but ol' Hollywood apparently couldn't relate. Extra props to UAlbany product Awkwafina, who starred and earned a Golden Globe for her efforts.
  7. Transit - Similar to Jojo Rabbit, in that it re-imagines a WWII scenario with deft originality, this film takes place in the France of the present, but depicts the displacement of people there under the German Nazi invasion of the 1940s. Lyrical, beautifully filmed, heartbreaking.
  8. The White Crow - I'm no ballet critic, but I enjoyed every minute of this adaptation of the true life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, probably because it so effectively shows how the passion of a great artist helped him overcome terrible odds.
  9. Joker - Much better than I expected, and not at all a comic-book movie (though based on comic-book characters), this film captured my attention and never let it go. Joaquin Phoenix will win the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant performance as the horribly mentally ill Arthur Fleck.
  10. This is a tie. Marriage Story and Everybody Knows have significant commonalities - family relationships gone dramatically awry, superstar casts, indie vibes - but they are also starkly contrasting: One takes place between brutally competitive New York City and Los Angeles, the other in a charming Spanish village; one involves a rather superficial decision to divorce, the other a decades-old, crime-laced mystery. But they share crackling dialogue, beautifully shot scenes - many of them intensely intimate - and a couple of nice twists. While Marriage Story earned best-actor nods for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Everybody Knows got bupkus, though its male lead, Antonio Banderas, was nominated instead for his work in Pain and Glory. Obviously a good year for him - and for Johansson, who also was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Jojo Rabbit. Impressive achievements for both.
Still to be seen: I've yet to catch up with the aforementioned Pain and Glory, and would also like to catch The Two Popes (which had each Pope interpreter get an Oscar nod), and another African-American themed movie called Waves that got an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to 92% for Little Women and a perplexing 68% for Joker).

In all, 2019 was a far better than average year for films, as was 2018 - a promising trend, with Amazon and Netflix deserving much of the credit.

Transit, starring Franz Rogowski, center, was one of the best films of 2019
and earned a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

A natural sandstone concretion from France that is about 5 feet wide
all photos by Robert Blake
Is Mother Nature an artist? That question came to mind as I perused the mind-blowing collection of minerals at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven on a recent road trip.
My old friend Rob, a rock hound and certified gemologist, guided me on this trip, and assured that this collection is truly dazzling even to an expert (he grew up near Harvard, which has a similarly impressive collection, but he said the Peabody's outshines Harvard's in terms of the size of the specimens and the way they're displayed).

To rank amateur me, the outstanding impression was of sculptural brilliance. Sure, the collectors who pay a king's ransom to own such specimens are as affected by aesthetic concerns as anyone, but they're still gathering objects that came from nature, not an artist's studio. Though there's no individual creator making these objects - just chemistry plus time - the results are no less visually exciting than a carefully executed sculpture. After all, who wouldn't be pleased to display the beer-can sized specimen of beryl with albite from Pakistan shown at right, above, on a nice pedestal in their living room?

A stunning specimen of pure gold found in California
By the way, the Peabody is best known for its dinosaur exhibits, which were not on view for our visit (and won't be for years, pending massive renovations), but the mineral exhibits alone were well worth the trip to New Haven (a city I'd never visited, despite having once lived in Connecticut for several years). Additionally, the museum has an equally impressive bird collection, and quite a few excellent dioramas featuring a broad array of environments and their respective animal specimens.

The heart of the mineral collection is in a special gallery dedicated to a donor and Yale alumnus named David Friend. Here, examples of extraordinary value from the collection are grouped with equally outstanding specimens on loan from the friends of Friend. We were told that this selection rotates every couple of years, as many more items than can be displayed are available. Just a few are shown in the photos in this post, but the full display is extensive, featuring all types and sizes, as well as a good sampling of gems for fans of wearable art. All of it is beautifully mounted and dramatically lit with high-tech spotlight arrays.

So, check out these examples, and think about going. Alert: Those renovations will take over the entire museum as of this June - and it won't reopen until 2023. Now's the time.

Our blogger examines a giant fossil of prehistoric plants and fish

Sunday, January 5, 2020

In Brief: Michelle Bowen at ACCR

Michelle Bowen - Mind and Body with Soul
acrylic on linen
A unique concept drives the current solo exhibition titled Huelitic Code: Language Through a Prism, which features prints and paintings by Michelle Bowen at the Arts Center of the Capital Region through Feb. 2.

Bowen has invented a system of colors associated with letters, something akin to automatic writing, in that it decides for her what colors to use in each work of art. The majority of her paintings are clean, geometric designs that nest series of stripes in symmetrical arrangements that use her system to represent short sets of related words (while some comprise asymmetrical series of tiny squares that represent longer texts).

