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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flosdorf and Swidorski at Fulton Street Gallery

Two photographers who've been quite active on the local scene in recent years are presented in side-by-side solo shows at Fulton Street Gallery in Troy, with a reception on Friday (Jan. 29) that coincides with the always fun and eclectic Troy Night Out.

The three-room installation of 15 pictures each by Jim Flosdorf and Theresa Swidorski offers an opportunity to see each artist's work in depth (often impossible in the more common group shows) and to compare and contrast them as well. While Flosdorf's show is billed as a retrospective, touching on about ten years of output in digital color, Swidorski's is made up of two recent groups of images in traditional black and white.

The gallery's ample front room provides plenty of space in which Flosdorf's large, rather brightly colored work can breathe; the flat-mounted, minimally framed (or unframed) pieces use it well. Visually, and in terms of process, they are an amalgam of classic photography technique and painterly yearnings; some highly graphic, others richly detailed, they can be successfully viewed from a distance or up close.

The newest image in the show (2010's Ore Crusher, shown above), is a crystal-clear example of what makes Flosdorf tick: it uses oversaturated color, gritty texture, romanticism, and playfulness to quickly engage the viewer and then keep the relationship going for a while.
Many of Flosdorf's other works (in this show or not) are much more complex than Ore Crusher, but they do not necessarily exceed it. One I particularly like, titled Grassy Inlet, plays a similar game of seek-and-find, while offering a much bigger world view, and more adventure.

Two other recent images in this selection were part of the 2009 Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition at Albany's University Art Museum, and were taken at the massive Sol Lewitt installation at MASS MoCA (one is shown above). These typify Flosdorf's more graphic approach, where color and shape are the dominant features, rather than intimate detail.

Other works in the show that hew in this direction were made inside a heavily graffitoed and trashed set of train cars. Unlike many of Flosdorf's photographs that are often highly manipulated in PhotoShop, these appear to be straight images. Another train image shows a moving engine that appears to be floating out of a pink haze like an apparition or a dream - it is perhaps the most like a painting of the photos in this selection.

Speaking of selection, one note on curatorial choice: While it is valid to do a retrospective show of an artist with ten years' worth of work to choose from (and I know from past viewing that Flosdorf has plenty of depth in the work made in that span), by taking many small slices of that work you run the risk of creating a show with a "best of" feeling, rather than an experience of the artist at his best.

I think it would have served Flosdorf (and the audience) better to have presented larger slices of a smaller range of images, thereby communicating the consistency and coherence of this artist's vision in a more complete way.

This, in effect, is what is accomplished in the smaller-scale, two part show of Swidorski's photographs from Italy and Ireland. A group comprised of eight pictures, all of them vertical 11x14's taken in Venice and Vicenza (one is shown at left), fits snugly along an upstairs balcony in the back of the gallery.

The carefully modulated tones of wet-processed silver printing take this work well out of the realm of the tourist snapshot, as does Swidorski's receptive, deceptively quiet eye for a meaningful scene. She often shoots in the soft light of early morning, relishing the surfaces and forms of her classic subjects.

This is not your sun-drenched Italy, but it definitely is Italy - presented from a certain point of view, but as and for itself. In a more personal category are the seven pictures Swidorski shows from Ireland in the gallery's back room (one is shown below).

These are printed larger than the Italy images, but also much more expressively - while some retain the sharpness and range of tones we associate with traditionally well-made black-and-white prints, others are dark and brooding, using great swaths of swirling graininess to capture and render atmosphere. This is where I think Swidorski starts to accomplish something special. While it is hinted at in the Italy pictures, the Irish weather allows Swidorski's emotional side to come out and play.

One favorite (not shown here), titled The Amazing Cloud at Inch, presents a rural landscape, its elements dwarfed by a looming, black stormcloud. A similar effect is created in another image titled Lost in Donegal. Swidorski can be comfortable resting her reputation on the strength of these two pictures alone.

If you want to go out and play, Troy Night Out will have many other shows also worth a look: painter Harry Orlyk at Clement Gallery; a group show at Martinez Gallery that includes many regional favorites (Flosdorf among them); Dan McCormack at the PhotoCenter; two new shows and an Ellen Sinopoli open dance rehearsal at the Arts Center; and much more.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Then & Now at Albany Center Gallery

A fine show fills the intimate spaces of Albany Center Gallery for its Then & Now exhibition, the latest in an annual series that brings artists who have previously shown at the gallery back for a fresh look. The 2010 edition of Then & Now features three women in mid-career who work in diverse media but have a strong affinity in their approaches to form, color, and content, making this a very well-matched selection.

