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Monday, July 27, 2009

Notes from all over


ADVERTISING
I would love to have been in on the meeting that determined the language on the I-90 billboard advertising the current show at the Clark Art Institute. It says "This summer - Georgia O'Keeffe," with no mention of poor Arthur Dove (the show itself is called Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence).

Now, I understand that these are hard times for museums, and that summer is their best chance to rake in as much box-office as they can (especially the Clark, where admission is free in the off-season). I also understand that for every person who's heard of Dove there are probably 10,000 who've heard of O'Keeffe. But I'd like to think that a two-person show could be advertised as such and still draw viewers. Silly me! Clearly, the PR people making decisions for the Clark know on which side their bread is buttered.

BTW, watch this space for a review of the Dove/O'Keeffe show, to be posted on Aug. 10.

MUSIC
I ran into the incomparable chanteuse Jill Hughes on Sunday at the Salsa Celtica show in Schenectady's Central Park (big shout-out to Mona Golub for her 20 years of service to the global music-loving community), and she told me she is working on a new solo CD, set to come out at a release party at the Van Dyck in September.

The last time I heard Jill sing was a few years back, on the stage with the Funk Brothers at Albany's Washington Park, and she totally belonged up there with those R&B legends. This Thursday, she'll be in the mosh pit with the rest of us, as Tower of Power provides a much-needed soul vaccination at Alive at Five. Don't miss it.

ART
Last Thursday, a new experience was offered at the University Art Museum, when six of the artists in the current Mohawk-Hudson Regional participated in a Japanese-style slide talk they called Fast Talk. Brian Cirmo, Sharon Bates, Kelly Jones, Dorene Quinn, Richard Garrison and Harold Lohner were given 20 seconds per slide to talk about 20 images (that's less than 7 minutes total per artist) to an engaged and amused audience.

Before, between, and after the Fast Talks, DJ Truemaster spun house music while art fans mingled with each other and the Regional's diverse offerings. It was particularly fun to observe as gray-curled, bespectacled museum director Janet Riker introduced and thanked "DJ True," proving that you can be geeky, middle-aged, and hip all at once.

The artists appeared to have a ball with the breezy format, even when the wrong slide popped up, which only happened a couple of times but was still enough to keep them on their toes. All in all, it was entertaining, informative, and well received by a capacity crowd. I hope they'll bring the concept back again.

Note: the Regional - an annual must-see for local art lovers and lovers of local art - ends on Aug. 8, so if you haven't seen it yet, you still have time.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lore Hauptman at Albany Art Room

If you want to know the secret of a long life, look to Lore Hauptman. Still making art at the age of 94, Hauptman's show at the Albany Art Room clearly reflects the youthful exuberance that has kept her going all these years, from her childhood in pre-Nazi Germany through subsequent relocations to Holland, then Israel, and finally the United States (she now resides in Albany County).

A granddaughter organized Hauptman's first-ever local show at this charming, offbeat art space on the 1st Friday circuit, and it couldn't be more appropriate for the site. Featuring 26 little gems of frivolity in two-dimensional mixed media, along with a handful of decorated ceramic vessels (Hauptman worked primarily as a potter), the collection is full of whimsy - childlike but sophisticated.

The show begins in a narrow spot near the cluttered Art Room's entrance and then fills a clean, well-lit room beyond the multi-purpose business' retail art-supply shop, providing inspiration for and respite from the creative bustle of activity in a somewhat labyrinthine space that is essentially a studio for rent. The display near the entrance features a glass-paned curio cabinet with several small sketchbooks, a few ceramics, and black-and-white photos from the '50s, neatly encapsulating a life fueled by creativity and zest.

These qualities are embodied in all the wall-hung pieces, most of which are figurative and focus on playful and whimsical topics, such as the circus, Lady Godiva, animals, flowers, and solitary but joyous artists at work. All are identified simply as mixed media, which is somewhat of an understatement, as a great number of techniques are employed, including etching, watercolor, and collage.

