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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Three exhibitions at MASS MoCA


I finally got myself back to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams this week after a too-long absence, and it was well worth the trip. As my museum-going companion succinctly pointed out, MASS MoCA made its bones by taking risks, and they always seem to pay off - even when something there doesn't work, you have to admire the effort.

At the very least, you have to be impressed by the scale of things at this gargantuan former factory complex, and you can count on the vastly abundant industrial forms that make up the physical plant to be esthetically pleasing and fascinating in themselves, sometimes even more than the art. One reason I made the trip now was to catch the tail end of an important installation by the German painter/sculptor Katharina Grosse, which opened many months ago and will close on Oct. 31.

Ungrammatically and, to me, annoyingly titled one floor up more highly, the piece combines elegantly sandblasted, pure-white forms in styrofoam with garishly spray-painted mounds of rocks and dirt that also contain a few recognizable objects, such as a massive wooden bench and articles of clothing. Also in this group is a floor-mounted, curved planar polygon that is either a painting or a sculpture, depending on your definition of those media, and through a door at the end of the gargantuan space containing these works are two levels of spray-painted rooms, one of which features a framed abstract painting hung on the wall.

Grosse's installation is exuberantly colorful, muscularly formal, richly textural - I could go on, but you get the picture - and I wanted to like it so much more than I did. Somehow, though, it left me cold. Can't really explain why that is, as I normally enjoy all those elements in a wide variety of art. The closest I can come to explaining this failure to ignite is that the piece just doesn't work as a whole, that despite its quantity it doesn't properly fill the space - that this artist has bitten off more than she could chew.

Others surely will disagree, and I encourage you to go and see for yourself whether you do or not - but I am willing to take the risk of saying in print that this piece is, at best, a beautiful and expensive mess.


Meanwhile, up on a catwalk, exposed to the elements and a real challenge to reach on rickety old legs is Michael Oatman's All Utopias Fell, a neo-retro-futuristic fantasy that extends Oatman's longstanding obsessions into his best work yet - an experiential time-and-space capsule that should bring out the kid, or at least the mad scientist, in all of us (pictured above).

Oatman is essentially a collage artist who regularly works in three dimensions as well, creating participatory environments chock-full of stuff: pictures, gadgets, artifacts and so on. AUF consists of an Airstream trailer with solar panel-festooned wings and deployed parachutes that appears to have crash-landed on the museum's superstructure. Its occupant is missing, but his incomprehensible, complex inner world is on full display in the ship he rode in on.

Visitors can enter and do as they please in this delightfully bizarre interior, which is accessible only in good weather (i.e. not during the winter months) and which will remain there indefinitely. It contains all manner of material related to energy - books, a bicycle-driven generator (I rode it, and it works), and more or less functional-looking living quarters (featuring a goodly supply of toilet paper and put-up tomatoes), along with an elaborately (but crudely) furnished electrical workbench and many, many mysterious electronic contraptions.

A full description would be next to impossible - imagine the contents of an artistically and scientifically inclined packrat's garage or basement all fitted into a tiny living space and you get the idea. As with past installations by Oatman, I was left shaking my head in wonder at his ingenuity, resourcefulness, sense of humor - even his sincerity. He's a space-age kid stuck in a postmodern man's world, but thankfully he's got what it takes to drag us back in time to where he comes from - and it ends up looking like a wonderfully twisted version of where we're going.

A third major exhibition that opened at MASS MoCA in May and will remain until March is titled The Workers (or The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility); it originated in a smaller form in Mexico, and has been expanded for its incarnation here, to include 25 international artists and filmmakers who depict workers in various ways.

Equal parts art and propaganda, The Workers has a terrific concept and ends up being a fine example of something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Much of the art in the show is overwrought, as politically oriented art so often is, yet for me the show was still stimulating and enjoyable. As with most of the group shows I've seen here over the years, it uses the space of the galleries extremely well, allowing a comfortable flow from piece to piece and room to room.

A number of the pieces in the show appear to have been made specifically for it, in some cases by local artists, with an eye toward the detailed industrial past of the museum. This conjunction of purposes is the key to the success of the show, and I was somewhat surprised to find that I consistently preferred the pieces in the show that were related to this history.

Whereas some of the international work struck me as bombastic (for example a full-size gallows with an office water cooler set next to the trap door), some of the more local work was resonantly lyrical. My favorite pieces in the show included a wall montage of the torn-out bottoms of paper bags with the names of the factory workers who made them stamped on them (take a look at a paper bag, and you'll see one) by Mary Lum, who lives in North Adams; Los Angeles photographer Anthony Hernandez' Landscapes for the Homeless; and an installation featuring a chain-link fence and images from a 1970 strike at Sprague Electric by New York City-based Camel Collective (pictured below).

