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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Keeping Time at Albany Airport Gallery

The curatorial process can be a wondrous thing to behold. Done right, it reveals new and significant relationships among works of art without drawing too much attention to itself - a neat trick in today's look-at-me world. A perfect example of the importance of the eye behind the arrangement is seen in Keeping Time, now on view at the Albany International Airport Gallery (and, unlike the airport's other artistic offerings, accessible at all hours to the non-flying public).

Organized by Art & Culture Program Director Sharon Bates and her longtime assistant Kathy Greenwood, Keeping Time combines the work of seven familiar regional artists under a unifying theme that comes as a bit of a surprise - that is, it's a revelation that so many of the best artists currently working around here have certain fundamental issues in common.

Issues such as nostalgia, the transformative power of memory, identity, and the sense of place all permeate this work. At the same time, the individual artists in the show stand clearly and solidly on their own - there is no style here to bring them together like a group of similar-looking painters or sculptors.

Still, as the show makes obvious, they belong together. Only two of the seven were new to me in this showing, and many of the works included have been shown in recent local exhibitions - still, this is a completely fresh experience because of the new context and combination.

The genesis of the show was an idea for an installation by Ken Ragsdale (who has done others in the airport's other spaces) which deftly exploits a small, roomlike remnant from the previous show in this space, transforming it so effectively that it didn't even occur to me that I had seen it there before.

Here, Ragsdale expands on his well-established trope of folded-paper machinery constructions, this time placing a half-size foamcore farm tractor inside a one-room schoolhouse, complete with little desk, chalk-marked slate walls, and framed Ragsdale works hanging on the walls. A glassed door and four double-hung windows provide ample opportunity to view the tableau, which is temptingly inaccessible. The exterior (shown at the top of this post) has a scalar projection of the tractor inside drawn on its wall, creating an Egyptian sarcophagus-like effect.

Most similar to Ragsdale among the other artists in the show is Matt LaFleur, who also has created a site-specific installation for Keeping Time, his first ever (shown above, at left). The connection of this faux-woodsy scene to the rest of LaFleur's work is readily apparent from the sketches and finished works also shown, many of which use the most pedestrian of art-making materials - construction paper, glue, and colored pencil.

His naivete seems real, yet so does the strength and sincerity of the work, which plays with the intersection of images from LaFleur's rural youth and his rural adulthood, sometimes making fun of it and honoring it in equal parts (his perfectly coined term for this style is "hick modernism").

That term could also be applied (lovingly!) to the eco-centric treatment Michael Millspaugh gives to his own take on a past/present/future point of view that features hunting and camping themes (to see a review of a Millspaugh solo show that ran in this space a year ago, click here). Here, Millspaugh offers a range of self-made implements, embroidered patches, and dry-as-a-bone line drawings, as well as an abundant array of little fireplace scenes (shown above at right) - two of them set inside tiny matchboxes.

Another Keeping Time artist who combines disparate images is Stevan Jennis, who cuts up old paint-by-number paintings into equal squares and then reconfigures them into complex mosaics (identified here as collages). Jennis also presents mid-sized sculptures of toys with rough, almost stony patinas - turning a Jack-in-the-Box figure or a dollhouse into an obtuse, almost malevolent object.

Old toys are an obsession of Randy Regier, whose false but very convincing '50s-style character DimeStar appears here in a variety of forms, from comic books to kids' wristwatches. Regier's jaundiced view of the corporate approach to little boys' imaginations is rich with associations for anyone old enough to remember that "simpler" time (example shown at left).

A lighter approach to old-fashioned products for kids is taken by the only woman in the show, Leslie Lew, whose sculpted oil reliefs and cast paper prints are colorful and - seemingly - uninflected by irony. They were for me the least interesting pieces in the exhibition, blandly playful and brightly celebratory (an example is shown at the bottom of this post).

Finally, Joel Griffith is a brilliant painter, three of whose five pieces in Keeping Time were recently seen in an Arts Center of the Capital Region show (reviewed here), and one of which caught my attention at last year's Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region at the Hyde Collection (reviewed here).

The one painting by Griffith that is new to me in this exhibition (shown above, at right) is actually the earliest of the group, but it reinforces the notion that the strength of Griffith's work is not dependent on the cold and the dark that dominates the other four pieces - this warm and sunny image is just as intriguing, if less obviously foreboding.

