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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Shows of 2010

Larry Poons Monkey Liner 2008 acrylic on canvas

A year ago at this time, I summed up the first complete year of Get Visual with philosophical musings, memorable highlights, and encouragement to all of you to support the arts any way you could in these tough times. Well, it seems not very much has changed – Get Visual has completed another calendar year of reviews from our incredibly rich region’s offerings, and the arts are still taking heavy blows from the ongoing (though supposedly easing) recession.

Among the lowlights: NYSTI crashed and burned, swept away by multiple fiscal malfeasances; the city of Albany cut its entire $350,000 annual arts budget (to which the Common Council had the good sense to restore a fractional $65,000, targeting “small arts groups,” according to the Times Union); Proctors bought and sold a couple of buildings, forcing the move of the “working” artists’ studio to off-street quarters; and the number of art shows overall dropped significantly, as cash-strapped presenting organizations sought ways to cut costs (extending a show for a few months is a quick way to do that).

Despite the downs, there were at least 50 shows out there that Get Visual reviewed, and the traffic here has increased by just about 50%, jumping from 15,000 visits tallied in the first year to 22,000 in the second (for a current total of 37,000). And, while there may have been fewer exhibitions to track – though that did not save us from missing a whole lot of them, naturally – the quality of those exhibitions remained astonishing.

Though I was planning to break tradition and do a Top Ten list this time, the 17 shows on my “short” list will not whittle down that easily. Even so, as I said, important shows were missed, and while that’s almost unforgivable, please allow me to apologize foremost for failing to make it to MASS MoCA during 2010 (soon to be rectified!), and in general for any other worthwhile efforts that I didn’t catch. I welcome, and would greatly appreciate, any comments from readers that mention such worthy, overlooked endeavors.

So, with a little bit of category manipulation (but no further ado), here are the Capital Region’s best shows of 2010, each linked to its original review as it appeared on Get Visual):

Category One - Major Museums: As usual, there were summer blockbusters, and the one that stood out above all others was Picasso Looks at Degas at the Clark Art Institute (image at left). We were extremely lucky to have this international event make its only North American stop in our backyard, and it absolutely lived up to the hype – unless, for some reason, you hate great paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. Also worthy of supreme status was Andrew Wyeth: An American Legend at The Hyde Collection, which should have been sufficient to convert any remaining doubters that Wyeth truly matters as a 20th-century artist; and Not Just Another Pretty Place: The Landscape of New York at the New York State Museum, which earned my first Must See rating (the system was only recently instituted) for the way it showcases the surprising depth, breadth, and quality of the NYSM’s permanent collection (and it’s still on view through March 3, hint, hint). Also mentionable in this category is the Norman Rockwell Museum’s excellent exposure of Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera.

Category Two - Solo Exhibitions (large): A very crowded category, probably because I generally prefer the in-depth coverage of a solo to the smatterings of group shows – but maybe also because there just happened to be a bunch of great solos this year, and a bunch of those were pretty substantial. Top of the list, because it was as challenging as it was rare, is Larry Poons: Recent Paintings at the Esther Massry Gallery. Also very impressive: Jules Olitski: An Inside View at Opalka Gallery (image above at right); Edward Avedisian: Retrospective at Carrie Haddad Gallery; Carroll Dunham Prints: A Survey at the University Art Museum; and Fred Tomaselli at the Tang Teaching Museum. All were comprehensive surveys of important, innovative bodies of work that the curators and presenting organizations pulled off flawlessly. It’s worth noting that two of these shows were of prints (Dunham and Olitski) and one was of mixed media (Tomaselli) – it’s not always about painting.

Category Three - Solo Exhibitions (small): Again, many good choices here. The top spot has to go to Michael Millspaugh (once again, not a painter), whose exuberant, exhaustive installation at Lake George Arts Project set him apart from the everyday artists of this - or any - region (image above at left). Also worthy of year-end praise: Claude Carone: Paintings at John Davis Gallery; and Monica Miller: Diary of a Trespasser at Joyce Goldstein Gallery. Boxed Sets, a retrospective of dioramas and stage designs by Charles Steckler at the Perrella Gallery at Fulton-Montgomery Community College gets honorary mention here because, even though I didn’t actually see it, other similar recent shows by Steckler were unalloyed knockouts - I'm certain this must have been, too.