The Workers is accompanied by a detailed brochure, fittingly printed on cheap newsprint in black ink. With written material that keys on "the uncertain fate of today's workers," it strikes a rather relevant chord - and one that I respond to more than some, having been laid off from my own job nearly three years ago. As with the logo (seen above, right), the catalog eloquently expresses this exhibition's roots in socialist theory, especially as it was embodied nearly a century ago by Mexican muralists, or more recently by artists of the Soviet regime. Clearly, this point of view still has life in our global culture and still inspires many artists.

Note: There are several other exhibitions also currently on view at MASS MoCA, including Memery; Nari Ward: Sub Mirage Lignum; and Federico Diaz: Geometric Death Frequency-141. Additionally, there's an opening reception in the Kidspace gallery from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday (Oct. 1), which features several excellent artists, including Schenectady's Ginger Ertz, on a subaquatic theme. Seriously fun.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Give ‘The Guard’ a go

Don Cheadle, left, and Brendan Gleeson star in "The Guard"

Regular readers of this blog know I rarely review movies, but there’s a film out there that isn’t getting the attention it deserves, so I’m making an exception. When I saw “The Guard” on a recent weeknight, only five or six other patrons were in the theater – and that’s a shame, because it is a smart, irreverent film well worth seeing.

Built around two first-rate actors, Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, “The Guard” draws from the deep well of postmodern black humor first drilled into our consciousness by “Pulp Fiction,” yet it is also a charming, Euro-indie film with a small-town story of human frailty and strength. Then again, “The Guard” is a buddy-cop movie in the great tradition of “Die Hard,” with Gleeson and Cheadle as inspired a pairing of opposites as you could wish for. On top of that, “The Guard” is a full-on Western – complete with Ennio Morricone-like soundtrack – that just happens to take place in contemporary Ireland rather than 19th-century Nevada.

For some, this may be too mixed-up a set of references to be enjoyable – for others, it may all be a bit too obvious (trust me, if I’m picking it up, it’s obvious). But I found it hugely entertaining. When the bad guys are cruising along the highway, they don’t debate the merits of their favorite footballers or recreational drugs – no, they’re discussing philosophers (“Bertrand Russell was Welsh?”) – and then they find themselves faced with the philosophical dilemma of being pulled over by the one cop in the county not on the take (who they murder, of course).

Gleeson is, as always, amazing. His country-bumpkin sergeant manages to seem dense, roguish, depraved, and debauched – yet he’s actually the moral and intellectual center of a tiny world gone mad. Cheadle could be better (and is in many films), but he’s still better than most as an FBI square from a privileged background who’s out of his element but still savvy enough to realize what he’s gotten himself into before it’s too late.

Though the conclusion of “The Guard” is predictable, it’s the trip along the way that makes it worth arriving at, beginning with a horrifyingly grisly car crash and the sergeant’s astonishing response to it (he finds a bag of LSD on one of the victims, then tosses all of it to the wind – except for the one hit he places on his tongue). You know then it will be a wild ride, and it is: funny, shocking, poignant –  including plenty of truly lovely photography of the rugged Irish coast.

If you saw and loved “In Bruges” (which also stars Gleeson), then this is your kind of film. I was only a little surprised to learn that John Michael McDonagh, who wrote and directed “The Guard,” is the brother of that film’s creator. It’s vulgar and violent, and the accents can be hard to understand, but “The Guard” has something to say, and it says it in a fresh way. Give it a go.

Villains in the Irish landscape, from "The Guard"

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Public Art speaks volumes

Clown Soldier - Rensselaer Riverfront Art Park

If you haven't had public art on your mind lately, there are two current reasons that maybe you should. One of them is the 9/11 sculpture commissioned by Saratoga Arts to be made out of World Trade Center steel by two prominent local sculptors, John Van Alstine and Noah Savett, which should have been unveiled last weekend but wasn't (background here). The other is the Living Walls project that also launched last weekend and will be the focus of a broad spectrum of events this weekend in Albany.

Amid all the hubbub surrounding the 9/11 anniversary, there was the unfortunate story of how this significant piece of art has been turned into a political football by various folks in Saratoga Springs, who decided they didn't like either the initially approved siting of the 25-foot-tall abstract memorial, or a second proposed location (for a good overview of the debacle, read Tom Keyser's coverage from the Times Union).

It always galls me when people who otherwise do not involve themselves with art suddenly feel entitled to act against it when they see something they don't like being given prominence in public. A couple of significant examples from the recent past include the removal of a long-standing sculpture, which critics compared to a collapsed staircase, from its spot near a government building in downtown Albany; and the very controversial and expensive removal of a monumental Richard Serra sculpture from a public square in Manhattan.

