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Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Argyros Collection - Silver Years at Photography Center of the Capital District

The Argyros Collection - Silver Years: 25 Years of Collecting Fine Art Photography and other Media is a pretty big mouthful of a title, and it refers to a touchingly personal eyeful of a show. Nicholas Argyros, the man who created the Troy-based Photography Center of the Capital District, has been a driving force behind the local scene for as long as most of us can remember; while his collecting has largely remained local, this selection emphasizes the global – but it still expresses Argyros’ extraordinary example of supporting artists and arts organizations in a time and place when most people couldn’t be bothered. A second selection emphasizing the local aspects of the Argyros collection will go on view at the PhotoCenter in 2012.

In a way, we’re all collectors – whether of shoes, baseball cards or furniture – but very few individuals cross over to the state where the pursuit of those objects of desire grows so strong that it creates a new persona, one whose heart’s work is to build or complete the collection, no matter what. Those few who become collectors in the true sense are driven by obsessions unique to themselves, but they often ultimately create something more universal – something the rest of us can relate to and benefit from.

Argyros has produced just that kind of a collection. With but a handful of notable pieces outside the medium of photography (including a marvelous Leigh Wen silkscreen and colorful lithographs by Alexander Calder and Frank Stella), this is a personalized compendium of images that range from Ansel Adams (his Dunes, Oceano is shown above) to Alex Webb, from the birth of the photographic medium in the form of Daguerreotypes to the latest digital processes. Argyros, largely by taking careful advantage of fundraising auctions at places such as the Center for Photography at Woodstock and Albany Center Gallery, has been able to turn a practiced eye and a limited budget into some considerable artistic treasure.

The show is crowded, almost cluttered, as would befit a presentation of the beloved contents of one’s attic, but it is also effectively organized into groups by PhotoCenter director and curator Katherine Wright.

The range of techniques is broad, while the subject matter hews toward the classical: still life, landscape, nude, portrait. In all these categories, there are outstanding examples by practitioners both famous and less well-known, including some of the most important shots of all time (Alexander Gardner’s last portrait of Abraham Lincoln, made just four days before the assassination, and Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a much larger print of which once held the record for most expensive photograph ever sold) and a few that are anonymous, such as a tiny circular image from the original Kodak camera and a French curiosity in the form of a top-hatted nude posed outside a straw hut. These and others are reminiscent of what you might see in the permanent collection of a great museum such as New York City’s MoMA or Rochester’s George Eastman House.

But this collection is valuable not so much for providing a museum-like lesson in the history of photography as for its wonderful quirks. Many pieces use alternative media, not just those from archaic times, such as photogravure, Autochrome, or platinum and palladium, but also their modern equivalents in the form of archival pigment print, Cibachrome, or encaustic. Beyond that, a number of the works are variations on collage – clearly, Argyros enjoys the non-classical approach, too, and has not shied away from collecting experiments and even items salvaged from the darkroom trash bin (Eikoh Hosoe’s supremely elegant set of scraps, lovingly mounted, signed and dated, exemplify this least likely source of compelling art).

The rest are mainly gelatin silver prints (hence the show’s title), which for the era covered was the heart of all photographers’ formation, much as drawing was the foundation for all trained sculptors and painters before the era of conceptual art. For me, a lifelong photographer who logged the requisite 10,000 hours in the darkroom during the 1970s, it was soothingly nostalgic to see so many traditionally made prints – after all, it is becoming rather rare to see pictures not output digitally. But what counts most, as ever, is the image, and there are plenty of fine images here to be moved and enlightened by.

Among my favorites are a delightfully painterly black-and-white print of oysters by Lilo Raymond (shown at the top of this post); a fine double exposure of a rock and a cityscape by Barbara Morgan; Robert McCann’s extremely delicate Curtain of leaves (left); and a trio of self-portraits by the shape-shifting Arno Rafael Minkkinen.

