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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Two regionals: Selection vs. inclusion

There are two major regional exhibitions having their opening receptions this week and, while they have many similarities (and include some of the same artists), they also couldn't be more different.

The Fence Show (its reception, part of Troy Night Out, is on Friday from 5 to 9) is an annual staple of the Arts Center of the Capital Region that began more than 40 years ago (when the organization was known as the RCCA and actually had a fence), and is the most democratic of affairs. Quite simply, all paid-up members of the organization are invited to deliver up to three works, and everything that comes in is hung salon-style in the Center's capacious gallery for all the world to see. Later, a juried portion is rehung as Fence Select, and a few prizes are awarded; the choices typically are made by a locally-based juror. This year's juror, Sarah Cunningham of The College of New Jersey, has a strong local connection: she ran Albany Center Gallery for a number of years, guiding its move into the Albany Public Library's main branch.

The Mohawk-Hudson Regional (this year's venue is Albany's University Art Museum and the reception is this evening - Thursday - from 5 to 8) first ran in 1936, and is traditionally considered the high-water mark in our annual pantheon of juried shows, with big cash prizes, purchase awards, and a glossy catalog. This year's juror, Matthew Higgs of White Columns Gallery in New York City, has the art-world profile of the typical Regional juror - the better to attract a lot of good entries and form a prestigious exhibition.

I have entered both shows a number of times over the years, with pretty good success at each - so I don't claim to be objective, but I can claim balance. This year, my work was rejected from the Regional, which gave me greater impetus to enter the Fence Show, where I know at least it will be seen before it gets too stale. (In a related situation, this year's Photography Regional was by invitation only, so I couldn't enter that, as I usually do.)

So, which is better - inclusion or selection?

As an artist, I have great arguments for both. It's nice to have work included, even if there are no criteria to overcome (as in the Fence), because you want the work to be seen. Even without criteria, you feel good to be included, and that gives the Fence Show its obvious appeal. Everybody gets to show, everybody gets to feel good. But, with no standards, what's to feel good about?

It's also nice to have work selected by a juror, both for the prestige value and to be in a better-looking show. But when there are selections, the stakes are higher. No one likes to be rejected, even though running that risk is a fact of life. Still, I'd bet that every artist involved in any juried show, no matter how terrific and successful they may already be, agonizes over the decision of the judge the same as if it were a high-school popularity contest. Is it worth it?

I also have some arguments as an audience member (because these are public shows, after all, and the point is for people to go see them).

The all-inclusive show can be a bit messy, but it affords the opportunity to see everything that was submitted without the filter of some snooty judge. I often agree with a judge's choices, but I also gain by seeing the work that would have been rejected. In a mature scene such as this one, there is so much good work being produced that there are always very good works of art that don't make the cut - that's why salons des refus├ęs are often of high quality. So it's better to show it all and let the audience make their own selections.

Then again, the selected show, if it's done right, guarantees a very high-quality experience for the viewer. You achieve the illusion of seeing only the best of the best, and you feel edified, even enlightened. The cleaner installation is almost always an improvement, but it is in the quality of the installation, where a juror has made choices that work together, that you get the biggest advantage - a sum-of-its-parts gain. So juried shows are better.

And what about those jurors? I have observed a pattern in the many Mohawk-Hudson Regionals I've seen, in which the feel of the show varies a lot from year to year but has some consistency at each venue - more minimalist at the University, more populist at the Institute - and that's entirely due to each site's tendencies in choice of juror. Is that a fair representation of the art of our region?

As for the Fence, it's a salon and it's juried - the best (or worst) of both worlds.

How do you see it?

P.S. Insights into both juror's processes can be had by the following: See the Fence Show, and note the pieces with a green dot - those were chosen by the juror for Fence Select; and, go to this link to read an interview with Matthew Higgs by Times Union intern Bethany Bump.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Berenice Abbott at NYSM

Berenice Abbott Manhattan Bridge: Looking Up, 1936

Abbott, Berenice – alphabetically speaking, this photographer would be at the top of almost any list. But a show of 53 of her best photographs at the New York State Museum titled Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York: A Triumph of Public Art demonstrates that she belongs near the top on her own merits.