Tempered by Memory
Noah Savett and John Van Alstine
photo: Lawrence White
In the Saratoga case, the smell is the same - if this were a bronze image of a thoroughbred horse or a ballerina or a heroic firefighter, I am sure there would have been no outcry. But it's not. It's an abstract sculpture made of 9/11 tower steel, and some people are uncomfortable with what it represents to them, so they consider it their right to spontaneously become public art critics.

And so, instead of having been dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the monument sits in the steelyard where it was made, awaiting its fate. The good news is that the sculpture has been accepted, and a committee appointed by the mayor is set to meet so they can review and recommend sites; the Saratoga City Council will then consider these recommendations and make a final decision on where it will be placed.

Important to note: The funding for this work of art has come entirely from private donations. To everyone who gave money to support this endeavor, I would like to offer thanks for your courage and your generosity. This is not a friendly time for artists and arts organizations, and they need your support like never before.

Meanwhile, all over Albany and near the river in Rensselaer there are crews of local, national, and international street artists producing monumental works of their own on the walls of buildings and the supports of highway ramps. (Street art is the more palatable name now given to graffiti muralists, but these days it means a lot more than spray paint and gangster tags, incorporating stencils, broadsides, stickers, and other materials - even ceramic tile - into the often gigantic works these artists create.)

The Living Walls project writes on its website: Through a series of lectures, performances, and the involvement of some of the world’s great mural artists, we are looking to provide an education into public art. The Living Walls project is intent on creating an open dialogue between the people and city.

Sounds great to me. For more information, go to the website, facebook page, twitter, tumblr, etc., and you will find more events than you can shake a spray can at going on throughout the weekend. And then, for as long as they endure, there will be those walls.

GAIA and Nanook - Livingston Avenue
 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at EMPAC

We don't need any reminders right now of the destructive power of water, but maybe a reminder of its soothing power is that much more welcome at this time - and equally welcome is the fact that a two-part sound installation by the French composer Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at EMPAC in Troy, originally scheduled to end on Sept. 1, has been extended through Nov. 5.

The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center pushes the envelope by definition, but this pair of sound installations works beautifully in the majestic EMPAC space, making for a very pleasant and accessible experience for anyone with an inquisitive mind, and open eyes and ears.

The more visual of the two pieces was my focus for this visit. Untitled (series #3) is an elegantly simple sculptural piece that is something like what you would get if you tried to combine a wind chime and a Jacuzzi.

In it, three identical, round pools of water are set into a low platform and populated by similar sets of round, ceramic or glass vessels that float randomly on the current of a filter jet. As the white and blue bowls and clear wine glasses move about, they knock into each other, producing a range of ringing sounds and rhythms that depend on the size of the object and its stability (the smaller bowls tend to rock, which creates trilling multiple knocks with each little collision).

Formulated on the premise that "nature is one of the most unknowable generators of time-based events" (as expressed in curator Micah Silver's essay), what the casual observer may perceive as a sweetly resonant exercise in delicate sound could be understood by a mathematical mind as an infinitely complex system of algorithms.

I was taken as much by the delicacy of this miniature orchestra's song as by the peaceful movement of the many circles within the circles. EMPAC's soaring, bridged space allows many points of view from above the installation, which is the best way to take it in visually. There are also several places to sit right on the platform, next to or between the pools, where the combination of tones emitted by the sound generators varies from each vantage point.

Seen up close, the movements of the vessels are almost comical - I was reminded of bumper cars, for example - as little dramas of races, collisions, and near-misses are enacted on the currents in each pool. The color palette of white and blue, along with the mellow tones of the pottery and glass, creates a relaxing atmosphere - but if the pools were more densely packed, or the current speeded up, I imagine the piece could produce a chaotic or even violent effect. Instead, in this form, it is rather trancelike.

Silver describes untitled (series #3) as "not a system, but a score," that creates "a very expectation-defying music." Similarly original is Boursier-Mougenot's other installation, titled index (v. 4), which features two grand pianos that are rigged to play automatically in response to the computer keyboard tappings of EMPAC employees at work in their hidden offices.

The piece has a visual presence as well, with the sleek, bulky, black instruments placed symmetrically at the bottom of two elongated staircases on opposite sides of the building, their open keyboards pressed against the plate glass, facing out toward the world beyond it.

As if haunted by ghostly performers, these "mechanically actuated" pianos emit bursts of sonorous notes that sound a bit like New Age improvisation. The invisible source and unpredictable timing of the movement of the keys is a touch creepy, whereas in the water piece one can see the bowls about to touch and anticipate their ringing. However, the system's controls (in this case, computer programs) have again been adjusted to produce a relatively pleasant sound, where something harsh or disturbing could as easily have been created.

