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Friday, August 28, 2009

It’s only the river …

The Hudson River has been a wellspring of artistic inspiration for centuries, and for one very good reason: the light. Anthony Thompson paints that light, and the river, with exceeding skill and concentration, as evidenced by his semi-retrospective solo show, which runs through Sept. 8 at Martinez Gallery in Troy. Though the gallery has limited hours (see below), tonight's Troy Night Out affords a long evening's opportunity to go have a look.

Thompson has been at it for quite some time. Based in Hudson, his professional credentials stretch back to 1964, when he began a teaching career that included long stints at Parsons School of Design in New York City and as head of the fine arts department at Columbia-Greene Community College. This exhibition features 14 paintings from 1999 to 2008; the earliest, titled Hudson Light VII, lives up to its name, as it is bathed in the golden glow of a classic mixed-cloud sky that filters the setting sun over a tiny, lonely Bannerman's Castle (see image at top of post).

Thompson revisits this scene in an equally stunning 2007 painting titled Middle Island that captures a cooler palette, perhaps at dawn (see image near bottom of post). While these and other traditional images make up the bulk of the show, there is a challenging edge lurking at its periphery. Thompson is not primarily a colorist, and he works dark forms into his sometimes extremely assymetrical compositions, using silhouetting to emphasize the light as it glints from sky to water.

A strong example of this process is presented twice in the show - as a "study" (placed in quotes, because it is a fully realized painting) and larger final version of Olana Sunburst (shown at right). This is a rather disquieting image, as tempestuous as a Turner, which seems representative of the dual nature of human spirituality.

Two other pieces in the show confront duality as a more optical game, copying and flipping similar images to create a Rorschach effect. One of these cognitive experiments (in addition to an MFA from Cornell, the artist boasts an MA in cognitive psychology from the New School) incorporates two snapshot-sized color photos of a painting, then adds pooled acrylic blobs on top of them; the other is a highly detailed painting of a pond, 5 by 6½ feet. Though they are oddities among the rest of the work here, they do open a window on Thompson's processes, both visual and mental.

Martinez Gallery's hours are Thursday-Sunday, 2:00 to 4:30 p.m., and by appointment. It would be nice if they were more expansive, but the fact that this commercial gallery has survived in the Capital Region since 2001, which is something of a record, shows they are doing many things right. Go see for yourself what it's about.

And, while you're at it, check out another Hudson River show that opens tonight (Friday, Aug. 28) and runs through Sept. 23 at Clement Art Gallery, which is just a few steps from Martinez. The show, titled Down by the River, presents a large body of black-and-white photographs by John Whipple that are part of a long-term project looking at many aspects of the river and its inhabitants. I recommend it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Out of This World at Albany Airport Gallery

With a name like Out of This World: Transcending the Terrestrial in Contemporary Art, the current show at the Albany International Airport Gallery would seem to be about taking people to new places without even getting them onto an airplane, and in that it succeeds handily.

Featuring seven artists, about half of whom have Airport Gallery history, the show is such a riot of color that one could easily overlook its organizing theme of transformation. Starting with the neon yellow that covers the gallery walls, this is an almost psychedelic experience, optically stimulating and very entertaining – ideal to perk up the weary traveler or distract those waiting to pick up same – but not to be taken all that seriously.

Devorah Sperber, for example, offers three pieces that depict Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, one made with 1,102 cleverly aligned spools of thread, the other two with chenille stems (for the uninitiated, those are pipe cleaners) that have been placed with digital accuracy to build an image out of color-coordinated dots.

Also working with blobs and dots, but more abstractly, is Betsy Brandt, whose agglomerations of artificial flower parts, hot glue, plastic beads, and other craft store paraphernalia tickle the imagination as they conjure microscopic or undersea worlds and the creatures that inhabit them (a detail of one, titled Akin, is shown at right). Her sister, Susie Brandt, works in fabric. Visitors to the exhibition who take the stairs are welcomed by a Susie Brandt installation that evokes geology with folded and stacked strips of colorful fabric that cling to a narrow ledge and work their way up the wall all the way to the ceiling, like a sedimentary intrusion.

