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Monday, March 19, 2018

Photography Regional - HIJACKED!

Sarah Sweeney - Five Down at Jokulsarlon 2015
The 40th Annual Photography Regional, which recently opened at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery, is quite unlike any of the 39 that came before it. Many will be displeased by Opalka director Judie Gilmore's decision to present the show as an invitational, rather than as a juried show that all can enter, though that is the format employed thrice before by the Opalka (in 2006, 2009, and 2012), and once in 1995 by then co-sponsor Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region and no longer a sponsor of the Photo Regional).

There's a lot of history behind this circumstance, and a lot of passion among the people who have participated in this show over the decades. I'm one of those people - for the record, I was included in the first 12 Photo Regionals, and then participated off and on until about ten years ago, when I gave up exhibiting my work altogether. During that time I was honored with a number of juror's awards, and I was included in the 1995 and 2006 invitationals (so there's no sour grapes here). I also have had a certain amount of input into the planning of the show, including having helped decide who would judge it on a few occasions, both as a volunteer and as longtime exhibits chair for Albany Center Gallery, the only original sponsor still in the hosting rotation.

This puts me in the company of quite a few other regional photographers - the show has always been driven by volunteers and grass roots organizations, and it has always existed in the spirit of serving the wants and needs of the regional photography community by providing a showcase, critical input from an outside juror, almost always a public presentation by the juror, and a chance for everyone to come together once a year and take stock.

This year's guest curator Tim Davis, a prominent photographer and Bard College professor, has provided just one of those benefits: His talk at the Opalka on the evening before the show's official opening was first-rate, and certainly the only one in these 40 years in which the guest speaker accompanied himself on guitar while singing original songs while his images shuffled past (delightfully rhyming "setting Southern sun" with "William Eggleston"). Davis showed three recent bodies of work, all of them excellent, and variously spoke, sang and played, and read a long Beat-inspired essay. He earned many rounds of applause during the presentation.

But Davis is a much better artist than he is a curator. The show, which includes 16 bodies of work by 17 artists (two being collaborators), has no center. If it does have a theme, it would be the phenomenon I like to call "too-muchness," which is relevant both to our time in general and to the dilemma currently facing serious photographers, who must compete with every iPhone and Droid on earth - and the billions of pictures they generate every day - for the viewer's attention.

Tim Davis - El Pollo Loco
Davis's own work deals quite beautifully with our overabundance of visual stimuli, particularly in a group of pictures he showed that were shot in an unstructured swoon during a sabbatical in Los Angeles (see an example at right); some of the people he included in the show do similarly, though not as well as Davis does, in my opinion. However, I digress. What is it about this show that makes it wrong as a Photo Regional?

First, it fails to represent any meaningful concept of the region. Though the various entities that have sponsored the show over the decades were not consistent in defining a geography for the show (apparently having set its geographic limit variously between a 75-mile and a 150-mile radius of the Capital Region), this overly personal selection simply squashes the geography into the mid-Hudson Valley (where Davis resides), while also including one photographer from a rural location near Oneonta, one from Saratoga Springs, one from Florence, Mass., and a collaborating pair from Rochester (which is over 200 miles from Albany). The one person included who has a residence in the Capital District (Averill Park) is a special case: Phyllis Galembo, as the winner of the first Photography Regional's top prize in 1979 - and a past juror - provides a vital link to the show's history. But these facts stand in stark contrast to the randomness of the rest of the current edition's content.

Whereas the past Invitationals were drawn from photographers who regularly show in or near the Capital Region and who, in most cases, would probably have submitted to the show in a juried format, that is not the situation here - most of these photographers are represented by galleries in major cities and, therefore, would have no interest in participating in a juried regional (notably, Galembo never submitted again after that first year). Both the first Photo Regional Invitational held at the RCCA in 1995 and the second one, organized by the Opalka's late director Jim Richard Wilson in 2006, specifically drew their selections entirely from prior Photo Regional prize winners.

Sharon Core Unititled #17 2017
Opalka Exhibition Coordinator Amy Griffin said, "as a regional photographer myself, I'm happy to have discovered some photographers I was not aware of before and I would hope other photographers would feel the same." I agree, in principle - but does that justify displacing the Regional itself? Further, this is just one of several current opportunities to see really high-level photography in nearby galleries, including a massive joint presentation of 12 major international photographers at Colgate University, Hamilton University, Skidmore's Tang Teaching Museum (through April 22) and Albany's University Art Museum (through April 7). Entitled This Place, the show focuses on Israel's West Bank; for more details, click here. There's also a solo exhibition by Daesha Devon Harris, the top prize-winner in 2015's Photo Regional, at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery (through April 13); and two of the six artists featured in Albany Center Gallery's current Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational are photographers.

