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Sunday, May 19, 2019

In Brief: Yura Adams at Lake George Arts Project

Yura Adams speaks in front of her 12-part installation Fast Earth Wall at LGAP
I first became aware of Yura Adams' paintings when I saw them on the final day of a solo exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson last year. So, naturally, I was excited recently to learn she would be showing at another favorite venue, the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery in Lake George Village, this spring.

Cold Morning Foggy Glow 2018, oil on canvas
The show, entitled Fast Earth, features some of the best work from the John Davis exhibition, as well as a good portion of very different new work created in handmade paper and mixed media. The contrast is striking, both in style and content, as Adams has chosen in the new work to confront our global climate change crisis by constructing a storyboard of free-form pieces on one large wall of the gallery. The 12-part installation requires decoding, handily provided on a printed sheet, and nicely written in a terse almost poetic style. Adams describes the piece as a "speculation on the redesign of earth by climate change" and as "a transition of meaning." This challenging and complex effort is unusual in abstract art, and incorporates a range of materials including vinyl, inkjet printing, and acrylic.

Twilight Flourish 2018, oil on canvas
Meanwhile, on the other side of the gallery, three of the earlier  paintings shimmer brilliantly (two are shown here). Though they read as abstract, they are inspired by and aim to depict rare and specific effects of light. Here, Adams indulges in her love of science, from which she has learned the causes of the visual phenomena she has observed and attempted to recapture in paint: crystals in the atmosphere or on the ground.

The results are not just interesting as strong color compositions; they are also worthy of greater attention, as they reveal unknown truths about the world we think we see, but don't really understand.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons; the show continues through June 14.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Like Sugar at Tang Teaching Museum

Installation shot of Like Sugar at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum
photograph by Arthur Evans
The exhibition Like Sugar, on view through June 23 at Skidmore College's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in Saratoga Springs, is an unusually thought-provoking show that, like its namesake, still somehow comes off seeming insubstantial.

Organized by the Tang's Malloy Curator Rachel Seligman and Skidmore English professor Sarah Goodwin, with input from three other Skidmore faculty members, Like Sugar may suffer from the too-many-cooks syndrome, as it attempts many diverse things. Is it about art? Of course. Food? Check. History? Global economics? Advertising? Health? All of the above.

Julia Jacquette, Two Tiered Cookie Platter, 1997
enamel on wood panel
As an art exhibition, Like Sugar is a bit sparse for my taste, but it features some very good work. Unfortunately, several of the best artists in the show are represented by only one piece each, which can be frustrating. On the plus side, while the show has very much to say, it doesn't overwhelm the viewer with didactic panels or unbearable preachiness - it manages to maintain a light playful tone despite the deadly seriousness of its content.

I think the show makes plain just how conflicted we are as a society - and individually - about sugar. It's killing us, but we love it. Historically, the sugar trade drove the creation and growth of the horror of the slave trade. This is delved into through visceral works by Kara Walker and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and alluded to in historical and contemporary documentary photographs also in the exhibition. Even honey bees get some of the blame - or credit - from both the scientific perspective and the creative one, as a video piece in the show records an experiment demonstrating their preference for sugar, and three fascinating sculptures in the show are a collaboration between a human artist, Garnett Puett, and comb-making bee colonies.

Advertisement by Sugar Information Inc.
Among the most shocking materials in Like Sugar are the many mid-twentieth-century magazine ads collected and presented in a grand collage and also individually, where we can see the audacity of Madison Avenue's efforts to sell a nutrition-free, highly caloric product to an unsuspecting and exuberant post-war consumer. As a child of the '60s, I was the direct recipient of the concepts these ads promoted, and it particularly struck me that the majority of the artists in this show were too - born between 1959 and 1965, a rather narrow demographic band to see in a large group show.

Clearly, we were all affected, and the impacts are still seen in the obesity and diabetes epidemics that plague the United States today. These diseases are explored in a display of public service graphics that attempt to scare people straight off the sugar track, and in photographs and paintings that simultaneously seduce and disgust.

