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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Eugene Mirabelli
Eugene Mirabelli, the author of Renato After Alba and several other books of fiction, is among the two or three best novelists living in Delmar, N.Y. If you think that is damning with faint praise, think again - the others from there that I know personally and have read (Paul Castellani and David Vigoda) are also terrific. Could it be something in the water?

Renato After Alba, which was recently published by McPherson & Company and has received several independent publisher awards this year, is a bittersweet elegy of a novel. In it, Mirabelli gives us a new glimpse into the heart and soul of Renato Stillamare, an orphan of unknown origin adopted into a colorful Sicilian-American family who he introduced to us as the narrator of The Goddess in Love with a Horse and who became the protagonist, as a mature but vital, and rather conflicted gallery artist in Renato the Painter.

Now we have Renato as an older man, struggling to make sense of the sudden loss of his wife, Alba. Mirabelli employs the skills of descriptive narrative with aplomb, but the depth and breadth of this short book (188 loosely filled pages) is a special achievement, made more effective by its ostensibly narrow focus into the thoughts and feelings of one man for one year.

That the man is a ferociously talented painter, and that the year is possibly the most important one in his long life is what gives the book its kick. The tight narrative of the story is expanded by well chosen digressions into astrophysics, Italian culture, and small-business economics. But it is the quality of the writing that makes it great - with masterly craft that hides all its sweat to produce an immersive exposition of an inner life.

As with all excellent books, you can open Renato After Alba at any page and get lost in its flow of words. Here, they invoke the fugue of grief:
Sometimes it was me who had died and Alba who was living and I'd see her walking solitary in the quiet before sunset, walking slowly along the empty sidewalk in the little college where [our daughter] Skye and her family have their home, or I'd see her at the table in our kitchen where she had set out two or three yellow place mats, but only one dish, eating alone in the silent kitchen, and my heart would contract in pain.

And, here, they recall a long-ago family conversation:
"This French philosopher, Albert Camus, he thinks life is absurd," Zitti said. "Absurd and with no purpose."
"We make purposes as we go along," Nicolo said. "We keep changing that purpose, but the important thing is to have a purpose, a goal. Making progress toward our goal gives us pleasure, and as soon as we get there, we discover another goal, further ahead."
Aunt Marissa, his wife, said, "Always going and never arriving. I don't know if that's so good."
"The purpose of life is to work," my father declared. "Work saves more souls than Jesus."
Zitti continued, "Camus says that death makes life absurd and pointless."
"You think your mother's life was pointless?" Candida asked him.
"I didn't say that. We're talking about Camus' beliefs, not mine."
"Camus is absurd," Candida murmured.
"Maybe the poor man has no family life," my mother suggested.
Zitti shrugged and opened his hands, palms up, to show he didn't know what to make of any of this. "Or maybe he says those things simply because he's French."

As Mirabelli unfurls Renato's slow walk through desperation, his ever-present folly (after all, he is a man) and, ultimately, his decision to paint again, we walk with him in sympathy. This may be a book about grief - that's the peg it hangs on - but it is really, like all novels, simply a book about life and how we live it.

Despite his advanced age, Renato discovers something new along this journey: That we don't just live life by accident - we choose to live it. He may have arrived on a snowy doorstep in Lexington, Massachusetts, by accident, and his wife may have died by accident, but Renato's decision to go on is entirely his responsibility. That the book helps us truly understand his reasons is its gift.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Less is More: 2017 Regional at AIHA

Richard Barlow Roadside Picnic II - chalk on blackboard paint on wall
The 2017 edition of the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region (popularly known as the Regional) is on at the Albany Institute of History & Art and, as ever, it is a must-see for all local fans of contemporary art.

Victoria Palermo Reds - wood,
poured resin and colored plexiglas
This year's show was judged and installed by Jack Shear, a photographer, curator, collector of photography, and the president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. You may recall Shear's gift last year of over 500 photographs to the Tang Teaching Museum (reviewed here); now he has given the region a different sort of gift by providing an unusual, sharp perspective on the Regional, and by adding a couple of unique elements to the show that I found most welcome.