Griffin also said that her husband, Danny Goodwin, who (along with Tara Fracalossi) juried last year's Photo Regional at Albany Center Gallery, pointed out to her that he was not pleased to see that some people submitted older or oft-shown work (a phenomenon that no doubt crops up at most juried annuals), which she cited as another reason to curate the show this time rather than to invite open submissions. But that's a really easy fix - the juror(s) can simply omit any submitted work they find to be stale.

Ironically, this iteration of the show turns out to be stuffed with stale work. Based on the exhibition checklist, most of it dates to 2015 or even earlier, such as Chad Kleitsch's two large prints from 2010 and Polly Apfelbaum's whole collection from 2012. Only one artist in the show, Saskia Baden, offers an entirely fresh body of work - 14 gelatin-silver prints dated 2017 - and she's a kid who just graduated from Bard. C'mon people, you're supposed to be professionals - you're going to let a rookie show you how to produce? Well, good for Baden - even if she is Davis's star student, he had every reason to count her in, because those 14 pieces are really wonderful. And, wait - did I say gelatin silver prints? Yeaaaah, baby.

Ultimately, The 40th Annual Photography Regional, which is subtitled Effects That Aren't Special and runs through April 21, will provide to the community the same vital service as its 39 predecessors: Stimulating people in the community to talk about the medium they adore so passionately, and causing all of us to seek ways to keep the show relevant and effective for 40 more years. The discussion has been going on for a long time, and it will continue.

I hope you, dear reader, will add to that discussion. Please visit the Opalka and join the conversation by posting a comment here, or talk about it with others who love photography. And, remember - as ever, it's still our show.

Justin Kimball - Liberty Street 2014

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Alphonse Mucha at The Hyde Collecetion

Job, 1896, color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
All images courtesy of the Dhawan Collection
If you were ever in a dorm room in the 1970s, you know the artwork of Alphonse Mucha. The master of French Art Nouveau was a staple of the softer side of the counterculture, partly due to his irresistible, sensual style and partly due to his having been the creator of turn-of-the-century ads for Job cigarette papers, which remained the brand of choice for those rolling joints while listening to psychedelic music some 75 years later.

Cycles Perfecta, 1902, color lithograph on paper
The show currently on a tour stop at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls through March 18, aptly entitled Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau, amply demonstrates that you need neither be stoned nor under the influence of a pop culture trend to be dazzled by the work of this brilliantly skilled commercial artist, whose style is both perfectly emblematic of the movement he  represents and strikingly distinctive as his individual mode of expression.

The show is drawn from California's extensive private Dhawan Collection of Mucha's  art, comprised mainly of lithographic posters that advertised products and events, and augmented by a handful of original drawings, one oil on canvas, numerous illustrated books, and a few other objects, such as a perfume bottle and early Czech currency that Mucha designed. With 70 pieces in all, it is an impressive enough display that my friends who had recently visited the Mucha museum in Prague were suitably gratified by our trip to The Hyde.

The Slav Epic (Slovanska Epopei), 1928
color lithograph on paper mounted in linen
In addition to the pure enjoyment of viewing this trove of gorgeous graphics, the show provides historical insights into the artist behind them.  I was familiar with Mucha (and, yes, had a poster of his ad for Bieres de la Meuse on my dorm room wall), but had no idea he wasn't French. In fact, though he led the Paris-based iteration of this Europe-wide art movement (known variously as Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Glasgow Style, and Stile Liberty), Mucha also strongly identified with his Slavic roots, leading him to spend most of the last decades of his career painting a massive cycle of paintings commemorating that ethnic history, entitled The Slav Epic. One strong example of that project is in this show.

It was also instructive to discover that Mucha's career was entwined with that of Sarah Bernhardt, who gave him his first big break and for whom he designed many beautiful posters over the years. The centerpiece of Master of Art Nouveau is a set of three examples of the original advertising lithograph that Mucha made on short order for a Bernhardt show, thus earning her loyalty. These include a trial proof in red ink only; a trial proof in black; and the 7-foot-tall full-color litho, made unique by a clever pencil drawing (known as a "remarque") that depicts a reading dog (complete with spectacles), and shows off the deceptively easy-looking command of line that marks all of Mucha's work. Don't be fooled - this artist worked very hard so that we don't have to, allowing our eyes to rove effortlessly over the exquisitely rendered forms and textures of his subjects.

Gismonda with remarque by Mucha
1894 color lithograph on paper
mounted on linen
Art Nouveau is characterized by idealized female subjects, who are both sensual and strong, with sinuous lines, visually arresting graphic design, and lush natural features, usually floral. Mucha excelled at all these elements, combining stark outlining (often in black) with rich, seductive colors. These are the aspects of his work that make it both specifically of its time and timelessly appealing.