I don't know what method Bowen used to determine which colors represent each letter - it appears random - but it's certain the resulting paintings would look very different if that set-up were changed. Whatever the basis of choice, the word-derived images are often very appealing as color studies, but can also be slightly confounding. For example, Bowen has produced a set of smaller works that each represent a color by name, but the colors assigned to the letters follow the code, not the color being represented. So, in one instance, the painting that represents "blue" has no blue in it.

Black and White with Heart, acrylic on linen
Sorry if that is hard to understand - but it's the nature of the show to be a bit of a puzzle, and an eye-pleasing one at that. For me, the richest compositions and the simplest joys in this exhibition are purely visual, though Bowen's penchant for provocative juxtapositions (e.g. "autocracy" and "democracy") is stimulating and easy enough to comprehend visually.

It got a lot tougher for me to relate where Bowen chooses to represent much longer passages, described as being from scripture, as well as other literal evocations of spirituality, such as in a painting that makes a colorful geometric abstraction out of numerous names for "god," which felt a bit preachy.

Bowen's strength is in the originality and impeccable execution of her concept - I'm happy with any system an artist employs if in the end we have something absorbing or beautiful to contemplate. Bowen succeeds on both counts.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at Fenimore Art Museum

A view of the installation of Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore
all photos provided by Fenimore Art Museum
Heroines of Abstract Expressionism, the current feature show on view through Dec. 31 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, is representative of a recent art-world trend, whereby collectors (rather than curators) initiate major museum shows. It makes sense - with art prices soaring, it's often the collectors who are better able than the museums to bear the cost of assembling a body of work significant enough to draw attention. So, the two camps increasingly work hand in hand to reach the art-savvy public. A harbinger of this trend was the aptly named Sensation, which presented the private collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997, to great acclaim and controversy.

While much more sober than sensational, HerAbEx is still a revelatory gem. Created by Southampton collectors Rick Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield, who drew from a broader swath of modern American artists in their collection, it puts the focus on 19 women members of the mid-century movement that rewrote the history of modern art. It's a striking and intimate gathering, totaling 34 drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and is accompanied by a fine, slim catalog with several essays and good color reproductions of all the work in the show.

Lee Krasner - September Twenty-Third
ink, crayon and collage on lithographic paper 
Among the 19, there are names that range from the widely celebrated to the largely overlooked. Most of us already know about Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Grace Hartigan, and Dorothy Dehner - all of whom had significant recognition in their lifetimes. But what about Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, and Charlotte Park? These, and others, were new to me here.

A few motifs emerged as I wandered and relaxed in the comfortable upstairs gallery that holds all but one of the pieces (the other, shown here at left, being placed just outside the entrance). Most of the two-dimensional work is on paper (only six pieces are oil on canvas), and all of the work is relatively small in scale (that is, relative to the monumental scale of much of the AbEx masters' output). These limits can be explained by the seriously prohibitive purchase prices of larger works by such noted artists, but also suggests that the women in this group may have worked smaller overall than the men, possibly due to scarcer resources and, almost certainly, more human-scaled egos.

Elaine de Kooning - Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall
acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas
It's also worth noting that a large portion of these artists are Jewish - not surprising, considering the time (immediately post-WWII), the place (primarily New York City and Long Island), and a similar demographic among the men of the movement. Additionally, many studied under or were directly influenced by the same people, in particular Hans Hofmann.

A poignant sub-theme of the show is the marital status of these women artists - many were married to major art-world figures (including painters, sculptors, and critics), whose shadows would have been difficult to escape (the solution frequently being divorce). That includes de Kooning (married to Willem, divorced in 1957), Frankenthaler (associated for five years with Clement Greenberg, then married to Robert Motherwell and divorced in 1971), Park (married to James Brooks), Dehner (married to David Smith, divorced in 1951), and Krasner (married to Jackson Pollock until his death in 1956). Some of the label copy in the show (all of it succinct and nicely readable) makes references to those conditions and how gender affected these artists' careers, a sad commentary on their time in contrast to today.

Perle Fine - Untitiled, oil on paper mounted on board
It struck me that quite a few works in the show are not truly abstract, instead plainly representing figures and landscapes - and even including two recognizable portraits. One prominently featured painting (which collector Friedman cites as the start of it all for him and Wakefield) appears abstract at first, with slashing strokes of bold color and calligraphic black marks - only to reveal itself as a direct interpretation of an early cave painting depicting a bull. Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall (shown above, at right) is one of six pieces by Elaine de Kooning included in the show. There are also four by Krasner and three each by Dehner and Nevelson, while the rest of the included artists are represented by just one or two pieces.