First, Shear mined the Institute's collection for works of art that had been purchased from past Regionals over many decades; these pieces (more than 20 of them) were then installed salon-style at the entrance to the exhibition, providing a refreshing reprise of those past purchase-prize winners. I will describe Shear's other innovation a bit later.

Niki Haynes To What End mixed media collage
So - how is the show? With just 87 works by 32 artists selected from 600 submitted by 268 artists, this Regional is unusually spare - and that's a good thing. All but a few of the artists have three pieces on view (the rest have two, except for two artists with a single, very large-scale work on view: Richard Barlow, whose 27-foot wall drawing is shown at the top of this post, and Tatana Kellner, who is represented by a 12-foot grid of 30 monoprints). This added depth allows the viewer to understand each artist's point of view much better than would be possible in a broader-based, more inclusive and, presumably, more cluttered curation.

Peter Crabtree PFOA Portrait: Loreen Hackett: Activist
archival inkjet print
Further, Shear has organized the exhibition into sections that group the artists loosely under themes (nature, figure, three-dimensional abstraction) that are like curated shows within the show. This also helps the viewer probe deeper into the meanings of the individual artists' work by putting it in context; though the Regional itself is a context, these sub-themes supercede the idea of a regional identity to touch on trends that artists around here (and everywhere) are currently exploring.

Within these themes, there is an additional subset of images set into a smaller gallery (with a warning outside for those with youngsters in tow) which are all photographs of people, some of them nude. Considering that Shear's collection at the Tang includes many such images, this makes sense. One might guess that photographers intentionally submitted work of this nature, or that more people who produce this sort of work submitted to the show. In any case, Shear did the expected by including these examples, some of which are in the slightly shocking realm, but the majority of which are nowhere near that turf (such as Peter Crabtree's wonderfully sensitive portraits, an example of which is shown at right above).

Dave Waite Guardian - archival inkjet print
As a lifelong follower of photographic art, I can say with confidence that, regardless of anyone's predilections, the photos included here are worthy; they also represent a great diversity of approaches, which helps show just how much this medium has done to liven up post-modern art. Among my favorites are three traditional landscape studies by Dave Waite (example shown at center above), Ray Felix's light-infused nude portrait of a heavily tattooed young man, Allen Bryan's masterful digital concoctions, and Laura Christensen's witty, mixed-media transformations of antique pictures.

T. Klacsmann Raptor and Automata
mixed media collage
I should note that not all of the photographs are in this one room - many are also included in a larger gallery with art of other media. Among those other media, sculpture is particularly well represented, as is drawing and other works on paper. Painting has a pointedly slight presence here compared to most Regionals - perhaps a commentary on what sort of approach Shear sees as being relevant in today's art scene. The top prize in the show went to a mixed-media collage (shown at right above), and a number of other collages also are included. Again, as a lifelong follower of collage art, I'm perfectly OK with this.

Jake Fallat 1997568-1
cast aluminum
The only two oil painters in the show are about as different as could be from each other - Jane Bloodgood-Abrams makes 19th-century-style cloud studies and Paul Sattler makes neo-expressionist extravaganzas (example shown at the bottom of this post). Again, this shows the juror's integrity, as he is not following a discernible style in his selections, but exercising thoughtful and tasteful decision-making about what to include.

As for Shear's other addition to the Regional, Back: A Re-Installation of 19th Century Sculpture, is a delightfully engaging intervention into one of the Institute's staple displays, and the first time that any Regional juror has directly participated in the show as far as I know.

The 2017 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region runs through Sept. 3, and will feature three artist talks in the galleries at 6 p.m. on one Friday each month: July 7, Aug. 4, and Sept. 1. Admission to the Albany Institute of History & Art will be free on Sunday, July 2; admission is also free every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Paul Sattler Letters to Cross (Reading the Letters from H. Matisse to H-E Cross)
oil on canvas

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Welcome Scarlet Seven

An interior view of Scarlet Seven Fine Art Gallery
photo provided
Whenever a new gallery opens in the Capital Region, it is cause for celebration. But then comes the inevitable question - will it last?

