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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Recycled and Refashioned: The Art of Ruby Silvious at AIHA

Tea Shirts - watercolor, gouache, ink on used tea bags by Ruby Silvious
It's no secret that the greater Capital Region has long been home to a rich community of visual artists. The reasons for this are many, including location, job opportunities, cost of living, and numerous colleges and universities with strong art programs being nearby.

Most of these local artists succeed at various levels, and some are well established in other markets (such as New York City), but it's rare that one breaks out in a big way - so when that happens, it's cause for celebration. I therefore commend the Albany Institute of History & Art for doing justice to our latest local hero, Ruby Silvious, with a terrifically likeable five-year survey of her work.

I was lucky to have had the chance to visit Recycled and Refashioned: The Art of Ruby Silvious before the pandemic shut it down in late March, and I'm delighted that the museum, which has just re-opened to visitors, extended the show's run through Aug. 30, because this is a show literally everyone should try to see.

Like most successful artists, Silvious is incredibly hardworking, as evidenced by the striking quantity and range of the work in this show. But her impressive output doesn't come at the expense of quality - indeed, Silvious seems to get better the more she produces. So, while the number of works on view can be a little overwhelming (multiple viewings are advised), the repetition of many examples in her major themes serves to underscore the wonder of this artist's intensive daily practice.

That daily practice itself is a unifying theme here, as is an abiding interest in clothing (hence the fashion reference in the show's title). While Silvious employs numerous techniques, including drawing in ink, painting in watercolor and gouache, printmaking, collage, sewing - and more - the re-use of materials is an overriding methodology in her work. In addition to the used tea bags that are her claim to fame, Silvious paints on eggshells, acorns, pistachio shells, paint chip samples, leaves, stones and, yes, even paper. She also refashions packaging material into origami bras and fanciful shoes, and combines hundreds of miniature monoprints into grand kimonos.

Perhaps my favorite item in the show (among more than 200) is a ziggurat-like coil of small daily illustrations, itself featuring more than 100 separate images, which was made by drawing on an old adding-machine tape. Like a journal, it neatly and humorously represents the artist's little pleasures and worries, often recording food items (it's clear Silvious likes snacks in addition to hot beverages) and sometimes augmented with wry comments, written in flowing block letters. As I circled this looping chain of charming notations, I was dizzied as much by their seeming endlessness as by the rotating motion of my path.

Another favorite element of Recycled and Refashioned is a display of 11 artist books that date from 2015 to 2019, in which almost all of Silvious's various approaches are represented, with a few added ideas that aren't in the rest of the show (such as embroidered thread drawings of female nudes). I'm a huge fan of artist books, and I love the way Silvious gives herself the freedom to use that medium any way she likes, even hiding one of them inside a used candy tin.

In the same small gallery with these books are 18 small framed tea-bag paintings on the theme of museum goers. These incorporate tiny renderings of famous works of art, as viewed by figures outlined in black ink. I couldn't tell for sure whether the little paintings were somehow copied (say by digital printing) or actually painted by the artist - but either way, they work to draw us in to join our miniature fellow museum goers.

Though Silvious has omnivorous tastes in subject matter (I noted landscapes, architecture, other art, tea - of course, fruits and vegetables, flowers, birds, and people), her biggest obsession does seem to be fashion, and her biggest pieces in the show are full scale and (it seems) wearable, including two paper dresses and four kimonos. The origami bras number around 20, and there are 40 individual shoes made of paper, each a joyful explosion of feminine energy.

Still, the heart and soul of this exhibition is embodied in the paintings on tea bags - more than 60 in frames and more than 75 unframed in vitrines that I counted back in March. Additionally, it was recently announced that a series of 14 new tea bag paintings that Silvious made while under quarantine have been added to the show (and to the permanent collection of the Institute) since then.

There is a very nicely produced video in the first gallery that shows Silvious's process of making these paintings - from steeping the tea to the final multicolored work of art - and it brings home just how home-grown her art really is. The fact that it has carried her on fellowships to Japan, France, Italy, and all over the world in three published monographs, just shows how universally appealing this simple discovery became.

If it was just about the great ideas - re-using everyday materials, modifying junk-food wrappers, combining hundreds of prints into a kimono, or trimming a leaf with scissors - Silvious's work would be interesting. What makes it lasting is the strenuous dedication to craft, and the personal investment of her inner self that Silvious has brought to the unassuming process of making art from daily existence. This show represents a significant achievement by a local artist who's earned it. Let's celebrate that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part III)

Installation view of Willard Boepple show at Pamela Salisbury Gallery
photo by Peter Crabtree
When I heard galleries were starting to emerge from the pandemic darkness and open their doors again to visitors, I beat a path to Hudson, which has the busiest gallery scene in our region. A friend there had made me aware of a large show by Rodney Alan Greenblat at Hudson Hall, and we were able to wangle our way in even though it was early in the week (it's open afternoons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays by timed entry to avoid overcrowding, with guided group tours at 4 p.m. each day).

