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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Legacies of Abstraction at Massry Gallery

It took me a while, but I finally made it to the beautiful Esther Massry Gallery at the College of Saint Rose, where a fine three-person exhibition titled Legacies of Abstraction will hang through March 22. The artists are all New York-based and all show at a Chelsea gallery called Danese, so it's not surprising that they work well together.

Still, it's a diverse offering that I think will appeal to different tastes differently. One of the artists, Theresa Chong (her work shown above is titled Tarantella), presents medium-sized, monochromatic works on paper that are both highly complex and very subtle. Some are like a negative image, with white marks set against an indigo background. Those resemble views of the cosmos, while the grey-on-white images could almost be aerial perspectives of large cities or perhaps ant colonies.

Chong's drawings are worked on both sides, taking advantage of the translucency of the Japanese rice paper to create delicate changes in density, and overlaying marks upon marks in a way that couldn't be done directly. This technique also brings an element of chance into the mix, which helps to alleviate an otherwise perhaps too obsessive feel to the work. It is important to note that Chong is also a cellist; music is clearly an inspiration for the work, as is reflected in its sweeping and staccato rhythms and the artist's titles.

Katia SantibaƱez produces graphite drawings, hand-colored etchings, and acrylics on wood, which are all hand-worked but don't look like they are. Some of her forms clearly derive from plants and other natural sources, but they are organized into tight grids such that they surrender their nature to a mechanistic overlay.

It is impressive that an artist can apply hand technique so mechanically, but the resulting pictures left me cold. Even the paintings (one is shown above, at right) feel machine-made, with no surface texture and repetitive overall shapes. They do have nice color, though not enough to warm my heart.

Fortunately, the third artist in the show, Warren Isensee, has color to spare. His pencil drawings, gouaches on paper, and oils on canvas range in size from just a few inches across to 10 feet long, but they remain remarkably consistent.

Trained in architecture, the painter brings an exuberance to highly structured compositions of stripes that he says intend "to capture light and contain it in a kind of perpetual motion field that ... gently pulsates ... . No batteries required."

The largest piece in the show (Body and Soul, shown below) does seem to fulfill this goal, with energy left over. Despite its painstaking technique and a relentless symmetry, I found Isensee's whole body of work terrifically fun to look at; invoking op art, but with a contemporary sense of whimsy, it lit up the whole room.

If, like me, you missed the previous show of the great Judy Pfaff at the Massry, take heart. Her installation Wild Rose remains on view in the "vertical gallery" space through May 8. It is a whirling maelstrom of sculptural and painterly debris, created in an intense process of 13 days and nights by Pfaff and Saint Rose students, that must be entered and moved within to be fully appreciated.

Additionally, in the brightly lit colonnade area outside the gallery there are works on view by three of the college's art faculty. Portrait paintings by Scott Brodie, drawings by Gina Occhiogrosso, and photographs by Rob O'Neil provide a nice window into the type and quality of artist who teaches in the program there. All three are worth budgeting extra time to check out.

Final note: the Massry Gallery participates in Albany's First Friday activities, so don't forget you can take the shuttle up there this week to see it.

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