Hauptman displays an illustrator's ease with subject and technique; indeed, many of these pieces feel like they could have been intended for books of fairy tales, though they are more personal than that would suggest. Among the strongest pieces, one of an artist painting outdoors under a fanciful tree of flowers clearly evokes Marc Chagall. Others place more emphasis on constructivist form, with layerings of paper building up geometry and texture. Another outstanding piece is an ethereal watercolor of a vase of flowers, painted on a page from a book; it evokes another artist from Hauptman's time, Paul Klee.

Altogether, it is a joy to enter the Art Room and feel its life-affirming energy, perfectly exemplified by the sweet-souled art of a wise woman who never lost her innocent optimism. Take note that the show is set to run just through Friday (the 31st), but may be extended for another month (check http://www.albanyartroom.com/ for updates). It is open from 10 to 4 Saturday and from 10 to 1 on Sunday, then again from 11 to 6 Tuesday to Friday.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lives of the Hudson (and K.O.S.) at Tang Museum

Enough with the Hudson River 400th anniversary exhibitions already! Everybody is having one, including the New York State Museum, Albany Institute of History & Art, Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, and Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, among the larger sites, and the list goes on and on with smaller galleries.

But maybe it isn't enough - as was pointed out in a recent issue of Metroland, 400 years is a heck of a long time, and well worth celebrating. So it is in that spirit that I recommend the latest offering in this field, an eclectic exhibit called Lives of the Hudson at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum. This is new territory for the Tang, known for cutting-edge art and far-reaching academic crossovers, not for history exhibits. But, even if you're hooked on the Tang's often tongue-in-cheek style of curating, you shouldn't be disappointed with this thoughtful and still edgy offering of art and artifacts from the last 200 years of life along the Hudson.

The show gets off to a promising start with a curtained entrance that reveals what looks like the corner of a historic house museum - curio cabinet, gold-framed landscapes, sage-green walls, white mouldings and all. But then you notice that the pattern on the curtains (by Bob Braine and Leslie Reed) is of poison ivy, and hear the sounds of some kind of ambient music wafting from a darkened theater area beyond the green walls, and you know you really are in the Tang after all.

An introductory text explains that the exhibition is organized around four themes (the Natural River, the Imagined River, the Human River, and the Working River) and that we are invited to perceive those themes on our own as they weave throughout the gallery. This lightly structured approach makes for low-pressure viewing and encourages the process of discovering relationships for ourselves.

As with some past shows here, this one tries to make the most of juxtaposing a broad range of techniques and technologies to tweak our interest and stimulate our synapses. While it may be pretty obvious to place a giant wood-and-brass steamboat steering wheel in front of a row of misty color photographs taken from a train window as it rolled along the river in 1999, it's still fun to contemplate their continuity.

More subtle is the pairing of a gutsy 1937 Bruce Mitchell gouache of the river and its industry with a trio of photos from 2006 by An-My Le that present the same subject matter from a similarly lofty point of view (a Le photo is shown above). One can't help but ask whether much has changed along this river in nearly a century of "progress."

Nearby, sober horizontal cases contain treasures as diverse as an antique postcard collection and three deeply satisfying works by the Ashcan School luminary John Marin. Not surprisingly, his two small sketches and medium-sized watercolor are as good as anything in the show.

Also nearby is the jewel in the crown of this show, and one of the great works of 19th-century American art: A stunningly modern landscape by Thomas Cole titled Storm King of the Hudson, which is on loan from Ball State University in Indiana. Though not of great size (maybe 24 by 36 inches) Storm King is so powerful that it would dominate the viewers' attention were it not intelligently given modest placement near the back of the room (you can see it at the bottom of this post).

