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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Recommended: MHR Invitational at ACG

Four very diverse artists are in this year's Mohawk Hudson Regional Invitational at ACG 
One of the best shows each year at Albany Center Gallery is the annual invitational drawn from the Mohawk Hudson Regional. It's a cool idea we don't see often enough: Gallery representatives visit the big juried show and make notes on whose work they'd like to see more of, then ACG organizes an exhibition of those select picks.

This year's MHRI at ACG includes four very diverse artists in terms of medium, style - even age - and that's a good thing. As I am one of the gallery's board members and the chair of the exhibits committee, I was involved in the selection process - so this won't be a review. Instead, I will simply recommend the show and suggest you include it in your 1st Friday plans on May 6, when the artists' reception will be held from 5 pm to 8 pm.

The four included artists are Fern Apfel, Jess Ayotte, Roger Bisbing and Thomas Huber.  Apfel makes works on paper that build geometrically abstract designs from black-and-white words and painted colors. Ayotte is a young photographer working in traditional silver-based media. Bisbing has long standing locally as a maker of meticulously crafted dioramas. And Huber creates free-flowing visual diaries of mixed media.

Their outstanding bodies of work will hang intermingled in this installation; though each pursues a distinct path to image making, the gallery's director, Tony Iadicicco, envisions the show as an integrated whole. The 2016 Mohawk Hudson Regional Invitational opens Friday, May 6, and will run through June 12. Go and enjoy!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spotlight on Abraham Ferraro and Hudson Valley Seed Packs at ACCR

Abraham Ferraro has redefined "mail art" with his sculptural installations
For a fun and very colorful experience, check out the solo retrospective of sculptor Abraham Ferraro and the annual show of Hudson Valley Seed packs at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy through Sunday, April 24.

Ferraro began making mailable sculptures out of corrugated cardboard in 2008, when he sent a roughly cubical piece about the size of a lunchbox to himself. This act may or may not have been unique or groundbreaking - but it was not in the well-known tradition of "mail art," wherein the art goes inside an envelope or on a postcard, and it started something big and creative for Ferraro.

Since that start, Ferraro has built up an ever-growing body of work constructed out of geometrically shaped and increasingly colorful modules, all of which were shipped intact from the post office to galleries, where they are assembled like a whacked-out erector set. The exhibition Every Which Way, which fills the Arts Center's main gallery, adds new units and re-creates years' worth of past projects that retain their original shipping labels (including that very first one).

It's a joyous romp through Ferraro's inventively restless oeuvre - carnivalesque, yet formalist. The show also includes a couple of the artist's electrical inventions and some flatter art that has also been shipped, in which bright postal labels combine with printed images to make a picture.

Also on view, in the Wallace + Foyer Galleries, is the Art of the Heirloom exhibition of original art that was commissioned for seed packs sold by the Hudson Valley Seed Library and makes an annual touring exhibition (co-sponsored by Capital Roots). The art is very diverse, yet consistently excellent and beautiful, while the seed packs are extraordinary examples of highly aesthetic graphic design. Seen together, they get you thinking about the ways images are transformed by context.

The show was such a pleasure, it inspired us to pick up a pack of striped cherry tomato seeds for our garden (from the Honest Weight Food Co-op), an unusual result of a Sunday afternoon art excursion.

Rainbow Chard, oil on canvas by Sheryl Humphrey, from Art of the Heirloom

Sunday, April 10, 2016

In Brief: Formation Proposal by Susan Meyer at Lake George Arts Project

Detail view of Shaft, laser cut acrylic, H-O scale figures, and aluminum
Several times now I've seen one or two of Susan Meyer's tiny, fantastical utopias and, every time, they fascinate. So I couldn't bear to miss her solo show Formation Proposal at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery, in Lake George Village, which is on view only until April 15.

Meyer uses brightly colored acrylic sheets to build complex little spaces that are populated in this show by miniature nude figures. Her sense of color and form is outstanding, and she fully exploits the way light penetrates these stacks of stripes.

Susan Meyer - Shaft
Though dates were not provided for the pieces on view, they seem fresh - especially the central piece - titled Together - which is more airy than dense, with a limited palette of white, yellow and blue, and is suspended from the ceiling, so it floats as if in zero-gravity. As one gallery-goer commented during my visit, it looks like The Jetsons (a detail of it is shown at the bottom of this post). There's a playfulness here not completely opposed to that favorite 1960s cartoon - but there is also a slightly ominous dystopian feeling to the worlds Meyer creates, adding to their mystique.

