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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Trojan trilogy

A lot of shows and spaces were celebrated at last Friday's Troy Night Out, including one up the hill at Emma Willard School's Dietel Gallery http://www.emma.troy.ny.us/arts/dietel_gallery.php.

That show features a trio of Sage College of Albany art faculty in an exhibition inspired by sojourns. Also a strong draw were downtown shows by John Hampshire at Clement Art Gallery http://clementart.com/ and Gail Nadeau and Katherine Wright together at Fulton Street Gallery http://fsgtroy.org/html/index.php.

Sojourns to Ireland and Italy: Marlowe, Martin and Morrell (images shown above) takes full advantage of the long, narrow Dietel space to present three artists working from the same inspirational source (sojourn vi. to live somewhere temporarily), but in diverse media. Gallery director Susan Hoffer deserves a mention for the skillful way she intermingles the show's 30 works (10 by each artist), creating a comfortable flow and interesting interactions for the viewer.

Willie Marlowe (recently retired) makes small-format, abstract, acrylic paintings in day-glo colors that are almost scientific in their forms and atmospherics. I have followed her career for a long time, and always marvel at how she remains consistent but fresh. Changes occur, usually gradually; in this show there is evidence of a slight shift toward representation.

A trio of works that hold the center of the exhibition, and form a neat group on their own as they jump from red to green to purple, include two that directly reference being underwater in their titles, while showing what that may look like: Beneath Murano and Murano Aqua Alta (Murano is an island in the Venice lagoon). Another painting nearby, Adriatic Low Tide, with its streaks of green showing through scraped black paint, is similarly literally titled. Still others reference art glass. It will be interesting to see what comes next from Marlowe.

Tim Martin is an accomplished ceramic sculptor who has created modest monuments to the rock formations he saw in the cliffs of Ireland. Martin cites architecture as another source, referring in a statement to the works as "geoarchitectural fragments." His titles are most evocative of places - The Great Skellig, Dromberg Dolman, Bolus Head and so on - but I also see human figures in some of them, particularly the latter, with its black glaze and tapered shape.

Martin's work has evolved from tightly geometric forms to a freer-flowing style, and his glazes in these pieces are rich in earth tones, with surface textures that vary from flat to glossy. Chunky, and with cracks prominent, they reflect a mellowing of the artist and his techniques.

Linda Morrell applies masterful digital photography skills to make naturalistic images of townscapes and other scenes in Italy, successfully avoiding the pitfall of manipulation but not steering entirely clear of cliché. One example: Gondolas photographed in Venice.

But the majority of Morrell's images are well-seen and unsentimental, emphasizing light, shadow, texture, and color (usually in that order). One, titled Levando gli Occhi (Looking Up), transforms its subject, a simple courtyard, into a study in three-dimensional space. Another, Carole's Window, is irresistibly romantic, yet crystal clear.

Morrell also presents three pieces that involve encaustic (wax) on boards - though photo-derived, they look more like frescoes. Not among my favorites, they are very popular with the gallerygoers I've heard commenting on them at Dietel and elsewhere.

The two-person show titled La Femme that features Gail Nadeau and Katherine Wright at Fulton Street Gallery is another tour de force of photographic technique, but quite unlike Morrell's work. Here we have women from diverse generations (Nadeau is a grandmother, Wright is just 23) who have approached the subject of woman from different perspectives and with different styles and methods.

But they come together in multiple ways, first of all because both are very much about process. Nadeau (her Two Dolls is shown at left) has been known to paint on pictures or slides, then reprint them and maybe do it again, creating layers of meaning and a strong push-pull between photographic "reality" and the one she creates. In her works shown at Fulton Street, there's also digital reversal going on - in the end, it's impossible to tell where the photograph ends and the painting begins.

Wright, meanwhile, is all about the control in the studio (her Sides of Myself is shown at right) - her pictures are highly manipulated and constructed before they are put on film, where they remain untouched by digital processing. Instead, she creates the image through the choice of model, costumes, makeup, lighting, and sometimes multiple exposure.

The second obvious connection between Nadeau and Wright is that they move in and out of viewing or expressing their subjects from within and without. We get a woman's point of view about women - in Nadeau's case, often through generations of relationships and in Wright's case as myth and muse. Both are not shy about sexuality, though it's presented obliquely.