Category Four - Group Exhibitions: Reflections on Water in American Painting at the Arkell Museum (image at right) was a revelation, because traveling shows from private collections usually come off as self-serving and are rarely as great as the presenters would like to think. But not this one! Another group show that transcended the category by the sheer quality of juror Ian Berry’s selections was this year’s Fence Select at the Arts Center of the Capital Region. Also at the ACCR, Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers stood out as a hard-hitting, carefully planned combination of three photojournalists’ personal visions of war (oddly enough, it’s the only show of photographs that made this list). Then and Now at Albany Center Gallery effectively combined the seemingly unrelated talents of fiber sculptor Mimi Czajka Graminski, painter Iona Park, and photographer Jeri Eisenberg. And, finally, Here and There: Two Degrees of Separation, a show of 20 printmakers at the Union College Arts Atrium, again broke the mold by pulling together a very diverse collection and, somehow, pulling it off.

Notably absent here is The Jewel Thief, currently on view at the Tang; I predict it would have been on this list had I seen it yet. Please watch this space for a review of The Jewel Thief that will run soon. And have a fantastic year of art viewing in 2011.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Media Watch (EMPAC show)

I try to pick up a Metroland (the Capital Region's alternative newsweekly) every Thursday, scanning the table of contents first to see if there's anything on visual art, but the last few months I've been left mostly disappointed in that regard. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the current issue carries a review by Nadine Wasserman of the exhibition Uncertain Spectator at EMPAC in Troy.

Then, this morning, I found a feature article by Tom Keyser about the same show in the Times Union's "Unwind" section. So, needless to say, I'll be getting over to EMPAC ASAP to see what all the excitement's about, and I'm very much looking forward to the experience. True confession: It will be the first time I've ever been inside the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

So, you can plan to read about my perspective on Uncertain Spectator in a pending post (the venue will be closed from Dec. 23-Jan. 2, so I'll probably wait till after that to publish a review). In the meantime, I hope all of you have a fun run at the Christmas and New Year's holidays. And please look here soon for a 2010 year-in-review as well.

-db

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Perfect Fit and Old Soles at AIHA

Based on publicity photos for The Perfect Fit: Shoes Tell Stories at the Albany Institute of History & Art, I went there expecting to see shoes as art, and art as shoes - but I was not prepared for the additional quantities of complex art about shoes that the traveling show also includes.

Organized by the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass., which was once a shoe-factory town, The Perfect Fit is the type of show that reminds us of the large role traditional craft media now play in contemporary art. The Institute's three small upstairs rooms are stuffed with work by a geographically diverse selection of artists, all of it produced between 2004 and 2008 in almost every conceivable material.

Just so you get the idea, here's a partial list: silk, glass, ceramic, wood, wire, quilted fabric, painted fabric, beads, papier mache, embroidery, doll parts, bicycle parts, tools, precious metals, origami, handmade paper, recycled milk jugs, soil, honeycomb (yes, actual honeycomb) and canary eggs. And, of course, video - pretty darn bad video, at that.

Among the actually shoe-like creations, one lovely pair (by Jan Hopkins, shown at the top of this post) is crafted from grapefruit and cantaloupe peels; another exuberantly unwearable pair of boots (by Rebecca Siemering, shown at right) is entirely made of discarded scratch-off tickets.

Further expanding the media included are a pair of fake-fur-and-blown-glass telephones (the handsets are ladies pump-shaped) by David Fox; a sound sculpture featuring a wide fan of 416 bronzed baby shoes by Judy Haberl; and an elegantly cut, black-paper silhouette accordion book by Beatrice Coron.

A number of pieces make painful reference to the Chinese foot-binding legacy; others are equally humorous and lighthearted. Among the more fully-realized works of art are Nina Fletcher's Shoe Wheel, a mandala of discarded black pumps joined in an endless cycle, and Ito Horotoshi's Morning of the Snow Fall, a remarkably illusionistic sculpture in granite and marble of a pair of boots toeing some of the freshly fallen white stuff.

The most touching work of art in the show for me is Abby's Shoes, a tableau by Lissa Hunter of several framed black-and-white photos (rendered in paint and wood), sitting on a plaster shelf along with two tiny woven slippers. The accompanying text details a Korean two-year-old's adoption, and her subsequent sad attachment to the memory of her first pair of shoes, which she regrets having thrown away. This piece is on another level compared to the work in the show featuring complaints about shopping and fit.