Of the composite images, two by Jerry Uelsmann remind us why he is among the most popular gallery photographers ever, while two by Vincent Serbin have awakened me to a name I should have known before but didn’t. Meanwhile, Jesseca Ferguson’s pinhole constructions show that there are still new ways to beautifully do the same old things (one is shown at right).

The nude category might be the strongest here – outstanding examples include Edward Steichen’s 1906 Little Round Mirror, full of the spirit of its time; Lucien Clergue’s equally timely recent color double exposure (courtesy of Elizabeth Opalenik); Barbara DeGenevieve’s taboo-busting Four Graces (shown about the middle of this post); and Opalenik’s own Shower Embrace, quite simply one of the loveliest pieces in the show.

Also stunning as an image and as a print is a large 2008 color panorama from Colorado by John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk (shown below) that brings a blend of old and new technologies – people have been making 360-degree views of Western landscapes since at least the late-19th century, but the habit of pinning up unframed inkjet prints is a much more recent phenomenon. The combination is compelling, as is this marvelous collection. It remains on view through June 14; an informative and skillfully designed catalog is available.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Michael Millspaugh at Lake George Arts Project

Greenhouse Trailer mixed-media by Michael Millspaugh

When I learned that Michael Millspaugh was slated for a solo show at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery, I was immediately excited. Here was an Albany-based artist of slowly building local reputation taking a strong step forward into regional prominence with a hard-to-get showcase at one of our area's most respected publicly-funded galleries.

Then again, there was a doubt: Millspaugh's shown quite a bit locally in the last year or two - would this be a retread not worth the trip up North? No worries - immediately upon my arrival at the always warm and welcoming space, I knew this was a terrific show. Millspaugh's almost unbelievable level of production ensured that, among the 77 items on the checklist (one of which actually comprises 97 individual drawings), there would be many, many new and valuable experiences.

Millspaugh is a perfect example of how a person can complete themselves through the creative process. In person he is shy, almost painfully so. In terms of technique, his art is quite unassuming, though extremely diverse and functionally sound. But his ideas are wildly audacious and abundant.

The topics Millspaugh alludes to include hunting, domesticity, gardening, childhood, the military, art itself, fishing, school, toolcraft, camping, and more. His media run the gamut from minutely scribed pencil on paper to painted wood carvings and life-size installation. Embroidery makes a solid appearance, as does the occasional painting on canvas; collage and cardboard constructions are also regular habits, and he uses plastic models of vehicles in wonderfully innovative ways.

In other words, Millspaugh is a virtual creative volcano. Of course, quantity doesn't make quality - but, again, no worries there. His ideas are strong, the execution understatedly elegant, and the body of work coheres nicely around certain core obsessions so you know where he's coming from.

How to describe that? One of his titles, Study for Homespun Camo Smocks for Clandestine Agrarian Action and Food Getting, in Woodland Patterns (the work consists of two or three G.I. Joe-sized cloth ponchos - or maybe they're Ninja suits) neatly sums up several conjoined Millspaugh-isms. My notes include the term "eco-terrorism," but it is inapt because Millspaugh's work, despite being unapologetically weapon-centric, clearly preaches peace.

There's a sense of the survivalist here, too, between the hunting-and-gathering concepts and those exploring personal dwellings (or hideouts), but it never enters the realm of the paranoiac or reactive; rather, this work always seems to be proactive, outward looking, quietly celebratory.

Case in point: A repeated motif of Millspaugh's is the beautiful pun he has created in the "Meadow Maker," a modified Enfield or Mauser rifle that spews garlands of flowers rather than shards of death. He has numerous variations on this theme in the show, mostly in drawings, but some are full-scale modified guns, such as the M14 Garden Hoe Conversion, which literalizes the Biblical injunction to beat swords into ploughshares.

