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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Shows of 2009

Maurice Prendergast, Grand Canal, Venice, ca. 1898–99 Williams College Museum of Art

I had promised privately not to do a year-end list - not because I don't like those lists, but because I thought I may have missed too many important shows to have a right to do it. However, I changed my mind after seeing Karen Bjornland's Top Ten in The Sunday Gazette and realizing that I had seen all 10 of the shows she named. This is not to say that I agree with her on all 10 (though I do on a couple), but I figured if she could do it, so could I.

Still, this will not be a Top Ten. Rather, I will look back over a year of reviews and pull out some moments worth remembering - and, yes, I will name several of the best art shows that I had the opportunity to see and write about.

Amazingly, it has been more than a year since Get Visual came into being, briefly at first at the Gazette, and then in its present form as you see it here in the realm of technology-aided free speech. Since the Jan. 19 Blogger launch, featuring a gloriously controversial negative review of the film Slumdog Millionaire, I have posted about 70 times and reviewed approximately that number of exhibitions (some posts carried multiple art reviews, some carried none). Phew - no wonder I feel so exhausted!

It has been a pretty cool ride. Some of the ups included hearing tons of positive feedback from people far and wide (mostly by email rather than on the blog itself); gaining a bunch of "followers" (I am only slightly embarrassed to admit I don't actually know what that signifies); hitting the 15,000-visits milestone any minute now; and even getting the occasional public comment right here on the blog itself. The downs have included missing shows I wish I could have made it to (more on that in a minute); seeing shows but still having nothing to write about them; and fending off the rare mean-spirited response.

Overall, the miracle of self-publishing while having only the most basic computer skills is an incredibly empowering and, at times, humbling process. Though I had previously written a great many art reviews for quite a few journals over nearly three decades, there's nothing like being your own boss. The bottom line is that I love being an art critic for three reasons: Artists, curators, and presenting organizations need critics; writing about art gives me the opportunity to immerse myself in that world whenever I want to; and modeling that activity gets other people to do it, too.

This last point will not be lost on you, dear reader, but I want to emphasize it. Getting other people to engage with art, in whatever way they choose to do that, is the major goal of my writing - it drives what I do on this blog more than anything else. I truly hope that something I've written here in the past year has made you go out and see a show, or talk about art, or think about it in new ways. If so, I have more than fulfilled my potential as a blogger. If not, then I guess I'll just have to keep trying.

So, on to a look back at 2009. I'm going to do categories, and the links are to my reviews as written at the time:

Best Museum Exhibition (historical art) - Forgive me for being undecided, but this is a two-way tie: Dove/O'Keeffe at the Clark Art Institute; and Prendergast in Italy at the Williams College Museum of Art. Both were superbly well organized, deeply satisfying, and just plain gorgeous. Honorable Mention goes to Rockwell Kent: This is My Own at the New York State Museum - a show I saw, loved, talked about, but apparently did not review. Go figure.

Best Museum Exhibition (contemporary art) - Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape at MASS MoCA. Nobody does it better than MASS MoCA, and this was one of the best large group shows I've seen in a long time. Honorable Mention: It isn't a museum per se, but the Albany Airport Gallery showcases all the region's museums, so I've put it in this category. The show was called Out of This World and it was that, too.

Best Museum Exhibition (theme) - Lives of The Hudson at Tang Teaching Museum. Of the many Hudson 400 shows that the past year spawned, this was the most soulful and intellectually challenging - it was also easier to like than the Tang's offerings sometimes can be.

Best Solo Show (local) - George Hofmann at Martinez Gallery. A tour de force by an ageless master who continues to be at the peak of his powers (at right is his 2008-09 painting titled Rain/Sun). Honorable Mention: David Hornung at John Davis Gallery in Hudson (image above at left).

Best Solo Show (international) - Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City). Blockbusters of this magnitude do not come along all that often. It did not disappoint - on the contrary, I was totally blown away. Honorable Mention: Oliver Herring: Me Us Them at the Tang.

Best Solo Photography Show (local) - A three-way tie: In order of appearance, Harry Wilks at the Albany Institute of History & Art; Christopher Jordan at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer; and Dona Ann McAdams at Opalka Gallery. All displayed clear personal vision, tight curating, and classic themes.

Best Solo Photography Show (international) - Luigi Ghirri at Aperture Gallery (New York City). A longtime idol of mine, who died shortly before I discovered his work in 1993, this Italian visionary deserves to be far better known in the U.S. - hopefully, the show and book from about one year ago helped to accomplish that.