Julie Branch - Large Fungi with Frogs
pilfered porcelain
A large and enthusiastic crowd greeted the opening of Scarlet Seven Fine Art Gallery at 137 4th Street in Troy on Friday night (during the ever-popular Troy Night Out), giving a strong impression that this space is desired and appreciated. Owners Jon Gernon and Jillian Platt presided over the event, which featured 12 regional artists of strong reputation and diverse work. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be held on May 31, the gallery will be open from 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday; the current show runs through June 25.

The space is grand and nicely proportioned, with plenty of exposed brick, wooden floor, and a solid glass front that puts the venue on permanent street-level display, tantalizing passersby with the challenge of finding the entrance, which is way around back and neatly hidden under a giant, blank wall of brick and ivy. This may be a clever approach - if you make it hard to find, people will be inspired to put in the effort. Feeling like you've discovered something special, perhaps you will buy.

David Austin - Getting Closer, acrylic on canvas
And, yes, the point of this business is to sell the art, however vulgar that may seem to purists. Certainly, let's hope that's the result, if we like local art and nice galleries to show it in. Gernon was until recently for many years the curator at nearby Clement Gallery, so his experience in retail will be especially useful here. He is also one of the featured artists, and has found a broad-based market for his own tempera paintings, which should help this gallery's fortunes.

Co-curator Platt also shows paintings in this first selection, which includes paintings by David Austin, John Hampshire, Willie Marlowe, D. Jack Solomon, Yeachin Tsai, Stephen Tyson, and Jeff Wigman; sculptures by Julie Branch and Susan Spencer Crowe; and ceramics by Randi Kish. If you're not already familiar with this star-filled lineup, then Scarlet Seven will be as good a place as any to catch up and join the folks who follow the local scene and for decades have been enjoying the world-class work it offers.

We'll be keeping an eye on this latest commercial fine art venture, and wish Jon and Jillian the very best for a long, successful run.

Jeff Wigman - The Three Poisons, oil on panel

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Cosmic Perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Karen Ciancetta share a photo-op
Do you think a two-hour lecture on physics would be a dreary exercise in relativity (as in how a short time can stretch to infinity)? If so, then you have never seen Neil deGrasse Tyson in action.

A full house at Proctors sat enthralled on Monday night as two hours flew by at warp speed, with TV's Cosmos star Tyson guiding us on a rollicking trip through centuries of scientific, cultural, and social ideas, illustrated with slides that communicated clearly and entertained fully.

Though he claims to prefer time in the lab, Tyson is a natural and enthusiastic showman who knows how to work a big crowd as if they were guests in his living room. Rarely have I experienced such a sense of intimacy among so many people. This is the Tyson charm - he may be a genius astrophysicist who regularly schmoozes with presidents and billionaires, but somehow from the stage he makes you feel like he's also happy to hang out with simple ol' limited you.

Meanwhile, he's teaching you lessons that could be some of the most important ones you will ever learn.

The theme of The Cosmic Perspective is to share with the general public the extra-proportional mindset that astrophysicists live with every day - as they are accustomed to seeing everything from a big-picture point of view: from biology and space travel to arithmetic, economics and war.

Tyson presents each topic in a humorous, yet well documented style, referring to his PowerPoint slides as needed, but riffing like the best professor you ever had crossed with a seasoned stand-up comic. Along the way, you are asked to question whether space exploration is a good investment (clearly, he thinks so), how the periodic table can be read as a history of different nations' passion for science, and why Americans tend to be so afraid of math that our elevators never display negative numbers for the floors below ground level.

Along the way, you may learn something about evolution (for example, we humans are more closely related to mushrooms than mushrooms are to green plants) about astronomy (the tiniest slice of a clear picture of the universe from Hubble will include countless billions of entire distant  galaxies) or about chemistry (the "noble" elements are called that because they don't bond - i.e. associate - with other elements).

And, ultimately, you will see both how utterly inconsequential our own actions are and how easy it can be to feel empowered to try to have a positive impact on our little world.