Keeping Time is open seven days a week through Sept. 5 for travelers and visitors alike. Short-term parking doesn't charge for the first half-hour, so if you're quick, you can get in and out for free.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Note: Another Bates-curated exhibition is set to open with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, June 3, at the Esther Massry Gallery at The College of Saint Rose. Titled the Karene Faul Alumni Exhibition, it features eight Saint Rose-trained artists - Kathy Greenwood, who graduated there in 1992, among them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Landscape of Memory: Prints by Frank C. Eckmair at NYSM


One response to the hard times plaguing most arts organizations these days is the current tendency of museums to produce new exhibitions from their own collections. It's an effective strategy that has the combined benefits of saving money and reinforcing the institution's prestige, the type of win-win situation creative organizations are always conjuring up when under financial pressure.

The Landscape of Memory: Prints by Frank C. Eckmair at the New York State Museum in Albany is just such an exhibition - a wonderful surprise that shows off the richness of this public collection and the mastery of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker (now in his ninth decade) who has established himself as a pre-eminent graphic artist.

Eckmair, who hails from the central New York town of Gilbertsville, and who had a long and influential teaching career at Buffalo State College, celebrates the upstate agricultural legacy in print after print, his efficient swaths of ink on paper speaking volumes in form and feeling. The show is nicely spread out in the museum's sprawling Crossroads Gallery (right next to the bird collection), and includes Eckmair's tools of the trade, such as a letter press, engraving gouges, and quite a few finished blocks, along with more than 80 framed prints.

The range of scale in this cache is pretty impressive, from tiny, detailed pieces that exemplify the familiar book-plate application of wood engravings to pieces around three feet long or larger, which push the boundary of what can be printed from a wooden plate (the differences between the smaller wood engraving and larger woodcut are subtle, but involve the hardness of the wood, the tools employed, and the resulting precision of the lines).

Eckmair's command of both media is always present, but he doesn't make a fetish of it - on the contrary, he tends to use only just as much technique as is necessary to get his point across; the rest of his attention goes to making the design just right. This is accomplished through a deceptive ease with the language of shape, color and contrast, and is especially effective in his use of white space.

A very watchable interview video of Eckmair, made in 2010, allows him to tell us in his own words why he prefers a white background, and to express the pride he takes in integrating that white into the subject matter (one striking example, an untitled print about 4 feet long, is shown at the top of this post; another, titled Monday Evening, is shown above, at left). Other insights from the video include Eckmair's preference for old things - indeed the show is steeped in nostalgia, especially as 50-year-old prints depict houses and farm machinery abandoned decades before that - and he explains the reasons he rarely includes people in his images.

The graphic power with which Eckmair creates his rural landscapes and interiors makes the show an uplifting experience, despite the sometimes gloomy cast of these images. There is also a playfulness in much of the work, notably in instances where the wood grain, knots and all, is prominently displayed as a graphic element.

Eckmair spent some of his formative years stationed in Korea and Japan in the Air Force, and the Oriental influence on his work is obvious. What's beautiful is how he has taken that stylistic aspect and made it his own, while simultaneously applying it to the subject of his ancestral and lifelong home. So a horizontal slice of the woods in snow becomes minimalistically calligraphic - yet still feels like central New York - and the many vertical scenes of house and hill and machinery that tumble toward you off the museum's walls retain a hint of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Unlike these Japanese wood-block printers, who reveled in many-colored prints, when Eckmair strays from black ink, he does it exceedingly sparingly, often as a quiet note of gray or blue or ochre (as in Under the Hill, shown above, at right). Still, even these bits of color can seem expressive among the many monochrome blacks on view here.

But those blacks have a range, too - from the pure silhouette of a house against the sky to highly textured areas that detail every leaf on a tree or every blade of grass. In most cases, the work has a rare quality of efficiency, thought there are a number of rather elaborate examples in the show as well.

In addition to the scenes, the show features several examples of politically charged images from the early '60s, including humorous broadsides that use old-fashioned wooden type, and a couple of prints that relate to socially conscious work of the time, such as that by Ben Shahn.

Altogether, The Landscape of Memory is a sumptuous immersion into a rich life expressed in "a poor man's" art. It runs through September 17.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Friday, May 20, 2011

Four Years of Art Nights!