Accompanied by excellent exhibit notes from Bonnie Yochelson and some quite interesting ephemera, the show is built around a set of 40 mounted prints that the NYSM acquired in 1940, when Abbott’s project had just been completed. This foresight on the part of the museum’s then director, who had previously put Abbott’s work on exhibit in Albany, is a gift to us all, as the old prints are dazzling in both their perfection and their imperfections. They are augmented by oversized modern prints from the Museum of the City of New York, which help to give the show a more impressive scale and feature particularly strong images.

Abbott, a Midwesterner, apprenticed in photography with the American artist Man Ray in Paris before striking out successfully on her own there, and her technical skills were very finely honed. By the time she returned to New York (where she had been a painter and a dancer), she had salvaged the vast collection of Eugene Atget’s Paris documentation and championed the late actor’s cause as an artist in photography; she then consciously followed his example in taking on the vastness of New York as her subject.

From 1935 to 1940, Abbott applied her expertise with an 8x10 view camera and an apparently indefatigable spirit, roaming the boroughs and recording the chaos and contrasts of a great city in great flux, as the Depression deepened and New York’s many skyscrapers rose above the streets. While her bulky, slow equipment prevented her from capturing fleeting moments, Abbott’s superb eye for composition and nose for dramatic points of view made compelling picture after compelling picture, most of it achieved with the support of a government documentary project that also sponsored the likes of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn.

All were great, but even among such talent Abbott was recognized as a star. Viewing these prints, it’s easy to see why. There is a modern potency to every image, from a view of curiously Art Deco-styled oyster processing houses to her famous eagle’s-eye views of the geometric puzzle of Wall Street. Many of the pictures use industrial-era architecture and engineering as a counterpoint to older or newer elements, as in Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, with the timeless bridge suspended high above a scene of industrial bleakness, Manhattan’s Oz-like skyline glittering in the distant middle ground. Another great example, titled Murray Hill Hotel: Spiral, recalls Ray’s darkroom experiments with its dark, wrought-iron balconies rising up into the sky opposite a sunlit office tower.

The show is divided into groups by theme: The Financial District; The Lower East Side and Greenwich Village; Midtown and Upper Manhattan; and The Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Because the majority of the pictures are just 8x10 inches, they demand close scrutiny, which reveals their almost astonishing degree of detail and subtlety of tones. These early prints are mounted to pebbled gray boards, with carefully inked titles below each photo. Some have chipped edges or are slightly discolored, which adds to their charm. Others derive enough charm from their now lost subject matter, such as a Jewish butcher's storefront, or that of an Italian bakery. They all have stories to tell, and are eminently worthy of the time spent to hear them.

One problem with the installation is that it is placed under low illumination (perhaps to protect the prints), which makes it a challenge for middle-aged eyes like mine. Another is that it may be hard to find if you’re not familiar with the museum. To find it, on view in the Crossroads Gallery through Oct. 4, walk toward the rear area of the museum, past the gift shop and many other displays, until a big black-and-white picture of a Texaco station advertising gas for 14 cents tells you you've made it. Trust me – you'll be glad you went to the trouble.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

George Hofmann at Martinez Gallery

If you do nothing else in the next week, get over to Troy to see The Essential George Hofmann at Martinez Gallery The show only runs through June 20, and the gallery has limited hours, but you mustn't miss it.

Hofmann is one of those underrecognized local treasures who quietly goes about his business while we obliviously do the same - the difference being that his business involves making world-class paintings, while ours is somewhat less glorious. After a long career in education, Hofmann retired a few years ago and now, in his 70s and able to devote his time fully to painting, has hit his stride. Though the exhibition title suggests a retrospective, and the show indeed offers examples of work from as far back as 1956, it is quite fully a show of current work (12 of the 20 paintings in it were made in the last two years).

And, having seen other groups of Hofmann's work over the last several years, I can say with real excitement that these are the best things of his I've ever seen. Hofmann works in the tradition of American abstract expressionism, painting directly on paper or linen with bright washes of acrylics to create blissful immersions into a world of pure color. The technique allows light to bleed through from the white ground, making his paintings appear to glow from within.

But it's not that simple. Many of Hofmann's paintings show no white at all - the ground may be blue or pink, and the other colors then wash over that ground in vivid tints and contrasts. Exquisite examples abound in this show, such that it is very difficult to choose among them. Above, for instance, is one titled Breaking Joy from 2008-9. The painting transmits the artist's emotions directly to you before the title confirms the ecstacy he must have felt at bringing it into existence.