Other items take this concept into the art realm, by installing a pencil in the working end of a rifle, and adding ammunition belts stocked with a range of drawing implements. Millspaugh also plays with dolls - re-creating them as alternative "action figures," or carving them from scratch in an appealingly primitive way.

Altogether it's witty, heartfelt stuff. I highly recommend it to lovers of art, politics, food production, toys, and the outdoors.

The show runs through June 11 and the gallery is just a few steps off the main drag in Lake George Village.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Growing up in the 1960s, I loved Norman Rockwell’s art. It was folksy, funny, and almost photographic in its realism – things kids can appreciate. Later, I came to value Rockwell as much for his social and political courage as for his abilities with paint. Now, I have a new reason to admire this much-loved and much-scorned American artist – for the astonishing directorial work that backs up each of his illustrations.

It is probably no accident that the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., has mounted the exhibition Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera at this point in the history of art. Another Berkshire-county artist, Gregory Crewdson, is the person most responsible (well, after Cindy Sherman) for having established directorial photography as the most significant art movement of the past 20 years.

Yes, you read that exactly right: I am comparing Norman Rockwell to Gregory Crewdson – unironically. To continue the comparison, think of them as two sides of the same coin. On one side, there’s a patriotic, corny optimist, a shamelessly commercial image maker whose work always brought in a good buck by sending the right, cloyingly positive messages about America. On the other, there’s a Hollywood-tinged postmodernist, biliously cynical, whose work has also brought in big money because of its jaundiced and dark messages about the same America a few decades later.

The exhibition shows in well-notated detail and perfectly mounted imagery how Rockwell performed his craft. No, not the craft of painting (which I will always contend he did exceedingly well) – the directorial craft of planning, casting and organizing, and then photographing, piece by piece, the visually complex (if conceptually simplistic) dramas that typify his work. Rockwell himself did not release the shutter – that work went to various professionals over the years – and neither, by the way, does Crewdson, though he is known as a photographer. This is a director’s art in both cases, with the result being a still image rather than a movie.

For fans of Rockwell, the exhibition is an endless parade of favorites, now made new by the revelation of the process behind them. You would have to be the angriest curmudgeon not to take pleasure in seeing, for example, how the hundreds of black-and-white photos snapped for “A Day in the Life of a Little Girl” (see top of post) were created and then transformed into the full-color illustration of the same name.

For locals, there is no doubt the joy of recognizing faces from the past, as Rockwell used his neighbors for these pictures, in part so that he could bring “an unmistakable genuineness” to the faces in his scenarios. Still, in examining the side-by-side displays of source photos and finished paintings, one can see how much he exaggerated features for increased comic effect, almost to the point of caricature, while still somehow retaining that patina of realism.

Part of the fun is seeing the artist himself performing for the camera, both as a subject (very often recognizable in the crowds he loved to paint) and as an auteur encouraging his models. It’s clear his enthusiasm never waned, and his expressive skills were right up there with the best of his subjects. Many tricks and props are also visible, such as hands or wires holding up a pigtail to simulate speed, or books set under toes and heels to represent a proper gait.

Clearly, Rockwell’s directorial method was both well honed and essential to the making of his art. That it was also a precursor to the most heralded and high-priced artists of our present time is an idea so preposterous and yet so deliciously subversive as to be irresistible. Sherman, Crewdson et al: You owe this guy some respect.

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera opened last fall and continues through May 31. The museum is open every day, and it’s a pleasant 45-minute drive from downtown Albany to a beautiful setting in the Berkshires. Coming up next at the Norman Rockwell Museum will be an exhibition of work by the New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, which opens on June 12.

Tattoo Artist Cover for The Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell © 1944 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

Other credits for the images used in this post: Photographs for A Day in the Life of a Little Girl, 1948 Reference Photography, Norman Rockwell Archives, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company, Niles, IL.

Photographs for Soda Jerk, 1953 Reference Photography, Norman Rockwell Archives, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company, Niles, IL. Soda Jerk cover for The Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell © 1953 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

Norman Rockwell Posing for Pan Am Was My Magic Carpet Around the World, 1955 Reference Photography, Norman Rockwell Archives, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company, Niles, IL.