As a male, I won't try to interpret too much of the content - but I can assert that it's a fascinating show, impressive in both its quantity and quality.

Equally fascinating is John Hampshire's collection of drawings at Clement titled More Than Just Lines. My objectivity about Hampshire could be influenced by our friendship, in addition to the fact that he has included a portrait of me in the show (in which I look about 100 years old), so keep that in mind. Further, he has chosen to use a long quotation from a review I wrote of his work before we met as publicity for the show, so you may want to be even more skeptical.

Still, I have to say that there is strong work to be seen here, including some earlier work that provides interesting perspective on the new stuff, and things not seen before in public that are not new but exciting nevertheless. Most notable are the pieces that represent Hampshire's entry into landscape imagery - or weatherscapes, if you will.

Labyrinth 220 (most of Hampshire's titles refer to his technique of drawing with elaborate snakes of lines - labyrinths - that appear abstract up close but congeal into representational renderings from a distance) is his best yet: a black thunderhead hovering above a landscape, swirls of lines forming a topographic effect (or an eye-of-the-storm one), darkness building. Executed in Sharpie pen on a prepared surface that is very much like a white dry-erase board, this and the other drawings in the show reveal why I say Hampshire is one to watch.

(Installation shot of John Hampshire's Labyrinth 220 at Clement Art gallery in Troy)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Matt Bua, Anselm Kiefer, Simon Starling and more at MASS MoCA

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. I think Matt Bua might say the context is the medium. His installation in MASS MoCA's newly expanded and relocated Kidspace spills out through a second-story window into the museum's entry courtyard; it is haphazard, overstuffed, ripe for criticism. But, hey, it's for kids! So I won't get all snooty about it.

Cribs (tiny detail below) is a play on architectural ideas, a commentary on collecting, and a never-quite-grew-up kid's ebullient spewing of undigested detritus into a grand, half-assed construction that meanders all over creation and offers lots of little discoveries along the way. As a whole, it's a mess that all children will love.

But it's also for adults, and that's part of the message: Kidspace, under the curatorial eye of Laura Thompson, is hosting installations by name artists, and the serious art audience that frequents MASS MoCA is welcome to check it out. Hours are limited: just weekend days from 11 to 4 through May 31; then every day but Tuesday through June 27; then every day through Labor Day. (for more info on this and other shows, go to http://www.massmoca.org/search_results.php?st=2&search=11.)

Meanwhile, the other spaces at the sprawling former factory complex offer the usual very high quality, cutting-edge stuff. A long-term Anselm Kiefer installation that will remain through October fulfills the promise of this most revered of contemporary artists with five paintings and a massive sculpture that I found very moving (a large detail of one painting is at the top of this posting).

Kiefer's work is, in a word, elegiac. This installation proves that it is also lyrical and hopeful, though the darkness may overwhelm the light for some viewers. In addition to the concrete sculpture's allusive waviness, three gigantic paintings that form a cul-de-sac in a second room (accompanied by a large Joseph Beuys sculpture) are deeply felt and meditative.

A much more fun experience is to be had in a large group show titled Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape that fills a ramble of large and small spaces on the museum's main floor with fresh and juicy art that revisits a potentialy banal subject and brings it quite vividly to life. The A-list names in Badlands are many - Mike Glier, Alexis Rockman, Mary Temple, Nina Katchadourian, Ed Ruscha, Robert Adams, etc. - and the missed marks are few. But hurry, as it remains on view only through April 12.

Possibly the strongest single work in the museum at the moment is a stunning pair of sculptures (with an evocative pierced presentation wall leading to them) by Simon Starling titled The Nanjing Particles. These esthetically beautiful cast stainless-steel forms were created by selecting two silver particles from a 19th-century photograph of Chinese strikebreakers brought to work in North Adams, then enlarging them a million times.

It is poetic justice that the casting work was done by factory workers in China; the carnivalesque wall bears a huge blowup of the original picture of their forebears. This ingenious work is shown in the vastly cavernous space of Building 5, and the yards of air around it are a tonic. It will remain there through October.

