Get Visual is the proud recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Books: A novel, photographs, and poetry

Though it isn't a picture book, Paul Castellani's Sputnik Summer features a great photo by Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman II on the cover, and its author and his wife, Donna, are great modern art enthusiasts who attend a lot of openings, so it caught my attention.

Castellani is a professor by trade, but his academic roots stay pretty well hidden in this coming-of-age novel that takes place in the late '50s in a fading Adirondack resort town where a somewhat typical 17-year-old boy tries to come to terms with the limits of his hick town, the crummy summer resort his abusive dad runs, his own college ambitions, and the need to get laid.

The story is punctuated by news bits and advertising slogans taken straight from the publications of the day, which provides a sort of parallel narrative that suggests political and social commentary without offering it directly. Castellani is an excellent storyteller, and he keeps you interested in the twists and turns of this intelligent but inexperienced young man's rather fateful last summer at home. Put simply: I enjoyed the book and so, probably, will you or the person you decide to give it to.

Another book that recently came into my possession serves double duty as the catalog of the current exhibition at the Photography Center of the Capital District in Troy. Both are titled Structures and feature the work of two photographers: Ian Creitz and Robert Feero.

It is always different to experience a body of photographs in a book as opposed to an exhibition, and this publication offers an opportunity to compare the two experiences, at least until the show comes down on Dec. 15. In this case, the selection is changed, but the real differences between a show and a book are in terms of scale and juxtaposition.

This book uses the page-to-page flow as part of the presentation - not always entirely successfully, but in an engaging way. Creitz is the more traditional of the two photographers, and he works in many formats and styles: color, black and white, panoramic, and straight on. He has a very good technical command of the medium and apparently loves to seek out decrepit buildings to shoot in, bringing back highly detailed and arresting images of his sad subjects.

Creitz sometimes uses heavy-handed digital effects to make his pictures look antique - an unnecessary effort, as the battered places he explores already amply show the effects of time. Feero, a former abstract painter, also applies a certain digital gimmick, in which the image is refracted into four parts to make a kaleidoscopic mandala. But, in Feero's case, he gets away with it because he has a very keen eye for the type of composition that will work well with this technique, resulting in a particular geometric vision all his own.

A few of Feero's pictures use black and white, but he is really a colorist (the painter lives!). His subjects, mainly buildings and bridges, are so transformed by the multiplication as to be nearly unrecognizable, yet they are essential to Feero's approach. The book is very nicely printed, so the pictures hold their power in the reproductions, and it is attractively priced at $15, though for that you do have to put up with a spiral binding. It would make a very nice gift for any art, architecture, or photography enthusiast.

Barry Lobdell and Michael Tucker collaborated to create Pull Over, a collection of poetry and black-and-white photographs that celebrates symbolism, spirituality, and simplicity. Tucker, the poet, worked for decades in special education and describes himself in the book as a "Vietnam War resister who proudly served with the hippies in Boston." His writing is as sincere as expected, and retains some of the hopeful idealism of that era.

Lobdell's photography was already quite familiar to me through exhibitions and a business relationship, but this presentation casts it in a different light, and I find the combination of the two artists' visions to be mutually beneficial. While each stands on its own, the consistent pairing of a short poem and a single picture on every page or spread of the book creates a fine balance and a lovely rhythm.

The book, an oversized paperback, opens out horizontally to provide a 23-inch-wide layout, and many of the photos are bled to three edges to take full advantage of this expanse of space. The images range from domestic moments to landscapes and cityscapes and are nicely reproduced in a full range of black-and-white tones. Each picture accompanies a poem with related subject matter - not illustrating the words so much as augmenting them.

Tucker's poetry is unadorned and direct, but also at times clever. If for no other reason, I can recommend this writer on the strength of his having the courage and humor to rhyme Cheetos with Speedos. He repeatedly targets certain topics, such as the title poem's advice to stop and look and appreciate, not in a cloying way, but in a gently urgent manner that makes it clear he values the Zen approach to life.

Tucker is a searcher - as is Lobdell - and this brings them together quite comfortably. Priced at $19.95, this book is a good value that will make a fine gift. In fact, I'm planning to give it to my mother-in-law for Christmas - but, please, don't tell her! Pull Over is available at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Market Block Books in downtown Troy and Northshire Books in Saratoga Springs.