Emily Eveleth, Big Pink, 2016, oil on canvas
One of the strongest pieces in the show, which is used prominently in publicity for it, is a six-and-a-half-foot painting by Emily Eveleth entitled Big Pink, which employs scale, gorgeous painterly flourishes, pastry worship, and frankly pornographic effects to drive home several points at once. Like the ad pictured above, which advises eating cookies rather than a healthy lunch as a weight-loss strategy, it's creepy - and irresistible.

All in all, Like Sugar may be overly ambitious, but it got that way for important reasons. More art exhibitions should make such efforts, even if falling short is almost inevitable.

And, while you're in the neighborhood, check out a first-rate three-person show at the Saratoga Arts Center. Passing Time, on view through June 15, features paintings, photographs, and sculptures by Paul Chapman, Harry Wirtz, and Rebecca Flis (respectively). In a happy coincidence, some of Flis's ingenious cast works are made of - you guessed it - sugar. I promise you will like.

Rebecca Flis Ironscapes, cast iron, crushed red stone, steel perimeter

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagan at Albany Institute of History & Art

Larry Kagan - Hershey Art, 2011 - light and steel wire
all photos by Gary Gold
There's a particularly close relationship between sculpture and drawing. I first noticed this during college, where drawing teachers are often sculptors, and have seen the parallel reinforced regularly ever since. I think this is partly due to the fact that sculptures, like most drawings, tend to be monochromatic, as well as the fact that modern sculptors typically piece together bits of material in an additive process that is far more similar to drawing than it is to painting (where color tends to be the driving force).

Spike, 1977 - cast acrylic
I've also noted a similarity between photography and sculpture, based on other factors, particularly the concreteness of three-dimensional art and the reliance of photography on three-dimensional reality as its subject. Now, in the work of Larry Kagan as presented in a sumptuous retrospective at the Albany Institute of History & Art entitled Shape and Shadow, these connections are made even stronger through a different element altogether: Light.

According to catalog material provided by the Institute, the Troy-based Kagan began as a printmaker before switching to sculpture in the 1970s. One can see evidence of the tactile qualities of prints in some of his first steel works (more on that later), but the earliest body of work represented in this exhibition uses colorless cast acrylic, a medium that plays directly with light within its transparent and translucent forms.

We're Losing Our Ozone, 1989 - steel
In several of the acrylic pieces on display, Kagan has added electric lights to the pieces, energizing them in ways that exploit the particular light-transmitting qualities of the material, while defying the viewer's received experience of viewing a sculptural object under illumination from without. One of those pieces, Wormholes, also seems to break new ground by adding twisting tubes to undulating folds of flat acrylic. Another, entitled Spike, uses hyper-geometric forms and contrasting textures - but no special lighting - to play with our perceptions.

Later, Kagan would return to playing directly with light, but a middle period in which he picked up industrial scrap as a medium would find him flattening his forms into wall reliefs, in effect drawing with steel. One example, shown above at left, perfectly exemplifies that period in a piece entitled We're Losing Our Ozone, which belongs to the Institute, and is displayed to good effect with a smaller maquette of similar design that led to the monumentally scaled final version.

Smoke, 1980 - steel
Crevice, 1979 - steel
First, though, Kagan held onto the robust three-dimensionality of his acrylic work in rough-hewn plate-steel works that emphasize simple forms and heavily rusted textures. A group of eight miniatures from 1979-1981 are presented near the start of the exhibition on two shelves, like friendly toys that beg to be picked up and played with (in the museum it's strictly "do not touch," but these pieces were in fact intended to be handled). These are the tactile qualities I was referring to earlier in relation to Kagan's start in printmaking. The two examples shown above represent the spirit of that group.

