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Saturday, March 27, 2010

"It's The Thread That Binds" at Albany Center Gallery

We used to think that fine art means oil paintings, cast-bronze sculptures, and maybe a nice charcoal drawing or limited-edition print - but times have changed, and even conservative thinkers recognize that media once reserved for the trades, such as glass and wood, or materials previously unassociated with creativity, such as found objects or Mylar-wrapped candies, are also acceptable as the stuff that museums compete to show and collect.

It's The Thread That Binds, an exhibition of work by newcomers Sierra Furtwangler and Jennifer Hunold at Albany Center Gallery, has paired two fiber artists who play at opposite ends of the art-craft-nostalgia continuum that characterizes the current interaction of postmodern thought with folksy materials. On one hand, we have the 21st-century musings of house-hunter Hunold, who expresses herself humbly in the 17th-century media of embroidery and cross-stitch; on the other hand, there are Furtwangler's oversized stuffed animals, charmingly and naively sewn, but with fangs and breasts and genitals flamboyantly displayed.

Hunold presents two series - colorful thread embroideries of "dream house" floor plans, and cross-stitched aphorisms coded to current moral issues - along with a few related odds and ends. Her obsession with the ideal home is a fairly universal one, but the variations she offers do little to transcend the banality of that American dream. When she lets herself go a bit, whether through fanciful patterns or a slightly edgier concept, Hunold starts to become engaging.

But the cross-stitched pieces, while trying to amuse, are cute at best, and overall really cloying. For example, the one titled Soap + H20 = Nice has no irony or humor - it actually serves specifically to tell us that it's nice to be clean. Another lampoons annoying drivers who honk too loudly when we don't jump off the line at a freshly turned green light. A light tap will do, Hunold sweetly scolds.

These pieces underline the bland sincerity of Hunold's domestic dreaming, which leaves much to be desired. Were she to aim her medium toward subverting our perceptions of embroidered mottoes and samplers by sending stronger messages of our times, Hunold might begin to get somewhere interesting.

Fortunately, Furtwangler has no such timidity. Her sewn and stuffed monsters, mermaids, and monkeys are as fearsome as they are furry and funny. Occupying the space as fully ensconced inhabitants, they both seduce and surprise. One, titled This Is Not A Sloth (Tip of My Rod), jumps out at you from above, a primate that sports a huge, red-tipped pecker and sneers (or smiles?) while hanging upside down from a tree branch (all ingeniously made of printed fabric).

Another monkey figure squats desultorily but menacingly in a corner, shreds of an Oriental rug marking the trail of its retreat. Pieces of carpeting form important parts of other Furtwangler pieces as well, just one example of her capacity to find new ways to use available materials.

The gallery's promotional description of Furtwangler's influences - "the painting of Hieronymous Bosch and Francisco de Goya ... comic books, tattoo culture, 1980s LA punk rock lore, horror movies, Catholic iconography, taxidermy and biological illustration" - says a lot about how fresh and challenging this artist is. She is definitely one to watch.

It's The Thread That Binds continues through April 17; it will be open during Albany's monthly 1st Friday event on April 2. To watch a video of a discussion with the artists, click here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Randy Garber at Opalka Gallery

This will be a short review of a wonderful exhibition.

Randy Garber's Reverberations, on view at the Opalka Gallery at Sage College of Albany through April 18, is an unusually cohesive amalgamation of diverse media by a Boston-based artist of strong and subtle vision.

Going in, due to the gender-neutral name, I didn't know whether this artist is male or female; now I do know (and just to brag, I'll tell you I did guess correctly), but will leave that information unstated in case you also want to try to decide that question for yourself just by seeing the work. The dominant theme of the show is sound - no, it's not a sound installation, but it makes repeated references to music and rhythmic resonance, from its title to images of a horn player to drumlike constructions to a marvelously innovative woodcut print on player piano scrolls.

But Garber has other potent themes: transformation is evoked in copper plates that have been etched for printing, but then further etched into decayed shapes and re-used in a wall construction titled Connect; Asian contemplation comes across in three large, vertical, screenlike hangings made of etched and inked copper piping; and nature, whether human or animal, has a presence in many printed images on paper as well as in a trio of biomorphic oil paintings and a group of four small, vibrantly colored gouaches.

Most impressive about this exhibition is the way it totally and perfectly occupies the large, high, white space of the Opalka. I've seen many exhibitions in this space over the years, and it can be a challenge to fill successfully - but Garber makes it look easy. That is, Garber and guest curator Ruth Hall Daly, along with the Opalka's able staff. The fact that many of these pieces were made specifically for this installation shows that it's the result of a very successful collaboration.

One of those pieces (a detail of which is shown in the image at the top of this post) incorporates light but elaborate copper armatures with round fragments of intaglio prints sewn to them, playing translucency off light and shadow in a fabulous confabulation of forms that are mounted directly to the walls. Titled Receive, it is an extraordinarily unexpected and well-executed combination of media.