Art Night Schenectady celebrates four years of events today with an ambitious slate of activities, including a fashion show, an international exhibition, and a new collaboration with the city of Beirut, Lebanon. All I can say is WOW!

The poster reproduced above just shows what's at Proctors ... there are many more venues, shows, events, etc. to celebrate tonight. Congratulations to ANS founder and current organizer Mitch Messmore - and here's wishing for 40 more years of arts action in Schenectady.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Commencement

It's the time of year for graduations, and with that comes a spate of annual shows of culminating work by seniors and graduate students from the region's major art degree-conferring institutions.

Currently, the UAlbany MFA show at the University Art Museum tops the list, with Sage College of Albany's BFA exhibition at the Opalka Gallery and Skidmore College's Senior Thesis exhibitions at the Tang Museum right behind. (Already ended, in quick sequence, were the Senior and Graduate shows at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery; the Student Exhibitions at Hudson Valley Community College's Teaching Gallery also recently closed.)

These exhibitions are important to see if you have an interest in the regional art scene, because it's almost guaranteed that many of the new graduates will quickly rank among the most prominently shown professionals on that scene (past and current examples abound), and these shows often provide your first good glimpse of what they do.

I make a point of catching the thesis shows every year if I can (not always easy, as they sometimes have very short runs), and they're usually intensely interesting. Still, I won't be writing any critical commentary on them, neither this year nor in the future.

Why not? My editor offers two reasons:

1) Even though they're graduating, and technically are not students anymore, these fledgling artists may not be ready for the feedback a professional critic provides. Once they're out of the institution, whether showing in a coffee shop or a museum, we'll let the slings and arrows fly - and hope we all get something useful out of it. But until that time, these student artists deserve to bask in the glow of their achievement without critical attention from the press. Also, there's no doubt they've all had endless critiques on this work already as part of their degree qualification process, and that's enough for now.

2) While the writing on this blog occasionally ventures into other areas of commentary, it is first and foremost a forum for art criticism - not educational analysis. We feel that to enter into a discussion of the merits of any group of students at a particular institution while they're still within its walls gets too close to engaging on the subject of the choices that institution has made in its admissions, hiring, and degree-awarding policies - and we just don't want to go there.

That's also why Get Visual's no-student-show policy extends to faculty shows - and why the current exhibitions by Martin Benjamin at Union College's Mandeville Gallery and Regis Brodie at Skidmore's Schick Art Gallery will also go unreviewed in this space, as each is (or was) a professor at the host college. That said, I will go out on a limb and say they are both strong artists whose work is well worth seeing.

One more thing - I happen to be among this year's graduates, and will walk on Saturday in cap and gown to receive a master's degree in business administration from The College of Saint Rose. You should be relieved to know that I don't expect any of you to read the 100-page analysis of a Chinese solar energy company that comprised my MBA team's final project - but I hope you will take time to check out the thesis shows of all those worthy fine art grads.

Finally, to all of them I offer sincere congratulations, and best wishes for future success.

Friday, May 6, 2011

M.C. Escher: Seeing the Unseen at Berkshire Museum

It had been several years since I'd gone to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, and I am so glad I got back there this week for the current exhibition M.C. Escher: Seeing the Unseen. Founded in 1903 with a dual mission to present material on natural science and fine art, the museum completed a major renovation three years ago, adding climate control, a modern entryway, and fresh galleries, and updating its approach to the same worthy mission.

The result is special - and the Escher show perfectly fits the museum's family-centric and dual goals by offering an experience that can be taken in by all ages and on many different levels.

For those of us who grew up in the '60s and '70s, Maurits Cornelis Escher's work was ubiquitous and highly influential. No doubt, visitors of baby-boomer vintage to Seeing the Unseen are finding it more than a little nostalgic and will recognize many of the images presented (as I did). Equally likely, their kids or grandkids will delight in this accessible yet intensely fascinating imagery as a new discovery. Either way, it was a smart choice by the folks at the Berkshire to organize this exhibition, and I expect it will draw crowds everywhere if it gets the road tour they are seeking for it.