Cousin Rose, 1997 - light and found steel
Kagan's wall reliefs (such as Ozone) are the first works by him that I recall seeing when they were being exhibited locally in current exhibitions in the '80s, and I recall that there was shadow play going on then, but it was subtle and not particularly directed. In a striking exception, unique in this show and perhaps unique altogether, Kagan's 1997 Cousin Rose combines two wall-mounted found-steel forms of wire and mesh with the unfocused shadows cast by standard gallery spotlights to make an amusing and affectionate portrait of a lady whose flowery hat draws her face and whose fluttering scarf renders her shoulders.

Hibiscus, 2015 - light and steel wire
This presages what would come ten years later, as Kagan began to craft his steel-wire constructions to cast astonishingly precise shadow drawings from focused spotlights, and is reprised in some of the later shadow pieces in which Kagan takes a simpler and looser approach. For example, Hibiscus, shown at left, much more closely resembles Cousin Rose than it does the work that comes between them in time, such as Stiletto II, shown at the bottom of this post.

Several other of the more recent works in the show also reveal a softening of the starkly illustrative style Kagan had adopted with the earlier shadow works, and with that they also add a looseness to the handling of the steel wire that draws the eye away from the shadow image and back into the sculptural form that makes it.

Light Bulb, 2013 - light and steel wire
While the images cast by these more recent works are still quite representational (including a wry portrait of Andy Warhol), their simplified armatures and freed-up gestures make them more appealing and engaging than the earlier shadow works. It's a subtle shift that shows Kagan continues to evolve and improve, a welcome development in what is already a distinguished career. The show will remain on view through June 9.

Stiletto II, 2010 - light and steel wire

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Photography Regional 41 at Collar Works

Jeff Lansing - Albany Warehouse District 1 (with text added by Collar Works)
Every Photography Regional is unique, but the 41st edition of this popular and often controversial annual is even more different than most, due to a new venue and particularly tight jurying.

This year, the peripatetic show has found a Troy home at Collar Works, a raw and ample nonprofit space that opened for business a little over three years ago under the guidance of Executive Director Elizabeth Dubben, and quickly made a name for itself as an innovative hub of the local contemporary arts scene.

Justin Baker - Frodo's Ghost II
Historically, the Photo Regional has always rotated among sponsoring organizations. When it began in 1979, responsibility for it was shared between Albany Center Gallery and the former Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (RCCA) in Troy. After RCCA (now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region) bowed out in the mid-'90s, other venues took up the cause, including Fulton Street Gallery and the PhotoCenter in Troy, and the Albany Airport Gallery in Colonie. Albany Center Gallery has continued to be in the mix since it first hosted in 1980; Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery has held the show every three years since 2003; and now there's Collar Works, which I hope will remain as a regular host in the cycles to come.

Natasha Holmes - Babble, Bubble
Regular followers of the Photo Regional will be struck by how different in scope the current iteration is from the previous 40: With only 18 works by 15 artists, it's by far the sparest version ever. The only comparison I can make would be to the 2003 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region Juried Exhibition at UAlbany's Art Museum, which had just 17 artists and 35 works in it (trivia buffs may note that one artist, Justin Baker, was selected for both). Typically, either of these Regionals will include far more work (for example, two years ago at ACG, the 39th Photo Regional included 72 pieces by 51 artists).

That said, whereas the 2003 Mohawk-Hudson Regional was overwhelmed by the UAlbany Museum's vast, two-story space, Photo Regional 41 sits fairly comfortably in the low-ceilinged Collar Works gallery. On my first visit, having heard about the small number of works included, I doubted they could hold the space - but I found that dividing walls, along with sensible pairings and groupings of related pieces, have given the minimal selection enough support to stand up.

Theresa Swidorski - Forest Gate
Chosen by Brooklyn-based curators Kathleen Vance and Daniel Ayecock from submissions by 88 artists, the show hews to the traditional; few of the images deviate very far from the camera-made, though the collection feels contemporary in style, subject, and coloration. Only three of the 18 pieces are monochromatic and, of those, just one is black and white (the other two being a cyanotype, which is blue, and a digitally-reproduced toned darkroom print in a range of dark browns). Overall, the technical and visual quality of the images is high but, as with all such shows, there are a few clunkers (I'll leave it to the readers to see the show and decide for themselves which ones those may be).