A much smaller piece in the show, shaped like a rough gem, glows from the sunlight that pours in from a window right behind it (with the lake beyond). Titled Shelter Rock, it incorporates a full range of colors (as does Shaft, shown at right), but is dominated by yellow. Meyer variously uses opaque, translucent, and transparent acrylic - in Shelter Rock, the way transparent acrylic catches light and projects it from the edge is maximized.

Two other smaller pieces, titled Swimming Hole (blue) and Swimming Hole (orange), are mirror images of each other, yet appear almost completely different due to the choice of colors. Part of the fun of these simpler works is to see just how many colors (in fact, the whole rainbow) Meyer will use to make a sculpture that can still honestly be called orange.

If you can, see this show before it ends - if not, keep an eye out for Susan Meyer's work wherever it may pop up. She's definitely on to something.

Susan Meyer - detail view of Together, laser cut acrylic and H-O scale figures

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Alma Thomas at Tang Teaching Museum

Installation view of Alma Thomas at the Tang Teaching Museum.
Photo by Arthur Evans
I wonder what Alma Thomas's public school art students thought when, in 1972, their teacher - retired and elderly - became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

The idea of an artist being that important and, yet, having had to teach school all her life is far from unique, but this extreme case is certainly food for thought. Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs has, in a sense, rescued this delightful painter from obscurity a second time with a sharp, spacious presentation of about two decades' worth of her work (on view through June 5) in a show simply titled Alma Thomas.

Alma Thomas - Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses
acrylic on canvas 1969
The exhibition is certainly a revelation for me - I was only a schoolkid myself when her big show happened at the Whitney and, though I am a fan of the Washington Color School that Thomas was associated with (including such notables as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and Sam Gilliam) I had never heard of her. Featuring a few choice examples of full-on abstract expressionism at the start (and they are very beautiful), the show quickly moves from Thomas's earlier efforts to the late phase, when her talent found its full strength in a signature style of patchy vertical or horizontal stripes.

Along the way, she tried social commentary blended with abstraction, but made a decision that perfectly sums up the nature of this exhibition, described here in a quote:
Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.

Alma Thomas - Apollo 12 "Splash Down"
acrylic and graphite on canvas 1970
No wonder she faded into obscurity! For what seems like half a century, the art world writ large has grimaced at the idea that a serious painter would give any thought at all to either beauty or happiness. But maybe the tables are turning at last. If so, and if this show is some evidence of a shift in that attitude, then I am relieved and grateful.

Like many abstract artists, Thomas was not avoiding subject matter per se - in fact, she still used representation in some of her work, as in her "Space" series celebrating the Apollo missions - rather, she was transforming her direct experiences into their essences via color and brushwork.

Alma Thomas - Cherry Blossom Symphony
acrylic on canvas 1973
This was most true in certain paintings about flowers or flowering trees. A later section of the show features two such paintings, each about 4½ feet by 6 feet, that shimmer with the vibrant sensation of taking a tree-ful of blossoms square in the face (as in the painting shown at left). Another, slightly earlier piece celebrates four distinct types of garden flower, not by representing their forms, but by dissecting their colors and organizing them into marching ranks (example near top of post at left).

At first, these dabbed stripe paintings were fairly flat but, as time went on, Thomas mastered a layering technique that led to far greater depth and complexity, even as her palette narrowed. By the end, she was making monochrome images, often with a great deal of white, frequently mosaic-like rather than structured into rows, and the freedom did her good.

Alma Thomas - Deep Red Roses Chant
acrylic on canvas 1972
While the show is sparse, there is a denser section that groups 25 smaller works on paper into a lovely constellation of framed pieces hung above two glass-topped cases holding a group of matted or unmatted sketches. These are all on loan from the collection of The Columbia Museum in Columbia, Georgia, which was Thomas's home town, and to which her family donated the sketchbooks. It is a treat to peer into such personal studies, and the opportunity should not be missed by artists who love to sketch - it will inspire them.

Kudos to the co-curators of Alma Thomas: Ian Berry, director of the Tang, and Lauren Haynes of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Though Thomas died in 1978, here she has been brought vividly back to life at a time when we sorely need as much beauty and happiness as we can find.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at the Tang Teaching Museum.
Photo by Arthur Evans

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bring on the Madness!

Players for the #15 seed Middle Tennessee State basketball team celebrate
their first-round upset of #2 seed Michigan State in the NCAA tournament.
photo from USA Today
Those who know me know I am crazy about basketball.

Not so much as a fan: First, I'd rather play than watch; second, I don't follow any particular team; and, unlike about half of the American population, I have never filled out a bracket.

But then there is March Madness. Even the most casual observers can't avoid the annual fever that overtakes the country, as NCAA basketball goes all out for its national tournament, and everybody is talking about Cinderellas, dynasties, and bracket-busters.