Finally, I can't publish this review without mentioning what you already know: that the Sol LeWitt wall drawings at MASS MoCA are fabulous, that they will be there for at least 25 years, and that you really want to see them as soon as you can because you will want to go back again and again and again.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hudson galleries

Spring has arrived, and the gallery scene in the mid-Hudson Valley is ready to heat up. I spent a sunny Friday afternoon in Hudson, where Warren Street is home to a dozen or so venues (down from more than 20 a couple of years ago), qualifying it as the epicenter of the valley's art market and the place to be on summer weekends.

With so many galleries, I had to pick and choose - and I apologize to those left out of this roundup, including worthy sites BCB Art, Limner Gallery, and Deborah Davis Fine Art. Those I did see ranged from the sublime to the almost awful, but above all it was a very pleasant experience - like cruising Chelsea without the stress and, particularly, without the New York attitude.

First up was the venerable Carrie Haddad Gallery http://www.carriehaddadgallery.com/, where a show titled Then and There featured three painters of three traditions: landscape, still life and Modernist abstraction. The big front room was filled by William Sillin's natural-world views (example above), the majority of which are postcard-sized and, frankly, do not transcend the postcard concept. His larger paintings show great skill and a bit more complexity, but I found I liked best of all a trio of his oil sketches from 1990. Has he lost the freshness he displays in those earlier works?

William Bond Walker and Judith Lamb, the other two featured artists, occupy smaller spaces in the gallery's inner labyrinth. Walker's abstract work generates energy with color and composition but is inconsistent; Lamb's stylized, realistic studies of fruits, vegetables, and flowers are a bit too facile.

But don't despair - a real reward awaits in the gallery's large back room, where Russell DeYoung has a strong showcase exhibition of small abstract paintings (the one at right is titled Rabbit Power). DeYoung uses a limited palette to great advantage, and his odd sense of design and layering gives these must-see works both playfulness and urgency.

Another stalwart of the Hudson scene, John Davis Gallery http://www.johndavisgallery.com/ is hosting a solo show of paintings, drawings, and monoprints by Constance Jacobson. Elegantly hung on two floors of space, the show is titled Above the Neck and, yes, it is quite literally cerebral (the image at left is titled Cortex Medusa).

Jacobson's ability with monochromatic design is her great strength - even where color is employed, it is usually one dominant color, and most of the work stays within a grey range. The strongest works are in India ink and blue ink on paper: Tentacles and Notochord, both dated 2009, evoke nerve synapses and other mysterious, microscopic bodily functions in a crisp, float-mounted installation with other drawings. It's a fine show in a lovely gallery.

Less enthralling was a show of 12 artists pulled together at the Hudson Opera House http://www.hudsonoperahouse.org/, where the unifying factor is that each received support from the MARK professional development program of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Titled Marking Time, the show stands as an example of why curating matters: These artists do not appear to belong together, and the result of the incoherent gathering is that they all bring each other down.

The opposite effect is achieved with Other Nature at Carrie Haddad Photographs http://www.carriehaddadgallery.com/index.cfm?method=Photography.CurrentExhibit, a space that opened in November under the able guidance of Haddad assistant Melissa Stafford. The four artists in Other Nature play off each other beautifully, mixing and matching a variety of digital and alternative techniques that will challenge traditional views of photography.

Lori Van Houten (her Field Notes: Seedfall 2006 is pictured at the top of this posting) offers complex layerings and textures; Jeri Eisenberg employs rice paper and encaustic to fix her soft-focus musings as free-hanging wall pieces; Portia Munson collages deftly in PhotoShop to make lush inkjet prints; and David Lebe's hand-colored photograms from 1989 (pictured above right is his Landscape #10.5) are nothing short of a revelation.

Another group photo show is hanging in another new space, this one an artists collective called gallery 345 that opened in December 2007 http://www.collective345.blogspot.com/. Peter Donahoe, Wendy Holmes Noyes, and David Schulz are somewhat mismatched in terms of style, but the casual nature of this small artist-run gallery allows that to work.