While some would be inclined to dismiss Escher's art as mere illustration, or to take it less seriously because it was (and still is) so popular, this collection of 120 works representing about 45 years of the Dutch native's output should put such thoughts to rest. On the basis of technique alone (in painstakingly rendered woodcuts, lithographs, mezzotints and drawings), it's clear Escher was as good as it gets.

Though he was, apparently by nature, a bit dry compared to many of his more histrionic contemporaries, nearly every item presented transcends the realm of pedestrian graphics to stand up as Escher's personal expression of awestruck wonderment at the way things appear and the way things maybe really are. In fact, he was ahead of his time, not behind it, in his integration of mathematical and scientific knowledge into the creation of a personal vision.

The show (which relies on loans from the Boston Public Library and a couple of commercial art sources) begins in a smallish gallery where both the earliest and some of the latest works can be seen and compared. Here, numerous examples of drawings and prints from Escher's formative 10 years spent in Italy show not only how he honed his vision and technique, but how those agrarian Italian vistas and geometric towns remained a key influence on that vision for the rest of his life (such as the 1930 lithograph Castrovalva shown at the bottom of this post).

The early drawings and prints also demonstrate how deeply Escher studied nature, setting the stage for him to later become enthralled with math and physics. And they provide a fresh perspective on an artist perhaps too well known for certain eye-tricking visual puzzles that became icons for the psychedelic generation (such as Up and Down, shown below at left).

That Escher's sometimes fantastical vision was deeply rooted in nature is key to understanding his work, and the range of images in this first gallery of the show makes that clear by linking the early and later works (such as a 1933 lithograph titled Phosphorescent Sea, and the 1955 litho Three Worlds, which is shown at right).

The first gallery also establishes the show's own graphic style and informative intentions with hanging and wall-mounted panels of text and photographs that illustrate the man and his influences. Here I found two Escher quotes that function almost as bookends to his aspirations. The first, "Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible," is apt but a bit arrogant, while the second, from very late in his life, shows humility: "I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, and not in a formless chaos, as it sometimes seems."

Throughout the rest of the exhibition, the thoughtful inclusion of rare artifacts and related materials provides context for the marvelous images, most of which are masterfully hand-printed and so detailed that the many magnifying glasses placed in racks here and there are sure to be put to good use.

Among the extras are several short videos that animate and further transform some of Escher's most illusory designs; '60s-era clothing with Escher patterns; vintage black-light posters, properly illuminated and accompanied by beanbag chairs for comfortable contemplation; videos of people with elaborate Escher tattoos; and reproductions of Escher imagery on book covers, in puzzles and plastic toys, and in one recent case as a New Yorker cover featuring an oil-dripping pelican.

But, for me, nothing beyond the still mind-blowing original art was needed to create a deep impression and be uplifted by the outpouring of work from one artist's lifetime. The show ends on May 22 - try not to miss it.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Curators Beware!

In an odd coincidence, on the same day last week that a card arrived in my mailbox publicizing an exhibition at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute that was curated by high school students, an item appeared in the Times Union about a series of shows at the Williams College Museum of Art that will be curated by non-professionals, including a florist, an athletic coach, and - you betcha! - some high school students.

Now, it so happens that the MWPAI and the WCMA are two of the most respectable museums within the sound of this blog, and they both have especially important and large collections. So it's almost guaranteed that Follow the Light at the MWPAI (already open, and set to run through July 7) and The Gallery of Crossed Destinies, as the WCMA series is titled (and which currently features the curatorial efforts of a group of 9th-graders), include high-quality and intriguing art that will satisfy and inspire viewers.

But what does this say to the rest of us - especially those who either have worked very hard to develop the ability and credibility to organize art exhibitions, and those who respect and admire them - about the value of curatorial sensibility and expertise?

Not to overreact - Follow the Light is the result of a course in Exploring Museum Careers, and The Gallery of Crossed Destinies provides the same carefully selected 25 objects to each of the participants to install in their own way (an Edward Hopper and a Georgia O'Keeffe among them), so there is some control here - but I do have some doubts about this trend.

Why not try this next time: Assign a number to each of the objects in the WCMA collection (let's say there are 3,000 of them), and then use a computer to generate 25 random numbers between 1 and 3,000 - and then have that be your show, curated by ... I don't know, anybody got a clever name for a computer program that curates?

Probably would be a huge draw.