Best Show I Missed: Which is to say, the shows I'm most sorry I missed (and those, of course, are very hard to recall). I can at least remember, and regret, these two: Uncharted at the University Art Museum (Albany); and Steps Off the Beaten Path: Photographs of Rome and Its Environs at the Clark. Technically, I could see the second of these two, as it doesn't end till Jan. 3 - but I don't think I'm going to make it. So it goes.

Last word: This has been a crisis year for the arts as a whole - when the economy falters, the arts always suffer first, most, and longest. Please keep that in mind, and try to help out artists and arts organizations in any way you can. Thank you for reading, and have an inspired 2010!

Highland, NY 1992 by Harry Wilks

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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Window Shopping - photograph by Walter Wick, 1999, from I SPY Christmas

To my dear readers, I wish you the happiest of holidays. May you give and receive many gifts of art. And, if you're looking for something good to do, try the Walter Wick exhibition Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie. I will be reviewing it here in the next few days. In the meantime, be well and stay warm.

-db

Friday, December 18, 2009

Three shows in Troy (updated)

There's nothing like a walkable downtown, especially at a time when you're hungry for some good art to look at and many of the region's galleries are closed or between shows or stuffed with holiday fare. So it was with great joy a few days ago that I almost literally stumbled into three worthy exhibitions all within a stone's throw of each other in the beautifully walkable downtown of Troy.

Let's begin with the one that ends first (and very soon - Thursday, Dec. 24, to be exact). The Arts Center of the Capital Region is hosting a savvy and immersive installation titled Electrical Forest: Made in Troy by Brooklyn-based artist Noah Fischer that was created in two phases. In the first phase, which aimed to involve the whole community, Fischer set up a production line for the creation of 10,000 acetate-and-paint leaves, described by him as "a group engineering project."

Phase 2 allowed the artist to fill the Arts Center's entire large gallery with his installation, an environment all its own with various sub-environments within. There are tree elements, including some pretty big chunks of actual former trees, and electrical elements, many of which tend to spin in circles. The overall theme color is a middle blue, and there are lots of lights and shadows or projections that make for many layers of visual experience.

You can find out lots more about Electrical Forest here; it's definitely worth a visit if you can fit it in.

Next up, through Jan. 2 is an all Latino four-person show at Martinez Gallery (limited hours: Weds.-Sat, 2-5), titled Impermanence. The artists - Alexis Mendoza, Roxanna Melendez, Jaime Suarez, and Martin Rubio - are Martinez Gallery regulars with extensive international exhibition records, and are showing work that is not necessarily their freshest, but it is still a refreshing collection that energizes the gallery.

Melendez and Suarez are paired in the front room, where their extremely different styles enjoy a sort of perfect balance with each other - whereas Melendez's paintings are exuberant, colorful, full of real life, Suarez's "clay graphics" (a new medium to me that resembles encaustic) are more introspective or contemplative and purely abstract. Suarez has a narrow palette, an architectural compositional sense, and a complicated directness that will draw you in to study his surfaces from up close.

Every time I see Melendez's work, I am strongly reminded of the prints and paintings of longtime Capital Region stalwart Lori Lawrence, and the impression this time was no less strong. However, Melendez also evokes Matisse with one painting in particular that features a very lucky cat in a charmingly tilted view of a bedroom.

Mendoza, a Cuban color field painter, has several unstretched canvases of varying sizes nailed to the walls of the back gallery; their physicality in this method of presentation goes well with the natural-colored wooden sculptures of Rubio (who, like Suarez and Melendez, is Puerto Rican). While Mendoza emphasizes subtle color relationships, Rubio is all about forms in a classically Modernist way (think Arp tinged by Botero).

Finally, just extended through Jan. 26 is the excellent, eight-person Group Show, Pt. 2 at Clement Art Gallery that features Laura Glazer, Christopher Murray, Sergio Sericolo, Jeff Wigman, Dorothy Englander, Robert Gullie, Joe Putrock, and Erik Laffer (a tantalizing snippet of each is shown above, in that order). It's a lot of art packed into a little space, but that makes for a great, concentrated immersion, like eating a small cup of really tart lemon sherbet.

Of course I have my favorites among these artists, and this show provides some strong experiences of their work in interesting combination. For example, Glazer and Putrock (two photographers who frequently collaborate) have each mounted a grid of nine rather small framed photos, forcing a little face-off across a small space. Also employing the grid of nine are two small pieces by Laffer, while his larger works on view show color variations that are beginning to look more than decorative.

