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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Now that’s more like it! (Sculpture in the Streets)

Rectangles Horizontal Jointed, Big, Thin, Small 1990
A year ago I posted a review of Sculpture in the Streets, a program of the Downtown Albany BID, that was titled For Shame! because I was appalled at the BID’s decision to feature the work of Seward Johnson, an artist with popular appeal but very little else to offer.

It’s a pleasure to report that this year’s installation is a complete turnaround. Five strong pieces by the late, great George Rickey comprise the walking tour, which is in place through next March, augmented by previously existing installations of four other Rickey sculptures in Albany, Colonie, and Troy. The result is an extraordinary opportunity to experience the elements of time and space in the direct way that only the best art can offer, and sculpture in particular above all other media.

Column of Four Squares Excentric Gyratory III, Var II 1990
Rickey worked in nearby Chatham, and his local friends and followers are many – two of them, Matthew Bender and Charles Liddle are among the financial sponsors of this event. They and the other private and corporate sponsors, as well as the project’s planners at the BID, deserve applause for providing this gift to the public. They already know what I hope any newcomer to Rickey’s art who takes the time to follow the walk will soon discover: that his work is worthy of the greatest admiration, and that we are incredibly lucky to have so much of it to enjoy here right now.

Rickey's innovations included the application of sophisticated engineering to the construction of kinetic steel sculpture, by which he created large, heavy objects that easily dance and sway in the slightest wind, always striking unexpected and remarkable feats of balance while changing composition and orientation almost constantly.

Three Squares Gyratory I 1971
His persistent use of stainless steel, finished with the whorls of a handheld grinder on every surface, is another stroke of genius, because it gives his pieces both consistency and an innate subtlety that belies their heft and hardness. This is especially important for two reasons: that the sculptures are rigorously geometric and that they are placed outdoors (except for the ones at the airport and the Albany Institute of History & Art, which are indoors but still exposed to a great deal of natural light).

This swirly finish allows the sculptures to float visually by catching and reflecting light with a level of intensity that blends with the background. And, in the case of the backgrounds seen around the works in this particular installation, there is great variety, making for wonderful appearing-and-disappearing effects.

Here’s some advice for getting the optimal experience when you go to visit these nearly living entities:

  1. Allow enough time: While it may be appealing to ride by in a car or pass quickly on foot during lunch or between errands, that won’t work. Even when there’s a good breeze, the sculptures may not do much at first – but, almost as if by magic, when you stop and watch, they will begin to perform.
  2. Speaking of that breeze: If the day is still, forget it. The slightest wind will activate these remarkably engineered constructions, but no wind will mean no action.
  3. Be sure to move around the sculptures: You’ve done it when confronted with a more traditional statue (say, in marble or bronze), and you must do it with these 360-degree objects as well if you want the full experience.
  4. Pay attention to the setting: These pieces have been thoughtfully sited, providing a lot of neat relationships between their shapes and surfaces and those around them. While Rickey himself tended to place his work in natural settings, the city siting suits them particularly well. Kudos once again to the show’s planners for choosing a great location for each piece.
  5. Bring a friend: It’s always more fun to share something lively, and this work is lively by design.
A downloadable tour map is available on the BID's site.

Rating: Must See

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Environment and Object: Recent African Art at the Tang Teaching Museum

Yinka Shonibare - Black Gold I
It can be easy to do if you live nearby, but please don't take Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum for granted. While other local museums regularly present wonderful exhibitions of art we love, shows at the Tang often take it a step further - challenging us to think about art in new ways and helping us to see a bigger picture of the world than we are accustomed to seeing.

While this process at times can be unpleasant, a current Tang exhibition titled Environment and Object: Recent African Art makes the most of the visual joys of a group of well-established African-identified artists (not all of whom live on the continent or were born there) to expose and explore some very difficult issues that Africa currently faces. Curators Lisa Aronson and John Weber have chosen well, highlighting the process, the politics, and the pictorial results in equal measure to create a show that is as enjoyable as it is disturbing, with art that feels both relevant and exotic.