Donahoe shows circular portraits made with a pinhole camera (utilizing a tin can, the camera is also on display) that strongly evoke the 19th-century masterpieces of Julia Margaret Cameron; Noyes combines a range of techniques to plumb the meanings of objects and artifacts left behind by her mother; and Schulz presents a group of four diptychs that explore the potential of juxtaposition.

Finally, the highlight of the day came with a visit to the extraordinary space that now houses Nicole Fiacco Gallery http://nicolefiaccogallery.com/ (recently moved from a few blocks up the street). Fiacco's museum-quality white box contains a bizarre but wonderful installation by John Cleater, whose first foray into sculpture was aided by a residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center (that's the plumbing-fixture Kohler).

Appendages consists of a fanciful group of highly polished, wall-hung objects in metallic or enameled finishes (one is pictured below) that are clearly drawn from the anatomy of sinks and basins, but look more like underwater creatures. Most feature standard drains; a number are shaped just like a giant toilet handle; and one incorporates a tiny video display of the artist's eye blinking in Morse code.

It's the kind of work that makes you stop and marvel at the creative process. Rarely do I find myself asking the age-old question "Where the heck do they get their ideas?" - but this was one of those times. Kudos to experimental architect Cleater on his first show at Fiacco.
Be aware that most of Hudson's galleries are open from about 10 to 6 during extended weekends - Thursday through Monday - but their hours vary. Most of the shows mentioned here continue through the end of March; Other Nature will hang through April 19.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Harry Wilks at AIHA

While the Albany Institute of History & Art has committed its whole second-floor gallery space to the yearlong Hudson River Panorama exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage of discovery, there are many other features to the exhibit that have a shorter shelf life. Among those are shorter-term exhibitions and a lecture series (more info here: http://www.albanyinstitute.org/).

Currently filling a lovely, large octagonal room and its smaller, square parlor on the museum's third floor is an exhibition of 21 photographs titled Hudson Valley: Spanning the Banks by New York City artist Harry Wilks (through June 7 and with a reception on April 3). It's a fine addendum to the HRP show, which is a vast history lesson that incorporates a lot of significant (and not so significant) fine art, but which lacks the coherent vision offered by a solo show such as Wilks's.

Drawn from an ongoing, long-term project that places Wilks along the edges of the Hudson River from New York to the Highlands, Spanning the Banks neatly presents his way of seeing, which is quirky, clean, geometrical and allusive. The prints are not particularly large - just big enough to hold their own on a wall and let the viewer enter them visually - and they are well enough crafted to merit and reward close scrutiny.

All but four of the images in the show are traditional black-and-white gelatin silver prints, and all but two of the black-and-whites are panoramic views made with a Widelux camera (the other two are a traditional format image and one made with a different type of panoramic camera). This is important to mention, because the Widelux uses a panning system that distorts the subject, and can make it nearly impossible for the shooter to know what the final composition will look like. The consistency with which Wilks composes images using the Widelux shows a great facility with the medium; equally, he has exploited its tendencies to make a strong body of work with great shapes and a particular look.

I love the way Wilks regularly sets himself up specifically at the edge of a road, so that the guardrail is at the center of a composition, or becomes a sweeping element that connects other objects in view. He'll do the same with other elements - fences, rocks, walls - and with bridges, which are as much his subject here as anything.

Of course the river is his subject, too, but there is so much else going on in these pictures that I found I had to keep reminding myself of that fact. The wide-angle view of things, coupled with Wilks's tendency to set objects very close to the camera, makes for fragmented compositions that move the eye all about. The river is just one element woven into Wilks's inclusive vision, where all things are somehow equal.

The few color pictures in the show, and the one non-panoramic black-and-white are placed in the parlor area, and they are a bonus rather than a distraction from the panoramas, because they share the same sensibility and subject matter (such as a view from the Bear Mountain Bridge, seen below). A small catalog also on view includes a number of the pictures in the show along with quite a few more color pictures not seen on the walls, and they demonstrate that Wilks is as adept with color as with black-and-white, and that his strong style of composition is consistent throughout.