In Master of Art Nouveau, we are also treated to less developed works in the form of drawings and sketches, which provide a window into the artist's process and, in a few cases, onto his more personal side. Additionally, there are the original banknotes that reminded me of another time and place, when a nation would celebrate its most famous artist in the most public and intimate way imaginable. After all, wouldn't you like to have a Rothko or a Rockwell in your wallet?

It is also worth noting that The Hyde has a fresh installation of 20th-century art in its Feibes & Schmitt Gallery through May 6, and some fine examples of prints and photographs in a selection of recent acquisitions on view in the smaller Hoopes Gallery through April 1. Both exhibitions provide wonderful opportunities for lovers of modern art.

Praha-Parisi cover for 1900 World’s Fair, 1900, lithograph on paper

Monday, January 29, 2018

The best films of 2017

Elizabeth Olson and Jeremy Renner star in Wind River
Here it is again - Oscar time. As I often do, I'm taking the opportunity to comment on some of the best films from 2017; however, as will become apparent in a few paragraphs, I feel I have reason to avoid prognosticating on what films or actors may win this year's statuettes.

First, a disclaimer: I have yet to see four of the nine Best Picture nominees. Those include at least three I plan to see when I can (The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, and Call Me By Your Name), all of which come highly recommended. Would I pick one of those films as the best of the year? Possibly, though I don't expect that. For sure, though, I can't speculate on how the Academy will vote on Best Picture without seeing a bigger sample.

What I can say is that the Academy has definitely left out one of the year's best films due to politics, and that is Wind River, which unfortunately had a minor connection to the accused rapist Harvey Weinstein. Ironically, Wind River sends potent and well-crafted messages in support of women's rights, so to snub it even after the film's director and Native American producers excised the Weinstein name from their product is just plain wrongheaded.

Another film that is inexplicably absent from the Best Picture nominations is The Florida Project, which got one well-earned nod for Supporting Actor for the always-great Willem Dafoe - and that's it. Both Wind River and The Florida Project are in my Top Five, while the Best Picture nominated Lady Bird, The Post, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are not - so, screw the Academy. That said, those are all in my second five, so maybe I should be a little more tolerant. Oh, well, call me cranky.

By the way, I'd say 2017 was a good year for movies but not a great one - none of these picks garnered my highest rating, though half of them came close. Why not? It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but when I recall a five-star movie - say Brokeback Mountain, or Spotlight - I find these offerings were slightly lacking in comparison.

And now for the list:
  1. Phantom Thread - This has eked out my pick for best of the year because, despite being awkward and unresolved, it features excellent visuals, originality, and brilliant acting - not only by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, but equally by his two female co-stars, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps. Manville and director Paul Thomas Anderson could win Oscars for this.
  2. The Florida Project - Has all the characteristics cited above, with a double emphasis on originality. Few films manage to be so uplifting while exposing so much darkness. Very funny, when it isn't breaking your heart. The perfect antidote to Disney.
  3. Loving Vincent - Speaking of darkness and light, this unique animated feature took 10 years to make and it was worth every minute. Comprised of 65,000 paintings, it tells the story of the year following Vincent Van Gogh's mystery-shrouded death by immersing us in his life-affirming art. Rightly nominated for best animated feature.
  4. Wind River - Writer-director Taylor Sheridan knows how to craft a crime thriller, as he did last year with Hell or High Water (which he wrote but did not direct), and this one is set in a forbidding Western landscape, too. Grimly satisfying, I call it Winter's Bone meets Frozen River. Only an implausible extended shootout kept it from being my top pick of the year.
  5. Dunkirk - Most films tell a story with dialogue, in combination with images and sound. Dunkirk relies almost entirely on the latter two elements to communicate a very vivid story of an unusual moment in a terrible war, and it nearly succeeds. Music plays a bigger role in this film than any actor did, but it doesn't feel melodramatic; rather, it is deeply experiential. And the visuals are spectacular.
The rest: I rated the following six films about equally, and so I present them in no particular order. A few got a lot of attention, whether fully deserved or not; some were perhaps undeservedly overlooked. 

Beatriz at Dinner stars Salma Hayek as a servile massage therapist who, during a very awkward dinner at a very rich client's house, suddenly finds her mojo. Some crackling dialogue follows, as do a few bizarre scenes within a set limited to the house and its environs.

The Post doesn't need much introduction. As a former newsroom staffer, I relished every moment of ink-stained nostalgia the film dished up, no matter how stagy. But it's Spielberg, and he always panders. Saved by Meryl Streep's masterful performance and, of course, a ripping great yarn.