Lemon Eye Home Rainbow Device
by Rodney Alan Greenblat
Though I was already a bit familiar with Greenblat's painting, this was a revelation in that the show features several very big sculptural pieces from decades past, along with a profusion of very recent work, most of it in two dimensions. Being highly productive hasn't hurt Greenblat at all - the quality is remarkably consistent - and he is clearly having a whole lot of fun, not surprising from an artist whose greatest success involves creating children's books, cartoon characters, and video games.

Many of Greenblat's pieces include a sort of avatar called Lemon Eye, whose cheerfulness seems undiminished by wisdom. I think we can all use some of that right now, and I absolutely loved the show, which is entitled Something to Look Forward To. It continues through Aug. 23.

Pamela Salisbury Gallery was my other primary target on this mission, because it used to be John Davis Gallery, which was always my favorite in Hudson (not meant as a knock on the many other worthy galleries there!) and which I hadn't seen yet under the new owner's management.

Fence 5.2.20 BB, 2020 - screenprint by Willard Boepple
Pamela proved to be as gracious as her predecessor, and the space is virtually unchanged (phew!). So is the quality of the work on view, in this instance four separate solo shows that maintain a high standard and will satisfy anyone's need for rich colors. I particularly liked the screenprint variations in a show by Willard Boepple that is presented on two floors in the main gallery. Boepple also offers a terrific series of neo-Constructivist sculptures, some of them in small-scale 3D-printed versions that are quite charming. Boepple is a colorist of the first order, and this show is not to be missed.

It Won't Rain, 2020
watercolor on paper by Maud Bryt
In the gallery's rear carriage house, a multi-level barn-like structure, Maud Bryt, Richard Kalina, and Ying Li each have a floor to spread out in. Of those, I was most drawn to Bryt's subtle, suggestive watercolors that reflect actual sites and landscapes, but feel more like interior journeys. All four shows will run through July 26.

I also visited Carrie Haddad Gallery, where Jeri Eisenberg, Louise Laplante, Allyson Levy, and Lori Van Houten are joined in a group show entitled Natural Worlds. Though unified by the theme, this group of four is very disparate in style and media, offering a likely match in taste to a broad range of art lovers. My choice would be Eisenberg's ethereal enlargements of flowers and leaves (see image at end of this post). The show continues through July 26 has been extended through Aug. 9.

Shelter, 2020 - gouache by Jenny Kemp
The Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery just reopened on Saturday, July 11, with a solo show of paintings by Jenny Kemp, a favorite artist of mine for years, who I recently reviewed as part of a group show at Carrie Haddad. Her Lake George exhibition features a hefty swath of brand-new work, and continues through Aug 14.

The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls has announced it will re-open on Saturday, Aug. 1, by appointment only. Visits will be limited to seniors and high-risk individuals from 10 a.m. to noon, then will allow the general public from 1 to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday each week.

The National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa has re-opened, and its Jan Rutland Artists' Space currently features a show that had just been mounted when the shutdown hit. A is for Abstract in the Adirondacks! is open from 10-4, Tuesday through Saturday, through Aug. 1.

Also in the northern zone of the Capital Region, Schuylerville's Laffer Gallery re-opened on June 13, leading the charge with a typically classy three-person show featuring Robert Moylan, Tracy Helgeson, and Regina Wickham. A Cultivated Vision will continue there through July 26.

Acacia No. 3, 2018, Japanese Kozo paper infused with encaustic by Jeri Eisenberg

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part II)

Vanderbilt Estate, Hyde Park, New York, part of the Fenimore Art Museum's 
Blue Gardens: Photographs by Steve Gross and Susan Daley
As New York State’s Phase 4 of reopening kicks into gear, many major museums are getting there, too.

After months of utter drought, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown has led the charge, and is open now (as of Friday, July 3), with a slate of new shows, and reduced admission rates.

Next up will be the three biggest draws in the Berkshires: MASS MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, and the Norman Rockwell Museum. They issued a joint announcement that they’d be open with reduced capacity (per Massachusetts guidelines), controlled by timed-entry reserved tickets, beginning next weekend (July 11 for MASS MoCA, July 12 for the others).

A quote from the news release, credited to the museums’ three directors, hits just the right note:
“We strongly believe in the restorative power of art and cannot wait to share our galleries and grounds with our guests.”

Amen to that!