Susie Brandt’s other works in the show consist of fanciful (and, again, brightly hued) hooked rugs that are based on tracings of round city water drains and amoeba-like tree trunks – the latter are displayed on a rectangle of Astroturf, which makes a nice, bright green contrast but is a bit campy. Speaking of green, it’s the dominant color of one of Chris Harvey’s marvelous stacks of objects, this one featuring the heads of many plastic toys (including Shrek, of course), and amusingly titled Totem for the New Green Inititiative.

Harvey made quite a splash last year with a large installation at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy titled The Mandala of Perfect Happiness. A video on view here presents the creation of that piece, very speeded up, with Harvey clowning throughout. His other new works in this show include a row of columns (shown at the bottom of this post) in the rainbow colors of our plastic Wal-Mart culture. Its title, Seven Pillars of Commerce and Pleasure, pretty much sums up the piece’s intentions and results – viewing it is indeed very pleasurable.

The show’s painter is David Miller, recently retired from Skidmore College and, amazingly, showing here for the first time. Two very large pieces of his from 2007 are included: one a highly textural and aptly titled Symphony in Yellow, the other smoother, darker, and more evocative of the show’s theme with its inky black depths and floating figures (it is titled Midnight in the Garden of the Sea and is shown at the top of this post). These are strong paintings, but I was more moved by Miller’s series of seven much smaller panels made this year that have delicate markings and luscious color variations, and resemble views of Earth from a satellite.

Also included in the show are three ravishing sculptures by Ginger Ertz (plus one, a chandelier, that has been hanging above the stairwell for a year or more), all made from those suddenly ubiquitous chenille stems. Ertz emphasizes sculptural form and texture, rather than color, in these sexy and humorous pieces, such as one titled Docking that may depict two odd creatures about to mate, and another titled Odalisque. Ertz, of Schenectady, just received a coveted NYFA fellowship for this work, and it’s easy to see why.

Finally, the show includes another sculptor who uses familiar material in an innovative way – and, unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably seen Jennifer Maestre’s amazing pencil-stub critters on the Internet. Here’s your chance to see them in 3-D and marvel at the technical and formal achievement they represent.

Overall, this is the sort of show we’ve grown accustomed to seeing at the Airport Gallery – hip, innovative, high-quality, and entertaining. It is also refreshing to see so much sculpture in a curated exhibition, which is no doubt due to the fact that Gallery Director Sharon Bates is herself a sculptor – but it is no less appreciated for that. The show runs through Nov. 29, and the gallery’s hours are an unbeatable 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Whether you’re flying or not, it’s well worth the trip.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Studio visit: Sam Altekruse

View of about half of Sam Altekruse’s studio. The paintings on the wall are finished; the ones on the floor are still in progress. He also uses a table to work on much smaller pieces.

In a very raw space high above the gritty downtown of a Capital Region city, Sam Altekruse paints. The 43-year-old left-hander has lived all over the United States – New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, South Carolina – and has traveled extensively abroad, including long visits to Mexico, Berlin, and Pakistan. In all these places, he has painted.

Altekruse recently gave me a guided tour of this history in his sprawling, 3,200-square-foot workspace. The visit lasted about two hours and included viewings of a great many paintings and drawings that range in size from a few inches across to about 10 feet square. They are made in oils, watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, acrylics, and house paint. Very few of the works have ever been shown.

There was a time when Altekruse had a gallery, in Atlanta, that sold a steady stream of his works on paper, but they were pleasant landscapes and that was a long time ago. Now, he paints mostly abstractly, channeling the intense energy and imagery of Pablo Picasso filtered through Jackson Pollock and then flavored with Altekruse’s own personal style.

Not that he wants you to think of it that way. Altekruse resists the comparison to the two artists his work mosts resembles, both because he is not trying to imitate them and because he has the natural pride of a serious painter who needs to be recognized for who he is. As he puts it, “Pollocasso … is the cage everyone wants to break,” an interesting perspective on the art that dominated the 20th century so thoroughly that whatever came after it has been affected by it.

