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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Soul Vaccination

This is not a news flash - it was announced a couple of weeks ago that my favorite band in the history of the world would be coming back to Albany for a free concert this summer - but I need to add my enthusiasm to the mix.

So put it on your calendar: Tower of Power will play Alive at Five on Thursday, July 30, in the Corning Preserve. The last time TOP http://www.towerofpower.com/ played this series, around five years ago, the show was moved to a vast parking area under I-787 due to stormy weather, and the band blew us all away. Band leader Emilio Castillo summed up the experience in his usual understated way, opining that "under the bridge is a cool hang!"

If you don't know (or remember) TOP, just remember this: Their unique blend of funk, soul, jazz and salsa - also known as rhythm and blues - spawned hits in the '70s that haven't grown stale. What is Hip? remains a valid question; You're Still a Young Man still resonates with soulful yearning; and Bump City (Down to the Nightclub) may evoke the disco era but it hasn't stopped speaking to the fundamental human need to get down. Their newer tunes are just as good (if not as famous), and they have never lost the beat that got them started in Oakland, Calif., in 1968.

TOP just finished a tour in Japan, and we will be blessed to have their tight horns and hot licks back stateside this summer. The week following their gig, Alive at Five hosts the Neville Brothers, and the week after that it will be the original Wailers, for a triple shot of soul that will cure whatever ails you. If it doesn't, then there is no cure.
See you there.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Oliver Herring at Tang Museum

The current exhibition by German-born multimedia artist Oliver Herring at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum http://tang.skidmore.edu/ is not perfect, but it is still cause for celebration.

Me Us Them is part of the ongoing Openers series that Tang curator Ian Berry created to bring artists previously unseen in the Capital Region to the attention of local audiences, and it is a great example of the wisdom of that idea. The show, which runs through June 14, is something of a retrospective by the 45-year-old, Brooklyn-based artist, and it serves as a wonderful introduction to the breadth and depth of his work.

The title of the show refers to three phases of Herring's working process that have resulted in three very different types of art. Quoting from the Tang's press release, they include "large hand-knitted sculptures made in long hours alone in his studio (representing the Me component of the show’s title); experimental videos and photographic works made with friends and acquaintances (Us), and the improvisational community performance event, Task, that Herring creates with large groups of strangers (Them)."

The earliest works in the show, from 1991, are the knitted sculptures (example at right), laboriously created from strips of silver or colorless Mylar. Apart from their extraordinary combination of materials and method, these pieces are impressive in scale and degree of difficulty - but their outstanding characteristic is how relentlessly obsessive they reveal the artist to be.

In viewing the rest of the show, that characteristic will be recalled again and again, and it is a key to both Herring's technical success and his poignancy.

The installation, in usual Tang fashion, makes brilliant use of the museum's large first-floor main gallery, this time by walling off a chunky wedge of space in the middle of the floor and then using all of its angles and planes to great advantage. Inside the wedge, a hodgepodge of works is arrayed in a studio-like manner, giving the viewer a space within which to join the frolic of Herring's active mind and hyperactive fingers.

Meanwhile, the wedge's front-facing wall serves to block the view from the gallery's entrance of works further inside that are not appropriate for schoolchildren to see - in this way, the many school groups that do use the Tang (it's not called the Teaching Museum for nothing) can enjoy part of the Herring exhibition without causing the kids' parents to freak out. And the back wall of the wedge provides a nice, big, white space on which to project a continuous loop of some of Herring's many videos.

Are the pieces that the wedge blocks offensive? Not if you're OK with frontal male nudity - but hey, this is America in the 21st century, so we're not all there quite yet. I'll admit, it is not an everyday experience to stand in a public space and try to act natural while examining the simulated pubic hair of a life-size and lifelike dude in three dimensions, and it did make me feel self-conscious - but I was glad to have the chance to do it anyway. Herring's two highly detailed yet quite different renditions of a friend named Wade are a tour-de-force of innovative method and sculptural integrity.

