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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Best Shows of 2011

Cocotte Reading - from Pissarro's People
It's a time for looking forward and a time for looking back. As I check last year's Best Shows post, it amazes me how much things have changed as well as how much they have remained the same, at least for Get Visual.

At this time a year ago, I was crowing about how much traffic had increased on the site during its second full year. Well, this third year has seen the traffic rate double, tallying about 40,000 page views in 2011, with a peak of just under 5,000 for the month of November. Admittedly, a good number of those are probably just folks in Uzbekistan trolling for Norman Rockwell images to steal - but, hey, I'm not choosy!

George Rickey - Four Squares
from Sculpture in the Streets
Meanwhile, the product has remained consistent - 59 posts (last year had 54), representing at least that many exhibitions in a region that is so rich in fine venues; a milestone in the form of our first review written by a guest, that being Sara Tack's fine effort on the Michael Bierut show at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery (still there till Jan. 11, by the way), which went viral by our standards to draw 1,200 visits and counting; and the addition by host platform Google Blogger of easy captioning for images, making the posts more browsable.

Our regional cultural scene has also held up well despite the odds and the never-ending economic crisis that continues to hurt the arts more than any other category. This year we witnessed the birth of MoHu (still a work in progress, but a welcome addition to the overall energy); the near eviction of Upstate Artists Guild (still in intensive care but, hopefully, out of the woods); the death of Nadia Trinkala; and a wave of leadership changes at such institutions as the Williams College Museum of Art, The Albany Institute of History & Art, The Arts Center of the Capital Region, the Berkshire Museum, Fulton Street Gallery, Albany Center Gallery, Union College's Mandeville Gallery, and probably more that I don't know about or can't recall.

cant and wont - from Victoria Palermo: RAUM
The bottom line: Once again, we saw so many great shows in the past year that a simple Top Ten list will not suffice. However, because I now use a rating system, my job here is a bit easier. So, I will do a list this time - and then augment it with some excellent also-rans. Eight exhibitions that I reviewed received the coveted Must See rating; one exhibition that was rated Highly Recommended, in retrospect should have been a Must See; and two others would have gained that rating but were not reviewed due to conflicts of interest - they will round out this year's Top Eleven, which follows, arranged in the approximate chronological order of the exhibitions. Links are provided to the original Get Visual review where available.

Arm - from Mark McCarty: Skin
One more "by the way": Last year's list did not include The Jewel Thief at the Tang Teaching Museum, because I hadn't seen it yet - but, as predicted, it did rate a Must See; however, it is not on this year's list because it belonged on last year's. Also, as hard as I try to get around to every worthy exhibition and site, there are always some I miss. If you know of a show or venue that should have been noted here but wasn't, please feel free to mention it in a comment.


The Top Eleven
Also outstanding:
It's worth pointing out that Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery made the list three times - that's because the Opalka has made a rare commitment to mounting solo shows by outstanding regional artists who may have been unjustly overlooked. It just happened that three of those shows came in the same year.

All in all, it was quite a year for most of the Capital Region's exhibiting venues - a good sign that the future remains bright in the region. For all of them, and all of you - here's to an outstanding 2012! And thanks for reading ...

Yinka Shonibare - Black Gold I - from Environment and Object: Recent African Art

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday time at the Albany Institute

Young Washington - lithograph by Alex Katz
The holidays are a great time to visit the Albany Institute of History & Art, both because the museum shop there overflows with fabulous options for cards and gifts at Christmas, and because the museum's educational/artistic vacation offerings for kids are always first-rate. But I'm here to talk about the exhibitions - and in that department this season has something for everyone.

For the history buff, there's First in the Hearts of his Countrymen: George Washington, which is described as "a visual exploration of America's fascination with Washington's image, ... and how Americans have used it to convey a sense of patriotism and shape a national identity." For the kid in all of us (especially we Boomers), there's Kid Stuff: Great Toys from our Childhood, which features all the toys you'd expect and ample room to try them in. And for the lover of all things shiny, there is A Gather of Glass, filling four freestanding cases with a few centuries' worth of glittering objects from the museum's collection.

George Washington was at the top of my list on a recent visit but, on my way up to the third floor galleries to see it, I could barely resist the siren call of all those nostalgic toys in the main second-floor space. I stopped, took a few hungry glances around and then, with my editor's voice ringing in my ears, got back on the assignment. Though the Washington show is long on historical context and a little thin in the serious art category, it held my interest with a densely packed tour of all kinds of artifacts, including statues, plates and pitchers, printed fabrics, postage stamps, medallions, engravings and more, all bearing the image of that towering figure.