So, what does Altekruse do? In addition to having the skill (and formal art-school training) to accurately sketch whatever he comes across, or to expressively riff on that, whether it is figurative, architectural or landscape, he can also create fictions or dramas (as the past and present German Expressionists did and do); and, most important, he can boil all of that down to essential marks and forms that become a unique language, often on a rather large scale.

This last approach is the work that I think most distinguishes Altekruse, as it is bold, muscular, almost primal – but it is also this work that gets him into the “two Ps” quandary. Not that I would mind if I were him. Picasso famously described himself and all artists as thieves, and Pollock quite clearly followed Picasso early in his career – so, all we’re saying when we compare Altekruse to them is that he is working within a tradition. And part of that tradition is to both steal like crazy and to believe fiercely in yourself as an original.

Altekruse upholds the legacy of these and other great painters by working feverishly (fueled by cup after cup of hot tea); relentlessly reworking and rethinking what he has done (many of his paintings have been built up over years or even decades); and keeping fresh with direct observation and a lot of drawing.

Among the best things he showed me were an almost endless stack of works on paper, about 2 by 3 feet (small for him), that meld the almost calligraphic gestures of some of his brushwork with the heavy layering of the larger works on canvas; equally, they incorporate a range of quasi-abstract imagery and recognizable symbols that seem to be the key to where he’s going as a painter. Where his large paintings get really impressive is when these studies inform them – though I hesitate to call them studies, as they can be quite finished, too.

Another exciting part of the process, both with the larger works on canvas and the smaller paper pieces, involves combining compositions together. This can happen in an almost automatic way or more by design. Regardless, the results for me were strongly intriguing and, I think, for Altekruse quite gratifying.

All this work is not without a goal – Altekruse says he would like to be showing in New York City, where he knows people and where some of his old art school buddies have found success. It’s never been easy to pull that off, and now is not the most propitious time for such efforts, as the New York art scene is suffering harsh economic realities and the market is in a severe downward spiral.

But that may make for opportunity where before there was none. I wish him well in making this dream come true, and I honestly believe he both deserves it and has what it takes to get there.

Altekruse ponders the final composition of one of his paintings.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Two (or three) Hudson River shows at AIHA

While the Albany Institute of History & Art hosts its landmark exhibition Hudson River Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art, and Culture, which is slated to run through Jan. 3 (and rumored to be extended into June), there are two shorter-term sidebar exhibitions that add further inducement to visit the museum now.

Hudson River Panorama itself is a sweeping collection that, if it were just an art show, would be a large and impressive one - but it is still more of a history show overall, and therefore not something for me to review here. However, Different at Every Turn: Contemporary Painters of the Hudson River, a travelling exhibition of one work each by 17 painters, and the solo exhibition Life Along the Hudson: Photographs by Joseph Squillante are another story.

Different at Every Turn, which opened in June and has just been extended a week through Aug. 30, is the first exhibition to be installed in the Institute's Rice House, and it affords a nice opportunity to get in and nose around those rooms when they aren't filled with folks at a reception. I was amused to find that simply reaching the exhibition space required enough twists and turns to get anyone in the right frame of mind for a show of this title.

The show originated at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and will travel next to SUNY Potsdam and then to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was organized by Virginia Creighton, who commits a curatorial faux pas by including herself in the group of 17, but there's nothing much wrong with her choices overall, which display a great range of painting styles and approaches.

Variety is the show's key benefit, in that it gives visitors an overview of the many possibilities that artists face, and allows us to enjoy the diversity of these 17 solutions. Among the highlights are a small work by Peter McCaffrey that captures Bannerman's Castle through the mist; a sober aerial view of Manhattan at dawn by the show's best-known painter, Yvonne Jacquette; a fetching Catskills panorama titled All Creation, by the AIHA's own Tom Nelson(shown at top of this post); Diane Kurz's lushly colorful The Hudson River from the Bear Mountain Bridge; and a dizzying watercolor by Bill Murphy (shown above at right).

Photographer Joseph Squillante's show fills two rooms on the museum's third floor, which emphasizes its split personality. The first, smaller room holds a group of portraits, including fishermen, a farmer, and Pete Seeger (the one at left is titled Wildlife biologist Craig Thompson with immature bald eagle). These pictures could be described as journalistic - clearly, Squillante sees himself as a storyteller.