Using thousands of snapshots and a meticulously carved styrofoam form to build his portraits (there's also a clothed female in the museum's lobby area), Herring plays with light, form, texture and other elements easily associated with all photography and all sculpture, and he does it in a way that feels somehow natural despite its almost mind-boggling labor intensiveness.

Other work in the show, mostly photographic, relates to these sculptures pretty directly, but they are quite a leap from the more minimalistic and simplistic Mylar works. One series of early stop-action videos, dated 1998, makes reference to 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge and other major art-historical imagery (such as Russian constructivism) while remaining fresh and witty. Too many artists these days make art historical references in such an academic and mannered way that it's tedious, but not Herring.

His other videos, too numerous to take in on one visit or to mention by name, are also fresh and witty, if a bit crudely made or obtuse. There is one related piece, though, that occupies a very large back wall of the gallery and, I think, falls seriously short of its goal.

Titled Do Two Monologues Make a Dialogue? (and pictured at the top of this post), it is a photographic snapshot installation of two crisscrossing chronological series; one is of a hot, young skater dude cavorting at home and outdoors, the other a pair of teenage Catholic schoolgirls hanging out. In the location where the two series intersect, Herring has put a shot that replaces the guy with one of the girls, forming a sort of contextual overlap like you might see in a film dissolve.

While I like the idea of the question the piece poses, and the simple approach taken to explore it, the series themselves lack any real fascination or depth. The one of the young guy has all the hallmarks of a Gus Van Sant study of Keanu Reeves (i.e., if you're not gay, forget it) and the one of the girls feels forced and superficial. Nothing is revealed about the subjects or the question the piece poses, even though many works of photographic and printed art over the decades have played far more successfully with this idea. I would have welcomed another astute or insightful approach to it, but was disappointed.

Otherwise, the show is consistently excellent, interesting, challenging and - this is important - fun. I'm sorry I can't report on the Task element, as that took place on March 22 and I couldn't go, but perhaps a reader of this blog was there and can comment on it here. No doubt it was as quirky and offbeat as one would expect from the fertile mind that Me, Us, Them explores.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Diana Grandi and Elizabeth Opalenik at the Photography Center of the Capital District

An exquisite show by photographers Diana Grandi and Elizabeth Opalenik, titled Tuscany: Timeless Beauty, has been installed at the Photography Center of the Capital District in Troy http://www.photocentertroy.org/, but there's a twist: It's likely that the show will disappoint those who are attracted by the title just as much as it will delight those who are put off by it.

To mangle a phrase, this is not your tour guide's Tuscany. Instead of calendaresque color pictures of sunflowers and vineyards, the visions presented by Opalenik (image at right) and especially Grandi (image above) are subtle, personal and, yes, timeless in a far deeper way than the cliché would suggest.

The two are frequent and longtime collaborators who give workshops in the Siena area. Opalenik, a California artist of some renown, has gone there many times since 1993; Grandi is a native and full-time resident and is, in my opinion, the better artist, though I'd never heard of her before this show (which, by the way, is the first one at the Photo Center of artists not directly associated with this region).

All of Grandi's archival pigment prints in the show are black and white, and about half of Opalenik's are. The rest of Opalenik's either deploy hand-coloring variations or are digital enlargements of manipulated SX-70 Polaroids (which are full-color). For the most part, the show's monochromatic majority stands well above all but the best efforts among the color images.

There are 43 pictures in all, presented in a unique way - the lovely, matte surfaces of the prints are not glassed over; instead, they are mounted to deckle-edged art paper and held to the walls with strips of unstained decorative wood moulding at the top and bottom, making for a somewhat Oriental or Victorian effect. Either interpretation is valid and appropriate to the style and subject matter of the photographs, one reason being that the gorgeous tones achieved by the pigment printing method resemble nothing in the range of photographic possibilities so much as the turn-of-the-century method of photogravure.

But technique is only important when it serves the subject, and this it does exceptionally well for Grandi's honed-down visual style. Clearly, she benefits from having the insider's view - her Tuscany is a place of fog, nets, tree bark and insects, with dark light and luscious textures. My favorites of hers here include tree studies titled Bamboo and Cypress; her study of a dew-bejewelled spider web, titled Diamonds, is also particularly well seen.