Lady Bird is a small, character-driven drama featuring two terrific actresses who spar entertainingly as only a mother and teenage daughter can. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf earned their Oscar nominations, and first-time director Greta Gerwig does herself proud. But, frankly, it's a touch forgettable.

The Big Sick also represents a directorial debut, and it is fresh and funny, even if underneath the bizarre stuff it is still a sticky romance. The young married couple whose life it's based on got a Best Original Screenplay nod for this one, and they are worthy of it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has to be my pick for most overrated movie of the year (possibly to be unseated by The Shape of Water - we'll see), even though it is actually quite good. In fact, it's my kind of movie, so I'm not biased against it - but I'm a little perplexed that it's winning so much attention, especially because that doesn't usually happen to my kind of movie. Could be I'm just wrong on this one!

Patti Cake$ is perhaps this year's most overlooked film. It tells the story of a trio of misfits who try to break into the local New Jersey rap scene, and actually convincingly pull it off - almost. A few touching stories are intertwined, with a killer soundtrack of originals and plenty of colorful imagery to go with them. Check it out, I promise you will enjoy.

Vicki Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in Phantom Thread



Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Brief: Barbara Takenaga at WCMA

Installation view of 18 small paintings at WCMA by Barbara Takenaga
photo by Arthur Evans
We took a drive over the mountain pass to see Barbara Takenaga's show of more than 60 paintings at Williams College Museum of Art, and it was well worth it.

Barbara Takenaga Green Light 2013 acrylic on linen 
The show is dazzling, beautifully installed in several rooms of different sizes, and every corner you turn gives you another "wow" moment.

If you go, be sure to find a way to crouch down and view some of these beauties from a low angle - that way, you will better be able to experience their metallic iridescence under the ceiling-mounted lights.

It ends Jan. 28 - so catch it if you can. But, if you can't, there is some consolation in the form of a lovely hardcover catalog that includes most (or all) of the work, and it's reasonably priced. I liked the work so much, I purchased the book to show Mom.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Patroons are back!

A view of the Washington Avenue Armory during Saturday's game
photo by my old buddy Hans Pennink, stolen from the Times Union
Good-sport spouse and I attended the home opener of the new Albany Patroons professional basketball team on Saturday, and we had a great time. Like the glorious Patroons of old (circa 1980s), this team plays in the Washington Avenue Armory, a well-lit venue with character, history, and a quite good-looking hardwood court.

While technical difficulties marred the franchise's North American Premier Basketball League debut (i.e. no scoreboard or shot clock, and a truly insipid buzzer), it was still a pretty successful launch, with an announced crowd of 1,507 and a solid win for the home team. One of the beauties of the Armory, and the source of its legendary intense atmosphere of past Patroons success, is that it's small enough so even 1,500 people can warm it on a frigid night, and 3 or 4 thousand will positively rock the place. I don't think even the most optimistic boosters expect such numbers any time soon (or ever), but I do think the quality of the experience has the potential to draw healthy crowds if management can work out the kinks.

Coach Rowland directs his team
Hans Pennink/TU
Meanwhile, the legacy is alive in the form of Head Coach Derrick Rowland (aka Dr. D), a stalwart team member in the Pats' heyday, and one of the top players in the history of the old Continental Basketball Association that fostered the original franchise. Rowland leads a crew of athletes with a range of professional and college playing experience who delivered a very entertaining game, replete with speedy play, smooth long-range buckets, and rim-rattling dunks.

After a raggedy first period in which the Rochester RazorSharks seemed to have the upper hand, especially on defense, the Pats gathered themselves and, by the start of the third period, had gained a lead they did not relinquish. The play was fast and physical, the officiating was iffy (though spiffy, uniform-wise), and the player rotation allowed every starter and bench-warmer plenty of opportunity to make a strong first impression on expectant fans.

I attended just about every home game played by the champion Patroons of old, and I'm not about to say that this roster could compete with the likes of Tony Campbell or Mario Elie (to name two of many former Pats who went on to have significant NBA careers), but I was not at all disappointed by what I saw on Saturday. Among the standouts, ex-Los Angeles Laker Smush Parker ably led from the point, rocketing some beautiful passes along the way; rangy forward Torren Jones earned my respect, and a double-double, with great play in the paint; and local hero Lloyd (Pooh) Johnson buried several threes to help ice the game. And that's without currently sidelined Siena product and 2012 NBA D-League Rookie of the Year Edwin Ubiles, who should prove to be among the team's best players when his back feels better, and former Patroon Jamario Moon, a crowd-pleaser with scads of NBA and international hoops cred, whose presence will help to sell more seats if they can convince him to sign on.

So, I'll be back, with high expectations, and the hope that this thing gets some traction and regains a little bit of the old glory - or at least brings back the crazy fun of a filled-to-the-rafters Armory vibrating in the Albany night.