Fortunately, the Cole is not alone in capturing our attention in this wide-ranging conglomeration. Other highlights include a desktop-sized computer monitor that runs a virtual aerial view of the river from bottom to top as seen on Google Earth (created for the show at a Skidmore lab using the Global Information Systems program); a very tasty 1931 lithograph of the New Hudson Bridge by Howard N. Cook; four mounted "fish" by Braine and Cook that are cast from polluting materials such as road salt and toilet paper; Maxine Henryson's Everyday series of photographs mentioned above; a large 2008 Yvonne Jacquette painting of quiet city reflections on the river at night; and an elegiac film installation by Alan Michelson.

If you have to see just one commemorative exhibition for the quadricentennial, this may be the one to choose. And, while you're there, you can go upstairs and check out a terrific 25-year retrospective of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. that will end on August 23rd. Featuring mostly very large paintings that span styles from graffiti to minimal, all inspired by "great literature," the show explores the impressive output of a collective that arose out of school workshops with the artist and his inner-city "kids of survival."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

UpstArt

Not a review, this is just a plug for a cool alternative art space in Glens Falls.

What is UpstArt? It's a gallery, it's a collective, it's a scene-setter. Located in the Shirt Factory, a big ol' brick building that used to be a - right, you got it - UpstArt is currently featuring a solo show by the mysterious artist collective TODT (and it's super-creepily great), but their usual fare is more local and broad-based.

A page on their website/blog says they are dedicated to turning the spotlight onto the new, the now, the young up-and-coming visual artists, writers, musicians, and performers who don’t fit into the “Adirondack-horse racing-run of the mill” scene.

Might be just what you need to balance the ethereality of the Hyde Collection's Degas & Music (reviewed below). Check it out and tell 'em I sent you!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Degas & Music at The Hyde Collection

The blockbuster has been a staple of Hollywood's summer movie business for generations and, for decades now, major museums have followed suit (led by 1978's The Treasures of King Tut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). It makes sense to capitalize on the season's greater leisure time by pulling in those tourist dollars with something spectacular, and turnstile-spinners help keep the museums afloat during leaner times.

We're certainly in lean times for museums these days. And so, with Degas & Music, The Hyde Collection enters the Blockbuster Zone. The Hyde, in Glens Falls, has a strong claim on Edgar Degas, as it owns several of his works. But this show goes way beyond, reaching far and wide to bring together an impressive collection of the Impressionist's works that otherwise could never be seen together.

The show's thesis is simple enough: Degas grew up in a musical family during a time when music was increasingly playing a role in everyday life. Hence, his work is strongly influenced by the presence of music and expresses that in deeply personal terms.

This theme is borne out by the selection of works, which range from pencil studies to large oils on linen, and is supported by the research and other artifacts on view. The wall-panel text states that "over 2/3 of his oeuvre was devoted to ... ballet," which of course would be accompanied by music. But the real point is that so much of the rest of the work was about music - clearly, this was Degas' most enduring passion.

Beginning with a soul-searching self-portrait from 1854, made when the artist was barely 20 years old, the exhibition offers fine examples of the master's technique in drawing and printmaking, both of which underscore his graphic style of painting.

Though a rather large, green-hued painting of a dancer onstage is visually the show's centerpiece, the beating heart of the exhibition is a trio of works presented in a side gallery. These three pieces - brought together from homes in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit - demonstrate and contrast the different ways Degas worked with texture, color, composition, and chiaroscuro to try to transmit his experience to the viewer.

The smallest of the three, which were all painted within a few years of each other, depicts a young woman and a male violinist as though they have just been interrupted mid-music lesson, or perhaps while preparing to perform a duet (it can be seen at the top of this post). The spontaneity of the moment is enhanced by a slightly shifting focus - the woman's face is sharply delineated and detailed, while the man's falls slightly into blur. Varying degrees of paint on the surface create points of varying interest (difficult to appreciate in a reproduction), which move the eye around but ultimately reinforce the connection between the two musicians, and emphasize the intimacy of the scene.