The Seagull   by Michael Tucker
The warm blanket of dawn,
Pink and billowing,
Draws back across
The first blue,
The moon a blur
Of white,
Nowhere now can there
Be night,
Against the gentle, sleepy clouds,
A messenger of the moment,
Circles high,
Greeting day and us.

This sentinel of morning stillness
Is too a seagull,
Looking for a spilled French fry,
Parking lot leftovers, garbage.
We live in two states at once.
In divinity, in vulgarity,
Two sides of one moment.
Will we see through ourselves?
Will we look up?
What we see
Will be our destiny.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at Mandeville Gallery

This contemporary take on the Sisyphus myth, titled Sissy and the Plutocrats is, at six by eight feet, the largest painting in the Jaune Quick-to-See Smith show at Union College. All the paintings reproduced here are oil and acrylic on canvas.
A fine, small show of paintings and prints by the Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith fills Union College's Mandeville Gallery, situated in the extraordinary Nott Memorial in the center of the college's campus green. Smith is internationally known for the skillful way she combines primitive, symbolic imagery with modern painterly style, and as an articulate voice for women and Native Americans.

Shock and Awe
I'll admit I was not familiar with this artist before hearing about this show, but it lived up to expectations in a number of ways. First, Smith is a mature artist who knows her way around a canvas, and who maintains a sense of humor while addressing socially- and politically-charged issues. Second, the selection presented here is limited in scope while still being broad enough to satisfy a first-time viewer. So it clearly communicates her vision and messages without being overwhelming.

The space is circular, which suits this presentation particularly well, as Smith establishes and returns to certain themes repeatedly. One can comfortably walk around and around, taking in the imagery and relating it from one piece to the next without concerns for order or hierarchy.

Theatres of War (lithograph)
There are nine paintings and six prints in this selection, and it is immediately clear that, for Smith, printmaking is a serious pursuit, not a cheaper substitute for painting. One of my favorite pieces in the show is a lithographic riff on a war shirt that evokes Jim Dine's Bathrobe series as well as other modern or Pop art styles, but remains clearly a Smith invention. (seen here at right).

Imperialism
Other work brings the wunderkind Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat to mind, not a bad thing at all, because Smith infuses his neo-primitive, graffiti-inspired style with her own distinctive and powerful set of cultural symbols. One of those symbols, seen in the top, left area of the painting reproduced at the beginning of this review, is the rabbit, which seems to exist as a stand-in for Smith herself, or for her people in general. At times rendered into a flat cartoon, at others more expressively drawn, this character seems to know who it is and where it stands in the context of the picture, not to mention in the world beyond the picture.

In this way, Smith exudes her own confidence and convinces us that the things she cares about are worthy of our attention. The show ends on Nov. 30, and the gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. See it if you can.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mary Pat Wager at Albany Center Gallery

A visitor contemplates one of Mary Pat Wager's reliefs at ACG.
photo by Mike Wagner
In the great tradition that Albany Center Gallery has become in its 35+ years of existence, the current retrospective by sculptor Mary Pat Wager is a big, sprawling show of important work covering a span of several decades. Wager is a familiar face on the regional art scene including at past ACG shows, but this major exhibition is still a long time coming and a welcome sight.

Featuring scores of works from 1978 through 2014, Collections: A Retrospective was independently curated by Jackie Weaver and includes wall-hung and free-standing pieces in steel, wood, copper, bone, bronze, stone, brass, glass, paper, and more, usually combining several of these materials in one piece. It's organized clutter, marvelously inventive, sophisticated-yet-direct assemblage by an inveterate collector (some would say hoarder) of stuff.

Yes, Wager loves stuff, and she lovingly turns it into art. It's almost that simple, and would be if she were less of an artist. But where craft fair or roadside sculptors are entertaining, Wager is deeply engaging. Her direct involvement in metal casting, often represented by free-form melted bits she's scavenged from the process, is just one source of the profound connections Wager forges with her materials and thereby shares with her audience.

If you love pure form, if symbolism turns you on, or if you just kinda like steampunk, see this show. I like it because I see fascinating conjunctions and droll juxtapositions throughout; I like it more because I see a very clever eye at work; and I want to go back because that's only the beginning of the fountain of
creativity on display here. But you better hurry, because it ends on Nov 21. Albany Center Gallery is open from noon to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 518 462 4775.

Solitary Confinement, 2014 mixed media by Mary Pat Wager
all other images are sculptures by Mary Pat Wager