Recent years have seen the Madness get better and better, as lesser-known programs build success on the regional level and then shock the college hoops world with surprising runs to the second and third rounds of the tournament (or beyond). Despite the politics behind selection and seeding, and the inherent unfairness of the bracket system that always pits the highest-ranked teams against the lowest-ranked ones, parity and upsets are becoming wonderfully common.

Sports at this level are always fun to watch, whatever the game, because you see top talent giving it their very best for high stakes. The built-in drama of the madness of March adds emotion and excitement to the experience, and generates great stories. For me, whether it's hockey, soccer, golf, tennis, or baseball - men or women - playoff sports are always worth watching (even football, which never quite holds my attention otherwise).

But hoops is the best. And here's why:
  1. Constant action (also offered by hockey and soccer)
  2. A lot of scoring (the lack of which is the chief drawback of the other two sports named in #1)
  3. Whole team involved in almost every play
  4. All players must contribute on both offense and defense
  5. Time pressure
  6. Skills, skills, skills (you can specialize in basketball, say as a three-point shooter, but nowhere near as much as in baseball and football)
  7. Sheer athletic ability (ever seen a hoopster with a huge gut?)
As I am a reluctant TV viewer (who, by personal decision, watched none at all from 1971 through 1984, and have never subscribed to cable), it takes a lot to make me sit on the couch for more than a half-hour - something like Breaking Bad, or Downton Abbey - but I'll sit there today for hours, just as I did yesterday and the day before, and the night before that getting way too little sleep for a proper Friday at work, and I'll do it again next weekend, and so on. Until the Madness ends.

Because it's that good.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

38th Annual Photography Regional

A view of the 38th Annual Photography Regional at Fulton Street Gallery
At the age of 38, the Photography Regional has come full circle. Originally conceived as a counterpoint to the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, which did not accept photography until the early '90s, the Photo Regional has always been popular with professionals, artists, amateurs, professors, and students; and it has always made a splash with audiences, and in local media.

But has it evolved?

The current iteration of the show, at Fulton Street Gallery in Troy through April 2, looks and feels eerily like the earliest Photo Regionals - it was mounted this year first as an all-inclusive salon, and then as a juror selection (following the original format); it includes a significant number of the same names that participated in it way back then; the prints and images, though mainly produced with digital technology, look a lot like prints and images of the '70s; and it is in the same city as the first Photo Regional (which was hosted by the Rensselaer County Council on the Arts, now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region).

Frank Rapant - After the Fire 4, archival inkjet
This year, juror Dan Burkholder chose 86 pictures by 70 or so artists from 265 initial submissions. Because the show was mounted in traditional fashion as a salon, with all entries on view, the entries had to be submitted in finished form (as opposed to digitally) and this year the deadline was unusually early (the show typically opens in the early spring). These factors no doubt had an impact on what was submitted - people had to be ready in a hurry - and probably caused more than a few regular participants to miss out.

That said, I think it's a good thing to require finished entries for two reasons:

  1. It allows the judge to see and choose exactly what is being presented, likely avoiding unpleasant surprises from work that looked way better in a slide than in a frame
  2. It somewhat limits the entrants to people who are regularly making and finishing work - as distinct from those who maybe only knock out a few pictures a year to submit to annual shows - possibly raising the bar a bit
I also like the salon idea - even if it's crowded and messy, the opportunity for the public to see everything that was submitted, perhaps making their own judgments about what's best, and then see a show selected by a professional, is always rich. The annual Fence Show, sponsored by the ACCR, also follows this format, and it's a treat.

Dan McCormick - Robbie 6-27-15
pinhole camera digital pigment print 
On the other hand, this year's judge was way too nice. He included a lot of work that shouldn't have made the cut, and was therefore unable to include a lot of multiple pictures (i.e. bodies of work) by the better individual artists. The result is a show that is double- or triple-hung and runs all over the place stylistically, with just 10 or so people having more than one piece on view. I've said it before: In art, democracy is not a good thing. Even the strongest work loses its potency when surrounded by too many other, lesser works.

While the Photo Regional is always going to be broad-based and inclusive, it also should present the region's photographers - whichever ones submit the best work each year - in a properly representative context. By that I mean it should result in a show that impresses the viewer with its quality, range, and depth. Those three adjectives succinctly and accurately describe the CApital Region's photography scene, and there's no reason the Photo Regional shouldn't emphatically reveal those strengths every year.