But the second room lays out a far more aesthetic scheme, in which the Hudson as landscape is explored from the lower tip of Manhattan to the top of Mount Marcy. This, for me, was the more successful part of the exhibition, not that Squillante is a better artist than journalist (he's darn good at both), but that the story told by the landscapes is both more coherent and more compelling in its simplicity.

Also, unlike the portraits, which are strongly and necessarily rooted in who they depict, some of the landscapes transcend their subject matter to take us to a new place (the example shown below is titled Peekskill Bay). It is the Hudson River, yes, but it is also anywhere in the world, as well as somewhere in the mind or spirit. This is where I prefer art to take me. You can go see where it takes you, through Oct. 4.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I was fortunate to catch Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective on its last day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and, though I'm sorry to be reporting on the show after it's over, the experience merits comment.

Bacon was without doubt one of the seminal artists of the 20th century. His grotesque figuration went against the Abstract Expressionism that dominated his era, but it triumphed eventually, having presaged the dominant art of the last two decades of that century.

This show made abundantly clear why Bacon matters, with room after room of major works presented decade by decade; it also featured crisp wall texts and a display of artifacts from Bacon's studio, both of which delineated a tormented life of tremendous artistic effort.

Bacon, a homosexual Englishman from a wealthy family who grew up in Ireland, boiled all of life down to three things: Birth, copulation, and death. Lacking formal training in art, he nevertheless established early in his career a highly refined individual style, and he deviated from it very little over many decades of painting. Whether presented singly or in triptychs, the bulk of his paintings as seen in this show were vertical and of the same size (1½ by 2 meters, or about 5 by 6½ feet). The example shown above is the right third of a triptych made at the height of his career, and is as good as any in representing the elements of Bacon's painted imagery.

It won't surprise you to read that a lot of people saw this exhibition on its last day, and very few of them were smiling. It is relentlessly grim stuff - and definitely not for children, though I saw some there - but it is, in its way, absolutely full of life.

I found the early years to be pretty tough going, but was rather delighted by the middle years, where Bacon fused influences of Matisse and Picasso into the best work he'd ever made - colorful, masterfully composed, complex. Even with the same horrific biomorphism that characterizes almost everything he painted, the lyrical spaces and vibrant colors of these middle paintings are unequivocally, lushly beautiful.

Was Bacon trying to use beauty to seduce the viewer into confronting brutal realities? Or was he reveling in beauty for its own sake, even as he reveled in grotesquerie and horror?

The later works retain some of that smooth prettiness but bring back the rougher, spare aspects of the earlier Bacon, possibly because his love life was making a similar reprise. He also turned to portraiture in this period, creating the one sustained deviation from the large format paintings in the form of many 12-by-14-inch pieces, some of which are also presented in triptychs.

Altogether it is quite impressive. Though I exited the gallery with some sense of relief, there was an equal sense of wonder at the stupendous body of work Bacon had produced, and the amazing career he crafted out of it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Prendergast in Italy (and more) at WCMA

Maurice Prendergast, Grand Canal, Venice, ca. 1898–99 watercolor and pencil on paper 10 x 13 7/8 inches
Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Charles Prendergast

With all the attention being paid to the Dove/O’Keeffe show at the Clark Art Institute, it could be easy to overlook Williamstown’s other world-class museum, the Williams College Museum of Art. But that would be a grave mistake, especially now, as the WCMA is hosting four exhibitions that are all worth some serious viewing time.

First up is the gorgeous Prendergast in Italy, created in partnership with the Terra Foundation of American Art in Chicago, which draws on the vast Prendergast collection of the WCMA, along with the Terra’s major holdings and several private collections. After it completes its run here on Sept. 20, the show will travel to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and then in 2010 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Prendergast in Italy presents the work of an artist at the top of his game at two distinct points in his career, during travels in Italy in 1898-9 and 1911-12. A consummate craftsman, Maurice Prendergast began as a commercial artist, but then crossed over into fine art after studying in Paris in the 1890s. With his first sojourn to Italy, focusing on Venice as his subject, his success was launched. Always attuned to the development of Modern art, over the next decade Prendergast changed styles; the work of his second sojourn is so different from the first that it is almost like viewing two artists, though the dominant medium throughout is watercolor (to compare, see the images at the top and bottom of this post).