Englander offers some sweetly ethereal seaside landscapes (which I had the pleasure of seeing come into existence in stages, as she shares my studio), and Sericolo continues to plumb the possibilities inherent in painstaking drawing on antique anatomical plates, resulting in fascinating transformations. Most impressive to me here, though, are the concoctions of paint and paper made by Murray, who uses glorious color and clever graphic design to evoke the lushness of the natural world in summer.

All in all, a darn good walk around Troy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two exhibitions at the NYSM

Black Child, 1815–1825 Phillip Thomas Cole Tilyard (1785–1830) Oil on canvas

I was initially disappointed by the exhibition Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art at the New York State Museum in Albany - but then I was annoyed. Like a number of recent exhibitions I've seen, it has elements of being of or about art, but its overriding purpose is as a history lesson. This would be the source of my disappointment (after all, it is part of the Bank of America Great Art Series, which has brought us many fabulous shows over the years that were all about the art); the letdown was made sharper by my high expectations for anything that comes out of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.

So what about the annoyance? Here it gets trickier. The show's agenda, as organized and labeled by Cooperstown Graduate Program Director Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, is to explore "the complicated issues surrounding race in American culture as seen in paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th centuries" and thereby "to start the conversation [about race] anew." While I'm all for that (and am on the public record saying so), I went away rather uncomfortable with some aspects of Sorin's approach.

On the plus side, she asks a lot of questions. But those questions are often presented as if to a child and, though the NYSM is an educational resource, even kids know when they're being pandered to. Equally, there is a heck of a lot of 21st-century spin going on here - ironic, I think, when what is being considered was 19th-century spin.

So a less than perfectly groomed young black girl, depicted in what seems to me a rather sympathetic light by the popular and skilled 19th-century painter Edward Lamson Henry, is described as rendering "African Americans as less than equal to white Americans" by virtue of their "tattered clothes, [bare feet, or ] ... thick knots of uncombed hair." (An example, titled Kept In, 1889, is shown above at right.) The fact that Henry's depiction is probably rather accurate does nothing to deter the curator's interpretation that it is now appropriate to view it as demeaning or distasteful.

Many ambiguities of this sort populate the exhibition. In the part of the show dominated by caricatures of black subjects is a mass-produced sculpture that shows a white girl teaching her black "Uncle Ned" how to read - the title of Uncle is described as emphasizing inequality. In another room, where we are meant to see a more uplifting perspective on black subjects, a portrait titled Aunt Effie is praised as giving a "dignified" presentation of its subject, with no complaint about her unequalizing handle.

Several examples of recent art by black Americans do a fine job of addressing these issues without becoming either strident or confused, including Kyra Hicks's quilt Black Barbie; a strong mixed-media piece by Whitfield Lovell; and a typically subtle and elegant work by Lorna Simpson. I also especially liked Faith Ringgold's quite large 1967 painting titled U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power (which depicts a few dark faces among a sea of white ones), and was glad to see a 1964 Norman Rockwell lithograph titled The Problem We All Live With, which could have been deconstructed or even ridiculed but is presented at face value as a positive statement about the shared white and black struggle for civil rights.

To her credit, Sorin does leave plenty of room for interpretation in between her blatantly pointed comments, especially toward the end of the exhibition, where a comical face jug from 1820-1850 is accompanied by these queries: What makes a stereotype? Suppose this jug was made by an African American - is it a stereotype? Suppose it was made by a white American - is it a stereotype?

A possible answer to these questions comes up in another exhibition at the NYSM, titled This Great Nation Will Endure, which consists of a great many wonderful photographs from the unforgettable FSA (Farm Security Administration) era of 1935-1942. This traveling show was organized by the staff at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, and it celebrates that almost ridiculously talented group of FSA photographers with 150 very good prints made from Library of Congress negatives in 2004, and extremely informative wall panels about each of the photographers included.

They range from the super-famous (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange) to the known-if-you-know-about-that-sort-of-thing (Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott) to the nearly unknown (Carl Mydans, John Vachon), but each has photos worth viewing and a story worth learning. The show makes a focal point of Lange, whose iconic Migrant Mother is presented very large here - but it also provides many strong moments from such greats as Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and Gordon Parks (whose 1942 Government Charwoman is shown above at left).

Parks, the only black photographer in the bunch (who went on to direct the seminal Blaxploitation movie Shaft) is not the only one to present images of blacks in this exhibition - so it offers a nice opportunity to ask some of the same questions that Sorin poses. Is his charwoman a stereotype (notwithstanding her purposeful resemblance to the wife in Grant Wood's American Gothic)? Would she be one if the photographer had been white? What about the other photographs of blacks made by whites (some of whom were Jewish)? What about the stereotyping or exploitation of poor people of any color in museum-quality art?