I recommend the show, and the catalog, to all fans of fine photography.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Albany Rural Cemetery

Sunday was a beautiful, springlike day and the outdoors beckoned. Instead of going to the new Hudson River Panorama exhibition at the Albany Institute of History & Art http://www.albanyinstitute.org/, off we went to the Albany Rural Cemetery, where many architectural, sculptural and stained-glass marvels of the 19th century accompany the dead and delight the living year-round.

I spent my teen years living very close by Albany Rural, and I know it intimately from countless visits and endless hours spent hanging out in its sylvan setting. I learned to handle skids there on its gravel roads, and I learned a little history there, too.

But this column is about art, and the cemetery is full of that, from the very famous angel statue on the Corning grave site (by Institute stalwart Erastus Dow Palmer) to the massive bronze sepulchre of President Chester A. Arthur to the innumerable lesser monuments featuring figures, miniature churches, realistic tree trunks, drapery, and so on and on, all carved in solid stone and exposed to the elements, which destroy but also add a nice patina (see photo above right).

Now I expect contemporary sculptors will take little solace in this, but it is unfortunately too rare that sculpture gets shown, seen, or commented upon in the local media, so here I am touting the three-dimensional wonders that are spread out all over the 467 acres of this parklike cemetery that has welcomed visitors since its incorporation in 1841.

Among my favorite sites, there is a rather elaborate and creative mausoleum and monument for the Rensselaer County industrialist Henry Burden, which incorporates curly-haired dogs, vases for fresh flowers, and a huge carved book posed on a huge carved pillow. The book is open and has the stories of Burden's life and that of his wife on facing pages. The monument looks toward the river, and across to where Burden made his vast fortune in iron. Look for it along the lower hill of the cemetery, not too far from the main entrance on Broadway in Menands.

Another great one, in a row of mausoleums not far from the Cemetery's south entrance at the intersection of routes 377 and 378, is the clean, boxy Hilton mausoleum, which features a fabulous bronze door with an Art Deco motif. These fancier mausoleums often include stained glass, but to see it you usually need to get right up there and peer in - try it on a sunny day and you'll get some nice colors. And I can't prove it, but I suspect a few may even be by Tiffany.

Architecturally speaking, some of the fun is generated by the fact that these "buildings" are for show, not so much for function, and their designers got to fool around a lot with quirky details (see photo above left).
Much of it is neo-classical, which I like just fine, but there's stuff with a futuristic edge as well. One game I used to play was to see how many sphere-shaped monuments I could find; there're also a few pyramids, and there are so many obelisks (you know, like the Washington Monument) that they become mundane. Which is too bad because, if you think about it, just one of the bigger obelisks in Albany Rural would be a local landmark if it happened to be on State Street, let's say, rather than out there in the woods near Loudonville.

So, if you feel like a drive and a walk, keep Albany Rural on your list of places to visit. There are maps available at the entrances, or you can download one from the website. Also, there is a friends group http://www.albanyruralcemetery.org/albrurcem/Friends.html, which you can join and support, as these beautiful things do fall apart over the years, and they will never have enough time and money to maintain it all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jason Middlebrook at University Art Museum

Oh garbage, garbage, garbage
They're filling up the world with garbage ...

-Pete Seeger lyric from The Ballad of Mount Trashmore

A little more than 20 years ago, a friend of mine named Tom, who had recently graduated from the University at Albany with ambition to become a filmmaker, got a job with a state legislator's office. His task: To help produce a film about the notorious Mount Trashmore, a landfill so big it had become the highest point on the Eastern seaboard. Tom and the rest of the crew made a pretty good movie about the garbage problem, and it helped get the landfill closed and turned into a park. It also featured a catchy theme song by the great Pete Seeger, and turned Tom's career around - he never made another movie, instead becoming an important professional recycler.

Jason Middlebrook, whose Live With Less exhibition is currently at the University Art Museum in Albany http://www.albany.edu/museum/home.html, is equally immersed in garbage and obsessed with issues of recycling. He is also a very talented artist with a range of skills and styles that threaten to splinter apart. The show includes cast sculptures, a mobile, painted wooden constructions, painted cardboard constructions, framed works on paper, paintings on cardboard, and text pieces on cardboard. Amazingly, it does hold together.