Opalenik is a very accomplished photographer best known for her nudes, and she does include some of those in this show. Of the several that feature ballet dancers as models, the one titled Valentina, Montalcino 2004 is the most affecting, not least of which because of the physically stunning ballerina's unapologetically sharp Italian beak.

Opalenik definitely shows herself as an outsider, though, with sentimental views of the countryside, a still life or two of old farm implements, and shots of local people doing local things. I can't really knock it, having spent years living in Tuscany myself and still sometimes making pictures there that do not transcend the subject - but Opalenik's sweet sincerity does make a marked contrast with Grandi's total indifference to the topical approach.

It is worth noting that Grandi has committed to donate 100 euros to quake relief in the Abruzzo region for every picture she sells. Also, beware that the Photo Center is only open evening hours during the week (and closed on Wednesdays) but it is open from 12 to 6 on Saturdays and Sundays. The show runs through June 7.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Wandering Intention: Zlotsky, Sericolo, Cirmo at The Saratoga Arts Center Gallery

There may be a bit too much of a good thing at the Saratoga Arts Center Gallery http://www.saratoga-arts.org/ this month, where the show Wandering Intention brings three Albany County artists together in a grand congress of transmogrification.

Deborah Zlotsky, Sergio Sericolo, and Brian Cirmo are all well-known on the local art scene, and with good reason, as each is an able and original image-maker. While there are clear similarities among their work, that may only seem obvious because of the show - it still seems to me that the idea to bring them together was a stroke of genius, and the inclusion of both paintings and graphics by each artist enhances the veracity of that assessment.

This does not mean, however, that the large, almost sprawling exhibition is without problems. But an ambitious exhibition with problems is far more satisfying than a show that doesn't strive, and far more stimulating, too. Chief among those problems is the installation - and, at the same time, the installation is one of the show's chief assets. I'll try to explain that conundrum, and then I'll go on to describe each of the artists' work individually.

Exhibitions Coordinator Laura Colomb has intermingled the three artists' work throughout the spacious gallery, making groupings of all permutations on different walls. In a smaller show, I think this would work wonderfully, because it makes the viewer consider the relationships among this trio and understand aspects of each artist's work in ways they probably wouldn't otherwise. But in a show this big (there are 13 pieces by Cirmo, 18 by Zlotsky and 14 by Sericolo), it leads to some confusion, as it is difficult to focus on each individual artist; this challenge is compounded by the diversity within two of the bodies of work.

First up, in the reverse alphabetical order of the show's title, is Zlotsky (I can't help but think she must be pretty glad that somebody finally put her name first on a list). Recent years have seen her depart from a realistic style to take on abstraction, as well as surrealism, both in painted color and graphite gray. She states: When I work, I’m like a dowser with a forked stick, searching for signs of life.

The show includes paintings, both fairly large (the image above is of one about two by three feet) and very small (in the 5x7-inch range) and graphite drawings on Mylar. The larger paintings have the feel of studio experiments - some look distinctly unfinished - and are, for me, unresolved.

The smaller paintings, not just because of scale, are far better resolved, whether in terms of color or composition - I'd say Zlotsky is more comfortable working small. And that's OK, as these are truly like little gems and not at all lacking in power.

Best of all, though, are the drawings, in which Zlotsky creates as if by magic creepily biomorphic forms that are both utterly abstract (made up of squiggles of powdery material) and super-realistic (rendering recognizable bits of skin, hair, and organs). For all the works, Zlotsky has applied titles that are newly made words - Pivel, Quish, and Wattobottomy are examples - putting her in a special category of creators who add to our vocabulary of forms and words.

Sericolo is also a shape-shifter, working spills of paint and turpentine into recognizable, surrealistic landscape images and reworking antique etchings to create surprising and sometimes beautifully hideous results. "I set out to depict nature as it might actually appear," he writes, to create something "that is, though fantastic, essentially more real."

