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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Walter Launt Palmer: Painting the Moment at the Albany Institute of History & Art

Wheat and Poppies, 1889-90 pastel on paper
Everybody knows the blockbuster show of the summer is Van Gogh at the Clark - all the more reason you should check out the work of his Albany contemporary, Walter Launt Palmer, on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art through Aug. 16. Born into an artistic family in 1854 (Vincent was one year older), Palmer started early and enjoyed a long, successful painting career. At first he held to the Victorian mode, but by the 1880s he was a full-on American Impressionist, no doubt influenced by the same movement that brought us the ever astonishing Van Gogh.

Library at Arbour Hill, 1898 oil on canvas
This comprehensive exhibition of Palmer's three significant series fills the big upstairs gallery of the Institute, which owns most of the paintings presented here (a select few are borrowed from private collectors). It begins with early still life and nature sketches, revealing a very skilled hand that would later be put to the particular task of painting lavish interiors. Two of those highly detailed works that he was regularly commissioned to make depict rooms in the house that gave Arbor Hill its name (now known as the Ten Broeck Mansion) and, with their dark, Victorian air, show why Palmer eventually stopped this pursuit - it was ruining his vision.

Venetian Scene 1890-1900
watercolor and pastel on paper
Transitioning through better interiors painted in England, Palmer re-emerged into the light, and an extremely adept landscape and cityscape painter was allowed to blossom. The influence he acquired during extended visits to France and, especially, Venice led to a finely tuned sense of atmosphere that at times recalls the Luminists (George Inness, for example) but also reveals Palmer as a latter-day Hudson River School painter (he was tutored at an early age by Frederic Edwin Church). There are several mountain views included in this exhibition, and they are as good as most produced by the members of that great group.

Catskill Clove, 1880 pastel on paperboard
Eventually, Palmer became known as a painter of snow scenes, which he executed in a range of modes featuring subtle shades, surprising colors, and the intensity of his final frosted fantasy (shown at the end of this post). One reason I like these paintings is that they remind me of Salem, N.Y., painter Harry Orlyk's vividly colorful explorations of snowy landscapes, and it's gratifying to feel there is a continuous chain of regional artists going back through the centuries.

Winter Twilight, 1903 oil on canvas
In usual Institute fashion, Painting the Moment is amply labeled with informative details about the artist, his times, and not only the pictures themselves, but the people and places they depict. This adds to the overall experience of the exhibition as a window on Albany's past as a significant center of wealth and power.

It's worth noting that the Albany Institute is also featuring Triple Play, a trio of baseball exhibitions that will hold the attention of fans and non-fans alike for hours. It runs through July 26.

The White World, 1932 oil on canvas

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fence 50 at ACCR: Democracy in Action

Fence 50 installation view - Photos provided by the Arts Center of the Capital Region

It's been 50 years, and the Fence Show is still going strong at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. I can remember in the early '80s hanging the works on the spikes of the wrought-iron fence that gave the show its name, and it retains the wide-open feeling it had then of being a show for the people.

This year's edition attracted 382 entries from a total of 237 artists, 40 of which were submitted by 33 K-12 students, and as is the tradition, all are on display in a jam-packed salon presentation (as seen in the photo above) through June 27. Such clutter would require a stepladder - and a lot of time - to properly peruse, but that's what juror Julie Lohnes (curator of Union College's collections and Mandeville Gallery) must have done in order to choose works for the Fence Select edition of the show and designate the prizes.

A detail of Fence 50
Such a democratic enterprise has its pluses and its minuses. The only requirement for inclusion is membership in the ACCR; it appears submissions were limited to two per artist, and I'm guessing there was a size limit - but otherwise, if you brought it, it got in. The result: Everybody gets to participate (yay!) but a fair amount of truly awful work is thereby presented, and even the best work pretty much gets overwhelmed by the swirling mass of media in the show (see examples immediately above and below).

Then again, if you like to keep up with the local art scene, this affords a chance for a broad overview of it, and provides a rare opportunity to see everything that was submitted along with the juror's choices (they are denoted with a little card, visible in the photo above). This can be a fun exercise, and I guarantee every visitor will not agree with all the juror's choices of what to include or exclude.

A detail of Fence 50
My own thoughts ran naturally to second-guessing Lohnes' process, as at first I scratched my head over how few works she had tagged for Fence Select (by my count - not including the students - she picked 42 works by 32 artists out of 342 submitted by 204 artists; fewer than 13% of the entries and 16% of the artists made the cut). Man, I thought, that's harsh! But after a while, the reality began to sink in of just how much mediocre stuff was there to troll through, and I was eventually nodding in appreciation of Lohnes' careful culling.

That said, as always, some excellent work seen here will not be in Fence Select, such as a haunting black-and-white self-portrait by oft-included painter John Hampshire; two fine small photographs by Dale Winsor; and Sara Pruiksma's quirky mixed-media confections. But, overall, Lohnes got it right - choosing a good variety of media (submissions ranged from functional to conceptual in all materials) and maintaining a high level of quality. I noticed she chose a lot of graphic media (photographs and prints make up more than a third of the selected works), many rather small-scaled pieces, and not much three-dimensional work, leading me to worry that Fence Select will be too sparse.

Still, it will be intriguing to return and see how the Select edition fills the gallery and to enjoy the works in it with some breathing room. That show runs July 18 through Aug. 29, along with a solo show by last year's Fence winner Marilee Sousie. This year's prize winners are photographer Ray Felix (Best in Show) and painter Catherine Chwazik (Runner-up). The students will also be represented in a select edition of 10 works by 10 artists, including top prize winner Eliza Henneberry and runner-up Nora Kane.

Fence 50 installation view - Photos provided by the Arts Center of the Capital Region