The UAlbany exhibition space is notoriously cavernous and, therefore, difficult for most artists to fill effectively, yet Middlebrook nearly overfills it, an appropriate expression of his main point: that we have too much darn stuff. Still, there is plenty of open space in the exhibit that gets put to good use.

For example, a vast wall upstairs is occupied by a four-part painting on cardboard titled Stacked Night Sky 1, 2, 3, 4, which taken as a whole can appear to be a fragmented but singular image of colossal proportions representing a view from on high of a vast city at night, stars glittering overhead in a deep black sky (detail at right). Middlebrook uses an illustrative style, which creates a nice tension in conjunction with the inglorious materials he favors, including the black cable ties that join together the many flattened boxes that make up Stacked Night Sky.

That combination of particularity and carelessness is most evident in the many text-based paintings that crowd the museum's entryway (detail at top of this posting), in which Middlebrook has applied many color combinations and hand-drawn fonts to an apparently endless series of quotes, aphorisms, clichés and sincere wishes with which he papers the walls. Entertaining and colorful, the word pieces fall a bit short in my estimation, not just because they occasionally contain annoying misspellings and other errors that do not appear intentional but also because they are not particularly original or innovative. In one, Middlebrook writes MY FEAR IS THAT I AM A "B" ARTIST; my fear for him is that the piece could prove he is.

The point is that it is much more valuable to BE the artist than it is to worry about it; fortunately, Middlebrook doesn't collapse in the execution, whether with his very charming and ably-made works on paper (though the few older ones included in the show demonstrate how much better he is now than he was seven or eight years ago) or with his very strong series of painted wooden planks presented in a standing row across a balcony-like space upstairs.

Also upstairs, in the alcove formerly known as the West Gallery and now named for the museum's late former director Nancy Hyatt Liddle, is a fun 2009 installation called Pile of Buildings that again transforms salvaged boxes, this time into an LED-lit child's idea of a vast play city.

Other large installations complete the show, which is dominated by one of them, Cardboard Stack, a thirty-five-foot tower in the center of the museum (shown at left). Made from several tons of cardboard collected on campus for recycling over a two-month period, it is less impressive as a sculpture than as an idea, but I like it in the context of a university, where no doubt some students will be moved to think about consumption in ways they may not have before.
Middlebrook's ideas may not be particularly innovative, but his energy, skill and color sense get them across in a fresh way.
Though the show is scheduled to end on April 5, it will remain one more day for a panel discussion in the gallery that will feature Middlebrook, curator and environmentalist Amy Lipton, and art journalist Frances Richard at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 6. The public is invited to attend free of charge.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Arsenault and Dirolf at Oakroom Artists Gallery

With so many high-profile galleries and museums now gracing our region, it can be easy to overlook the smaller, more community-based art entities that have served artists and audiences when things maybe weren't so good. Among the most venerable of such institutions is the Schenectady-based Oakroom Artists http://www.oakroomartists.com/, which has existed for 52 years as a membership organization mounting professional exhibitions, and is currently sited at the First Unitarian Society's landmark "Whisperdome" building on Wendell Avenue.

Oakroom membership is limited to 24 carefully chosen painters, printmakers, sculptors, and fiber artists, each of whom get a showcase exhibition every two years in the group's ample, well-lit space. Because the gallery is quite large, these shows happen in pairs; the current duo of David Arsenault and George Dirolf are showing together for the fourth time, so it really can be considered a two-person show rather than two solos.

Arsenault, whose work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper (with good reason), has mounted a selection of 15 oils on canvas that reflect the range of his style, which is lushly lit, colorful, and usually features architecture involved with landscape; people appear, but almost just as accents rather than as the subject of the picture.

A couple of new additions in monochromatic gray are much smaller than his usual scale (one is a Pop-inspired still life) and add an element of the Surreal (think Magritte), which may be a promising new direction for this highly skilled painter. Arsenault markets his work under the title the art of solitude, but a recent remarriage has brought his imagery a tiny bit further into a social place, as reflected in the piece that for me is the show's standout, Second Story (shown at left).

Dirolf's exhibition consists of about half oil paintings on board and half wood engravings, totaling 30 pieces. All but one of the works are quite intimate in scale, but they still pack a punch. The oils, all of them landscapes painted en plein air, mostly represent dense woodland or streamside trees, playing fast with layers of space and foliage and pushing the eye around the surface and back and forth with darks and lights.