Whatever your answers, this show is every bit as instructive and provocative as Through the Eyes of Others, but with a bit less academic pretension. It runs through March 14; Through the Eyes of Others will end on Jan. 6.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dona Ann McAdams at Opalka Gallery

Geary Street, San Francisco, 1974 gelatin silver print by Dona Ann McAdams

The final exams are over, and the grad student is back to blogging - just in time to talk about an almost absurd abundance of important photography shows going on right here in the fair city of Albany. They include Keith Carter at The College of Saint Rose's Massry Gallery through Jan. 17; a large group of Depression-era photographs at the New York State Museum through March 14; and Berenice Abbott, also at the NYSM and now extended through Jan. 3. I wrote about the Abbott show in an earlier post, and will weigh in soon on the other two.

But first up is Some Women, a solo show by Dona Ann McAdams at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery through Dec. 16 (note: the show was originally scheduled to end on Dec. 11 but has been extended). A collection of 35 gelatin silver prints from 35 years of photographing (mostly) in the street, Some Women is both a personal retrospective and an homage to street photography itself; the title is a purposeful evocation of a very influential book from that genre's heyday, Women are Beautiful by Garry Winogrand, whose work McAdams' sometimes very much resembles.

McAdams' work can also look like that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein, and Lee Friedlander - comparisons that I imagine have already been made many times, and that I trust will not bother her in the least, because they are both apt and instructive. At any rate, the resemblances don't diminish this work one bit: it is, honestly, just as good as that of those great earlier photographers, and - most important - has its own clear voice.

McAdams is a fun study, because her work crosses so many boundaries and mixes freely from contrasting sources. First, there is the nostalgia of her traditional, rigorous 35mm black-and-white technique, right down to the 12" x18" darkroom-made prints - in this digital world, we don't see much of that anymore, and it is still refreshingly direct and visually rich. Second, McAdams is extremely politically engaged - yet, thankfully, her work does not put you off with strident messages.

Like all the sincere (I hope) documentarians whose shoulders she happily straddles, McAdams records the world as she experiences it, which in her case means with great sensitivity, clear-eyed passion, a healthy sense of humor, and a very open mind. I expected feminism from this show, and McAdams is most definitely an unapologetic feminist - but not of the sort you worry about running into at a cocktail party; rather, she quite honestly and convincingly portrays women and girls, some of whom are involved in political acts, but most of whom are simply living their lives the best they can, and nearly always looking enchanting as they go about their business.

The range here is impressive, from innocent tots to performance artists, prostitutes to nuns. In a few cases, there is no female person visible in the shot - one shows a well-lived-in room where photo portraits are the only concrete presence of humans; another depicts a crowd of well-dressed young men on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras - we follow their interested gazes upward and understand they must be watching a woman on a passing float, presumably in some flagrant display of her charms.

But the rest are quite direct - many of them are portraits, always affectionate (like the one above at right), and many are chance encounters that share the pathos of the situation before the camera (such as the image at the bottom of this post). With these, the gallery has added to the fun by creating telling juxtapositions, such as placing a somewhat chaotic Barcelona street scene in which a couple appear at first to be dancing, then to be fighting, next to an equally off-kilter shot from New York City in which women of various shapes are dressed for a Carnaval-style parade, their gazes going every which way like those of the bystanders in the Barcelona scene.

That pair is also side-by-side in the accompanying catalog, which reproduces in good black-and-white every picture in the exhibition. It's a nice little book, and a fitting throwback to the days when photographers regularly produced this sort of ephemera (I'm talking about the '70s and '80s, when printing was pretty affordable), and when McAdams did, too - a display case in the entry area of the gallery shows off six or eight of her artist book efforts from that time.

Some of the other pictures in the show are set-up circumstances, not my favorite approach in general, but here they work: a dozen barechested women lined up on a too-small roll of studio paper, each holding a sign in front of her breasts that says either "porn star" or "feminist"; a trio of women jugglers in everyday attire performing in front of a nuclear power plant; a Spanish wedding couple being pelted with a blizzard of rice.

The one photo that seems out of place in this selection is of the multimedia performer Meredith Monk onstage - though McAdams is known for her pictures of performance artists in action, this theatrically-lit shot lacks the subtle shades of the rest of the work in the show. I guess it was just too hard to resist including something from that series.

Aside from having been extended, this exhibition will have a special guided tour by McAdams at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4, and the artist will also be present for a screening of the film Guest of Cindy Sherman (in which she appears) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9. These are both good opportunities to go and see a really great collection of work.

Carrer San Ramon, Barcelona, 1988 gelatin silver print by Dona Ann McAdams