Not to worry: Both are extraordinarily good. The early Prendergast takes an illustrative style and applies it to vividly perceived scenes of Victorian life along the canals. The images are virtually bursting with color, light, and atmosphere (the one reproduced at right is titled Fiesta–Venice–S. Pietro in Volta). Both accurate and expressive, even more than 100 years later they communicate the artist's exuberance at being alive in a place full of stimulation and possibility.

The later work, in keeping with the principles of Modern art, is slightly cooler and more intellectual, even as it is also more primitive. If this seems self-contradictory, consider that Prendergast's main inspiration in adopting the new style came from Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. These paintings delight the eye, but don't take you into the action so much as they place you near enough to observe it as a collection of shapes, lines, and tones.

If I could criticize the show, it is that it is perhaps too comprehensive. The two large galleries simply overflow with Prendergast's abundant output. If one is not a fan, it could become tiresome – but for lovers of this artist and period, it is a carnival of marvelous proportions.
Maurice Prendergast, Rialto, Venice, ca. 1911–12 watercolor and pencil on paper
Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Charles Prendergast

Also getting the star treatment at the WCMA is another almost absurdly talented and productive artist, the photographer (and painter) Edward Steichen. Filling a very large gallery almost salon-style is In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937. It simply astonishes and overwhelms with the sheer number of masterful portraits of the stars of the day and the groundbreaking fashion pictures that today we take for granted but, when Steichen did them, were a revelation. Again, fans will love it, but others may grow bored. This show ends on Sept. 13.

In a second, smaller gallery, another Steichen show focuses on his personal work. Titled Episodes from a Life in Photography, it features 90 pictures that range from early abstractions (the example above of avocados was made in 1920) to an extended series of landscapes made at Walden Pond, and also includes some commercial images, such as the jazzy 1926 Design for Stehli Silks shown above at right. this show will remain on view through Nov. 8.

Finally, another show of photographs features the work of a Williams alumnus named Ralph Lieberman. While Steichen is a pretty tough act to follow, Lieberman's architecturally inspired black-and-white work holds up very well. Many of the images are classical renderings of their subject matter (such as the one shown here, from San Gimignano in Italy) while others display a more analytical and expressive mind at work. He does Williams proud.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Christopher Jordan at Chapel + Cultural Center

An extraordinary show of photographs by Christopher Jordan is currently on view at RPI's Chapel + Cultural Center, which is slightly off the beaten track but actually very easy to find and, being a Catholic church as well as a beautiful gallery, it's open pretty much all the time.

Jordan, who came to the area about five years ago to teach at Sage College of Albany, has already moved on to his next teaching job in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; fortunately for us, the show will remain through Sept. 28. Titled Ablation Points, the collection of about 20 pieces in both color and black and white has integrated Jordan's love of landscape photography with his knack for digital tinkering, resulting in an innovative and transformative body of work that confounds our preconceptions about both (you can click here to see examples on his website).

How's that? First, he freezes up a bunch of ice in his home freezer and sets up a studio arrangement that includes a rubber-lined tray of water, cottony cloud fuzz, rocks, lights, and whatever else he may need to concoct an illusory Icelandic fjordscape (and, yes, he has actually been to Iceland). Then he shoots large-format black-and-white negatives with a view camera to capture these fictions in very great detail. Some of the images in the show are beautifully crafted straight silver prints from those negs (example at right), and they are quite lovely near-abstractions; but the rest are something significantly different.

Jordan got his master's degree in photography at RIT, a program known for its adherence to extreme technical excellence - hence the view camera and all that. But he has added the digital arena to his set of skills, and it is in these Ablation pictures that the old and new technologies come together to create something excitingly new.

After shooting a variety of setups, Jordan scans the negatives into a very high definition digital environment and transforms them, mainly by adding color. The amazingly realistic and expressive effects he achieves, without resorting to cheap tricks, is what makes this work so impressive.

