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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Walter Wick at The Arkell Museum

Walter Wick New Fallen Snow 1999 from Can you See What I See? Night Before Christmas

Fact: A bald eagle flew directly over my car as my wife, Karen, and I were on our way to the Arkell Museum on Saturday. Fantasy: Something the remarkably talented Walter Wick weaves throughout his stunning photographs, which are on view at the Arkell through Feb. 15.

This was my first trip to the Arkell in some time, and I was as eager to see the new museum as I was to delve into the pranks and puzzles of Wick's work. The former Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery was built in 1927 by Bartlett Arkell, founder of the Beech-Nut Packing Company, whose important art collection and boundless community spirit formed its core. It reopened as the Arkell more than a year ago after a major reconstruction project, the completion of which was delayed by devastating floods that caused extensive damage there and throughout the neighboring counties.

Situated 50 miles from Albany (for details - including hours, which will change on Jan. 2 - click here), the new facility honors Arkell's memory by deftly incorporating the original stone structure and decorative gardens into a postmodern, almost industrial design, while retaining the small-town public library that Arkell made available to his workers across the street and the rest of Canajoharie's citizenry. A viewer-friendly display recounts the family history, bridging the conceptual chasm between the wood-paneled gallery that showcases the museum's permanent collection and the slick galleries that house changing contemporary art exhibits.

The collection, which includes a big cache of Winslow Homers and several important American Impressionists, such as William Merritt Chase and George Inness, is rightly famous and always worth a visit in itself. Among my favorites here are a luminous snow scene from 1926 by Albany's own Walter Launt Palmer and a gorgeous 1889 portrait of a Victorian young lady by Thomas Dewing titled The Letter.

The genesis of the collection is wrapped up in the Arkell family's interest in commercial art, both through direct involvement in publishing and through the marketing of Beech-Nut's products (example at right is by Cushman Parker). This makes for a surprisingly smooth transition to the studio photography of Wick, who went from Connecticut to New York City to establish himself as a commercial shooter, then returned to his home state to develop the work that would make him famous.

The chances are that you have kids and are well aware of the I Spy and Can You See What I See? books that Wick has been making since the 1990s - in which case you know that this exhibition is a must-see. If, on the other hand, you are like me - childless and scarcely aware of those books - you have even more reason to check this stuff out and be enthralled by the irresistible mix of visual fact and wild imagination that fuels Wick's work.

The exhibition, titled Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic, was organized by the New Britain Museum of American Art and includes many enlarged photographs and a number of the models from which they were made, filling three rooms in all. Between the quantity of work shown and the mind-boggling amount of detail in many of the pictures, it could take hours to try to describe even a good fraction of it. Instead, I'll point out some highlights and encourage all children and former children to get out to "Flavor Town" and see the rest for themselves.

There are three distinct components to the exhibition: The major part of it consists of the images and models from Wick's popular children's books; then there is a nice selection of earlier work that focuses more on optical illusions and is targeted to adults; finally, a group of six scientific photographs represents another of Wick's interests (example above left is a microphotograph of a snowflake). Additionally, four black-and-white landscapes show the very beginnings of Wicks photographic work. This last group makes for an interesting "what-if," as they are pretty darn good versions of the style that Ansel Adams and Minor White spread far and wide during Wick's formative years in the early '70s.

For fans already familiar with Wick, the highlight might be a sequence of pictures from 2008's Can You See What I See? On A Scary Scary Night, which is augmented by an elaborate model of the story's sleepy, creepy village. As with the rest of the show, the prints are very large (up to 5 feet across), which allows the viewer to scrutinize them for all the elusive details that give them their raison d'etre. One could easily get so involved as to pass hours in this pursuit, something not so common in the era of minute-per-masterpiece museum visits.

Comparing photo to model is a puzzle all its own, as afforded in the Scary Night room and in examples from 2003's retro-futuristic Dream Machine and the Puss 'n Boots fable. But that's nothing close to trying to wrap your mind around some of the elaborate visual puzzles that characterize Wick's magazine work from the '80s (one example, O Frabjous Mirrors, shown below, has three levels of difficulty in its search-and-find questions). Here you can see that Wick was inspired by creators as diverse as M.C. Escher, Rube Goldberg, Irving Penn, and Lewis Carroll (himself a dedicated photographer and mathemetician in addition to being the author of Alice in Wonderland).

I found the puzzle pictures and the quietly dramatic scientific still-lifes most inspiring. Wick's almost superhuman patience in creating the set-ups (even with plenty of help) and his deep understanding and application of sophisticated visual principles combine to make images that are both extraordinary and easy to access. It's no surprise that he should be popular, but that commercial appeal also raises an obvious question: Is this art?

Going back to the Arkell's history for a moment, one notes images that were made specifically to sell stuff on a grocery shelf (the happy girl eating peanut butter, above) are now shown in this museum framed in gold leaf - and they're very nicely painted, too. So Wick, straddling that imaginary line between illustration and self-expression so deftly, is therefore the perfect fit for the Arkell. His show is enjoyable, but it also challenges us to consider the differences that may make some art "commercial" while other art is "fine."

Even if you conclude that commercial art is low, Walter Wick must be credited with making it in its very highest form. Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic is an impressive testament to his outstanding level of dedication to that pursuit.

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