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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sketcher Recalls at ACCR and other Troy shows

The anagrammatic Union College stage designer Charles Steckler has revealed a hidden identity as an irrepressible doodler in a show at the Arts Center of the Capital Region titled Sketcher Recalls, which opened, along with several other shows of interest, at last Friday's Troy Night Out.

Steckler has been unusually active in the exhibitions arena in recent years, and is now widely known for his inventive and layered dioramas. This show brings out a related body of work that is both more subtle and more personal. Because the drawings are mostly on the scale and level of doodling, anyone could relate to them (after all, who among us doesn't take pen or pencil in hand and make sketches while on the phone or in a meeting?).

However, this is the doodling of a master doodler, and the drawings are enchanting. Most of them have an organic feel, featuring semi-recognizable plant forms or landscapes. Others are less concrete, emphasizing fantasy or pure mark-making. Though no color is employed, there is a notable breadth of media, including metallic inks, Wite-Out, various types of pens and pencils, and occasional embellishments in the form of abrasion, collage, or even added materials such as wire.

Altogether, what Steckler the Sketcher recalls is a lifetime of thoughtful, time-absorbing attention to detail, mood, and form. Four of the 20-plus drawings in this show were included in a recent exhibition at Union's Mandeville Gallery titled Of Weeds and Wildness, which was recently reviewed here. This solo show presents a nice opportunity to revisit those gems and see many more from the same deft hand. It hangs through April 22.

Not far from the Arts Center is the Clement Art Gallery, where a show titled { sub/urban } features the work of painters Ben Schwab and Scott Nelson Foster. Aptly paired, these two look at the built environment in distinct ways, using different techniques that move toward each other in a nicely balanced relationship.

Schwab, who teaches at The College of Saint Rose, works larger, more geometrically, and more colorfully than Foster (his show at Albany Center Gallery was reviewed here in 2009), though his most recent entries in this show represent a departure into smaller, sketchier works in pencil that he calls "postcards." These offer a welcome window into Schwab's process.

Foster is new to the area, having come last fall from Idaho by way of Utah to teach at Siena College. His small-scale, monochromatic watercolors evoke black-and-white photographs, though up close they are just as seductively loose and flowing as watercolors ought to be. The quasi-cool look he takes at subdivisions and big-box stores has an almost spiritual reverence for its subjects.

This is a nice local debut for Foster - I hope we'll see a lot more of his work around here in the years to come. The show remains on view through April 28.

Across the street from the Arts Center is a recently relocated shop called Artcentric, where Albany photographer Connie Frisbee Houde has mounted a solo show amid the clutter. I'm not opposed to alternative spaces, and this seems to be a bustling one, overseen by the keen eye of longtime photographer Debra Lockrow and featuring a range of local artists as well as tons of other crafty stuff.

Houde's show is a departure from her well-known Afghanistan subject matter (reviewed here in 2009), this time representing the more tranquil Caribbean setting of St. John. Though this particular venue doesn't demand a clearly honed style or consistent presentation, Houde's decision to include everything from landscapes to portraits to street scenes to nature details takes away from the overall impact of her vision. That's too bad, because her stuff is great (example shown at right above).

More photography can be seen in a two-person show at the Photography Center of the Capital District by Eric Lindbloom and Joseph Schuyler titled Truro Light. As expected, the pictures are from Cape Cod, but most of them are not your everyday beach scenes, and some are purely transcendent.

Lindbloom, who hails from Poughkeepsie and also shows in New York City, works in medium-format black and white - yes, he still shoots film and makes prints in a darkroom - and his very sensitively seen images are gorgeous. Some of the work is presented in series, such as one group of wonderfully wave-tossed sea grass, and another of selectively focused woodsy details with more than a little hint of magic.

Schuyler offers digitally-based color prints here - most are elegantly composed, some quite dramatic, while others have an Oriental lyricism. The digital color is distractingly blocked up in some of Schuyler's prints, but in others they remain quite subtle. His take on the Cape is more about the place than Lindbloom's (whose images could be from almost any climatically similar place); Schuyler's best work puts you right there in the elements, where you feel the wind, sand, and salt. The show continues through March 25.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eunjung Hwang and Ati Maier at UAlbany Art Museum

When you've been to as many shows at as many venues as I have, you start to see patterns emerging, curatorial consistencies that hold up over time from one place to another. So, while the current pair of solo shows at the University at Albany Art Museum are fairly cutting-edge, they hold few surprises, because they cleanly fit into the curatorial pattern that has been established there.