To this painting's left is a larger one, a vertical (shown at right), which also depicts a pair at a private musical soiree. Here, one musician plays a guitar and another has turned his back to the piano keys to listen. The composition again directs the eye, quite powerfully, this time toward the listener's ear. Degas is showing the action (which involves a famous guitarist and the painter's father, an amateur pianist), but he is trying to do much more - he is making us aware of the act of listening to the music by describing that idea visually and planting it in our brains.

Further to the left is another painting that goes beyond this concept. It presents a closeup of two players in an orchestra, using very little color, and reducing one of those players, a bassist, into a hulking foreground element (the painting is shown at left). Here, Degas has achieved his goal of making us hear the music - because, not only is the bassoon player puffing mightily away, he is surrounded by marks that, while ostensibly representing the shadowy figures of the other players and their instruments, also describe great sonic waves radiating out from the bassoonist. At last, Degas has depicted frequencies.

There are many other works to be appreciated in this exhibition, including Japanese-inspired fan paintings from the collection of the Musee D'Orsay, a series of 20 state-of-the-art reproductions from 1897, and one of the Hyde's own jewels, a fetching pastel of two dancers that displays all of Degas' graphic mastery in one little pair of red tights (seen below).

There are also innovations that speak to the Hyde's serious efforts at survival - labels naming sponsors of individual works (a fresh concept to me, and one that obviously succeeded, as most of the pieces have one); a new glass exit door that leads visitors right from the gallery into the gift shop; musical programming tie-ins at various venues; and, lest I forget to mention it, the museum's first-ever admission fee (a fair $10).

It all bodes well for the little upstate house museum that could - the place was crowded for a Tuesday, just days after the show opened with a Friday preview, and the excitement was palpable in the air. Congratulations to curator Erin Budis Coe and all the museum's staffers for a years-long job exceedingly well done.

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 http://www.downtownalbany.org/; 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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

John Connors at Clement Art Gallery

John Connors loves old buildings the way you might love an old aunt - gently and generously. His watercolor paintings of sites in Troy and other places, now featured in a solo show at Clement Art Gallery, have humor, color, detail and - most of all - affection.

A stalwart at Clement, Connors splits his time between Lansingburgh (a borough of north Troy) and New York City, and his show has a similar configuration. There are nine Troy paintings, one from Cohoes and four from New York, plus a bunch of unframed works collected in a bin for browsing. All share the loose (but unfailingly accurate) style of a street artist - not coincidentally, the show is titled Working the Streets - whose subject is the setting, with people present simply as window dressing.

Light is also a subject for Connors, as it washes over his gorgeous facades and as it filters through stained glass for the one interior (of Troy's Saint Peter's Church). While Connors' colors are more vivid than pastel, there is an ethereal lightness to his Frear Building, a wedding cake of a structure which, in Connors' interpretation, is loomed over by the more robust, red Market Block building.

A more massive presence is felt in Music Hall, where the bulky structure rises up in jaunty, wide-angle distortion, a trick Connors gleefully and regularly employs. But not all his images are of impressive architecture - in fact, some of the best painting Connors does brings our attention to a scene we might otherwise never consider, as with the transcendentally sky-blue Kitchen Cabinet Store or Cohoes' Calkins Pharmacy.

In the New York paintings, Connors lavishes equal amounts of care on landmarks and lost souls. So, in this installation, Carnegie Hall rubs shoulders with both the Strand Bookstore and Ninth Avenue Wines and Liquors. The paintings seem a bit touristy at first, but they will grow on you - Connors has an eye, and he has plenty of technique to back it up.

Add note: If you haven't already noticed, Troy has pretty firmly established itself as a solid center of our regional art scene, and Clement is planted squarely in the middle of that. It may be easy for sophisticates to dismiss this venue as a frame shop putting on airs, but they'd be mistaken. Not only has the space grown to include a really impressive roster of regular artists (such as Harry Orlyk, Bob Moylan, and Laura Von Rosk - and more at http://clementart.com/), it has also built a nice lineup of printed catalogs from its monthly shows. This is definitely a gallery to be taken seriously.