If you haven't yet seen the astonishing spaceship-like interior of EMPAC, this may be a good time to go check it out and enjoy Boursier-Mougenot's sounds as well.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Also in Troy and well worth a look is a newly opened show at the Chapel + Cultural Center, where playful and delicate prints by Sunghee Park fill the front gallery area and the lounge area features paintings on slate by Joella Cass and mosaics by Ida Pagano that have been held over from the summer. The C+CC is open seven days a week, and the show continues through Sept. 30.

Sunghee Park - On a Windy Day 2011  lithograph and sugarlift etching


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Harold Lohner: Gathering at Opalka Gallery

Harold Lohner - Attraction 3 2010 monoprint 30x22 inches

My policy on faculty shows prohibits me from reviewing the exhibition Harold Lohner: Gathering at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery, but it doesn't say anything about endorsements - which is a good thing, because this event should not be overlooked. It is a large, exuberant show stuffed with Lohner's characteristic monoprints in a vast array of colors, combinations, and sizes. There is also a handsome catalog accompanying the show with an essay by another Sage faculty member, Melody Davis.

A reception for Gathering took place last week on the 5th Anniversaryof Albany's 1st Friday; another reception is set for 5 - 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, just before the show closes. I missed last week's gathering, but hope to be at the next one.

Lohner's work matters, and this show is important.

In two words: See it.

Harold Lohner - Stranger 6 2010 monoprint 30x22 inches
 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Regarding Place and Wolfgang Staehle at University Art Museum

Marilyn Bridges - Castillo from Perpendicular, Yucatan, Mexico 1982
The University Art Museum is blessed with a pretty impressive photography collection, and has been showcasing a sizable chunk of it through the summer under the title Regarding Place: Photographs from the Permanent Collection. Paired with three digital projections of web- or video-derived color images by the New York City-based, German-born Wolfgang Staehle - who will give a talk at the museum at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 7) - this offers a nice opportunity to take in a nearly century-long swath of fine photography.

Regarding Place includes over 100 black-and-white pictures by 17 artists, some of them iconic, some cult favorites, some little-known. The great majority of the prints in the show were donated to the museum’s collection over the last few decades by the Brown family, whose two children attended UAlbany in the 1980s and 1990s, and the show was organized by UAM curator Corinna Schaming, giving a sort of bi-level structure to the selection process. The result is somewhat uneven, but of a very high quality overall, and the installation takes on a subtly intriguing life of its own, as framed prints are variously grouped in rows, stacks, and grids, sometimes loosely spaced, sometimes tightly packed.

Andreas Feininger
Elevated Trestle, Division Street 1941
The premise of the show is, frankly, half baked. Many of these pictures struck me as being fairly indifferent to setting, or distinctly not about place at all – and the trouble it took to try to come up with a unifying theme for the show seems forced. This is evident in the rather tortured language of the press materials – for example, Schaming writes that these photographs “consider the resonance of a given site” and “foreground the direct and emotive appeal of black and white photography, while also informing current photography’s renewed interest in faithfully reproducing the visual world.” I’m sorry, but this is not my idea of meaningful description.

I’d be more comfortable with a less presumptuous approach – such as “here’s some really nice stuff from the collection, and isn’t it great to have a chance to look at it together on the walls instead of leaving it safe in a file drawer in the dark?” I mean, who needs all that theory? The bottom line: Photos like to be looked at, and it's very good to see these photos out of storage.

Highlights abound, including seven small prints by the ageless Manuel Alvarez Bravo that span the 1930s to the 1970s in a carefree leap; five big, bold prints by Andreas Feininger (two of which are also seen in the current New York, New York! show at The Hyde Collection); an appropriately random-seeming set of 10 images by Andy Warhol (these were donated by the Warhol Foundation in 2008); and five Joel Meyerowitz prints from the 1960s - before he discovered large-format color.

Three photographers are represented by a whole portfolio of 12 or more images: Marilyn Bridges, who makes precisely composed aerial pictures of famous sites; Douglas Huebler, a conceptual artist of the unassuming type; and Sally Gall, whose landscapes are lovely, if perhaps a bit sentimental.

Joel Meyerowitz - JFK Airport (Caddy and Christmas star) 1968

Not at all sentimental are the projections by Staehle, though they are also calm and sweet in their way. His pieces, which consist of 24-hour web views of two scenes (one rural, one urban) captured at short intervals and an hourlong continuous loop showing Niagara Falls (with pleasantly roaring soundtrack), struck me as being simply and singularly about the passage of time. Staehle’s cool gaze, aided by Internet technology, allows the viewer to contemplate at leisure a very quietly unfolding drama. Not particularly innovative or unique, in my opinion, but worthy of attention.

Note: If you want to see the Regarding Place and Wolfgang Staehle shows, you must act quickly - they end on Sept. 10.

Rating: Recommended

Wolfgang Staehle - still image from Eastpoint 2004