Eunjung Hwang: Three Thousand Revisits and Ati Maier: Event Horizon are presented separately, though they have enough in common to be compatible: both artists have created their own fantasy worlds populated by cartoon-type characters, and both have turned to digital video as an extension of their drawing and painting habits. It also happens that each is an immigrant living in New York City, which may inform the inside/outside perspective their works embody.

But here the similarities taper off quickly. Huang, who is female and was raised in Korea, has a simplified style of drawing and painting that pulls from dreams and Buddhist concepts of the spirit world to create quasi-narratives that often feature brutal violence and orgiastic behavior, yet somehow remain charmingly naive.

Maier, who is also female, grew up in Munich, Germany, and was educated in Vienna. Her extremely vivid palette harks back to the groundbreaking approach of certain European painters of about a century ago, but Maier is clearly looking forward as she crafts visions of otherworldly experiences that are heavily influenced by science fiction and graffiti.

Despite a great deal of visual complexity and sophisticated layering techniques, much of Maier's work feels superficial, even decorative. It has that art-fair commercial air about it. Three large pieces that form a group on one long wall depict roller-coasterish landscapes that could be in outer space or underwater; their corners are rounded, an odd affectation that adds to the commercial flavor of the work.

Two constellations of smaller works mirror this style (and each other, with perfectly matched configurations of size and shape), though the earlier the works go (back to about 2002), the more clearly they show a diversity of influences including anime and geometric abstraction.

Maier's two videos in the exhibition are animated versions of these garishly hued adventurescapes. The one titled Space Rider seems to imitate a video game such as Tron; the longer one (over 7 minutes) is more ambitious - titled Event Horizon, it clearly aims to depict visually what can never be seen in reality: the activity at the edge of a black hole.

Hwang also takes influences from video games (specifically Pac-Man) as well as anime, but her approach seems much more personal than Maier's. Whereas Maier seems to be trying to impress us with her skill and flash, Hwang seems compelled by uncontrollable impulses to obsessively draw and redraw an endless series of very small critters and characters (hence the show's title) that may make no sense at all to the viewer but must have an existence nevertheless.

Whether in the many animated videos on view here (actually, they are countless, as several small monitors show many very short snippets, while other larger monitors show countable longer films), or in the series of 15 22-by-28-inch pencil drawings titled What We Are You Will Be, or even in the five inflatable sculptures that depict some of her creatures in larger form, Hwang's world remains her own - we are merely spectators.

A couple of early videos from 2001 retain narrative threads (one is unironically titled If You Play With Ghosts, You'll Become a Real Ghost), but the more recent work, often titled Future Creatures, is more free-flowing and circular. In these, Hwang employs several different styles, including line drawings, watercolor, smoothly digitized color, and a combination of her images with calendar-art landscape photographs.

If you liked the style of Peter Max, you may like the darker underbelly that Hwang explores in a similar way. Equally, if psychedelia turns you on, you will probably get into Maier.

Both artists will be present at a closing reception set for 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 1, which was scheduled because the show's opening reception was cancelled by a snow storm. The show ends on April 2.

Rating: Recommended

Artworks shown (from top):
Ati Maier - Savvy, airbrush, ink, woodstain on paper, 2010
Ati Maier - video still from Event Horizon, 2010
Eunjung Hwang - video still from Future Creatures, 2009
Eunjung Hwang - What We Are You Will Be, pencil on paper, 2010
Eunjung Hwang - video still from Future Creatures, 2009

Note: An earlier version of this post had misidentified Maier as male. I regret the error, which has been corrected. - db

Thursday, March 17, 2011

John J.G. Roth: Figment Transport at Saratoga Arts

Beginning with the title, there is a lot that's intriguing about John J.G. Roth's installation of sculptures on view at the Saratoga Arts Center Gallery through March 26. Even before seeing the show, Figment Transport begins working a sort of magic on our imagination - it's exactly the evocative combination of words that promises an equally evocative artistic experience.

As it turns out, the show is both very, very good and ever so slightly disappointing. In it, Roth offers two virtually separate but equal bodies of work - dioramas that present spooky little vignettes, most of them encased inside elaborate hardwood cabinetry; and whimsically creepy quasi-critters on wheels.

Roth's skill with a variety of plastic media is supreme, and his ideas are original - both hallmarks of a first-rate artist - but the disparity between the two groups of work is somewhat disorienting. Also, they insufficiently fill the spacious gallery, making for a sparseness that cools down the effect of what could otherwise have been a very engaging viewing experience.

Of the 12 works on view, six feature sinuous forms covered in metallic discs that give them the appearance of being scaled like a lizard or a fish (the one pictured at the top of this post is titled Cretaceous Mode). Indeed, two of them are shown as if in water; these two pieces also bridge the gap between the rolling works and those inside cabinets. The others, which crouch upon their wheels (one instead hangs suspended from a wire), are about equal parts boy's fantasy car and evolutionary anomaly.