All images courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum

Friday, May 7, 2010

32nd Photography Regional

Chris DeMarco Salvage 2 color photograph

This year's Photography Regional is sponsored by Fulton Street Gallery in Troy, but it (mostly) hangs in the mall-like Uncle Sam Atrium nearby, which is both a blessing and a curse. Pulling a show as democratic in spirit as this one out of the white-walled sanctums of fine art and putting it before the general public is a good way to go, though it does reduce the seriousness with which it will be taken by some people (and it forced Fulton Street to segregate some of the art, such as the nude shown below at right, in their own more secluded space at the gallery, so as to avoid controversy at the Atrium).

Les Urbach, the founding father of one of the Regional's founding organizations (Albany Center Gallery), was a huge proponent of art in public places - so I know this installation would have pleased him greatly were he still alive to see it. Clearly, juror Carrie Haddad picked up on that generous spirit in her choices, which are the most eclectic and inclusive of any Photo Regional in memory. I think this is due as much to the bigger space allotted as to Haddad's openness.

But there can be too much democracy, and a show can be too big. To put it simply, this is a rambling, rollicking, fun collection of work by a great number of regional photographers of all stripes - and it would be much, much better if it had been edited down by at least a third. To Fulton Street director Colleen Skiff's credit, the arrangement of the 106 pieces at the Atrium (five others hang at Fulton Street) has many passages of real inspiration, where visual or conceptual themes have been established and delightfully played with.

That alone is good reason to go there and spend time in the space (as opposed to scanning all the images online at the gallery's website), because it creates a unique and validating art experience. But a group show this vast and tradition-bound is still, always, about the individuals chosen to participate. Among the 64 (chosen from 97 who submitted), there are a lot of lesser-known names, which is just what you want from an annual juried show, where new faces get the opportunity to shine.

Most of the prize-winners are younger or new on the scene - or just persistent folks who finally got picked after all these years. In the first category (and having taken First Prize) is Jennifer Morse, whose White Ponds series of three color details of an exurban housescape demonstrate that you don't have to be gimmicky to make powerful photographs in the 21st century. I'd never heard of Morse, but her shots were my favorites from the Salon (where all entries got to be seen before judging), so I guess you could say Haddad and I agree where it counts.

The second and third prizes also went to relative newcomers - Carrie Will and John Yost - who both work in color and offer social commentary: Will by presenting the visual conundrum of herself and her (apparently) twin sister in posed portraits (one is shown at the bottom of this post), and Yost by taking on more global issues in tiny, painterly vignettes (one, titled War of 2012, is shown at left near the top of this post).

Honorable mentions included Diane Reiner, a longtime veteran of the scene, and Bob Foss, equally long in the tooth but only recently breaking out. His black-and-white study of a shopping cart (shown above) is a sweet visual poem that evokes Modernism at its graphic best.

Oddly excluded from the show are works by several Doane Stuart students that I saw in the Salon and thought were amazingly sophisticated (their teacher, Sarah MacWright, is represented by a nice alternative-media piece showing a pair of shoes). Also absent are gorgeous color prints from cell-phone photographs that Mark McCarty had submitted. I can't imagine why Haddad wasn't taken by those, but that's part of what makes a juried show interesting.

Other strong work well-represented includes a pair of richly colored images of quirky collections by Linda Morrell and a trio of majestic Icelandic scenes by Michael Marston. But here I need to express a word of caution to Marston and some others (listen up, Tom Chesnut and Nancy Noble Gardner): If you keep showing the same work over and over again, people get bored and then come to the conclusion that you aren't working very hard. Please stop that. Make some new pictures already, OK?

There's lots more work in the show worth commenting on, but it's time I stopped and let you go see it for yourself. The show continues through May 22.