After viewing The Perfect Fit, you are sure to see the art in many of the more than 60 pairs of shoes from the past three centuries featured in Old Soles, an accompanying vitrine exhibit taken from the Institute's collection.

Old Soles covers a satisfying range of examples in wood, leather, silk and so on, including a terrific pair of Frye-ish child's boots from the 19th century, that amazing silver pump shown above at right, and the silk slippers shown below, dated 1916.

Both shows end on Jan. 2, so you'll have to hurry.

Rating: Recommended

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Critical Stitch at Mandeville Gallery

The Pop and the political intermingle like two skeins of colored yarn in Critical Stitch, which opened in October and runs through Dec. 19 at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery. Curated by Lorraine Morales Cox, a Union professor of contemporary art and theory, the exhibition features fiber-based work by 12 artists from all over: Maine, Michigan, Newfoundland, Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island all have representatives, while California and New York City have a few each in the show.

Considering that it was organized by someone whose “primary areas of research include feminist and postcolonial theory, critical race studies, and transcultural identity,” Critical Stitch actually offers a pretty enjoyable experience, with a sense of humor running through much of the content-charged art. The fact that it includes four men among the knitters and embroiderers adds to the intrigue of exploring its many facets and undercurrents.

Morales Cox has presented quality work in every case, even if some of the ideas are a bit overwrought or unoriginal. The skill employed by the artists ranges from appropriately adequate to outright impressive. For example, Lauren DiCioccio’s meticulously embroidered renderings of consumer detritus, such as the ubiquitous plastic bag with a happy face on it, and layered newspaper clips (one is shown above at right) show the potential of colored thread as a medium that transcends traditional crafts.

Two other artists, Margarita Cabrera and Alicia Ross, also make significant use of thread itself as a medium, but in different ways. Cabrera sews Oldenburgish facsimiles of small appliances out of leatherette (one is shown at left), leaving lots of loose threads to represent the hand work of the manufacturing process she is channeling from her Mexican roots. Ross, using computerized cross-stitchery, represents female objects of desire transformed from their commercial sources in pornography into oddly appealing yet repellent images (one is shown at the top of this post).

Among the men are two whose thicker threads in hooked rugs and needlepoint pillows present ironically softened visions of cultural touchpoints – Richard Bassett’s throw pillows fetishize the Kennedy assassination, while Rob Conger enters the realm of kitsch with his acrylic wall hangings taken from Disney and other corporate source material.

I found Johanna Unzueta’s installation of soft felt to be the wittiest piece in the show (and, not surprisingly, the least political). Color-coded to match the Mandeville’s d├ęcor, her faked utility pipes could evoke issues of stealth and terrorism and subversion, but are also just a fun thing to come upon. Also darkly humorous is Dave Cole’s woven and stitched bulletproof Kevlar Onesie, a chilling suggestion if there ever was one (shown above at right).

Some of the work in the show pushes a little further into traditional gender roles, such as Mark Newport’s goofy, oversized, knitted superhero outfits and Laurel Roth’s obscenity-laden PMS Quilt, featuring crocheted-together panty liners. More touching and elegant is Roth’s animal-based work, such as her Carolina Parakeet (actually a carved pigeon wearing the colors of the extinct bird, it is represented below at right).

Other work does little to inspire or break new ground. Barb Hunt has re-created a variety of land mines in yarn – something done far more effectively years ago by Conrad Atkinson using glass and porcelain; Vadis Turner bores by stitching the names of such role models as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton onto an antique quilt; and Tamara Kostianovsky’s mute presentation of fabric and fiberfill sides of beef (shown at the bottom of this post) seems to go nowhere, despite elaborate textual efforts to infer otherwise in the catalog accompanying the show.

Overall, Critical Stitch is a nicely produced, thoughtfully curated show of worthwhile but somewhat disappointingly clever conceptual art. I think it shows just how much academic theory has affected the contemporary artistic landscape. Even when dealing with extremely emotionally charged subject matter, these artists seem to have traded the raw feelings, passion, and intensity of a bygone age for muted, funded, and packaged products that aim mainly to please the elite who own galleries, confer MFAs, and write for art magazines. It would be self-flattery to believe in the power of such work to cause any real change, despite its political and cultural messages.