Roth satisfies the almost irresistible urge to stroke these untouchable sculptures by providing a sample of the metal scales you can touch. But I found the sleek machine forms almost as repellent as they are attractive - which, I suspect, is the key to their underlying charm and to unlocking the artist's intent.

Though these "conveyances" are the more recent, I prefer Roth's other work, both for its preposterous wit and for its colorful darkness. The detail shown above at right, from a work titled Gleamin' Freedom, exposes the satire inherent in these works, but it can't communicate what it's like to see them in the gallery, where scale and obscurity play major roles. To see what's shown in the photo, you have to bend and peer through Gleamin' Freedom's peephole, which reinforces both the irony and the near-impossibility of its glowing message.

My favorite piece in the show (pictured below) is equally impossible. Titled Divine Imperial Commuter, it depicts a retro-futuristic train engine simultaneously going both ways on a track to nowhere. Its display case conjures 19th-century cabinets of curiosities, while its ambition mirrors that industrial age's excesses. Is it still relevant today? You better believe it is.

Rating: Highly recommended

Monday, March 14, 2011

Swan Song

Desiree Alvarez, The Contents of the Falconer’s Bag, 2011

The last exhibition at Union College's Mandeville Gallery to be mounted under longtime curator Rachel Seligman's watchful eye has just ended, as has Seligman's 13-year tenure there. She moves on to become an associate curator at the Tang Teaching Museum, and this last show, co-curated by Middlebury College photography instructor Sally Apfelbaum, has been dispersed.

But the show, Of Weeds and Wildness: Nature in Black & White, leaves traces worth contemplating (as well as a lovely printed catalog). Initially inspired by a small Louise Bourgeois etching titled Hairy Spider, the show brought together a completely unpredictable group of artists working over a range of many decades in diverse media and subject matter.

Quite unlike most curated exhibitions these days, and quite unlike the ideas the title put into my head, Of Weeds and Wildness was extremely subtle and anything but a facile look at nature. Viewing the show on its second-to-last day, I was perplexed by the inclusion of work that seemed not to fit the theme of the title, much of which didn't particularly seem to belong together. Perhaps the show was just a good excuse to present some favorite work in under-appreciated media (particularly printmaking) and sensitive shades of grey?

While this wouldn't have been a bad end in itself, the catalog essay explains that the show's intention was not to represent nature, but to "explore the mystery and beauty, romance and brutality of the human experience of the natural world." That makes the inclusion, for example, of Harold Edgerton's chilling high-speed photographs of a 1952 atomic bomb test, or of the mysterious abstract etchings of Kate Temple seem much more sensible.

These and other works in the show reach areas of artistic expression far broader than the title would imply. Other virtually abstract prints by James Siena and Lee Bontecou join Temple, while photographs in the social documentary mode by Robert Adams, Danny Lyon, and Margaret Moulton flesh out the human aspect of the discourse.

Drawings make their appearance as well, by two representatives of the Union art faculty (Charles Steckler, current, and Arnold Bittleman, long-deceased) who share a mesmerizing mark-making fascination expressed in very divergent scales. Bittleman conjures large, brooding cloudscapes, while Steckler's elaborate doodlings fill tiny pages with imagined naturalistic forms and textures (one is shown at left).

An animated film loop by Hedya Klein, also hand-drawn, has an affinity with Steckler's style and with a beautifully made etching/aquatint by Michelle Segre. Other fine examples of the old printmaking media on view included Kiki Smith's Fawn and Bird Skeleton (shown above at right), two sugarlifts by William Kentridge and a Robert Gober lithograph.

In a departure from traditional forms, Desiree Alvarez created a site-specific installation by hanging swaths of diaphanous fabric embellished with images drawn in ink and printed with wood blocks. Intriguingly titled The Contents of the Falconer's Bag, this piece brought an almost jarring freedom to the otherwise staid presentation of the show.

Overall, it was a show for quiet contemplation, and a fine note for Seligman to go out on. Fortunately, she won't be traveling far, and we can look forward to seeing her future efforts in Saratoga Springs.

Harold Edgerton, Atomic Bomb, 1952, gelatin silver print

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Color Moves at RPI's Shelnutt Gallery

I'm glad the exhibition Color Moves at RPI's Shelnutt Gallery continues through the end of March, which is not Black History Month, though it did begin on Feb. 1, which is. Yes, the five artists in the exhibition (Francelise Dawkins, Ayriel Hunt, Femi M. Johnson, George W. Simmons, and Stephen Tyson) are black - but they have a lot more in common, and a lot more to offer viewers, than their racial identity.

