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Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region

Daniel Brody - Game On/Game Over, still from digital video
Every year, the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region offers a good opportunity to take the pulse of the local art scene in one time and place, and this year's edition at the University at Albany Art Museum is a prime example of how that works.

Though the vagaries of who submits work each year and especially the taste of the juror will have a distinct impact on what's seen, there's usually a broad enough coverage to be reasonably representative of what artists in the orbit of Albany are doing.  And because these artists are also in the orbit of New York City, one can also get a sense of what's current there and, by extension, in the art world as a whole. This year's juror, Rachel Uffner, owns a New York City gallery, so the sensibility of the show is most likely that much more imbued with the bigger art world point of view.

Fern T. Apfel - Skyline, collage and acrylic 
If so, then the current art world, whether regional or global, is still very much about painting, especially painterly abstraction, with a strong side interest in the figurative and the decoratively patterned, and flirting a bit with representation on the Pop side of things. There are 44 artists included (out of a daunting 367 who entered the competition), which is a good number - neither too many to get a grip on in one viewing, nor too few to hold the space - and about three-quarters are represented by multiple works, which is always desirable in large group shows.

Ian Myers - Fish, oil on canvas
Noticeably in short supply in this selection is photography which, in the 25 or so years since the medium was first allowed in the Regional, usually has a strong role. Instead, the few photographs chosen are relegated to subsidiary locations in the gallery and, except for Jess Ayotte and Han Dogan, both of whom present slyly low-key black-and-white prints, and Katria Foster, whose works read almost as abstract paintings, the offerings are weak.

Then again, video has two strong entries, including Daniel Brody's digital animation Game On/Game Over, which won the top prize and is well worthy of the honor, and a concrete-poetry piece by Kyra Garrigue. It's intriguing that Garrigue's Poem: Untold Story has company in another concrete poetry work, this one formed in Morse code that was drilled into three smooth panels of birch by Colin Chase.

Monica Bill Hughes - Boob Bouquet
acrylic, ink, spray paint, and glitter on canvas
Other sculptural works are among the more compelling pieces here, including two slightly chilling scale models by Roger Bisbing and a very impressive series of five works in ceramic and wood, buffalo horn, or mammoth ivory by Robert Augstell; both Bisbing and Augstell won awards. Top awards were also taken by outstanding painters, including Monica Bill Hughes's naughty, lush still lifes; Stephen Niccolls's wonderful retro-Modernist compositions; two tongue-in-cheek works by Ian Myers; and two cleverly titled mixed media paintings by Kelsey Renko (artists who have the courage to title their works creatively get extra points from me).

Also outstanding: Charles Geiger's technically brilliant tropical arabesques; Mona Mark's scrupulously pared down exercises in monochrome; Jenny Hutchinson's meticulous, playfully layered paper-cuts; and Susan Spencer Crowe's boldly colored and formed wall reliefs.

Overall, this Regional suffers a bit from being on the wan side, color-wise, and from a lack of scale (only a handful of pieces exceed 5 feet in size). It is therefore overwhelmed by the cavernous white space of the UAlbany Museum. On the other hand, the two-story gallery's large, open central staircase allows a view of half the show all at once, which is a terrific advantage in getting the big-picture sense. And that sense is that the scene is plenty vibrant enough to survive another year. We'll get to reassess again at the next Regional, set for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls.

By the way, this exhibition ends on Sept. 5, so if you want to catch it, you must act now.

Roger Bisbing - Lunch 1961, brass, cast bronze, and aluminum

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark

Vincent Van Gogh - A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889 oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
Here's what's obvious: You must not miss Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which ends its exclusive run there on Sept. 13. Simply put, you will never get another chance to see such a breathtaking collection of this artist's work - gathered from all over the world - together again. Ever.

Here's what may be less obvious: The title of the show, and its claim to being “the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s abiding exploration of nature in all its forms” are off the mark. Take, for example, the brilliant painting reproduced above. The sky and mountains are not wrought by human intervention, however personally interpreted by the painter, and the wind ruffling the many plants below that sky is all natural. But what about those plants, and that landscape they inhabit? This is not by any means a natural place. It is dominated by a cultivated wheatfield, cypresses, and olive trees that were, I'm fairly certain, planted by people, in a place that was most likely clear cut centuries before Vincent laid eyes on it. Is this nature?

Giant Peacock Moth, 1889
Chalk with pen and brush and ink on paper
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Elsewhere in the exhibition, text and images do support the intriguing and meaningful notion that Van Gogh was keenly interested in and moved by natural phenomena, particularly plants and insects. It could be argued that his deeply felt and vividly expressed responses to the world around him, including forces of weather and geology, are the wellspring of his genius and his popularity. But much of what Van Gogh observed so sensitively and depicted so richly (even in this selection) was culture - agriculture most particularly, as well as architecture, industry, religion, and other human inventions.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
oil on canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
And the power of his work, the legacy that keeps the crowds coming to blockbusters such as this one, is as much about human nature - in the form of the psychology of the sensitive, spiritual, suffering artist - as it is about anything else. Frequently overheard throughout my visit to the exhibition were comments related to Van Gogh's psychological states: his anger, his ecstacy, his mental illness, his tragic suicide at 37. Many of the finest paintings in this show were made while Van Gogh was living in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, where he had placed himself voluntarily; in one late letter, referring to a painting that depicts a landscape in the rain (shown at the bottom of this review), he wrote, “before such nature I feel powerless.” Not to belabor a point, but the painting also depicts a dense little village across its middle.