Language is another theme of Garber's that is woven throughout the show, whether directly as part of the images or in titles. The phrase "what you already know" is used repeatedly, even in multiple languages, as a sort of mantra. It reminds me of a lyric from the Simon and Garfunkel song The Boxer, that says "a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."

Does Garber mean to say that we can only see what we already know? If so, the artist has successfully contradicted him/herself by showing us things we most certainly have never seen before.

My only quibble with the show is a small one, but here goes. One prominent piece, titled Echo (and shown below), which has been used to publicize the exhibition, a bit too closely resembles giant, concentrically rolled condoms - and its central image of an open-mouthed woman doing something oddly suggestive with her hands does nothing to disabuse me of that association.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hudson Galleries

Spring was in the air, and a nice walk for the whole length of Warren Street in Hudson yielded the expected treasure from the region's most concentrated collection of art galleries.

Karen and I went to help a friend celebrate her part in a show, took in others that were having events and openings, and topped it off with a superb dinner at Ca' Mea, where Massimiliano greeted us warmly and invited us to visit him at his other eatery in Cortona, Italy, if we were ever in the neighborhood. For the food, in this case, no need to go to Cortona!

So, on to the art. First up, a collection of four painters presented as View Four, on exhibit through March 20 at Nicole Fiacco Gallery, whose pristine white cube of a room is probably the most perfect exhibition space anywhere north of New York City outside of a museum. The four painters - Robert Roane Beard, Stephen Courbois, Jeanette Fintz, and Enrique Kico Govantes - naturally are arrayed one on each wall, but with almost too much white space to go around and an annoying (for me) total lack of labeling.

Though they are shown in the same exhibition, the connections among them are a bit vague, centering on color and geometric pattern as methodic foci. Taken individually, I was most impressed by Fintz, whose modestly-sized acrylic triptych on wood panels and much bigger pair of acrylics on canvas played a complicated call-and-response. With shapes derived from a systematic application of the circle and hexagon, played out in a bottomless-well of expressiveness, Fintz applied challenging palettes of blue, green, and pink in one large piece called Andalusian Shards #2 (shown at top of post); staring at it is a bit like falling into the sky.

Also inspired by nature - including the human kind - are the four seasonal squares by Govantes (Winter, Karen's favorite, is shown at right; Summer is shown above). I like the energetic brushwork, the strong color shifts, and how Govantes strikes a balance just midway between abstract and figurative. Though it's a clichè to reference the seasons, he does it extremely well - look at the way Summer vibrates and you feel its heat.

Beard's work is directly taken from landscape, some Irish, some Columbia Countyish, and he does it on a very small scale - no bigger than about 5 by 7 inches (one is shown at left). His skill and style are easy to like, but the work seemed a bit frivolous to me, reminiscent of the once-overly popular graphic artist Folon.

Courbois is somewhat the odd man out in this group: His extremely dry approach to an exploration of muted colors in repeated shapes is quintessential Modernism (which is to say early 20th century). Not properly referred to as a painter, he employs a very subtle technique similar to chin collè printmaking to make contemplative constructions like the one shown here.

This is the kind of work that only serious art lovers can really get much out of - a narrowly focused theme-and-variation that you must really work to appreciate. I'm not lazy, but I prefer artwork that reaches out more ardently to the audience.

That would be a fair way to describe much of what has been brought together for the annual Painted Cities exhibition at Carrie Haddad Gallery, on view through April 11. This year's edition of the show is bristling with positive energy and some very fresh work, including lush "drawings" by Paul Chojnowski that are made from nothing more than water and fire (the one shown at right is titled Evening on the Avenue).

Other highlights include a savvy, atmospheric view of Troy's industrial waterfront by Tony Thompson; Staats Fasoldt's masterful little watercolors; and a group of painted moments by Judith Wyer that evoke great street photography - not by dint of excessive realism but by their skillful observation and cropping (the one shown at left is titled Pedestrian).

An even more popular approach is taken by the Columbia County Council on the Arts, whose 14th Annual Juried Show is on view at the Hudson Opera House through March 28. Judged by University at Albany Art Museum Director Janet Riker, this year's show awarded first and second prizes in 5 categories (painting, photography, sculpture, mixed-media, and works on paper), as well as a best-in-show, so everybody gets a little glory.

Riker is no pushover, however, and the work in the show is strong in each medium, providing a terrific opportunity to get a good overview of a diversity of excellent artists from the region. My favorites are too numerous to mention, though I must credit Hunger Moon, a video by Alan Coon that plays on animal and human locomotion; Car Jack, an amazing, very large drawing on wood panel by Keith Batten; and a simple - but not simplistic - stack of bricks by Jean-Marc Superville Sovak titled It Can't Last (shown at right).