Before I get into the specific qualities of the works in the show, allow me to ponder the issue of segregation. The art world is largely liberal, but segregation can exist there as much as anywhere. And it doesn't necessarily have to do with race, nor is it necessarily bad. For example, we regularly segregate artists by medium - showing painters with painters, sculptors with sculptors and so on. There is also a tendency to separate older artists from younger ones, male from female, conceptual from representational, major from minor. These types of divisions often make sense and help the viewer understand the work within its context.

A lot of times, though, I think curators go too far to separate. While women artists were unfortunately ignored through most of history, does it make sense in 2011 to have a show just of women artists? Ethnicity is another tricky zone - we probably wouldn't balk at the idea of a show featuring Asian or Latino artists, and clearly it's considered good politics (especially in February!) to organize a show around the artists' blackness - but what would happen should someone mount an exhibition specifically restricted to the work of gay white men, or American Muslims? I'm just not sure I see the use in all that.

So I'm glad this show of five worthy artists has its month of March. The gallery has a tradition of showing ethnic artists' work, and that's a fine thing to do; it is a fairly non-traditional space upstairs in the Rensselaer Student Union, where the walls are clean and the lighting effective, though it also serves as a meeting room, so access can be limited and the furnishings do get in the way a bit. If you go, the best bet for parking is in the visitor lot next door, where meters can be fed.

This year's edition of Color Moves (it's an ongoing series) weaves common threads and themes among the group: colorful abstraction fairly dominates, collage is the medium of three of the artists, and there is a certain graphism throughout. Two of the artists are using non-rectangular shapes, and the materials are mostly outside of the mainstream (fabric, carbon paper, wood, acetate).

All this makes for a fresh and compatible array of artists who are nonetheless rather divergent in their approaches and (one would assume) intents. The oddest one out would be Hunt, who is a student at RPI whose work fits squarely in the mode of graphic design (one piece is shown at the bottom of this post), and has the clearest messages in it. Her deft, assured drawing style blunts the force of Hunt's confrontational subject matter, which seems to be suburban black youths' need to be more aware of history.

Also somewhat narrative are Johnson's painterly collages, made of torn paper fragments that articulate figures in a very loose way and use color whimsically. I especially like the most recent of his four pieces in the show, titled Night Train (another, titled Village Keeper is shown above at right).

Dawkins' and Tyson's works are intermingled on one wall, nearly competing with each other in terms of vivid color and rounded forms (one of Dawkins', titled Sanctuary/Still Waters is shown at the top of this post; one of Tyson's, titled Tempo, is shown above at left). Dawkins, a fabric collagist, wields a wild pair of scissors to make vibrant compositions that are as complex as they are playful. Two earlier pieces (both circular) are more muted, layered, and soft than the two newer ones, which are more direct. The larger of the two, which is her only rectangular piece in the show, is liberally peppered with images of fruits and birds.

Tyson, a Siena College professor, has a history of making busily patterned abstract paintings. His four pieces in this show, all dated 2009, are brightly painted, shaped planks and slabs of wood with stripes, color-field elements, soft geometry, and metallic gold. Their rhythms show jazz as a clear influence, but two of the titles (Asteck and Eltem) mystify.

Simmons appears to be the most prolific of the group. His 12 collaged drawings in the show include four from earlier periods (1996, 2004 and 2005), two from 2010, and six from 2011, and they remain consistent throughout. Still, though I've known Simmons and his work for 30 years, I am still hard pressed to describe or explain it.

A pair of "self-portraits" (one is shown above at left) are somewhat revealing of the artist's thoughts, while containing elements of the other works. Altogether, they are crudely assembled with bits of Scotch tape, yet elegantly ethereal. Simmons incorporates scraps of his own work in various media to make these pieces, which represent a truly personal vocabulary that only a dedicated and quirky artist could possess.

Rating: Recommended

Vignette at the Arts Center

Also in Troy (through Mar. 20) and not to be missed is a very thoughtfully curated exhibition of five artists at The Arts Center of the Capital Region titled Vignette. Joel Griffith, Ingrid Ludt, GG Roberts, Rebecca Shepard, and Ann Wolf are a rather eclectic bunch who have been brought together by the ex-Metroland critic Nadine Wasserman, who wrote this statement:

For much of art history, narrative art functioned as a way to tell a story or to represent a religious, historical, or allegorical event. With the advent of modernism, however, direct story telling was derided and the narrative form was transformed by abstraction and non-linearity. With postmodernism the narrative remained suspect and artists created multifaceted work that further fractured the notion of “grand” narratives. But artists have never stopped creating narrative work. Even abstract and non-representational art can be narrative and can contain coded references to political, social, and personal issues. This exhibition presents five artists each working with narrative structure but each bringing to it a unique approach. Taken together these artists present a variety of styles encompassing abstraction, surrealism, seriality, realism, and fiction.