Additionally, the Albany Institute of History & Art has announced it will reopen on July 25 (better late than never). Watch this space for an upcoming review of the outstanding solo exhibition by Ruby Silvious that I viewed at the Institute shortly before the pandemic shutdown.

Meanwhile, according to the Glens Falls Post Star, the Hyde Collection “may open” in August, and a recent Daily Gazette report notes that Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum has no projected reopening date. Neither does the Williams College Museum of Art, which plans to resume operations when the college restarts in the fall, but will remain closed to the public even then.

These are among the best museums around, and will continue to be greatly missed until they find a path to reopening. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Until then, though, we have a lot of fresh exhibitions to get out and see this summer. Make the most of it, and please support these vital regional institutions.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part I)

Nurse Patricia (Nurse Patti)
gouache on paper
Whether by appointment only, masked and sanitized, or take a number and wait, greater Capital Region galleries are starting to re-open with fresh shows, and it feels good to be let in the door.

I recently visited Albany Center Gallery, where two solo shows have been mounted, each with a particularly poignant place in our current historic moment.

Steve Derrick, a video game developer by trade, took inspiration from the global coronavirus pandemic to create scores of gem-like portraits of front-line healthcare workers, many of whom have already received the portraits as gifts from the artist.

Nurse Ema
Stanford Health Care, San Francisco, CA
gouache on paper
Half the gallery space is devoted to a fine set of 30 of these works, all about 6 by 8 inches vertical, hung unframed on little clipboards in a continuous line where we can confront and examine them at eye level.

This works perfectly, as many of them feature the subject face-on, giving direct eye contact. Whether behind masks, goggles, and face shields, or uncovered, the individual faces depicted have a powerful presence. Not insignificant is the fact that, in this selection, only three of the workers depicted are men, and the majority are people of color. This is who we rely on to save our lives every day.

Derrick, a highly skilled painter in gouache, applies a masterful touch to his brushed-on colors, often creating beautiful passages of pure paint where the subjects' colorful clothing is involved, and in equally rich areas depicting skin. His doctors and nurses often bear glaringly apparent PPE marks, along with bloodshot, sometimes tear-filled eyes.

But it's not all anguishing, as many of the workers also display their fierce humanity in the form of deep, searching, compassionate stares that, when you step in closer, drill right through you.

Entitled Healing: Portraits of the Pandemic, Derrick's show is not to be missed, as much for its artistic skill as for its emotional honesty.

Duane Ivan Todman at work
Duane Ivan Todman, a young painter whose life was tragically cut short in May, is the subject of a memorial exhibition in the other half of the gallery that highlights his finished works along with many sketches or works in progress (please scroll down to see my previous post for a fuller story and two of Todman's exquisite images).

While the literal fact of this show's existence is nothing short of heartbreaking, I believe Todman would be proud of the result, which is entitled Shining Light. I knew Duane, and was deeply moved by the experience of viewing his work on display. I think you will be, too, whether you knew him or not. Both shows continue at the gallery at 488 Broadway in downtown Albany through July 18.

A celebration of Todman's life will take place in a small park outside the gallery from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 11. Tickets purchased here with a $10 donation to the Duane X Arts Foundation are required in order to attend.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

In Memoriam: Duane Ivan Todman

A recent unfinished self-portrait by Duane Todman
It is with great sadness that I recount the death of Duane Ivan Todman, a 27-year-old multi-talented artist who was shot by an unknown assailant in Schenectady last Saturday.

Duane and I became acquainted two or three years ago when we met during a reception at Albany Center Gallery. He struck me immediately as an unusually serious person who was deeply thoughtful and very dedicated to his artistic pursuits. He showed an interest in having input from me, and we proceeded to talk from time to time about his pursuit of a career as a neo-Renaissance painter.

One of those talks took place in his studio at The Barn in Albany, where Duane also lived. Having lived in my own studio for many years when I was younger, this was a very comfortable experience, leavened with philosophical discussion and casual critique of his current work, which included portraits, still lifes, and figures.

Duane made great progress in his technique during the few years I knew him, and regularly told me he was seeking the right studio school in which to hone his skill. Apparently, he was about to realize that next step in his dream, as an obituary in today's Times Union reports that Duane had won a scholarship to the Academy of Realist Art Boston, and was set to go there next year.

Duane also was reported to have been working on a book, a screenplay, and musical recordings.

In our last email communications, which took place in March, Duane mentioned the book project and asked me if I'd be willing to read a first draft, to which I enthusiastically agreed; however, he hadn't yet followed up on that, so I never learned what the book was about.

At that time, he also sent me images of two paintings, one finished and one in progress, which I include with this post. As you can see, they are both excellent. Based on the strength of these paintings, I initiated an attempt to connect Duane with a New York City-area dealer of African American painters, but that had not yet borne fruit - perhaps stalled by the intensity of the pandemic in that area.