Coby Berger - Albany Super Storage
Another distinction of this Regional is that, though it was juried from an open call (i.e. not an invitational), no prizes were awarded, apart from the jurors' decision to give the "top three" among the accepted artists two pictures in the show, while the other 12 selected artists have one picture each. Those three - Justin Baker, Chris DeMarco, and Jeff Lansing - are all worthy of the distinction, and the pairs of pictures included by each make strong presentations.

With so many variations on the usual theme, this Photo Regional provides a lot of food for thought. Is it better to see more or fewer artists in a large group show? Does seeing two or three of an individual artist's pieces help you understand and appreciate their work better, or could more time spent with just one piece provide greater insight? Can 18 artists adequately represent a region? For that matter, can any show represent a region at all?

Chris DeMarco - Test Site 2
As in most Regionals, this show includes a number of familiar names as well as a few new ones. In addition to the jurors' top three choices, I particularly liked George Guarino's geometric and heavily textured digital photo assemblage titled Daughter Mother; Natasha Holmes's Babble, Bubble, a fun-filled concoction of commonplace objects; Robert Coppola's colorful bit of Americana from Santa Cruz, Calif.; Theresa Swidorski's spooky reverse-printed Forest Gate; and Coby Berger's painterly urban study Albany Super Storage.

Other work that caught my eye included unrelated mist-shrouded night scenes by William Gill and Christopher Herrera, and a quiet suburban scene by Monica Hamilton. The other artists included in the show are Kieran Barber, Hannah Alsdorf, Scott Keidong, and Hillary Raimo. It's worth noting that Hamilton and Barber are both college students (at Skidmore and Saint Rose, respectively), showing that even a very tightly juried show can offer first-time professional opportunities for up-and-comers. That kind of openness is one of the things that makes an annual Regional like this both popular and vital to the community.

Photography Regional 41 runs through April 27. Please note, Collar Works has limited hours: 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Monica Hamilton - Layers of Green, Layers of Wheels, Leadville, Colorado

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The incredible Pat Metheny


I've never written a music review - and I'm not about to start now - but I have to shout this out:
The concert by Pat Metheny's Side Eye that I attended last night at The Egg in Albany was so good that I promise you no peace if you miss the chance to see them wherever and whenever you can.

Joined by James Francies (keyboard, piano) and Nate Smith (drums), Metheny ripped the doors off the perceptions of a nearly sold-out crowd, channeling everybody from Clapton to Gilmour to Hendrix, while his colleagues nimbly and forcefully kept pace.

Of course he also did a whole lot of amazing Metheny while he was at it.

Brilliant, transcendent, dynamic, original, and beautiful. I will remember this one forever.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Shows seen, not seen, and to be seen

Catskill Ledge - oil on panel by Tom Nelson
Is mid-March too late to be looking back at 2018? Well, probably, but I'm going to do it anyway.

I'm plagued by the many missed opportunities of the past year, which featured a vast array of worthy, challenging, and screwed-up art exhibitions in our region, and which I wish I had been able to see more of and write more about. So here's a bit of a recap; maybe it'll make up just a little for what didn't happen quite enough here on Get Visual during 2018.

Shows seen

Toward the end of 2018, I caught a few really strong shows in venues that don't necessarily get a lot of publicity around here. One of those was a rare treat in the form of a large collection of paintings by Tom Nelson at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, entitled From NY to LA: Landscapes of the Hudson Valley and California Desert. Nelson, who has worked full-time as an exhibit designer at the Albany Institute of History & Art for decades, has quietly maintained a strong art practice but hardly ever shows his work. This compendium of around 60 paintings and oil sketches delighted his many fans and reminded us that he is still one of the best landscape painters anywhere.