In another brilliant moment, Blue, In (at left) comes into view like the sun after a gray day. And the best of them all, Rain, Sun (shown at the bottom of this post), just makes you glad to be alive and in the presence of an artist like Hofmann.

One factor in the success of this work is scale. Many earlier pieces by Hofmann were on paper and of a modest scale (around 18x24 inches). These pieces on unframed stretched linen mostly range upwards from 4x5 feet - the biggest, titled Bay and shown at the top of this post, is more than 7 feet long. The effect of making paintings this large is that the colors then fill the viewer's field of vision, allowing you to enter the space of the painting and become surrounded by its atmosphere.

Hofmann may have been hinting at this effect with a 1988 painting on view titled Niger, which is all black marks at the edges of a gray ground, and which does suggest the darkness of the desperately poor country in Western Africa that bears its name. It's a fine painting, and I'm glad that its inclusion in the show provides this opportunity to compare it with the more colorful ones.

The other earlier works provide similar opportunities, such as the earliest, a cleverly patterned portrait of a dog titled Checkers, and one called Blue, Green from 1960 that is satisfyingly minimalist. These early works are shown in the gallery's back room, along with more current pieces that are thoughtfully displayed. I particularly enjoyed the relationship among three of them - side-by-side pieces titled Actual Ambiguity and South, West, that play the blue in one off the pink in the other, while the wall directly opposite holds Passing, where those two colors come together.

The back room also includes a pedestal with three wonderful, stormy maquettes about 8 inches high and 14 inches long that appear to be brand-new and suggest even more ambitious ideas from Hofmann's studio. Is he planning to do stage sets next? I certainly don't see a reason why he shouldn't extend his encompassing vision in that direction. The way Hofmann can wrap you in a world of light and color, the theater may be the natural place for his next audience to be seduced.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Art on Lark and more

It was a big weekend for art in Albany and, though I was only able to catch a thin slice of the pie, I still have quite a bit to report on. Saturday's Art on Lark followed 1st Friday, making Lark Street the epicenter of activity, and the weather was perfect (unless you hate perfect weather, in which case it wasn't).

I missed 1st Friday altogether, but made a point while I was out enjoying the whole Art on Lark scene of seeing one of the shows that had opened the night before. Though the Lark Street BID office was closed during their block party, I managed to talk my way in and peruse Sketches and Drawings: New Photographs by Joe Putrock, a pretty big show of rather small pictures by the hardest working photographer around (one image shown at top, and one above).

Putrock has a new toy, a Fuji instant-film camera that makes 2 1/4-inch x 4-inch prints similar to the old Polaroid SX70s, and he is using it to record life's little moments and chance discoveries. The humble format, unassuming subjects and fairly subdued palette combine to make Putrock's observations quietly fascinating. The show features successful groupings and pairings among the 28 pictures included, and it's pretty terrific. It's also a sneak preview of Putrock's contribution to a three-person show scheduled to be at Carrie Haddad Photography in Hudson in the fall; you can go see it now at the BID and then say you knew him when.

Among the highlights of Art on Lark were the Foy Brothers, who funked us all up pretty good, and some of our area's unsung art heroes, such as Jessica Monsour, Kevin McKrell and the self-proclaimed weird bug lady, aka Brigette Zacharczenko, a delightfully normal-seeming zoology student who makes plush toys of some of your less popular animal types. My favorite was the salmon, with a long, gray lamprey attached to its side by a velcro dot (a variation is shown above). You can find her at .

Monsour (, is a College of Saint Rose and RIT-educated photographer with her own freaky obsessions, but some of her pictures are more conventional than the super-bizarre creations she is known for. I bought a real nice one that was taken in Yellowstone National Park (shown at right) for a shamefully low price, and that made me happy even as it makes me worried for the future of Monsour and her entire generation (who will never, ever be able to make a living).

Not to be too gloomy, Saturday night brought us to a different vision of the future in the form of a loft party at the home of the Contompasis clan, a trio of brothers whose Contompasis Gallery at 40 Broadway is now on the 1st Friday circuit and stays open the whole first weekend of every month.

Headed up by the eldest brother, Samson, the New York City-style loft features art by a panoply of contributors, including brothers Alex and Max; Samson's lookalike father, Peter (whose sea urchin-like sculpture, turning lazily above the proceedings, bristled with black and silver pool cues); the boys' mother, Jackie Brickman (I liked her new bird paintings best and, yes, she is my cousin); and many graffiti artists.