The exhibition is also about history - Vincent's personal history, tidily summed up in wall texts that guide visitors through sections devoted to key locations and periods in the artist's career (Holland 1881-85; Paris 1886-88; Provence 1888-90; and Auvers 1890), and the history of his influences, with excellent examples of other artists' work, including a lovely Monet from the Clark's collection, works by Millet, and woodblock prints by Hiroshige (all considered major influences on Van Gogh).

Undergrowth, 1887 oil on canvas Centraal Museum, Utrecht
What many people will learn for the first time here is the stunning fact that Van Gogh's entire career as an artist spanned barely 10 years, only five of which were spent painting. He is (rightly) revered as a towering figure of modern art (Impressionism was the first modern movement), yet he was very young, and still rapidly developing, when he died. The chief benefit of the "nature" thesis presented at The Clark is that it caused a good number of minor works to be included - drawings, sketches, early paintings, and experiments - which demonstrate how incompletely formed this artist was even a year or two before the final burst of creative intensity that cemented his importance.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Who knew that Van Gogh tried pointillism, or made bumbling botanical illustrations, or was, early on, apparently rather intimidated by color? That he struggled for years before finding his own mode of expression puts him on equal footing with all unsuccessful artists - that he actually found his mode and then realized it fully enough in the brief time before his death to leave a lasting legacy is an astounding achievement. Nature caused Vincent to do this, and its overwhelming forces cost him both his sanity and his life. What he accomplished along the way is one of the most valuable slices of human culture to be found anywhere. The Clark show offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to soak up a huge chunk of it. Go and revel.

Rain–Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Whistler's Mother

The Clark is also showcasing one of the most famous American paintings of all time, through Sept. 27. Popularly known as "Whistler's Mother," James McNeill Whistler's monumental  Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) normally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but it is here on loan as part of a reciprocal arrangement from a recent European tour of some of The Clark's French masterpieces.

We recognize Whistler's own masterpiece from the countless reproductions, parodies, and ads that have borrowed the dour central figure, which experts have said is only incidentally part of this modern composition. The Clark has provided well thought-out accompaniment in the form of numerous fine lithos and etchings, as well as several examples of the painting's many pop-cultural takeoffs. Grab the trolley or take a stroll up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to enjoy the view and peruse the painting's "musical notions of harmony and balance."

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1
(Portrait of the Artist's Mother) 
1871 oil on canvas Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lit at Albany International Airport Gallery

Scott Nelson Foster, Real and Imaginary Houses 12 - oil on panel
The sky was performing spectacularly at the end of a stormy day, which provided the ideal preparation for Lit, a theme show about phenomena of light at Albany International Airport Gallery that runs through Sept. 13. As with all the shows presented at this generous venue, Lit is intelligent and friendly, and features outstanding artists from the greater Capital Region as both a showcase of regional talent and an oasis of uplifting culture for weary travelers.

But you don't have to be traveling to enjoy these exhibitions - the gallery area is open to the public, parking is free for the first half-hour, and the hours (7 am to 11 pm daily) make it the most accessible high-quality art space anywhere. I was drawn to this show particularly by the inclusion of a few of my favorite artists from around these parts, but also by the theme. After all, without light, we wouldn't exist.

Lit features six artists and a collaborative: a spare number, yet enough to cover a lot of bases here, including sculpture, industrial design, two extremely different approaches to photography, drawing, painting, and projection. The work in the show is approximately evenly divided between color and monochrome, with most of the color coming from the palettes of sculptor Victoria Palermo and painter Scott Nelson Foster.

Victoria Palermo, Up and Down
Palermo alone contributes a nearly eclectic collection, including wall-hung combines of paint and colored plastic, totemic towers of rubber, and small architectural constructions that appear to be made out of jelly (actually, they are also rubber). In addition, her site-specific installation of wood, plexi and dichroic film in the staircase leading up to the gallery (shown at right) is both part of this show and an independent, longer-term project. All these works play with transparency and the fleeting effects of changing light and color; they also are exquisitely crafted, clever, and fun.

Foster contributes a number of related painting from his series on real or imagined suburban houses, including a group of six that examine a modest trailer home in different light, almost like a postmodern Monet (as with haystacks and Chartres cathedral). His color sense is as profound as his irony is subtle; he also includes five very small black-and-white watercolors of similar subject matter that are equally adept.

Kenneth Ragsdale
Lewis and Clark Go Car Camping/Arlington, digital print
Other familiar names in this show are Larry Kagan and Kenneth Ragsdale. Kagan shows three wall relief metal sculptures that astonishingly translate tangles of metal into perfectly articulated shadow portraits of iconic political figures (George Washington, Mao, and Che Guevara). Ragsdale features color photographs made from his own meticulously crafted (yet still playfully rough) dioramas of '60s-era campsites, which he ingeniously lights to create cinematic tones. One diorama is included, complete with its nifty tiny lights and color gels in place, with a wall switch you can flip to see the effect.

The revelation of the show is Yael Erel, an RPI architect whose light projections reflected off metal surfaces produce sharp, stunningly organic motifs that rotate hypnotically. Her collaborative, lightexture, which includes Avner Ben Natan and Sharan Elran, has contributed several metal and ceramic lighting fixtures to this exhibition; they are designed to cast sculpted light patterns through manipulable apertures, and may be the first example of industrial designer products to be part of an exhibition here.

In almost direct opposition to the technical approach of Erel and lightexture, yet aesthetically quite similar, Jared Handelsman presents several delicate gelatine-silver photograms, which he makes by exposing light-sensitive paper to ethereal sources such as moonlight and passing headlights. The resulting shadow pictures of natural plants evoke the quiet of a summer night.

Yael Erel, Moon Record, aluminum LED source, aluminum reflector, rotating mechanism, audio recording