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Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region

Jeanette Fintz - Traveler's Reflection 3, acrylic on canvas
The annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, hosted this year by the Albany Institute of History & Art, raises the usual set of questions while presenting the usual confounding mash-up of regional art.

Popularly known as the Regional, this show has been running for nearly 80 years, making it one of the longest-standing exhibitions of its kind in the U.S. It's always an annual high point for fans of the local art scene, and can be either a high point or a low point for participants, depending on their success in entering, personal taste, or overall degree of crankiness. This year's edition was mounted on a later schedule than the usual summer appearance and will be up through Jan. 19, affording a nice opportunity for the procrastinators among us to see it, even as 2015 arrives.

Stephen Niccolls - Nudges, oil on canvas
Typically (for the Institute) this Regional is overstuffed: It includes 142 works by 75 artists, which is about one-third larger than what I consider a healthy portion for one viewing. I'm pretty sure it's not the biggest Regional in memory (I can't say with certainty when that was or how many artists were included) but I think it drew a record number of entries - reported to be more than 800 by 278 artists - so the able juror, Stephen Westfall, can be forgiven for perhaps running out of the moral strength it requires to keep cutting when you've already eliminated a ton of good art.

Indeed, the show includes very few dogs, and it does present a great deal of truly outstanding work in a variety of forms, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, fiber arts, collage, drawing, sound and video, and mixed media. Westfall, however, is a painter (apparently of some renown), and his bias is so pronounced that we could arguably describe this Regional as a show of painting. According to the show's catalog (nicely produced and abundantly illustrated), Westfall also planned the layout of this Regional, in which we find solid thematic groupings and some worthwhile innovations (my favorite being the placement of four wonderful photographic nudes, one pair each by Mark McCarty and Dan McCormack, in the Institute's 19th century sculpture foyer, where these modern sprites get to cavort with those of a former time).

Susan Meyer - House of Windows, wood,
steel, acrylic, hardware, paint, flocking,
wheels, succulents, toy deer
My response to the now-common practice of curator as creator is one of discomfort for the artists whose work has been subjected to interpretation by a juror who is, in my opinion, imposing his own vision onto other people's work and using that work to express himself. Is that what the Regional's sponsors intend when they choose a juror? I hope not - rather, I would expect them to ask the juror to seek to understand the submitted work, to attempt to see it in a collective context, and then to choose a show that best expresses those discoveries. Put simply, there is too much work and too much Stephen Westfall in this Regional.

That said, it's a good show, and some of Westfall's installation ideas bring freshness to a format that runs the annual risk of being stale or stuffy. Here, he deploys Colleen Quinn's ALL SOULS, a collection of cartoonishly painted-over beach balls, into three of the museum's spaces, placing them high, low and in between. He also has placed a floor sculpture by Ginger Ertz that represents a babbling brook (crafted in colored pipe cleaners) among landscape pictures from the museum's 19th century collection in the entry hall to the exhibition; put a plaster piece by Linda Horn that looks like a giant prehistoric crawling bug high up on a wall in a narrow gallery; and set one painting by Stephen Niccolls entirely outside the exhibition, where it serves as an emblematic welcome to the exhibition. Emblematic of what? Of the painterly geometry that pervades the rest of the show, of course.

Jenny Kemp  - Mellow Yellow, gouache on paper
In all, there are 70 paintings included, and all but a few of the sculptures, fiber work, and most other media are decidedly painterly as well. I noticed that most of the sculptors in the show each had two pieces selected, but then they were not shown together; instead, each artist's works were systematically separated into different rooms, while the great majority of the painters' works, also largely selected by twos and threes, were not separated. There were two exceptions to this treatment of the sculptures: Joann Axford's three delicately decorated white porcelain vase forms (unique among the rest of the selected work in both medium and scale) are presented together in a glass case; and Susan Spencer Crowe's three-dimensional pieces remained together but, being wall-mounted, they come across more as painting than sculpture anyway.

Another factor that added to my discomfort with Westfall's method is that a large swath of the photographs selected were segregated in a lesser gallery, along with other work that seemed to be among the show's secondary choices. Pride of place in the exhibition's main gallery was given to three photographs by Jim Allen and two by Julie Pamkowski, and I agree with the juror that they are better than most of the ones in the other room - but then, why keep the others at all? If it weren't for a terrific little painting by Jenny Kemp; a finely seen color photograph by David Ricci (which I liked much better than another one of his that took a prize); a large mixed-media painting by the ever-wonderful Wendy Williams; and a few other choice pieces in that room, I'd say the juror should simply have eliminated the whole bunch, rather than not-so-subtly kicking them to the curb within the exhibition.

Richard Garrison - Circular Color Scheme: Walmart,
May 22-27, 2013, Pages 1-2 "Celebrate With Savings",
watercolor, gouache,and graphite on paper
As regular readers of this column know, I adore painterly abstraction, and I actually really liked a lot of the work in this show, including many pieces the juror singled out for awards. Most compelling were two potent panels in greens and blues by Jeanette Fintz (nicely deployed on opposite sides of a narrow space); Richard Garrison's methodical yet agitated gouache studies; Susan Meyer's two colorful architectural fantasies; and the aforementioned Niccolls painting, titled Oscillator, along with his smaller Nudges. Additionally, there were some terrific - and not painterly - sculptures, including Specimen by Mary Pat Wager and Tendere by Peter Dellert. The show has many other highlights and is, naturally, not to be missed.

Also, upstairs from the Regional is a fascinating historical exhibition of quilts and coverlets, titled Undercover: Revealing Design in Quilts, Coverlets, and Bed Hangings, on view through March 8, and well worth checking out.

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