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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sculpture in the Streets

It's just like a treasure hunt. First, you pick up a map at the Downtown Albany BID office at 522 Broadway, or download it from their website at; then, pop down on a weekend, or get yourself a nice, long lunch break - and start walking.

Your search is for 16 sculptures recently placed along city streets and in pocket parks by the BID under the guidance of Exhibition Coordinator Janis Keane Dorgan and her trio of curators: Sharon Bates (of the Albany Airport Gallery), Tammis Groft (Albany Institute of History & Art), and Janet Riker (University Art Museum). The installation, which will run through next April, is dubbed Sculpture in the Streets: The Art of Discovery, not only in honor of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that bears his name, but also in reference to the process of taking the walk.

I, for one, discovered a lot more than art on this little trek. Not being of the downtown worker ilk, my usual experience of the streets between City Hall and the river is of the get-in-and-get-out variety, taking care of errands in a hurry before the parking meter runs out on my car. This time, I came on my bicycle (there's a rack right in front of the BID), and strolled at a leisurely pace.

Among my newfound pleasures were things certainly well-known to downtown workers, mainly the lovely gardens and small parks that dot the zone and make for ideal bag lunch destinations. Of course, they also make pretty good spots to put sculptures, as the BID did from 1998 to 2001 with the insipid bronzes of L. Seward Johnson before taking a four-year hiatus from the project. Now, with three years of support from Kivort Steel, and thanks to the pioneering efforts of Sarah Martinez of Albany Center Gallery, they have become the haunts of the contemporary sort of art we're hunting on this tour.

Beginning at the beginning, right near the steps that lead up and over the river, is a witty piece by Mike Hansel that I first took to be a giant representation of a cow's udder in welded copper - turns out it is an even more hugely enlarged view of hair follicles, as revealed by its title, Male Balding Pattern. As a balding male, I join forces with great numbers of downtowners in the same predicament and congratulate Hansel for making our problem seem humorous - and both much bigger and much smaller than it really is.

Moving on, I opted not to cross the street, and went instead directly to Number 4, a graceful kinetic sculpture in stainless steel called Albany Wind Orchid (pictured at right). George Sherwood's more feminine update of George Rickey's style of highly engineered, wind-powered stabiles is a bewitchingly transporting piece of art that sets a high mark for this year's edition of SITS - it will prove to be a hard act to follow.

My next stop was the most perplexing: Where the heck did they hide Amy Podmore's Untitled #1? After several turns around Tricentennial Park (a really nice spot, and the permanent home of two major bronze sculptures that represent Albany's history both distant and recent), I finally looked up - and then I saw Podmore's oversized teacups, dozens of them, hanging all over the trees. An Alice in Wonderland moment, to be sure.

And so on the tour went. The process of seek-and-find continued to bear the fruits of frustration and surprise. I won't bore you by telling about each and every piece of art along the way - but here are a few more highlights, and maybe a lowlight or two as well.

Zerques - One of two large pieces by Carole Eisner in this group, this one (pictured at the top of this post) is a roller coaster in rolled steel. Was she inspired by her kid brother's Hot Wheels set? Or maybe the nearby ramps of I-787? Either way, it's a great piece of fully three-dimensional art, sited in a way that allows you to move all around it and appreciate its changes.

Corral - Pictured at the bottom of this post, this one by Ann Jon is like a box of Cracker Jack: it has a toy prize hidden inside (but you have to walk across the grass for a closer look to see it).

Same Shapes and Mosaic Tires and Muffler - These two very different pieces by Jason Middlebrook are among my favorites in the show. The latter consists of the titular car parts lovingly embellished in the traditional Middle Eastern manner, with delectable results; the former is a large installation in a garden area of shapes inspired by termite mounds that blend beautifully with the surrounding plant and rock forms. It will be fun to see how they look poking up out of the winter's snows.

Untitled 2 - Jason Karakehian's yellow exclamation point appears to aim for cartoonish delight, but for me it fell flat, not least of all due to the nearby presence of similarly yellow vertical columns that serve as protective barriers against vehicles. In the case of the barriers, form follows function, making Karakehian's piece seem lacking in either one or the other.

Missing Trees - Is it possible for sculpture to be self contradictory? If so, these cutouts by Pat Brentano are - at least as far as the siting goes - because they are surrounded by trees in both settings they occupy here. A case of concept outweighing execution.

A final note I want to add: The brochure/map that the BID created for this project contains some very helpful text (including oddly edited capsules on each sculpture). I was so impressed by their articulate endorsement of public art, as represented by the SITS project and in other art venues around town, that I reproduce it here in its entirety:

Public art is for everyone. It creates a vibrant community and forms a unique identity for Albany’s metropolitan area. Produced by artists with distinctive visions who enjoy working in a public context, these works express a diverse range of themes including environmental, architectural, functional, commemorative and humorous.

The arts are integral to downtown Albany. The impressive 92-piece Empire State Plaza Art Collection, assembled by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller has been called "the most important state collection of modern art in the country." Don’t miss the special exhibitions focusing on The Quadricentennial Celebration at the Albany Institute of History & Art; view the works of national and regional artists at the New York State Museum; browse the Albany Heritage Area Visitors Center, the Albany Center Gallery, the 1st Friday city-wide gallery openings and the E-Comm square’s abstract sculpture courtyard on South Broadway.

With numerous historical statues and monuments in Albany’s parks and public spaces, our rich environment invites you to discover 400 years of creativity.

That is excellent advice, and true.


Roger Owen Green said...

I so miss working downtown.

Lorraine Chesin said...

Thank you for writing your blog. It's a pleasure to read! You write like it is so simple for you and it comes out clear and easy to understand for the reader. I know it must take time and certainly your effort and I appreciate it !!

Unknown said...

Thank you for your creative talent in describing the 2009 Sculpture in the Streets!
I love to hear the comments of those exploring the exhibit - Albany has a wonderful, interested audience.

david brickman said...

Lorraine and Janis - Many thanks for your enthusiasm. I hope you'll keep reading Get Visual - and tell your friends! - db