Ascent - digital photograph by George J Nicholson
Also in Troy, a fine exhibition of color photographs by George J Nicholson was hosted by the PhotoCenter, marking an impressive debut by a late-blooming artist making up for lost time. The 30-plus images in Taos Journey were all made in what Nicholson describes as "a seven-day reverie" in the high desert of New Mexico, in which he was inspired to abandon his original plan to shoot panoramic landscapes in favor of much more intimate images, all of them square. It worked. He will be one to watch.

I made an excursion to Saratoga Springs, where I checked out another intriguing photo project, this one by Jessica Mansmith, who received a Community Arts Grant to produce a body of work within the confines of a mysterious former military base called Norad Z-50. The resulting pictures, which were shown in the Saratoga Springs Train Station, are both haunting and colorfully lyrical.

Saratoga is also the home of Harrison Lobdell Gallery, which is co-owned and filled with paintings by Zack Lobdell, so I stopped there as well (for my first time) and took in the display of Lobdell's powerful abstract expressions, along with the super-high-tech furniture designs of his partner, Peter Harrison. It's a great space and Zack was a good host, making it well worth the visit.

Shows not seen

92,955,807.273mi. - lithograph by Kathryn Polk 
You know the song about regrets, and I definitely have a few about shows I missed in 2018. Top of the list is a six-person exhibition of contemporary printmakers at Skidmore College's Schick Art Gallery entitled Pressed. We have too few opportunities to see fine etchings, lithographs, etc., by current artists and I was really sad to miss this one. Speaking of printmaking, I was also dismayed to have missed the 2018 edition of the Screen Print Biennial at Sage College's Opalka Gallery - but at least there will be another one in two years - maybe I'll be less busy then.

Another deep regret is having failed to visit a two-exhibition display of work by Rockwell Kent at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls - one of paintings and one of prints (yet more prints!). Kent is a longtime favorite of mine, and shows like this don't come along every year. Among other great museum shows, I also wish I hadn't missed Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown - but I hear there's a Berthe Morisot show on tour, currently at the Dallas Museum of Art, so there's always a chance to see the best artist from the Clark show there (or later this year in Paris - now, there's an idea!).

Rush - acrylic on linen on panel by Jenny Kemp
I was also sorry not to see what must have been a beautiful exhibition at Union College's Mandeville Gallery entitled Slow Grow of 18 recent paintings by Jenny Kemp, as she has been one of my favorite regional artists over the last several years. Meanwhile, at another first-rate college gallery, I missed three sculptors making a re-appearance at The College of Saint Rose to celebrate 10 years of the school's Esther Massry Gallery. And, at yet another outstanding academic venue, I managed to lose track of the UAlbany Art Museum's show entitled Younger Than Today: Photographs of Children (and sometimes their mothers) by Andy Warhol. The title alone recommended that one. Alas!

Shows to be seen

But all is not lost! There are some great shows out there that I (and you!) can still catch before they end. Here are a few examples:

Landmark at Albany International Airport Gallery through March 25. A ten-person show created in partnership with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, this features contest-winning essays and poems along with the visual art.

Brian Cirmo: paintings at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery in Lake George Village through April 13. Another favorite local painter, at a favorite venue (and it's warm enough now to go up there without fear).

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City through April 23. Some critics are saying that this middle-aged Swedish woman invented abstract painting before all the famous boys, beginning in 1906 out of spiritualistic inspiration, and now rescued from obscurity to be called "beyond great" on ArtNet.com. I'm going to New York to see this unique show. Really!

The Sisters - oil on canvas by Berthe Morisot



Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Best Films of 2018

The ensemble cast of Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters
I suddenly realized the 91st Academy Awards will run tonight, and I haven't posted my annual take on the best films of the year.