Tyson, like all scientists, owes a debt to those who came before him, and he honored many of those lights during his talk - but none so much as his direct predecessor, Carl Sagan, who he quoted at length in his conclusion, citing Sagan's elegiac book Pale Blue Dot, which really puts things on Earth into proper perspective. The book was inspired by a picture taken in 1990 by the Voyager spacecraft as it passed beyond Saturn. Tyson shared a reprise photograph of Earth, taken in 2013 by Cassini - which, in timely fashion, has begun sending back new close-up pictures of Saturn and its rings just this week, on its way toward total immolation in that planet's atmosphere.

The evening ended with a lively Q&A, leading Tyson to offer advice to one questioner (and the rest of us) on how to "talk to idiots": He advised empathy, patience, and the willingness to offer information. Tyson also emphasized the value of supporting STEM education as our path to a future as a world-leading nation - a status that he amply and viscerally demonstrated the US is rapidly losing. He also pointed out that our educational system must find ways to stimulate students' imaginations, rather than teaching them how to pass tests.

My one criticism of these conclusions is that, to stimulate the imagination, STEM must become STEAM - that's for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. I wish Tyson had publicly acknowledged the importance of the arts in developing good, young minds into critically thinking adults.

Finally, as you can see above, some people with special tickets, including my wife, Karen, were able to meet their idol backstage. While waiting, I had the good fortune of running into my friend Steve Tyson, a painter and professor of art at Schenectady County Community College. He would also be going backstage - to visit with his kid brother, the scientist. I like to think Steve might have taken the opportunity then to say a little something to Neil about the importance of that A in steam.

Cassini took this picture from behind Saturn, showing the "pale blue dot" of Earth 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Radical Kingdoms at Mandeville Gallery

Extensive open hours may not be the best reason to like a gallery, but it's a factor in my positive assessment of Union College's Mandeville Gallery in the Nott Memorial, where a show intriguingly titled Radical Kingdoms is on view through June 18. It's great that you can go see it any day from 10 am to 6 pm.

Juan Fontanive - Passerine 2016
mechanized flip-book
But a more substantive reason to like the Mandeville is its eminently able leader, Julie Lohnes, who deftly organized the show around a theme of botanical and biological illustration by contemporary and historical artists, drawing connections from the past and linking traditional scientific illustration to more expressive modern iterations of the style.

A visit to the Nott is always a step into the past, as it is a unique structure that exemplifies the state-of-the-art design and engineering of 100 years ago, and that makes this show a particularly comfortable fit for the unique space that the gallery occupies on a circular, second-story balcony. Lohnes has chosen works by five contemporary artists, augmented by examples of work by ten historical illustrators drawn from Union College's archives that range from an anonymous 19th-century printmaker to the uber-famous John James Audubon.

Portia Munson - Dahlia Target 2015, photograph
Several gorgeous 2001 re-prints of Audubon's work are the stars of the historical group - but they can't outshine the best of this selection of current work by George Boorujy, Juan Fontanive, Portia Munson, Amy Ross, and Anne Siems.

Boorujy presents painstakingly detailed, large-scale images of plants and animals that appear both highly realistic and fantastical. Artist statements are peppered through the installation, and his are among the more engaging, as he describes his interest in nearby wildlife that may surprise the average New York City urban dweller, calling himself a "large social primate" living in "an enormous colony."

Amy Ross - Lovebirds #3 2016, collage
Fontanive is represented by a single, very small work, which is an electrified metal contraption that continuously flips through an accordion book of appropriated bird illustrations (see image above at right). The sound and the movement of this work of art unobtrusively capture and hold the viewer's attention. It's an excellent example of the post-modern approach to creating a new kind of art experience from a familiar kind of image.

Amy Ross is also a filcher of old illustrations who uses her thievery to produce a fresh result. In this case, the old images are reconfigured into delicate hybrids by means of collage, or reimagined into masterful watercolor originals. Her six pieces on view are perhaps the most seductive work in the show.