Romuald Hazoumé -
Claudia Maigre
Though many name artists are included, this selection of 16 has a pair of stars around which the rest seem to revolve - the internationally renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui and his Nigerian student Bright Ugochukwu Eke each re-use discarded material to make vast tapestries of form and color (analagous to the vast continent itself). Eke's two site-specific constructions of plastic drink bottles (some of them still a bit sticky) and charred slices of fallen timber were made with the help of a legion of Skidmore students, an ideal application of the "teaching museum" concept, and they look great in the space (to watch videos about the process, click here).

Anatsui's wall-hung piece titled Some Still Come Back appears woven but is made of many thousands of aluminum liquor bottle caps and bands, flattened and sewn together with wire into a flowing, vibrant sheet of color and pattern 10 feet across. It is so impressive as a physical work of folkcraft that it can be easy to forget one of its implications: that inebriation in massive quantity has serious costs.

The social costs of our appetites is a large subtext of Environment and Object as a whole. The artists Viyé Diba and Nnenna Okore address the mass consumption of the marketplace in their works, the former by re-creating the appalling crowdedness of his native city of Dakar, Senegal, in a lyrical and charming room-sized installation, and the latter through a sinister-looking net made of plastic shopping bags.

Zwelethu Mthethwa - Untitled (from the Coal Miner Series)
Things get even darker in an "oil room" that has been set aside for three artists who are responding to the ravages caused to the environment and economy of African countries by our thirst for that fuel. Here, in photos by George Osodi and sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp, human beings are more directly represented as desperate victims of circumstance; while that grim feeling is abated by a ravishing wall piece by Yinka Shonibare (shown at the top of this post), the damage, as it were, has already been done - we are no longer having so much fun at the museum.

Nearby, that theme continues, but with more subtlety, in the form of two huge photo-portraits by South African Zwelethu Mthethwa of a coal miner and a garbage scavenger. In these images, the dignity of the subject outweighs his circumstances - but does it really? Certainly not in the thoughtfully arranged works of Congolese photo-collagist Sammy Baloji, which aim at the heart of industrialization and its negative effects on the African colonies even decades after they have regained independence.

Barthélémy Toguo -
Stupid African President 2
A lighter note is achieved in photographs by the Cameroonian performance artist Barthélémy Toguo, who sends up foolish and dangerous post-colonial African leaders, and in ingenious and humorous masks by the Benin-born Romuald Hazoumé, which update old traditions of using the materials at hand, in this case empty plastic jugs and phone wires rather than carved wood and iron nails.

Environment and Object: Recent African Art also includes photographs by Garth Meyer, Georgia Papageorge, and Lara Baladi, and paintings by Jerry Buhari and Chéri Samba, and is augmented by a great deal of technological wizardry, including a "web feature" and a cellphone tour. The show opened in February, and continues through July 31, after which it is expected to travel throughout the Northeast.

Rating: Must See

El Anatsui - Some Still Come Back

Thursday, June 9, 2011

33rd Photo Regional at Albany Center Gallery

Sebastien Barre - Poolside
Wandering into the freshly hung 33rd Photo Regional at Albany Center Gallery is a little like stepping into the past. Very few of the 35 pictures in this year's show reveal anything of having been made in the post-digital age. In fact, outside those few pieces, this could almost be the 3rd Photo Regional rather than the 33rd.

Deb Baldwin - Bryan
If that sounds like a criticism, it's not. In fact, I take this circumstance as a positive sign that our fascination with the potential of digital photographic techniques may be waning, in favor of the tried-and-true traditional techniques that allow photographers to do what their medium has always done best: directly record and transmit visual experience.