Mimi Czajka Graminski is essentially an installation artist who works in fiber. Her Knit Cones (shown at left) uses knitted wool and other fibers to make repeated hat shapes that are then grouped, distorted, and arranged differently for each installation. Many of the cones as presented in this show (there are more than 40 total) are folded in on themselves, emphasizing their resemblance to nipples; unfolded they seem like elongated breasts, an image that feminist artists commonly employ. Fortunately, Graminski doesn't take her work over-seriously, and the total formation of the colorful cones in a space about 10 feet wide is pleasantly playful.

Graminski extends this sense of play in three serial grids of embroidery on linen titled Morning, Evening, and Dawn. Unframed and floating a bit off the wall, the groups are highly textured, with vivid colors of thread and simple, almost childish imagery. The best of them, Dawn, relies on a teardrop motif and incorporates a lot of cutouts and additions to build dimension.

Graminski also occupies the gallery's most open space with two groups of forms in crocheted tulle fabric of bright, earthy, and pastel colors. Each group of six, suspended from invisible wires to make them appear to be free-standing, feels vaguely figurative; those titled Grow huddle together, while the taller shapes of Forgiveness appear to march across the space.

The painter Iona Park combines some unusual media in her gently cerebral, square meditations on landscape. Casein, gesso, dry pigment, and paper are among the materials she spreads, drips, polishes, sands, incises, rubs, wrinkles, and burns to arrive at deeply textural surfaces that must be examined up close to be properly felt.

All of Park's compositions work with a similar structure - usually one or two clear horizon lines and always a busy thicket of vertical gestures - yet there is plenty of freedom in them and a great deal of variety in the results. As interesting and emotive as her colors become, her titles are often evocative, too, adding to the poetry of this smoldering work (shown above at right is Effloresce; below at right is Carapace).

Park's paintings are small. Of the fifteen presented here, twelve are just a foot square, and three are 18 inches square, and they are arranged in such a way as to allow the viewer plenty of time and space for contemplation. It works perfectly.

Photographer Jeri Eisenberg completes the trio, with 11 works in her by-now recognizable modular style that breaks images into one-by-three-foot vertical strips of Oriental paper (hung in an ingenious free-floating manner with powerful magnets).

Like Graminski and Park, Eisenberg draws from nature but pulls toward abstraction and pure color. The range from yellow to red, with a lot of pure white setting it off, comes from the flowers and fall foliage she photographs, but Eisenberg's out-of-focus capture and ink-softened digital output gives these colors an even more ethereal presence than the delicate, dying forms they represent.

Then there is the structure of Eisenberg's "panels," which create a vertical image if one or two are used, a square with three, or a horizontal when four are put together (the show features all these options; a four-panel one is shown below). This design is clearly inspired by Japanese or Chinese scrolls and screens, and is compatible with Eisenberg's rather Oriental approach to nature in her art.

By employing the sequence of technical manipulations that result in these lovely creations (including the incorporation of encaustic), Eisenberg has all but left photography's traditions behind. Yet, they remain photographs, an important assertion that gives them a strength and directness they would lack if painted.

This work has gotten quite a bit of national attention in recent years, and it's easy to see why. Combining Eisenberg with the equally accomplished Graminski and Park makes this the region's first must-see show of 2010.

Then & Now is open through Feb. 27; there will be an artists' reception at the gallery during Albany's 1st Friday event from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5.

Jeri Eisenberg Ornamentals, No. 5 pigment ink on kozo paper with encaustic

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday to me

Today, Get Visual in its present form is one year old.

It was born in December 2008 at The Daily Gazette, but got pushed out of the nest soon after and began to fly on Blogger on Jan. 19, 2008. Since then, the blog has been visited over 16,000 times, and has been cited in all sorts of places both known and unknown.

A recent Google search turned up all sorts of surprising flotsam, including a mention in the newsletter of the Woman's Club of Albany, a misquotation on a sign in the window of a clothing store in Troy (and subsequent comment storm on All Over Albany), and nice plugs on Nippertown.com and the Times Union's arts blog. Who knew?

It's been quite a year, and looks to be quite a bit more of the same in the year to come.

Thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, quoting, misquoting, etc. Please do keep it up.

And, especially, please remember to support your local artists in any way you can.

