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Saturday, March 28, 2020

What will the exhibition spaces do?


When The New York Times published its seasonal special section on museums on Friday, March 13, it was already too late. That day, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared a national emergency, and venues all over the country set about shutting their doors until further notice.

Browsing through those pages, I fought back tears to see brilliant shows at fabulous exhibition sites advertised in gorgeous displays, some of them two pages wide. Uncountable donor dollars spent, staff hours worked, plans made, contracts drawn up, masterpieces shipped - and now, none of it even visitable.

It's a tragedy our national media are too busy to make much comment on, though one article printed in the Daily Gazette that caught my eye was perhaps the saddest note of all: An unprecedented coming together of works by the Italian Renaissance master Raffaello, which opened on March 5 at the Scuderie del Quirinale Museum in Rome, was cloaked in darkened silence three days later, representing losses to that institution and its partners of hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in missed admissions.

Closer to home, every museum and gallery is closed indefinitely. I could barely count all the emails I've received announcing these measures, from top venues like Chesterwood, The Hyde Collection, the Albany Institute of History & Art, and MASS MoCa, as well as college and commercial galleries like the Massry at Saint Rose, the Opalka at Sage, Carrie Haddad in Hudson and Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville. And many more. Our own Albany Center Gallery (I'm the treasurer there) is lucky in a sense, as the current show was being installed at the time of the widespread shutdown and wasn't set to open until March 31 - but now it seems unlikely it will ever open to the public.

As short as this post is, I've struggled for two weeks to get it written.

Because, what can I say? How do you respond to such circumstances when your whole life and that of most of your friends has revolved around making and presenting art in physical form and three-dimensional space? It's an irrevocable loss.

To be fully realized, the visual art experience requires direct interaction between art and viewer - and we can't have that right now. Institutions the world over that give body and soul to make these experiences possible, and that barely survive even in the best of times, are now in very deep trouble.

I feel for these institutions, and I especially feel for the artists whose opportunities have suddenly transformed into obstacles. Careers will be interrupted - even derailed - by this event. Some will never recover (imagine a young musician, whose first significant gig just got canceled - will they ever get a shot like that again?). It's heartbreaking.

Many of these institutions are (naturally) seeking and finding creative ways around the problem. Most are putting their collections, past shows, or current shows online to be viewed virtually. My best suggestion is to think of the venues you like best (or have always wanted to visit) and go to their websites now. Enjoy the content they are providing with today's limited means. Go back again and again as they add to their creative offerings.

And, then - please - seriously consider making a donation. They need you now more than ever.

Monday, March 9, 2020

DEAR DAVID / HI JAN: Brickman & Galligan discuss film

In an editorial recently published at Nippertown, David and Capital Region expat Jan Galligan discuss the film 1917 through a series of emails. The piece is also being published in print in the Puerto Rican journal En Rojo (pending translation into Spanish).

Here's a taste of their discussion:

David:
Thanks for sending your Nippertown article with your selections for The Best of 2019. We enjoyed your take on all the films being considered for the 2020 Academy Awards and agree with your selection of 1917 as one the best films of last year.

Here’s our interpretation of that Sam Mendes movie:
The first half of the film, until the main character is shot and the screen goes black (for a significantly long time) is all real, it actually happens.
The second half of the film, when he “wakes up” after that long blackout, all takes place in his imagination ... 

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

William Stone "Apperception" at Hudson Hall

Seated and Seatless 2006
Serendipity was my friend a week ago when I was in Hudson on a Tuesday for business unrelated to art, but ended up seeing a really cool art show anyway. Galleries aren't generally open at that time of the week in weekender-centric Hudson, but Hudson Hall was, and William Stone's solo show there proved to be worth the trip by itself.

Entitled Apperception, this collection of nearly 30 works spans the past decade (with a few earlier pieces) and provides a good range of freestanding and wall-mounted examples of this very witty sculptor's output. Working mostly in wood, Stone likes to play games with our perceptions by transforming familiar objects and materials with both dry and playful attitudes.

Some of the wall pieces use found paintings as their foundation, combining respect and irreverence in equal measure to elevate such mundane objects into something more. These include Orogeny, where a mountainscape has been jigsawed so it pops off the wall, and Signatures, a favorite piece of mine in which Stone has excised and lovingly reframed a constellation of just the signatures from half-a-dozen or so garage-sale paintings.

Live Edge Out 2018
Other wall works feature unfinished bark or slabs of lumber as the picture itself, flush-mounted or framed suitably in raw wood. These sculptures were not equally successful, but they all have the quality of making the viewer see something freshly, a worthy purpose for a piece of art. The rest of Stone's work in this exhibition (all of it freestanding) accomplishes that same goal quite neatly.

I should stop for a moment here to note that Stone is not just playing - he executes each piece with consummate craftsmanship, creating cleanly finished objects that use the qualities of fine woodcraft to mimic functionality, while simultaneously undermining it.

Fall Line 1991
So when Stone transforms three nondescript wooden chairs into one extraordinary one, by slicing them apart and reassembling them, you end up with a perfect illustration of the cliché "greater than the sum of its parts." And you can still sit on it.

Other altered chairs make up a good part of the rest of the show, along with more complex pieces of furniture apparently built from scratch. Another favorite of mine shown here is among the most recent - Stair Share, from 2019, evokes an Escher illusion, but it's neither illusory nor impossible. Rather, it is both pointless and potentially handy - a clever bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary on our fascination with finely crafted objects and their uses.

I enjoy Stone for his simplicity - or directness - and for his sly sense of humor. You will, too.

Hudson Hall (aka Hudson Opera House) is in the middle of Warren Street and is open every day. The exhibition runs through March 15.

Stair Share 2019

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.