Also presenting a large number of artists in one space is the Limner Gallery, whose Emerging Artists 2010 will be on view through March 27. I confess it was my first time visiting Limner, though it's been open under the wise guidance of an outstanding self-taught painter named Tim Slowinski since 1987 (!!!). It proved to be a great, if late, discovery.

I like a gallery that sets a style, and Limner is very much in that mode. All the art tended toward certain ideas and aesthetics that reflect, but do not mirror, Slowinski's own: carefully crafted, realist or Surrealist, deeply into social commentary. Many of the works showed good chops, but one stood out as truly extraordinary - a color drawing by Roberto Osti called Agnostic's Flight (shown at the bottom of this post). You must see it up close to be totally wowed by this piece, and you will, I promise, be wowed.

Finally, a show of abstract paintings by Claude Carone is at John Davis Gallery through March 28 and, as I always find at Davis, the work is impeccable. Elegant, warm, but with a tinge of the dark side, Carone's work is evocative without being representative.

This impression is borne out by his titles: Wind in Tinehir (shown above at left) or Glorious Morning, for example, are not meant to merely label the painting. After scanning the artwork, then noticing a list of these suggestive titles, I saw one that sounded familiar. Sure enough, Diver's Vision referred to the very painting I was thinking of - formally similar to the others, but with an undeniable underwater tone.

Other paintings in the show range from bright and linear to mysterious and layered, from the pastel-light to the earthily charred. The size range is modest, from about 8 by 10 inches up to about 2½ by 3 feet, but the surfaces and color relationships are very rich. It's a show not to be missed.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oddly Alive at the Arts Center

Oddly Alive, a well-conceived show of seven artists' work curated by Lauren Wolk, occupies both the main gallery and secondary space at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, but it does so in a light way. The art is sparsely placed, with a lot of white space everywhere, and it isn't very dense or colorful work; rather it's on the contemplative and quiet side. Well, there is noise in the show (delightfully), but the slightness that remains is oddly consistent with past shows at the Arts Center, despite its ever-changing rotation of curators.

Wolk has written a sensitive and descriptive statement that greets visitors near the entry of the bigger room, and it is helpful in explicating the themes of the show, which include direct exploration of materials such as fabric, glass, and wax; inspiration taken from the biological world; the passage of time; and action or interaction. "Ultimately," Wolk writes, "the show asks viewers to engage in self-reflection as they interface with the works."

For me, that experience had its ups and downs. Most intriguing were the blown glass and steel wall-mounted sculptures by Graham Caldwell, which nicely mingle attraction and revulsion; the startling sound pieces of Ven Voisey; and the wide embrace of Sky Kim's untitled drawings and watercolors.

Caldwell, whose Augur is shown at right above, is able to use color well, but most of his other works here are in shades of white. His innovative application of a combination of materials and the use of armatures to bring the pieces out from the walls is very successful.

Voisey present only three pieces, two of which are on an intimate scale - the other one runs nearly the length of the gallery's space (shown at top of post) like an overhead assembly line. When you walk under it, it springs to life with the mechanical thwackings of dozens of strikers against tethered paper, bringing to mind the action of a swarm of angry locusts. This is an artist who has matched method perfectly to intention. His message seems to be: WAKE UP!

Kim's works on paper range from a densely-packed graphite page about 24"x30" to a tremendous, colorful scroll that runs down the wall and halfway across the floor (detail at left above). Her marks are individual, even in some sense random, but the radial patterns they create belies her organic, perhaps microscopic, sources.

Also clearly inspired by the world of bugs, or undersea critters, is Rachel Adams, whose Elaborate Autobiographies is shown at right below. Made of wax, string and glass beads, this piece is more still life than animation. Other works of hers are more threatening; one inhabits a corner of the big gallery like giant white worms in a net, while another consists of modular forms piled around a column.

Mayumi Ishino presents what I understand to be the remains of a performance: Seven 12-inch-square mirrors, six of which have deftly drawn self-portraits in colored markers and are severely crushed, and one of which is untouched. All are mounted in a row on the wall, below average eye-level, perhaps so the viewer is not distracted by their own reflection. I can't comment on the performance, but the existing installation left me unmoved.

I also can't comment on Sabrina Gschwandtner's projection piece, as it was out of order when I visited the gallery. The curator describes the piece as an exploration of "the behavior of cotton thread in response to the light and fan inside [the projector]."

Finally, a group of color photographs by Marianne Fourie make images out of light trails traced against a black sky (some shown below). Her titles range from the overwrought to the deadpan (Passion and Pain are two of them, and the others are all on the order of the following: Walking along MacMillan Pier on September 13th, 2008, at 8:21), but they do nothing to elevate these pictures above those easily found at amateur snapshooters' shows.

Overall, I wish Oddly Alive had just a little more spunk. It's on view through March 19.