So, in haste, I give you my Top Ten picks of 2018. As usual, there are caveats. I confess that half of this year's eight Best Picture nominees have thus far escaped my viewing. This is - again, as usual - intentional: Specifically, no one who has seen The Favourite has been able to convince me I shouldn't miss it; the reports on A Star is Born, though more positive, still left me willing to leave it for later; while I do plan to see Bohemian Rhapsody one of these days, I don't expect to see it as a film worthy of serious consideration; and I actually have no idea what Vice is about, but I'm pretty sure it's not my kind of movie (and if that attitude undermines my credibility or offends anyone, I sincerely apologize).

Of the four remaining BP nominees, I do include two of them on my list (see below). As for the other two: We started to watch Black Panther at home, but the dialogue was so badly written I had to leave the room after 10 minutes (my wife enjoyed it, however); and BlackKklansman is a pretty good Spike Lee movie with the usual Spike Lee faults (i.e rather preachy and 15 minutes too long), but it's way overrated and, by my reckoning, only the third best film of its genre that I saw in 2018 (the genre being African American-made movies with political or social messages). Spike can do better (and has on many occasions).

So, here's my list:
  1. A tie (unprecedented in this blog): Shoplifters and Roma - I previously wrote about Roma, in the context of its brilliant cinematography and how it relates to the work of pioneering Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. So much has already been written about this film, that I will simply say this: It deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture and probably will. Given that both Roma and Shoplifters are among the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, I just hope the Academy will leave Roma out of that race and award the statuette to Shoplifters, which is a deeply affecting slice of Japanese life at the margins, beautifully photographed and superbly acted. And, speaking of Oscar-nominated foreign films, today I will spend three hours in the theater soaking up the German entry, Never Look Away, following my usual Oscar-day tradition to see a movie rather than watch the awards show.
  2. see above
  3. Leave No Trace - A brilliantly quiet film based on the true story of a PTSD veteran raising his young daughter in the woods near Portland, Oregon.
  4. Green Book - Again, much has been written about this one, not all of it in praise. I didn't worry about whether the film had an appropriate point of view in terms of racial stereotyping - I just enjoyed the ride, as did its main characters. The acting, cinematography, and storytelling are all first-rate, and the story it tells is fascinating.
  5. Blindspotting - The most underrated movie of the year, and I have no idea why it's been overlooked. With a strong original story, which is a neat twist on the interracial buddy drama, this film has many layers addressing criminal justice, gentrification, and race relations - along with really great music.
  6. Three Identical Strangers - Talk about fascinating stories! This documentary sucks you in and explodes right before your eyes. An absolutely compelling film.
  7. Cold War - This gorgeously photographed and scored period piece is so sad that it's pretty hard to love. But also hard to dismiss. In Polish, French, and several other languages, it's yet another Best Foreign Language Film contender.
  8. Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Many have commented on Melissa McCarthy's star turn in this quirky biopic about has-been-author-turned-criminal-forger Lee Israel. She and her co-star, Richard E. Grant, both received well-earned acting nominations for their exquisitely entertaining portrayals of an extremely unlikely pair of co-conspirators. 
  9. Juliet, Naked - Another somewhat overlooked film this year, its title misleads a bit - it's actually about a stripped-down recording of a hit rock album that helps to pull a depressed musician off the edge and back into the limelight. Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne give this rom-com some real life.
  10. Sorry to Bother You - Noted as a strong first feature by writer-director Boots Riley, it also features an irresistible breakout performance by Tessa Thompson as an off-the-wall performance artist. Part of an intriguing current wave of Black science fiction, this film bothered rightly and well.
Update, 3/11/19: I recently caught another very good 2018 release (on video at home), and would have placed it somewhere in my Top Ten, let's say tied for 9th place, had I seen it in time for this list. It's Bo Burnham's debut feature, Eighth Grade, which offers a glimpse into the interior life of a 13-year-old girl who's trying to figure out how to grow up and find her place in a world dominated by social media. Burnham's script is astute, poignant and quite funny, and his star, Elsie Fisher is a full-on revelation.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster star in Leave No Trace