It was a salon-style extravaganza, with a deejay spinning tunes, guys breakdancing, UAG model of the day Rebecca Schoonmaker shaking her booty on the dance floor, a Betty Page lookalike (well, bangswise, anyway) snapping pictures, and lots and lots of interesting art. My wife became captivated by a One Unit print of a cute squirrel (shown at left), which the artist graciously signed after she bought it for the same shamefully low price I paid Monsour, and that made her very happy.

For me, the outstanding creator in this fine bunch is also the most mysterious. I was told that Radical is a seventeen-year-old Mormon who neither drinks nor takes drugs and was probably home in bed at the time (around 10 p.m.), and I'll trust that this is true. You can decide if you trust me on this: if it is true, then Radical is a genius. His drawings and paintings, depicting a strange netherworld of bandaged figures, sinister robo-kitties, syringes and a whole lot more, are almost unbelievably well-crafted, original and consistent for an artist of any age - and I don't say that at all lightly. Let's hope he stays on track.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chesin and Spellmeyer at Visions Gallery

The chances are pretty good you've never heard of Lorraine Chesin - I hadn't, either, before her unassuming but strong abstract works began appearing a couple of years ago at the annual one-night Vacancy shows sponsored by Historic Albany Foundation.

I bought one of her pieces (for a shamefully low price) at last year's Built show, and had it hanging in the living room before I realized it was both an abstract design and a quite accurate rendering of a view out a downtown window. The same understated, dual-purpose nature of Chesin's paintings is abundantly in evidence at a two-person show she shares with photographer Susan Gill Spellmeyer at Visions Gallery in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany Pastoral Center at 40 North Main Ave. through July 10.

Titled Uncommon Perspectives, the show features six paintings and about a dozen needlepoints by Chesin and around 20 photos by Spellmeyer. Because I had received a card featuring just Chesin's information on it, I went expecting a solo show - and I will stubbornly concentrate here on reviewing just her work. Spellmeyer's, which consists of quite competent color closeups of flowers in near-abstract, pastel-hued images is worthy of attention but didn't particularly hold mine.

Chesin has an unusual back story for an emerging artist. She retired in 2002 after 10 years as the Rensselaer County Commissioner of Mental Health; before that, she was a social worker, and before that, a high school art teacher - but even that career came to her relatively late in life, as she was already 35 when she got her art degree from Skidmore College.

So we're looking at a painter who is both new and not new; the work has the energetic freshness of a young artist's, but feels much more steeped in time; and the needlepoints hark back to the days of '60s macrame, yet their Modernism really harks back much further, to the Arts and Crafts movement. Chesin's paintings are Modernist, too - they closely resemble work by Arshile Gorky and Arthur Dove in their fusion of shape, color, and line to both reveal and conceal their subjects, which are groups of people.

I have no idea how many serious artists have chosen to work in needlepoint - or, for that matter, embroidery, hooked rugs, tapestries or weaving - but I sense in the textile media two key aspects: they are traditionally feminine, and they are an underdog (like other "crafts") in the art world. Chesin makes her own designs and works them into very carefully assembled constructs of colored thread, often incorporating complex striping, and they are representative of typical subjects: landscape, still life, portrait. Do they break new ground? Possibly they do, but they also tread on familiar ground quite comfortably, and they do it very well.

One particular favorite of her needlepoints, titled Road Trip and pictured above right, comes near the start of the exhibition as part of a series of three that cover her major themes. Of the other two, pictured above left is The V Monologues, a clear reference to the famous feminist play; and The Secret Life of Beets is seen at right. I love the titles of these pieces, and I love the way they mess around in that world exactly halfway between representation and abstraction.

The paintings are also in that realm, perhaps a couple of shades closer to representation, but they revel so much in the expressiveness of paint and in interesting palette ranges that I find them more visual than meaningful. Still, their often playful titles bear out their connection to the world beyond the studio: Girl With A Career, pictured at the top of this post, may be autobiographical or it may be talking about today's relentless demand for nurses; and, pictured at the bottom of this post, Hearts Away, with its four figures apparently bearing gifts, could have a number of interpretations.

I would encourage you to go see what you think - the gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 to 4; it's easy to park along Main Avenue out front, then walk around to the back entrance, where there is handicapped parking available.