Now, with one brutal and senseless act, all that promise is gone, and we are left to grapple with the loss of this fine young man. One can only hope that Duane's killer is brought swiftly to justice, and that his family can temper their grief. May he forever rest in peace.

A recent figurative painting by Duane Todman

Monday, May 18, 2020

My favorite musician

Corinne Bailey Rae performs on a recent tour.
If Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell had a baby, she would be Corinne Bailey Rae.

This British singer-songwriter is that unique, and that good.

I became an instant fan in 2006, while watching the great and too-short-lived TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which Howie Mandel, portraying himself as the guest host of a fictional Saturday Night Live-type show, introduced Bailey Rae as the episode's guest musical artist. As she launched into Like a Star, the camera only lingered on Bailey Rae for about 10 seconds before pulling back to the drama of the program's fictional characters. But, by then, I was totally hooked.

Debut album cover
Sure, I wasn't alone - that year's debut album launched two big hits (Like a Star and Put Your Records On), got a bunch of nominations, and sold millions of copies, as did her second album, The Sea, from 2010. Eventually she won a couple of Grammys, one for a Mitchell song she recorded with Herbie Hancock, and several of her songs make up the soundtrack of the film Venus, in which Peter O'Toole created a role that nearly won him the Best Actor Oscar he so richly deserved throughout his career but never won.

Album #2: The Sea
Still, she is greatly underappreciated. This may be due to the challenge of today's extremely individualized or (conversely) overgeneralized commercial music market. Wikipedia has Bailey Rae categorized in the R&B and neo soul genres - as close as you're going to get, but far from the complete picture. She is really not a soul singer, but being bi-racial (and therefore perceived as black) probably pushes that label forward; neither is she a folk singer, but you could just as easily go there.

Third album cover
Maybe uncategorizable, but I'd probably choose pop as the nearest description, because it captures the infectiousness of her every song, and it's vague enough not to exclude the variations in style she easily embraces. Her lyrics have poetry, and charm, and bite. Her tunes are often atmospheric, though more than a few are also totally danceable. What it comes down to is that nearly impossible feat: She is an original.

I think Bailey Rae's third album, 2016's The Heart Speaks in Whispers, is even better than the other two, not a surprise for an artist of great talent who takes long breaks between releases. I find myself still listening to it often, and still getting new feelings from it each time. Live, she exudes a joy that is absolutely radiant, yes, like the sun. If you want to see what I mean, check out this NPR tiny desk concert.

I'm in awe. Just wanted to share that!

Bailey Rae performs at NPR in 2016

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A modest proposal

It's April 2020, and the top subject on just about everyone's mind is how to reopen the U.S. economy while maintaining a safe environment in relation to the novel coronavirus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has set May 15 as the date to begin this process in New York state, with many limits sure to remain in place, and careful decisions to be made on which businesses or services should restart.

My big question is: Where will art museums and galleries fit into this plan?

I think they should be among the first businesses to reopen, for the following reasons:

  1. We are all starving for culture and entertainment, and art exhibitions are a great way to feed that need
  2. It requires very little on-site staff to open an exhibition space
  3. As with other essential businesses, such as supermarkets or hardware stores, necessary protocols like sanitizing surfaces and the wearing of masks would be simple to implement in most exhibition spaces
  4. Apart from major events, such as opening receptions, most exhibition spaces do not attract large crowds - so it would be relatively easy to enforce and maintain social distancing inside and outside these spaces (city museums that do attract large crowds would need to manage them more intensively, though the current lack of tourism would significantly reduce that load)
  5. Touching the art is generally a no-no anyway, so there would be very little opportunity for transmission of the virus via people's hands, but museum shops and coat checks may need to remain closed to minimize that risk
  6. Museums that charge admission depend on those funds to stay alive, and need to again allow visitors in order to stem the bleeding as soon as possible so they don't go belly up
  7. Nonprofit and for-profit galleries that don't charge admission need to keep their physical presence in the public eye (online just doesn't cut it) - otherwise, their sources of revenue will soon dry up and leave them insolvent

We desperately need the lift that art provides, and we can't afford to lose these vital community resources for all time. With these thoughts in mind, I propose that Gov. Cuomo seriously consider adding museums and galleries to the list of businesses that may reopen their doors when the next phase of New York on Pause is implemented.

UPDATE, 5/9/20: The New York Times reported on May 8 that upstate museums could be allowed to open sooner than those downstate, in the third phase of re-openings (along with restaurants, but still behind some retail) rather than the fourth (which includes entertainment). You can read it here.