Dirolf is a high school art teacher, and he certainly has his skills honed, but I wish he would take some of these ideas to a more developed state - they are beautiful, but sketchy.

That brings us to the wood engravings, which are truly masterful - illustrations, yes, but full of life and feeling (one appears at right). These were created while on sabbatical and inspired by Shaker subjects that Dirolf has been researching; they don't illustrate any particular text, instead forming a sort of quiet story of their own.

Doubtless you've heard about the Rockwell Kent show currently at the New York State Museum (if you haven't seen it, go). You can get a double shot by seeing the 20th-century master engraver there, then stopping by to see a worthy 21st-century successor at the Oakroom. Dirolf is that good.

Friday, March 6, 2009

31st Annual Photography Regional at Opalka Gallery

Opalka Gallery Director Jim Richard Wilson has done it again: The 31st Annual Photography Regional is an invitation-only affair for the third time in its history and the second time in a row when hosted by the Opalka. In 2006, Wilson chose the artists himself, hewing mainly to familiar faces and oft-recommended latecomers (full disclosure: I was included); this year, he recruited exhibiting artist and Amrose Sable Gallery director Elizabeth Dubben to curate the show, and her choices are a complete departure from past Regionals.

Purists may find little they like at this latest incarnation of a cherished Capital Region tradition, but I hope they will go with an open mind and come away with it expanded. While none of the work breaks new ground in a dramatic or controversial way, it is almost entirely of the postmodern ilk - few of these images could be confused with anybody's snapshots or the earnest efforts of photo club aficionados.

Several categories that have dominated the contemporary dialogue in photography-based art are evident in abundance: multiple imagery; things made to be photographed; pictures intentionally out of focus; and pictures made into objects.

Out of 13 total participants, more than half have University at Albany connections (Justin Baker, Liz Blum, Robert Cartmell, Colleen Cox, Tara Fracalossi, Daniel Goodwin, and Ken Ragsdale) and at least one is a major international name (Catherine Chalmers). Others are revelations, at least to me (Roy Arenella, David Seiler, and Stu Sherman), or were only recently seen for the first time (Laura Gail Tyler and Melinda McDaniel, both at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy).

So the show is fresh and has a distinctly different focus than pretty much all the past Regionals.

Close observers of the scene, however, will notice some repetition. For example, Baker's fine, rephotographed color collage constructions were all seen at his UAlbany MFA thesis show a couple of years ago; Tyler (see image at bottom of this posting) showed the same four pictures (along with many others) in a strong solo show at the Arts Center in 2007; and Ragsdale's wonderful memory reconstructions were featured in a recent solo show at the PhotoCenter in Troy.

Among the out-of-focus shooters are Blum, whose ethereal depictions of barely recognizable confections speak to desire and the thwarting thereof; Sherman, who presents three large unframed color prints of industrial subjects that I expect would appear rather uninteresting if not slashed through with fuzziness; and Cox, the better of whose three pictures shown here is earlier and sharper than the other two. I think it was Keith Carter who famously said "sharpness is overrated" - but so is unsharpness.

Two artists in the show present unabashedly romantic images. Seiler, who employs an overlaying of multiple images and other effects to create an intentionally painterly look (see image at top of this posting), has horses as a subject in three of his, and they stand out both for their techniques and their emotionality.

Cartmell (his Three Willows is shown at right) shoots infrared film and prints it on traditional gelatin silver paper, achieving an atmospheric lushness we rarely see anymore in contemporary art. His views could be interpreted darkly - but I see them much more as dream than as nightmare.

Perhaps the most challenging work here is by Fracalossi, who teaches and directs the gallery at Hudson Valley Community College. She has built up curious partial grids of multiple, repeated images that demand time and thought from the viewer, like poetry. A short video that includes similar imagery (details of nature, water, trees and cities) as juxtaposed pairs helps unravel her process.