Laura Saffares - Which Door ... come and look
The best way to represent these qualities in a regional show is to be relentlessly selective, and then to give each of the best participating artists enough space to show a coherent body of work. That's what last year's Photo Regional judges did at the Opalka Gallery (see GV's review), and what I wish this year's judge also had done. Instead, despite a nearly heroic effort on the part of Fulton Street Director Ray Felix to install the show in his gallery's limited space, it looks amateurish.

But maybe this is what the Photo Regional ought to be. After all, things have changed tremendously in the world of photographic art, including in the Capital Region, since the first Photo Regional was mounted in 1979. Back then, it was a struggle for photography to be recognized as art; now, all the major museums collect and show it. And a great many of the best regional photographers, including a number who are part of this Regional, have shown and won top prizes in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional.

So, now that the best photographers have achieved full status in the regional and global world of art, why not leave the Photo Regional to the amateurs, the students, the up-and-comers? That's the spirit in which it was born, and may very well be its perfect future.

A view of the 38th Annual Photography Regional at Fulton Street Gallery
all photos in this post provided by Nicholas Argyros of the PhotoCenter

Note: Two other excellent photography shows are currently on view in Troy. The PhotoCenter of the Capital Region (which co-hosted the Photo Regional Salon) is presenting work from North Korea and Cuba by Branson Quenzer and Juan Suarez through April 3, with a Troy Night Out reception on March 25; and The Teaching Gallery at Hudson Valley Community College is presenting color work by Monika Sosnowski and Carlos Loret De Mola through March 19.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Post-Oscar comments

Jacob Tremblay, left, and Brie Larson star in Room.
This year I did not run a "best films" post before the Academy Awards because I hadn't seen enough of the contending movies (yet) to offer much in the way of useful commentary. Sorry about that!

But I did honor my personal tradition of going to see a nominated film on Oscar night by catching the early show of Room, which received four nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress, and for which its star, Brie Larson, took home the golden statuette.

So I missed Chris Rock's opening monologue completely, which I understand did not disappoint in skewering the players on all sides of the black-artists-matter controversy. This discussion is far from over, but I'm glad at least this phase of it is behind us. Adding a lot of politics into a public process that is, still, primarily about two things - art and business - just doesn't really help. 

In the end, for whatever reason, ABC got lousy ratings (no thanks to me!), and several films, especially Mad Max: Fury Road got a boost to their bottom line. And that's what Oscar's really all about. 

Room is, in a word, harrowing. I assume the critics have been enthusiastic about the film (though I'm waiting to read reviews until after I've fully processed my own reactions), but I can see why it did not win Best Picture.

The film that did win Best Picture, Spotlight, remains my own pick as the best of 2015 (as noted here in early January), so it is gratifying to share in the surprise of its come-from-behind victory over The Revenant (which I still haven't had the strength to face). I loved two basic things about Spotlight - terrific ensemble acting and the perfect fulfillment of the old-fashioned simple formula for a great movie: A good story, well told.

I also loved the fact that Spotlight got the newsroom details right, which is the sort of thing that done wrong can very easily ruin even a really good movie for me. Having worked for years at a daily newspaper, I was anxiously scanning every scene in Spotlight for a wrong note - and it passed with a perfect grade.

Not so Room. This film also involves a depiction of journalism, as a sidebar to the main focus of the story, but with very significant impact on the arc of the film and all its characters.

What happens is that an apparently top professional television news interviewer is shown asking leading, accusatory, and inflammatory questions of the extremely fragile subject Ma, and the people supposedly there to protect her do nothing. To describe what happens next would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say things don't exactly get better for Ma.

I reacted to this scene like any audience member was supposed to - feeling angry at the bad media exploiter who used this poor young woman for ratings. Then I stepped back and realized it was the filmmaker actually doing the manipulating here - so I'll redirect that anger. I don't think this was a fair depiction of a working journalist or fair treatment of an audience that has allowed you to take them this far into the world you've created. Not OK.

Maybe this is the essential difference between working with a true story (as in Spotlight) and embarking on a dramatic foray into fiction. In the true story, the drama is what it is - you can try to present it in a ramped-up fashion or not, but you can't change the facts. And it will be the facts - the story - that ultimately convince the audience of the experience they are having. In the fictional Room, I found myself retreating from the story because it did not add up to seeming true. (There's also a throwaway performance by William H. Macy as Ma's father, who disappears with nary an explanation.)

Playing with the audience's emotions may create an effect - but, ultimately, it doesn't win them over. To accomplish that, I think you need to be better than the writer and director of Room have proven to be. As for Larson winning the Oscar - it was a brave performance by a very promising young actress. But I think Cate Blanchett was far better in Carol - and, no doubt, many others already agree.

Cate Blanchett, left, and Rooney Mara star in Carol.