Sericolo includes fairly large paintings and quite small drawings in this exhibition and, again, while the paintings are capable of holding our attention in both the full image and the minute details, it is the smaller works that maintain our fascination. Described as "razor blade and graphite drawings," they also use extensive erasure to transform their source material of story or silver-catalog illustrations into fantastical scenarios that feature unknown life forms suggestive of rampant mutation or mutual destruction (one is shown above).

Altogether, Sericolo's is a coherent vision, albeit somewhat macabre, and it is not surprising that it was rewarded with an extremely competitive NYFA grant a few years ago. He is one of our strongest artists.

Cirmo is somewhat the odd man out in this trio. His nine paintings (one is shown at the top of this post) and four drawings in the show are a consistent group that depict a landscape (or cityscape) animated by a faceless, often bodiless figure with nubby hair and beard, and heavy black glasses. This everyman character is a stand-in for Cirmo himself, who is inspired by the distinctly American quest for freedom and, perhaps, identity.

" ... like Kerouac ... or Guthrie," Cirmo writes, "my modern-day hobo is truly free and truly mad." With the clear influence of late-period Guston, these cartoonish vignettes often include natural elements, such as plants and rock formations, and lately are including blue-striped pillows. They also have been known to allude to war and other forms of violence, sometimes becoming seriously blood-spattered in the process.

Cirmo is a curious cross between hopeless optimist and shrugging realist. He has the guts to make art that is neither pretty nor necessarily comprehensible, and for that he should be commended. So should the Arts Center for mounting this fine, challenging exhibition.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Robert Gullie at Amrose Sable Gallery

Primitive, sexy, bizarre ... these are a few of the words that immediately spring to mind when confronted with the mixed-media works of Robert Gullie on view at Amrose Sable Gallery in Albany www.amrosesablegallery.com through May 24.

Titled Way Out, it is the last exhibition at the sweet little storefront space run by Elizabeth Dubben, and it fits there like a hand in a glove (though Gullie would probably prefer to put the gloved hand on an eyeless mannequin in a wheelbarrow being pushed across Mars by a giant raven).

There's no avoiding the Surrealist/Dadaist heart and soul of this work, with its insistent randomness - but it does help chase the sadness away for the gallery to bow out on such a fun-loving note.

Gullie's 20 smaller original collages (each a foot square) are accompanied by one four-foot-square original and four pigment-print enlargements, all made since 2008 in what must have been a feverish state of creative inspiration. Only the simplest few of these seem to have come easily - the rest are quite labor-intensive and some are quite complex, with constellations of colored dots painted among paper cutouts that derive from diverse sources: fashion magazines, travel and art publications, and Gullie's own photographs.

Among Gullie's subjects are dolls, animals, African masks, antiques, birds, and food items, all intersecting in that cockamamie way he seems to love. Color is a significant player, too, especially in certain works, such as the serene Pink Angel and the joyously garish Hand Dance; but other works make great use of black and white, too.

Many of the mixed-media pieces (all of which are square) feature a single or dominant figure against a busy but flat background that tends toward the ethereal. With the large one, titled UpOn The World, Gullie has created a dark planetary shape and a blue and white sky for a panoply of figures, many of which are plucked directly from the other works, to cavort in.

UpOn The World, being so much bigger than the others, affords more space for a sense of narrative to develop, while most of the smaller pieces, though complicated, are relatively one-dimensional. With all that effort involved, it can be a bit unfulfilling to have no clear meaning emerge, or to be held back from getting involved in a piece by the physical or visual flatness of the image.

I found myself more drawn to the simplest of Gullie's pieces, titled Socrates the Butcher, which is also one of the most recent and may signal a change of direction for the artist. It is no less surreal than the others, and therefore deliciously ridiculous - but it is also delightfully sublime.

I wish Dubben and all her artists well in whatever future Amrose Sable will find - the physical space is closing, but the entity will retain an online presence and, we hope, will re-emerge in the three-dimensional world one day soon.