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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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Abecedarius at The Arts Center of the Capital Region

An installation view of Abecedarius
When Colin C Boyd and Michael Oatman won the 2013 Emerging and Established Artist Awards from The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, it wasn't said that they'd be collaborating on a show there, but it certainly comes as no surprise that they did. That show, a rollicking compendium of these two artists' individual and overlapping obsessions, is Abecedarius (subtitled "A Cautionary Alphabet of 26 + 1 Works).

The Convenience Effect, a 2014 collage
by Michael Oatman in a shaped frame
made by his father, Gordon Oatman
I don't know what sort of history Boyd and Oatman have with each other, but I'm going on the assumption that this is their first co-production, as it mostly re-presents significant past works, new works both major and minor by each artist, and just one jointly made item, making it in effect a two-person show. For those already familiar with the two artists, Abecedarius is a welcome return to some really fascinating and fun stuff, augmented by some really cool new stuff. And for those new to either maker, it's a pretty broad and deep immersion - not quite a retrospective, but in that direction.

Foreground, American Bison 2012 by Colin C Boyd;
background, Over (After Durer) 2014 by Boyd and Oatman
For me, the really engaging subtext of this show is discovering the elements that Boyd and Oatman share - each has for years produced fictional histories, pseudoscience, anthropological fantasy and so on. While Boyd tends toward the really old, and populates his share of the exhibition with many archaeological references, Oatman's take on anthropology is of the more cultural variety, particularly expressed in retro-futurism.

Still, both are miners of deep troves of rich material, and both exercise overactive imaginations, the result being always intriguing and entertaining. The conceit of the show is that it presents one work of art for each letter of the alphabet (plus one more), so there's the game of finding these references (easy enough by looking at the labels), and then perhaps the more challenging game of figuring out what it's all supposed to mean.

The Branch, or the Site of Our Complete Liberation 2012
multi-panel collage by Michael Oatman
The show's labels are evocative, following the classic pattern of a children's ABC book (or a mystery series), so you start with Oatman's "A is for Alien Craft" and Boyd's "B is for Balance Scale Act" and go on from there; but, given that the works were not actually created to fulfill this structure (all have other more specific titles and they range in date from 2007 to 2014), it comes off as a fun but false construct. That said, there is a lot of fresh work in the show by both artists, and I'll take any excuse offered that allows us to see it.

Favorites include "F is for Fauna + Firearms," which offers a trio of minimally layered collages by Oatman, revisiting one of his best themes with sweet subtlety; and Boyd's "Z is for Zetetic," with a museum-of-science-worthy scale model of a conceptual spacecraft designed by the Flat Earth Society, appropriately suspended above the viewer.

As I write this, the show has just one day left and will close after Dec. 23. Can we agree for purposes of this review that B is for Better Late than Never?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Daniella Dooling at the Esther Massry Gallery

3459 Macomb Street, installation by Daniella Dooling
in the Esther Massry Gallery's Vertical Gallery
Navel-gazing as an art form can be messy - and, worse yet, it is usually boring. Fortunately, neither is the case in Daniella Dooling's solo show at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery in Albany (which ended on Dec. 7).

The somewhat perplexingly titled Bloody Dick Road in the Big Hole Valley: Files from the Girl in Room 10 is essentially a full-gallery installation that features archival arrangements, combine-type sculptures, sound, video, and text. Dooling, an art professor at Bard College, devotes most of the space to critically nostalgic renderings of her childhood and teenage years, using carefully preserved artifacts from her life and the lives of certain key relatives (more on them in a bit), as well as other (presumably) found and created objects and materials.

Busing Break (for Amy)
While such self-centered expression can easily descend into ranting, spewing, and overall self-indulgence, Dooling's is as carefully considered as a Smithsonian scientific display, and is delightfully engaging. Dooling's approach is complex and inclusive, yet spare (as is clearly evident in the installation view shown below). Her sculptural style tends toward a very limited palette and an elegant, pared-down presentation, reminding me of the scientific and philosophical principle of Occam's razor, which favors the simplest solution to tricky problems.

Installation view
Much of the show's content is presented in showcases, cabinets or vitrines, aptly enough for archives, and effective enough as an art form, though I found it sometimes a little tough to see the details sufficiently to satisfy my curiosity. And, with this level of personal material from a teenage girl's drug-filled life, that curiosity easily bordered on morbid fascination.

Witchiepoo
Equally fascinating were the elements of the show that focused on Dooling's remarkable great-grandparents, who explored and promoted healing with homeopathy; grandmother, who published the important progressive journal Parabola; and an uncle owned a rustic Montana guest ranch. Dooling seems to have held on to everything of value from her forebears' and her own past, and here she organizes many elements of it into precise, unblinking displays of reflection and self-revelation.

But Dooling is not a sensationalist, and, to my relief, I found that this is not shock art. Rather, it is sincere almost to the point of sweetness, and was for me especially nostalgic for a number of reasons. Though my own teen years predated Dooling's by about a decade, it seems she relived similar experiences to mine, and though it seems she suffered more for it (the titular Girl in Room 10 was being held in the psych ward after a tough acid trip), it's clear to me she also had some fun (as I did) and got through it all in one piece.

My Grandmother's Parabola
I'd be curious to know how others react to this material - if they had a crappy teen-hood, would this be an unpleasant experience, or would it perhaps be cathartic? If they had a wholesome one, would they be repelled by the young Daniella's drug use and sexuality? My own teen years were drug-fueled, sexualized, and wholesome, and for me personally this show was an especially uplifting revival of memories of those dangerous-yet-innocent times.

Dooling's open sharing of diaries, mementos, and experiences is a gift to be savored, and it has left a pleasant afterglow - not at all the way I would expect to feel after viewing similar content handled by an artist of lesser skills. Bloody Dick Road in the Big Hole Valley: Files from the Girl in Room 10 is one of the year's best shows by an artist who deserves all the serious attention she gets.