Though de Kooning is clearly intended to be the star of the show (and her best works here support that), Krasner was the revelation for me, and her Earth No. 7, a gouache on paper, emerged as my top pick. Other favorites include a luscious pink acrylic on paper by Frankenthaler (seen in the image below), a marvelous untitled bronze by Dehner that felt like a three-dimensional Motherwell painting (also seen in the image below), and a brooding maelstrom of black ink by Joan Mitchell. Those four works alone are well worth the trip to Cooperstown.

I also particularly liked a trio of paintings that evoke the brash, calligraphic style of Franz Kline: A captivating double-sided oil on paper by Michael West (she changed her name from Corinne Michelle West at the suggestion of Arshile Gorky) and an oil by Perle Fine (shown above, at left).

Overall, Heroines of Abstract Expressionism provides a great opportunity to see work by many worthy artists in a worthy setting, and for curious folks who haven't yet come to appreciate abstraction, it offers a window into that world. The show is meant to travel, but an agenda hasn't yet been set.

From left, works by Helen Frankenthaler, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, and Mercedes Matter are seen in Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Group shows galore

Installation view of Upstate Artists at The Laffer Gallery (photo provided)
It's the time of the year when galleries, both commercial and public, put on those crowd-pleasing shows with lots of artists and, often, smaller/more affordable work for gifting opportunities.

I'm aware of four such exhibitions currently on view at quality venues, as follows:

  • Thompson Giroux Gallery, Chatham - The appropriately named En Masse 2019 includes small works by more than 80 artists, and will be up through Jan. 12. This intimate gallery shows a lot of top-notch work, and the list of artists included here reflects that. 
  • Albany Center Gallery, Albany - Featuring one piece each by more than 140 artists, this annual members show was judged for prizes by Union College curator Julie Lohnes, and will be on view through Jan. 10. Full disclosure: I am one of the included members.
  • Saratoga Arts, Saratoga Springs - The arts council's annual members show is up through Jan. 4, with an online descriptions that cites "close to 230 pieces of artwork ranging from painting, drawing, printmaking, functional art and sculpture displayed chromatically in salon style," which sounds to me like an overwhelming feast for the eyes.
  • The Laffer Gallery, Schuylerville - Upstate Artists is an annual juried group show, this year selected by Jon Gernon, and on view through Jan. 12. With only 30 artists, it will be the least cluttered of this set, but still abundant enough.


Combined, these shows include more than 500 works by nearly as many artists (no doubt with some overlap), much of it at the highest level you'll find anywhere.

So, if you need a little break from the holiday rush and, especially, if you can use a gift of a work of art, check them out. Remember, supporting local artists and local art venues is a gift that truly keeps on giving.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Embody at Mandeville Gallery

Firelei Baez - given the ground (the fact
that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it)

acrylic and oil on canvas
There's always a mystery to strong group shows - does the curator start with a theme and then find artists that fit it, or does she start with some art she likes, and then discover the theme as it emerges? At shows like this I find myself asking, what do these artists have in common, and what brought them together? Is it taste? Meaning? Technique?

In the case of Embody, an outstanding exhibition on view at Union College's Mandeville Gallery through Jan. 19, curator Julie Lohnes has provided a number of intriguing threads to follow - and though I can't claim to have unraveled them all, it's great fun to try. She has also answered the origin question in a short essay at the front of a handsome catalog produced for the show (which the gallery provides free to visitors) - but where's the fun in that?

Chitra Ganesh - Sultana's Dream: Justice is Virtue, linocut
Going on with my search, I note that many of the ten included artists are from far-flung places - Haiti, Japan, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, and Iran among them - while those from the U.S. seem to have significant non-European ethnic ties: A strong indicator that the unifying principle of the show relates to expression of ethnic identity.

As the title implies, the works in Embody are all figurative, but the treatment of the human figure varies widely here, as does the range of techniques applied, from painting and fabric sculpture to drawing and several forms of printmaking. Still, it all pulls together, maintaining equilibrium.

One key to this delicate balance is that the overall quality of the work in the show is very high (though not perfectly consistent - a couple of pieces didn't quite hold up for me). That such a diversity of forms doesn't devolve into a mishmash is a credit to Lohnes's sharp curatorial vision. This consistency even stretches across shows - I recall, for example, one of the first shows she produced at the Mandeville was a 2014 solo by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who would have fit quite cleanly into this group.