Related to Fracalossi are the elegant, efficient wood and pinned-print constructions by McDaniel, two of which draw the viewer in to scrutinize tiny figures captured alone, then pressed into a group. This work impressed me by its clarity of meaning and the way it transforms and transcends media. Her other pieces that I commented on in an earlier posting, still on view through March 22 in Mutatis Mutandis at the Arts Center in Troy, are consistent with these.

One criticism I have for the curating is that the Photo Regional, when held as a juried competition, normally seeks to show only the latest work from entrants. But several of this group have included much older work - from 2005 (Tyler), the 1990s (Goodwin and Chalmers), and even back to the '70s (Arenella). This is unfortunate, as it takes away from the dialogue about hidden aspects of our current scene that I think is this show's real intention.

To add to that discussion, a panel will meet at the gallery for a public event at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 23. The panel will be made up of UAlbany professor Daniel Goodwin, Aperture publisher Lesley A. Martin, arts writer Meisha Rosenberg, and Center for Photography at Woodstock Director Ariel Shanberg.

And, of course, there is tonight's 1st Friday opening from 5 to 9 p.m.

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 Santibañez 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.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Whereto the MFA programs?

Ever since the recession became a firm reality, people have been talking about the value of the "secure" occupations that provide a lot of jobs in our area, making it somewhat recession-proof: government, health care, and education. But it's starting to look like the latter sector, outside of union-protected public-school jobs, may not be so secure anymore.

My aunt, who has had a long career as a visual artist and workshop teacher in Dutchess County, told me the other day that she had returned part-time to nursing. Surprised, I asked why. She said, Well, nobody's enrolling for my classes anymore. And I said, Oh, the recession! I wouldn't have thought that her students at the Garrison Arts Center or Women's Studio Workshop were suddenly short of cash, but that seems to be the case.

That's nothing, though, she went on. My friends who teach in the art department at Bard College don't have students now, either - they've all dropped out. Another moment of enlightenment for me: The parents' investments have plummeted and they can't afford the high tuition at fancy schools like Bard.

So, a few days later I asked a friend of mine who works at Skidmore what the scene there is like (figuring it's probably similar to Bard) and she said, Oh yeah, the school is working hard to get kids to apply for financial aid before they drop out - after all, some tuition is better for the college than none. In other words, the college can't suddenly replace these potential financial mid-year dropouts with full-paying students on such short notice, so they're willing to deal.

To all this, I have a few thoughts to add. My first reaction was to sort of nod knowingly and spout, almost gleefully, Well, it's about time they lowered tuition - it couldn't keep up at this pace forever. But of course I know that even the most expensive schools operate at a deficit in terms of tuition, so it's not that simple.

Then I began thinking about the schools that would eventually close, because if students can't afford to go, there will be less demand, and shrinkage will be a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the schools that are a better value, such as state schools and lower-priced private schools, could experience increased demand, may very well increase tuition, and also very likely will become better schools (hence, more desirable) because they will attract more qualified students who will expect more from faculty and will challenge each other to higher achievement.

And overblown, overpriced institutions will have a new form of competition.

So, what of the nearly countless MFA programs that have sprung up around the nation (and the Capital Region) over the past two or three decades? It's hard for me to imagine that demand will keep up - after all, those degrees didn't necessarily lead to good-paying jobs in better times, and they sure won't do that now - and as demand for MFAs decreases, so will the very jobs they lead to (i.e. teaching the next generation of MFAs), in a never-ending downward spiral. The snake may be forced to take its tail out of its mouth and slink off to another sector looking for a more secure career.

Still, a certain dedicated few will pursue a career in art no matter what; this could become a healthy shaking-out period, in which the ones who go to grad school because they don't know what else to do or to stave off for a couple of years their almost certain departure from artmaking will skip that phase altogether and only the dedicated few will remain. This could considerably improve the quality of art made by MFAs, a development I wouldn't lament. And the reduced number of higher quality artists coming out of these programs year after year may even find themselves more employable again as the competition thins.

I hate to think of entire colleges going under, and I am acutely aware of how much the local schools - big and small, private and public - provide in the form of jobs in the arts and a fresh annual crop of graduating artists to fuel our scene. But I also wonder just how many such schools, and how many artists, we really need. I like quantity, but I prefer quality.

Will the recession potentially deliver us less of one and more of the other?