Anne Siems - Hare and Snail 2016
acrylic on canvas
Complex combinations are also at the heart of Portia Munson's deliciously colorful scanner photographs (one is shown above at left), in which she builds arrangements of flowers and dead birds into beautiful inkjet-printed mandalas. Munson hails from Catskill, and her work has been seen in recent years at the Albany International Airport, MASS MoCA, and other local venues - and it's always a pleasure to see more of it.

Anne Siems is a German-born artist now based in Seattle, whose work retains a Grimm-ness reminiscent of her homeland. In her three paintings on view here, she combines pure painterly concerns with storytelling imagery that is just a little bit unsettling. Her small piece titled Little Nest is subtle and particularly appealing, as it places an egg-filled bluebird's nest on a white ground, with brown rivulets of paint, rather than branches, holding it aloft.

Overall, this show is a breath of fresh air. You'll be glad if you make a point of checking it out.

George Boorujy - Florida IV (wrack line) 2014, ink on paper

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Lucas Hedges, left, and Casey Affleck both received Oscar nominations
for their roles in Manchester by the Sea. Neither will win. Affleck won Best Actor.
OK, I admit it - if I really thought the Oscars were irrelevant, I wouldn't be writing about them. But, wait, I am more precisely writing about movies, not the Academy Awards, and movies are definitely relevant. So, as the title of this please implies, I do think the Oscars are relatively irrelevant.

This evening, as is my annual habit, I will not watch the awards show on TV - I will go to the theater and watch Oscar-nominated fare instead, and I will crane my neck around the standing and departing patrons to read the credits when they roll. In this way, I refresh my lifelong love of movies and rejoice in the fact that we can still go see them in a dark, public place.

Most would agree, 2016 was a pretty good year for the movies. A look at the nine "Best Picture" nominees shows an unusually broad selection that includes small-story indies, big budget sci-fi, a star vehicle or two, even a foreign film (Lion is foreign, right?). In sharp contrast to last year's controversially white slate of nominees, three of these films feature nearly all-black casts. Less unusually, a shameless paean to Hollywood is also on the slate (and it will sweep the awards tonight). Add note: It did not!

More important, these films are actually quite good (or reputed to be so - I have seen just six of them thus far). What do I mean by good? No doubt I've said it before in this space, but I will repeat the age-old formula for a worthwhile movie: A good story, well told. Yes, that is still the measure. And, while it's always possible that this will include a lot of car chases or senseless violence or CGI, these nine films generally don't rely on spectacle to hold the viewer's attention.

Instead, they feature a lot of really great acting, by (again) a very diverse slate of all ages and types, many of whom received nominations for awards (in addition to a number of outstanding performers in films that themselves did not garner a "Best" slot). The fact that the young and the beautiful will win the major awards (as always) doesn't diminish the positive value of a nomination for the never-fails Jeff Bridges or the ever-enchanting Isabelle Huppert or the otherworldly Ruth Negga (who also happens to be young and beautiful, but she still won't win).

So, nice going, Academy!

Now, here's why I have not seen three of the Best Picture nominees (Note to readers - I forgive you if you hate me for my biases. Then again, if I didn't have them, would I be worth the pixels?):

  1. La La Land - First of all, I hate the title. Second, you may remember 2014's Best Picture Birdman, which was brilliant, worthy, and my own second pick of that year (right, Boyhood got robbed) - and which had one serious shortcoming, which was Emma Stone. She sucked in Birdman, and I am not convinced that she would be worth seeing in La La Land. The press calls her likable - sorry, I find her totally unlikable. La La Land is the Titanic of 2016 - the movie everyone will look back at and say "they nominated that for HOW many Oscars?!?" (BTW, I still have never seen Titanic.)
  2. Hacksaw Ridge - This is probably an excellent picture, and I liked Andrew Garfield a lot in The Social Network (where he plays the first guy that Mark Zuckerberg screwed out of a lot of money). But I couldn't bring myself to go see a film that is, basically, the story of a religious fanatic. Yes, a really nice guy, sincere, selfless, etc. But I couldn't shake the feeling it would get all pious in the end. Atheist angst got the best of me there. 
  3. Fences - Liked the preview, love August Wilson. But do I need to budget my precious movie-going time to what is, essentially, a stage play presented onscreen? Will catch it on DVD once the library picks up a copy. Expect to love it.