-db

Thursday, January 14, 2010

American Impressionist Landscapes at The Hyde Collection

Ernest Bruce Nelson April in Central Park, ca. 1935-43, oil on canvas

The title of the current show at The Hyde Collection may be a bit of a mouthful, but that doesn't mean An Enduring Legacy: American Impressionist Landscape Paintings from the Thomas Clark Collection isn't also an eyeful. Drawn from a private collection numbering over 100 works that will eventually be donated to the Hyde, this selection of 64 paintings by 47 artists nicely fills the museum's ample central gallery and is sure to please lovers of traditional painting genres.

Thomas Clark is a Saratoga County-based private management consultant (who, incidentally, is not related to the family that founded the Clark Art Institute and other major museum collections), who began to form his collection about 25 years ago. Even at that time it would have taken almost untold wealth to pick up quality works by significant artists from the first third of the 20th century, so the group represented here consists mainly of second-tier painters who were well-known and successful in their day but are now largely forgotten. This review will consider the question of whether it should have remained that way, or whether these footnotes to American art history are worthy of recognition today.

This is a tough bill to fill - as it is, even American Impressionists of the highest order (such as Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, and William Merritt Chase) remain far less esteemed than their European elders (Monet, et al). The painters in this show were primarily students and lesser colleagues of these and other top-drawer Americans; for the most part, they could paint quite well, and the examples shown include some of their best work. However, I believe few people would make a strong argument that this work broke important new ground or carried lasting influence.

Looking at the show, I tried to ask myself a certain question regarding each painting: If someone brought this to me as a contemporary work of art by a budding painter, would I be impressed? Or would I be inclined to think the artist would never amount to much? While it isn't necessarily fair to judge historic art through a contemporary lens, it is still very instructive. I don't doubt that any first-rate work, from any era at all, in any style, would pass such a smell test.

So, how did the Clark Collection paintings fare? As a whole, I'm sorry to say, not that well. Most of the works, while competent, felt either amateurish, commercial, or touristy. Still, I'm glad to report that the best works in the show transcend these categories to deliver the kind of vital experience that one desires from the best art, whether visually, emotionally or symbolically.

Among these outstanding examples are some that fall neatly under the Impressionist label, including the show's signature piece by George Loftus Noyes (reproduced above left), Maurice Braun's almost-too-sugary but gorgeous Meadow in Spring and John Joseph Enneking's energetic small sketch titled Distant Sail.

Others have a distinctly Modernist edge, including a fine piece made under the auspices of the Federal Art Project by Ernest Bruce Nelson that may have been a study for a mural (reproduced at the top of this post); and Louise Upton Brumback's Grey Day, Gloucester, which presents a view of a harbor in winter that could almost have been painted by Edvard Munch. This piece is smartly juxtaposed with a lovely but more pedestrian view of the same harbor under summer sun by Alice Judson (reproduced at right). These two women, incidentally, are among seven included in the show - not an equal representation compared to the 4o men, but a pretty fair one considering the time frame.

Two of my favorite pieces in this exhibition fit between the Impressionist and Modernist parameters. One, titled Winter Landscape with Purple Hills, by Walter Koeniger, is among a large number of paintings here that depict snowy scenes, and is easily the most muscular of them in terms of both color and composition. It also has a lot of atmosphere - but not nearly so much as Arthur Clifton Goodwin's masterful depiction of a blizzardy squall in Boston, circa 1915 (reproduced below). That painting alone is well worth paying the Hyde's modest $5 suggested donation to see.

A catalog has been published to accompany An Enduring Legacy, with text by Hyde curator Erin Budis Coe, who will give a lecture about the exhibition at 3 p.m. on Sunday (Jan. 17). Coe, along with Thomas Clark, will be on hand after the talk to sign copies of the book.
Arthur Clifton Goodwin The Wharf and Custom House Tower, ca. 1915, oil on canvas

Friday, January 8, 2010

Keith Carter at Esther Massry Gallery

There is just a week left to see the Keith Carter exhibition at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery; it was closed for winter break and will be open again from Jan. 11 through Jan. 17, so try to catch it if you can (location, directions, and hours are available here).

The show, titled Poet of the Ordinary, comprises 77 elegantly made and precisely installed black-and-white photographs that date from 1972 to 1999, making it a curiously out-of-date retrospective for this still active mid-career photographer. Carter, a self-taught Texan, has published a lot of books, so a lot of this work is quite familiar to close followers of contemporary art photography - but the show is a real beauty that offers those of us who know the work a nice full immersion, and those new to it a comprehensive crash course.