Selected by a savvy pair of curators (Ian Berry, of the Tang Teaching Museum, and Melissa Stafford, recently of Carrie Haddad Photographs), this show maintains a level of quality typical of its 32 predecessors, which is to say that it has some soaring moments of revelation, along with some "I wonder why they chose that" moments, and the thematic inconsistency inherent in the juried-show format.

That inconsistency is exacerbated by the fact that all but six of the 29 photographers included are represented by just one picture each - and, even of the six people with two pictures each, just three present a related pair, while the other three present two clearly unrelated pictures. A broad range of styles is expected in a regional, but it is difficult to get much of an impression of the individual artists' intentions when nearly all the pictures shown are singletons.

Jeff Altman - Crime Scene
Fortunately, ACG's new creative director, Tony Iadicicco, has structured this rich stew with groupings and sly juxtapositions that make the most out of the hidden themes among its elements. So, for example, one corner plays a game with lines and patterns that link images of architecture, landscape, and the figure. Another spot connects back views and gestures in photos of vastly differing scale; and another sets two very different but equally penetrating portraits in relation to each other.

Anthony Salamone - Katie the Welder
Part of the fun of every juried show is seeing who gets the prizes. At this writing, the show has had an opening reception, but the awards reception is yet to come - which gives me the opportunity to try to predict who the judges have favored. Of course, they've already culled nearly 500 submission by 101 artists to the present group, which makes my job pretty easy.

Here are my picks: Mark McCarty's greatly enlarged cellphone snap, Sebastien Barre's wry industrial post-mortem, and Deb Baldwin's Surrealist throwback in black and white will all win prizes. Also worthy of note are two shots by Anthony Salamone, one of which echoes important color work by Philip Lorca DiCorcia; Deb Hall's thought-provoking digital manipulations of large-format views; and an improbable but almost believable conjunction of sea and sky by Linda Morell.

There will be an Artists' Reception at the gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 11th, with awards to be announced at 7. Get there early to make your picks - then we can all check to see how we did.

Rating: Recommended

Mark McCarty - MK # 0570



Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jim Boden and Alison Denyer at Lake George Arts Project

Alison Denyer - Flow VI - graphite on paper

At first glance, the two-person exhibition by Jim Boden and Alison Denyer at Lake George Arts Project seems like a mismatch of unrelated work, one monochromatic and abstract, the other more colorful and figurative. But it turns out that Boden and Denyer share sensibilities on multiple levels, and that the pairing is quite brilliant.

Denyer, a native of England now based in Utah, makes compositions that appear to be little more than dark squares from a distance, but which upon closer inspection emerge as shimmering surfaces made of countless graphite marks on black paper. Her imagery is topographic - her subject, Earth's surface, specifically as it is affected by water.

Boden, who works in South Carolina, paints the figure with the loose confidence of an expert, quite small, on Mylar, which is slippery and translucent. His attention to the surface is no less focused than Denyer's - yet his true subject is far more profound than his simple human models at first suggest.

The experience of seeing Denyer's work from afar, glimpsing its obscurity and darkness, and then moving in to where the marks are visible and their reflective surface catches the light creates a "wow" response. Though her style is subtle, the effect is not. It is very impressive work, intensely detailed, dramatic.

Boden, on the other hand, sneaks up on you gradually. At first you think he's painting the figure for itself - yes, the palette is a bit muddy, a bit rusty, and the figures are often seated, their faces mostly obscured. Oddly, the limbs often disappear from view - are they cut off, maybe bound? The lighting is bright, then shadowy; there are signs of blood, an open mouth. My notes from this viewing show the question, "Nightmares?", then in all caps "TORTURE."

It was only later that I noticed the entire series (25 are presented here), is titled Interrogate. And that I began to think about Denyer's drawings as being about the marked and bruised living skin of our planet. It looks like a peaceful place from her satellite view - not at all from Boden's direct one. Both have something important to say.

Jim Boden and Alison Denyer runs just through June 10. Try not to miss it.

Rating: Must See

Jim Boden - Interrogate 34 - oil on Mylar