Amir H. Fallah - The Light Within, acrylic on panel
Upon careful viewing, it becomes apparent that collage is the unifying element among this disparate swath of artists, even if most are not actually creating collages at all. The layering of images and conjunction of parts is more direct in some works, more subtle in others, but it's there, always. At the same time, there are, in equal parts, extremely vivid colors (especially in paintings by Amir H. Fallah, Firelei Baez and Didier William, in digital collages by Stacey Robinson, and in mixed-media prints by Saya Woolfalk) and superbly managed monochromes (in linocuts by Chitra Ganesh, mixed-media drawing by Simonette Quamina, and lithographs by Toyin Ojih Odutola). Being partial to neither, I enjoyed it all.

Perhaps the most difficult work in the show to grasp is a set of fabric sculptures by aricoco (Ari Tabei). These wearable pieces seem to want to be part of a performance, rather than exhibited in static poses. It was also terribly difficult to resist touching their multifarious textures and fasteners. Woolfalk's mixed-media digital prints struck me as the most accessible, with their seductively contemporary palette and smooth inkjet surfaces. The most compelling pieces in the show for me were two monumental drawings by Quamina that include torn assemblage and raw, textural graphite rubbings (a technique we all know from childhood that's not often seen in fine art). I also got a kick out of Robinson's slick Afrofuturist collages, which most literally exemplify the curator's stated source of inspiration for assembling this collection of artists.

In all, it's a hugely pleasurable and engrossing exhibition that's sure to compel a couple of good trips around the Mandeville's unique circular gallery space, housed inside an extraordinary building at the center of campus, the Nott Memorial.

William Didier - Kochon Sa a Lou / This Pig is Heavy

collage, acrylic and wood stain on panel





Saturday, November 23, 2019

Quick Take: Ken Ragsdale at LGAP and Upstate Invitational at Laffer Gallery

Ken Ragsdale - A New Crop 2018, digital photograph
Two shows worth a look are going to end soon - maybe you can find a way to squeeze them in around the holiday crush.

Ken Ragsdale: Memory as Process Revisited, at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery through Dec. 6, is a mini-retrospective of one of the Capital Region's best-liked artists. Ragsdale is popular for several reasons, but that doesn't mean his work isn't challenging.

This collection of about 20 pieces includes a few earlier works, among them a charming tiny drawing from 1984, but the core of the show is a strong series of more recent, large framed photographs made in Ragsdale's signature style, in which he creates elaborate sets in white paper, then bathes them in washes of colored light before recording them with a camera. Ragsdale is drawing from visual memories of his childhood in the rural Northwest to create strikingly concrete (yet dreamlike) scenes of subtle, slow destruction.

This show is a great opportunity to get a sense of Ragsdale's process while enjoying a larger group of his work than has been exhibited in the area in quite some time.

Audrie Sturman
Vine 4, clay
In Schuylerville, Eric Laffer has accomplished the nearly impossible feat of keeping a fine art gallery going for about eight years, and his effort shows no signs of flagging. The Laffer Gallery is a beautiful space that consistently hosts strong shows of work by mostly regional artists, with a mix of painting, sculpture, ceramics, prints, and photography. The artists in the gallery's 7th Upstate Invitational, currently on view through Dec. 1, were selected by juror Laura Von Rosk from last year's annual juried group show at Laffer, an interesting arrangement whereby Laffer has delegated curatorial choice within his own space (this year's juried show, selected by Jon Gernon, will open on Dec. 7).

The featured artists, Fern Apfel, Robyn Morgan Giddings, and Audrie Sturman, hang well together, as all place great emphasis on form and color. Giddings and Apfel are painters with direct or indirect elements of paper collage, while Sturman is a ceramic sculptor working at a notably large scale for her medium. Sturman's many tower-like structures in this show are muscular and brash, with great textures and brightly glazed or painted surfaces.

Robyn Morgan Giddings
Stuffed 2, mixed media on canvas
Among the three, I am most impressed by Apfel, who I've followed for a long time, and who seems in recent years to have burst through into a marvelous world of abstraction. In her layered images, old-time ephemera are given new life with the vibrant colors of today. Nearly photographic realism contrasts with built-up areas and edges of paint to create complexity in these compositions.

Giddings' flat, often patterned painting approach emphasizes simplified interior elements (usually furniture) and combines them with photographic prints depicting items of clothing or flowers. I found this work rather decorative, and indeed it seems to be quite intentionally and unashamedly so. Overall, the Invitational is a highly appealing display in a very sophisticated, yet welcoming space. If you love art and haven't been to Laffer Gallery yet, you are long overdue.

Fern Apfel - The Monkey Applauds, acrylic and pen on board