There are two distinctive characteristics to Carter's body of work: The subject matter and the style. His subjects are usually alive, whether human or otherwise, except when he delves into the rare unpopulated landscape or, more often, a picture of an object. Carter's approach to these subjects has evolved over the long course of time represented in this exhibition, but it could generally be termed portraiture, and in this case we're talking about the personal sort of portrait rather than the commercial type.

So, in addition to his pictures of people, when Carter photographs a dog (he's done many), a horse (ditto), or even some flowers in a vase or a dress hanging on a wall, he does it in a way that sweetly connects the viewer to the subject and warmly holds you close to it.

Stylistically, Carter presents his images toned to a warm shade of brown-black; all but a few have a raggedy black border and are about 15 inches square, and he tends to print a bit dark, giving many of his pictures an air of mystery. He also often allows movement to blur his images, enhancing this characteristic.

I once heard Carter say that "sharpness is overrated," and he demonstrates what he meant by that with about half this work, where two distinct methods of photographic unsharpness are employed. Nearly everything produced after about 1990 shows these effects (while the fully in-focus work is almost entirely from Carter's earlier decades of production).

The first method is a common technique in which a very shallow depth-of-field allows the photographer to apply selective focus - usually to a plane in the foreground or background - which has the effect of setting some subject or detail apart from the rest of the picture and drawing our attention to it. More recently, however, Carter started to apply an innovative technique that allows him to make selective focus in a strip rather than a plane, again directing the viewer's attention to the sharper areas of the image, but in a much less natural way.

Some may argue that this slot effect is more natural rather than less - and they may be right - but it is definitely less "normal," in the sense of what normally happens by virtue of the camera's standard properties, and so it is far less commonly seen in the long history of photography than the more "normal" selective focus that happens in a plane.

One of the results of Carter's experimentation with the slot technique is that it has become increasingly common - in fact, we can see it everywhere now in magazine ads and in gallery photographs, to the extent that I am getting quite sick of it. But that's not Carter's fault! He led and the others followed. Still, I have always found his technique gimmicky, and this show, despite its apparent sincerity, strong consistency, and great appeal, has not disabused me of that notion.

When I ask myself why such a good photographer should choose to shoot through a piece of plastic (or whatever it is that he does - I'm just guessing) all the time, I don't come up with a satisfactory answer. And when I see that the only shot in this show from the later years that eschews that method is, to my mind, clearly one of the best, I'm further unconvinced of the ultimate wisdom of his choice (that shot, titled Wishing Well, shows the coinage at the bottom of its titular subject glittering darkly up at us like a galaxy of stars, seductively and magically turning the act of looking straight down into the experience of looking straight up).

Taken as a whole, this is still a very appealing and strongly personal body of work, and it has had a good bit of influence on other photographers, which makes it important as well. The show is very beautifully installed, with attentive and entertaining groupings and juxtapositions that add a lot of fun to the process of taking it all in.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In Memoriam: John Yang

I was greatly saddened to learn recently of the death on Sept. 28 of New York City photographer John Yang, whose elegiac series of Thacher Park pictures was shown in a solo exhibition at the Albany Institute of History & Art in the fall of 2007.

Yang, who was a child when he came to the United States from China, worked as an architect before retiring in 1978 to devote himself fully to photographic art. His work, often made with custom-built cameras of unusual dimensions (examples include 11x14-inch format and 360-degree panoramic), had been exhibited regularly at Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery and John Stevenson Gallery in New York, Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, and other premier venues; it is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and many other museums.

The Thacher Park photographs, made primarily along the Indian Ladder Trail during five years of concentrated effort, constituted his final body of work. A beautiful catalog of that cycle was published by the Albany Institute and is available in the shop at the museum. You can learn more about Yang and his work by clicking here to go to his website.

I had the good fortune of getting to know John personally after I wrote about his Indian Ladder series for Capital Region Chronogram; the last time we saw each other was at his house in August, where he showed me two albums of landscape photos that he thought might make a book, and I took the picture of him seen above. He was an extremely gracious and thoughtful man with an impeccable eye for subtle composition and consummate photographic technique. He will be greatly missed.