Among the real curiosities are a cast metal savings bank representing the father of our country, an 1812 broadside printed in Albany that proudly proclaims having been "executed with American materials," and a walking stick fashioned out of a branch cut from a tree that grew near GW's grave. There are also several serious works of art, including a decent oil portrait based on Gilbert Stuart's famous one; two large, color lithographs commissioned by the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in 1975 in anticipation of the nation's Bicentennial and then donated to museums across the  land; and a very fine framed bronze bas relief profile of Washington by Charles Calverley.

items in A Gather of Glass
Naturally I was most drawn to the contemporary artworks in this show. The two big lithos, by Alex Katz and Audrey Flack, speak to history in at least two ways, by their own purposely representational content, and by their recognizably 1970s stylistic approach, now more than a generation in the past. A more recent work of art by Michael Vinson Clark, in which he paints whimsical background patterns on three color postcard reproductions of his own interpretation of the Stuart portrait, fits right in with them due to its overt Pop references. The show runs through May 20.

Back to Kids Stuff, there was enough personal history there to render me wholly unobjective about the experience. I think my sisters and I must have had at least 80% of the toys on display, from Hot Wheels to Barbie to Spirograph. My friends with children tell me things haven't changed much: their kids have Lincoln Logs, Slinky, Silly Putty and the rest as well. Go and enjoy, whatever your age (it runs through March 4).

A Gather of Glass is a delight. From functional bottles to Tiffany art pieces, its objects tell their stories, and ours, and sharply underline what a rich trove the Institute's collection is. The show continues through June.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dualities: Martha Bone and Bart Gulley at Architecture for Art

Painting by Bart Gulley from Black and Blue series
On a recent visit to Architecture for Art in Hillsdale, Bart Gulley and I discussed dualities as I perused his two-person show with Martha Bone in the two-floor exhibition space. It was our first meeting and my first time at AforA, so there was a lot to take in and digest. AforA director Liane Torre was also on hand, explaining the unlikely genesis a year ago of this brick-and-mortar setting from a longer-term, ongoing web-based project of the same name.

Gulley's work first caught my eye in the 2011 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region at the Albany Institute of History & Art (see review here); he makes Modernist paintings and collages with great purity, having evolved from a more Expressionist style in what appears to be a reductive maturation process. The work is crisp, clear, and somewhat dry at times, but seethes with a passion beneath the expertly rendered surfaces.

Bone's installation is, according to Torre, her first exhibition of any kind, and it is an engaging and impressive debut that effectively occupies the space it was designed for. Her explorations include a wide variety of materials - plastic cable ties, rubber hose, fabric, hand-built pottery forms, and ink on paper - yet come across in a surprisingly coherent manner (an example is shown at the bottom of this post). I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Paper collage by Bart Gulley
So, what of the dualities? Gulley mentioned his own distinction (or lack thereof?) between a landscape-oriented approach and a tabletop arrangement. I noted that his work sometimes hovers in a grey area between image and object. Then there's the issue of graphic design (Gulley's longtime profession) vs. fine art, as well as the given duality of the mission of AforA itself. This, too, suits the topic of Gulley's painting, as it is both architectural and abstract.

As is often the case with artists immersed in various media, collage is a touchstone for Gulley. While the upstairs space holds mostly paintings (and the Bone installation), the much smaller and warmly cluttered downstairs space (think museum shop) has a powerful series of five large collages in it that are every bit as accomplished as the bigger paintings. Based on our discussion, I would venture to say that Gulley values the collages more than the paintings - with good reason, as they have the advantage of being more personal and direct in their physical presence.

Altogether, each feeds off the other. The paintings could not exist without the collages (which often act as sketches for them), but the collages gain credibility from the fact that their maker is also a highly skilled painter. Yet another duality; perhaps we'll get to discuss it the next time we meet.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Note: Martha Bone and Bart Gulley remains on view at Architecture for Art through Dec. 18; the gallery is open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and is located in the heart of Hillsdale on Route 23. If you go, plan to enjoy the drive, as it is particularly lovely country around there.

Wall installation of ceramic, fabric and rubber by Martha Bone