In quick capsules: Roberts' three paintings in the show are exuberantly kitschy - I wish there were more of them here to see; Ludt offers 18 works, in a group of 10 slightly larger ones and eight slightly smaller ones - they are gestural, intuitional, oddly colored, light; Wolf uses gouache in monochromatic swaths of expert rendering to evoke fairytale landscapes; Shepard's pencil drawings subtly seduce the eye with sad little tales, while paired drawings and patterned-paper collages nearly steal the show; and Griffith's masterfully painted streets are a blend of Maxfield Parrish and Gregory Crewdson - first noticed at the 2010 Mohawk Hudson Regional, he is a force to be reckoned with (the image below is titled Scism Road, Trailer).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

2011 Mohawk Hudson Regional Invitational at Albany Center Gallery

The above card announces Albany Center Gallery's annual invitational drawn from participants in the latest Mohawk Hudson Regional; the show has a reception on Friday, March 4, from 6-8 p.m. as part of Albany's monthly 1st Friday festivities.

It is a beautiful show (I should know because I curated it), made up of organically derived imagery in thrilling color as well as subtle black-and-white by a trio of regional mid-career artists. Amy Cheng, Katie DeGroot, and Douglas Durning have not had their work showcased in Albany before, making this a unique opportunity, and the combination of the three is very strong. Of course, that's just my extremely biased opinion.

Come see for yourself: You are invited to join me and two of the artists at the 1st Friday reception. A second chance will arrive with a closing reception set for Friday, April 1, from 6-8 p.m. - the third artist will be present for that one, and you are also invited to join us then.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jerry Saltz Speaks at Saint Rose

The New York City comedian - er, art critic - Jerry Saltz entertained and enlightened a full house at The College of Saint Rose's St. Joseph's Auditorium on Tuesday, making for a must-see event on the local scene.

Saltz began by taking the blame for a scheduling snafu that had the lecture (the college's first in a new series sponsored by class of '46 alumna Cathryn Buckley Arcomano) moved at late notice from Wednesday to Tuesday. "Don't forgive me," he implored the crowd, "but don't forget me."

He then went on to spend a full hour, microphone in hand, pacing the stage like a medicine show veteran, extolling the virtues of everything from pottery to long hair to Glenn Beck, dropping names and bon mots, and generally being brilliant, controversial, and - dare I say it? - sincere.

Saltz alternately glorified and berated himself, showing a fair degree of honesty in the process, but he also engaged the audience in a direct, personal way that clearly showed why he is a much sought-after speaker. Much of what he had to say was intended for the many student-artists in the room, whom he frequently and cloyingly addressed as "My loves!" and to whom he offered plenty of concrete, if perhaps somewhat difficult-to-apply advice.

One of my favorite moments came early, when Saltz asked "how many of you are artists?" Upon seeing scores of hands shoot up, he exclaimed, "God have mercy on you!"

He spoke off the cuff, occasionally consulting notes when he got off track ("Where am I going? Don't worry, I'm comin' back."), but he didn't get far off track because this was essentially a well practiced performance with clear objectives pulled out of a repertoire of ideas from which he could pick and choose as time and energy allowed.

The art world, philosophy, and politics were recurring themes that Saltz tended to weave together. "Art can change the world," he declared, "incrementally and by osmosis." About the dialogue between artists and critics, he asserted that "when someone doesn't like you or your work, it doesn't mean you or your work are bad," and then went on to exhort the members of the audience, male and female alike, to "grow a pair."

Saltz is one of those folks who has become famous on Facebook, and he waxed poetic about the value of mass communication, stating emphatically his belief that "it's possible for the many to speak to one another coherently," and citing the uprisings in the Middle East as evidence of this. Connecting to that thought, he repeatedly advised people to consider "taking matters back into your own hands."

By this I think he meant to harness the power of art, which he characterized as "part of a cosmic force ... a self-replicating force ... no more and no less important than religion, science, and philosophy ... ." "Art," he added, "is the ability to imbed thought in material."

Further wisdom from Saltz: "Pleasure is one of the most important forms of knowledge."
And: "You need to be delusional."

A lively Q&A session ended the evening, which the rest of the audience and I seemed to take pleasure in - but perhaps we were just deluding ourselves.