John Yang John Boyd Thacher State Park toned gelatin silver print

Monday, January 4, 2010

D. Jack Solomon

D. Jack Solomon Call On Me acrylic on canvas 2008

When my friend the painter D. Jack Solomon commissioned me to write the text for a catalog to accompany his solo exhibition at the Hudson Opera House this fall, he pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn't be reviewing the show here on Get Visual due to a conflict of interest. As it was, I didn't even get to see the show until its last week or so in early December - but let me tell you without equivocation, it was brilliant.

The catalog, beautifully designed by Gary Bielski, carries a short essay by the New York curator and critic Dominique Nahas, a conversation between me and Jack, and the following essay that I wrote about Jack's work. I present it here in the original form, with related images, so you can get to know this very important regional artist better. Follow this link to see more images and information on D. Jack Solomon; once there, you can also order a copy of the catalog directly from him.

Master Jack

Has there ever been a stranger or more challenging time to be an artist? Boom or bust, the outstanding characteristic of postmodernism has come to be called pluralism, which marks not a presence but the absence of a dominant mode of thinking. A wide-open, economically capricious art world allows for many things to happen, but it offers no coherency, no valid hierarchy, and potentially no meaning in the larger cultural sense. It is like a church without a doctrine.

In a society where people expect to change jobs every three years, for someone to make the commitment to a lifetime of mastering and practicing a craft is to be decidedly off the grid of mainstream thinking. But that’s where many artists find themselves – outside the cultural mainstream, outside the increasingly popularized and polarized artistic mainstream, working steadily and sweetly in a world nearly of their own making, where but a few signposts guide them and just a few like-minded friends join them.

The world of D. Jack Solomon is such a place. Drawing upon the reserves of a philosophically focused education, shored up by decades of teaching from that core, and driven forward by impeccably applied technique, he has built an enviable body of work that, despite its many clear influences, is as potently original as any painter’s today – indeed, it is instantly recognizable at 100 paces.

The master is both of his time and outside his time – he must speak to us in a language we understand, but he must also show us new things we otherwise would never see without his guidance. Solomon is exactly that. He has adopted tropes and tricks from sources as diverse as abstract expressionism, early modernism, ’60s pop, even the current fascination with cartoon imagery, and melded them into a gloriously complex yet unified whole. From this unique style we can derive entertainment, awe, perhaps enlightenment – and always visual excitement.

One can try to analyze Solomon’s work from various perspectives: Compositionally, for example, or in terms of color. His symbolism is extremely rich – yet he claims not to really mean anything by it. His clever borrowing and blending of bits and pieces of Fernand L├ęger, Stuart Davis, Pablo Picasso, and Rudolph Dirks (who drew The Katzenjammer Kids) has resulted in a cacophonous style that would blow apart if it weren’t so firmly anchored to the canvas by Solomon’s rigorous structure.

Structure: That’s the key to this work. All the diverse aspects of these gorgeous, goofy, grand paintings are ensnared in a network of dark and light elements that is as innate to pure abstraction as it is to a Sunday comic strip. So, we need to pay attention to the structure. And a key to understanding Solomon’s structure is modulation, whereby individual colors are made to vary in tone and intensity, moving forward and back in the picture plane and interweaving with each other to activate that surface.

Some of Solomon’s earlier work, such as 1972’s Oakland #2 (shown above at left), was pure modulation, expressed in grids that appear illuminated from within. Other examples, such as 1984’s Ah, Lucia (shown at right), betray a distinctly Oriental influence that softens the intensity of the cartoonish colors. But even before those there were works, like Harlow of 1966 (shown below at left), that displayed a graphism and a use of popular iconography that ties in directly with the latest of Solomon’s paintings. In effect, aside from mining much of the significant art and imagery of the 20th century, Solomon has been able to mine himself to arrive at the mature style that marks his work of the last 25 years.

Looking at these paintings is pure pleasure. There is delight both in recognizing elements and in just getting lost in the sweep of color and composition. Aside from the power of Solomon’s sheer ability to paint, an exhilarating overabundance of ideas flows from every canvas. Some are not much bigger than a postcard, yet they pack in calligraphic elegance, geometric acrobatics, compelling encounters, numerological mysteries, and just plain silly fun.

The most recent of these works, almost unbelievably, strike me again and again as the best of all. They exude music, sex, tragic history, and sheer naturalistic beauty. Solomon’s dedication, his persistence, and his wisdom shine through these works with a consistency that can only come from a lifetime of honing skill and staying true to a vision. Spend time with these paintings and I’m sure you will agree. Though, like all masters, he somehow makes it look easy, his accomplishment is major.

D. Jack Solomon Work It Out acrylic on canvas 2008