Rating: Recommended

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Not Just Another Pretty Place: The Landscape of New York at NYSM

The Cut oil on canvas by Cecil Chichester

Most of us wouldn't immediately think of the New York State Museum as a place with a major art collection - after all, its mission targets education, and its most prominent permanent exhibits focus on topics such as history, anthropology, ornithology, and geology. Well, it's time to reconsider that notion, as the wonderful survey exhibition Not Just Another Pretty Place: The Landscape of New York features more than 100 works of art, many of them first-rate, and all of them taken from the museum's collection.

The exhibition, which opened in early September, fills the facility's large West Gallery and is organized under four themes: Recording, Romanticizing, Utilizing, and Imagining the landscape of New York. Within each of these major themes are a number of sub-themes, all of which are clearly and concisely explained on monochromatic wall panels. The overall design of the show and text panels is very well executed and user-friendly, with the exception that it is at times difficult to figure out which theme a sub-theme belongs to.

At the entry to the exhibit is the "Recording" section, which emphasizes the physical features of the New York landscape, and includes one of my favorite pieces in the show, a multicolored "textural" rendering of the state by the Geological Information Survey's computers. Other examples from this section are "Bird's Eye Views" that detail the layout of towns such as Jamestown, as rendered by a 19th-century lithographer; images of the industrial landscape as shaped by the abundant presence of lakes and rivers in New York; quaint house portraits ("The Domesticated Landscape"); and a sub-section titled "Capturing New York on Film" that includes a nifty group of 12 color lantern slides laid out on a backlit pedestal, and a jarring video presentation of some of the countless frames taken by the state every few years to document all 16,000 miles of New York's roads at the rate of 100 shots per mile.

The "Recording" section also includes the largest piece in the show, a painting about 20 feet long that depicts in an ever-so-slightly naive style the arrival of scores of tall ships in New York Harbor during the nation's bicentennial celebration in 1976. The most prominent vertical feature in this frieze-like tableau are the twin towers of the World Trade Center - a sobering reminder of our more recent history, and of the thought that 1976's cheery optimism can probably never be recaptured.

Next comes the "Romanticizing" section, where artistic expression takes on a central role. Here, the Hudson River School is prominently represented by a special zone dedicated to the Albany painter Asa W. Twitchell, and several other examples, the best of which is a dramatic and vividly detailed watercolor by Jasper Cropsey (reproduced at the bottom of this post).

Tourism is examined in the "Utilizing" section, which includes a wonderful two-sheet lithograph of Blondin Crossing Niagara Falls for Lloyd's News, as well as a sub-section on cityscapes that features many enjoyable surprises, such as pastoral views of the Flatbush and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn before they were citified, a village-like State Street, Albany, 1805, and two really nice examples of printmaking: Fairfield Porter's 1960 lithograph titled Sixth Avenue II, and a richly colored, geometric 1980 aquatint with a glowing, white Citicorp building by Kathleen E. Gallagher.

A related group of pictures from the sub-section "New York as Seen by WPA Artists" hangs nearby. The six included are outstanding examples selected from a large and ever-growing collection of such work that the NYSM began acquiring in 1943 (one is reproduced at the top of this post).

Also in the "Utilizing" section is a sub-section called "Embellishing the Landscape," which describes the 19th-century interest in elaborate gardens and shows fine examples of the type of wrought-iron fencing, bench, and decorative vase that such gardens might incorporate; a "rustic" bench, made of natural wood and perhaps meant to be placed along a woodsy path, is also included. These and other objects in other sections enliven the exhibition with their concrete three-dimensional presence.

The final section of the show, "Imagining," stretches from decorated plates and furniture to a posthumous portrait of the painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (shown above at right), and also includes a dreamy Thomas McKnight silkscreen of a moonlit New York City under a blanket of snow. The show concludes with a sub-section titled "The Landscape of Memory," which introduces the art of Frank Eckmair, whose woodcuts are the focus of another current NYSM exhibition of the same name. I will review that show (which runs through next fall in the Crossroads Gallery) in a future post.

Not Just Another Pretty Place: The Landscape of New York continues through March 3, 2011.

Rating: Must See

Storm Across the Hudson watercolor 1883 by Jasper Francis Cropsey