As for the rest, it's very easy to point out the best: Manchester by the Sea absolutely kills. You know when smart people tell you a film is too long, or too sad, that it must be a great one. This film is perfect.

Also excellent: Lion, Moonlight, and Hell or High Water. Why? Check the formula ... they all fulfill it. So, why not perfect?
Lion skews ever so slightly commercial, by making all the characters way too pretty to be real, and by purposely playing the emotional notes.
Moonlight is a fascinating film that has the courage to try a difficult approach - dividing the story into three parts with different actors for each. A fantastic effort that falls the tiniest bit short.
And Hell or High Water is a bit too reminiscent of the Coen Brothers to be considered truly original, which is what it seems to want to be. But it is a fun ride.

As for the rest: Arrival is very good - an understated almost-actioner that uses subtlety rather than sensationalism to make its points. But it stretched my credulity rather too far.
Hidden Figures - yep, it fulfills the formula once again - but I felt played by its Hollywood style. Too cute for its own good.

OK, gotta go to the movies! Have a good night.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Caroline Ramersdorfer at Opalka Gallery

Installation view of Gravity & Light at Sage Colleges' Opalka Gallery
all photos provided by Opalka Gallery
A world-class sculptor is on view at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery  - so please go see the wonderful retrospective solo show Gravity & Light: Caroline Ramersdorfer Sculpture, 1985-2016. It opened on Dec. 2 and will be there through March 5, so no excuses.

Ramersdorfer has great international credentials, both in her development and in the exposure of her art - yet, she is also local, having a home and studio in the Adirondacks town of Wells, which she shares with an equally prominent sculptor, John Van Alstine (see my brief review of their two-person show at Lake George Arts Project in 2014). A native of Austria, Ramersdorfer studied art in Paris and Florence and then learned marble carving in Carrara (where else?), and has produced commissioned work for permanent installations in places as fur-flung as China, Iran, Egypt, and Abu Dhabi.

One extraordinary feature of this exhibition is its inclusion of numerous maquettes and sketches for some of Ramersdorfer's major projects, and they are as skillfully crafted as their larger progeny, while also being charming in their tininess. The beautifully produced catalog of the exhibition features lavish illustrations of each foreign installation (plus one on the Sage campus in Albany), telling the story of these remarkable and ambitious creations.

But no number of pictures can substitute for the experience of sculpture in the flesh (so to speak), and this installation of about 30 years of work is an unforgettable opportunity to visit with each piece, large or small, move around it, and see how it works in three-dimensional space, as the artist intended.

The gallery's open floor plan and high ceiling augment the uncrowded arrangement of the show, which presents about 50 individual works (counting models, sketches, and very small finished pieces) in grouped relationships, in cases and on pedestals, or freestanding. It is not strictly chronological, but the earliest work is seen in the far, back corner of the gallery, set off just a bit by a dividing wall, which allows for a sense of discovery in going backward in time to sculptures that evoke very early times with arrow and axe forms in stone and wood.

Ramersdorfer's newer work is thoroughly modern; however in some instances the primitive shapes remain, such as in a large piece sited near the entrance, called Nexus_Open, which reprises the axe handle and blade in polished and rough marble.

Inner_View 5 2002, marble and steel
Mid-career work, some of it much smaller in scale and carved in alabaster, marble, and other stones, explores simple geometry such as cubes, but also incorporates organic forms that suggest body parts or even microscopic life. These pieces can be flowingly beautiful, as in the 2006 carved marble Wave Wing, which marries an open cube with the form described by its title in a delicate game of balance.

Most of Ramersdorfer's later work is part of an ongoing series titled Inner View, which uses layering to develop complex visual and spatial relationships among planar carvings with molecular and geological structures. These stacked sculptures pull the viewer's eye into their center, mesmerizing and fascinating with the play of light and shadow on and between their surfaces.

It is innovative and masterful work by an artist at the peak of her powers.

Inner View_Open 2009, marble