Even when the elements of Jordan's images are reduced to a few shapes and gestures, the way they capture atmosphere is uncanny. In this, he rivals his rightful predecessors, the Hudson River School painters. They, too, were using beauty to convey messages that are essentially spiritual and environmental.

Jordan describes these works as "an extended metaphor for climate change," and you do feel the sadness that pervades their sense of awe. The word "ablation," which is a synonym for erosion or vaporization (you can trust me, I looked it up) makes his message clear. While it's doubtful that pictures can help much to protect the future of the glaciers, I feel strongly that Jordan has produced something of lasting value by making them.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dove/O'Keeffe at The Clark

Arthur Dove, Sunrise I, 1936. Tempera on canvas, 25 x 35 inches.

He inspired Georgia O'Keeffe to begin painting abstractly, became a lifelong friend and ongoing influence on her work, and was celebrated alongside her by the most influential art critics of the first half of the 20th century. Still, though millions of people today can instantly recognize almost any picture by (or of) O'Keeffe, the name Arthur Dove scarcely rings a bell.

But not if Debra Bricker Balken has her way. Balken is the independent curator who created this summer's blockbuster exhibition, Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence, on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 7. Balken also put together a Dove retrospective in 1997, and has written the text for the handsome catalog that accompanies this show.

The exhibition at the Clark amply demonstrates both how and why Dove was an artist of similar significance to O'Keeffe, and lovingly documents the depth and duration of their connection. It also features two other players: Alfred Stieglitz, who showed both artists' work at his New York City gallery and introduced them to each other before eventually marrying O'Keeffe; and Sigmund Freud, whose writing on sex greatly influenced the thinking of participants in the American Modernist movement.

O'Keeffe bristled at the characterization of herself and Dove as representative of their respective gender in painting, and I think she was right - the many works by both artists in this show share and swap so many characteristics as to defy any honest viewer who would try to categorize either artist's expression as essentially male or female (to test yourself, take a look at the paintings reproduced above at right and below at left, and then decide which painting is better representative of which sex - they are identified at the bottom of this post).

That debate, I would add, is part of the point. Abstraction, in the hands of Dove and O'Keeffe, became a disembodied celebration of nature, expressed not through the neuroses and complexities of human perceptions, but experienced instead as a pure thing in its forms and essences. What is remarkable about these pioneering paintings is how fresh they seem, and relevant they remain, nearly a century after they were made.

The exhibition does well by presenting the work in bite-size pairs and groupings, and by organizing it into several historical themes (such as New York Modernism) and contextual categories (such as Color/Light). The wall texts are informative, which really helps one to navigate the show conceptually, and succinct, which is practical, as it is likely to be pretty crowded any time you visit. The throngs make it a bit difficult to linger, but it is essential that you take the time to contemplate this art long enough to let it work its magic with your perceptions.

And magical it is. From Dove's stark early drawings, through O'Keefe's groundbreaking watercolors and Dove's experiments with materials such as glass and metal, to the final pairings of the two artists' transcendental nature paintings, it is both a lesson in the history of Modern art and an immersion in the process and power of fully resolved works. While the key to the show is how it works as a whole, both in relating Dove's work to O'Keeffe's and in presenting each artist's work on its own, there are several highlights worth mentioning.

While the larger, finished paintings are very impressive, both artists' watercolor sketches are fascinating, and they provide convenient bookends to the exhibition - O'Keeffe's journey began with hers as she discovered a new style in 1916-17, and Dove's ended with his, as he made one or two tiny personal images each day in the years leading up to his death in 1946.

A room that places two major O'Keeffe cityscapes side by side, and then adds a quieter but compositionally identical Dove nearby, holds enough interest to justify the entire exhibition. Equally, two brilliant Doves (one of which is reproduced at the top of this post) dominate another room, while an understated O'Keeffe pastel titled Slightly Open Clam Shell hangs serenely nearby. Amusingly, the other Dove is titled Alfie's Delight; I will go out on a limb and assert that it's a reference to Stieglitz (who knew they called him Alfie?).

A trio of works by Dove that develop an idea for an image of a stream from a sketch into a fine painting is engrossing and gratifying. On an adjacent wall, two luminous O'Keeffes explore a glowing humanlike form in relation to a vividly green landscape. In this corner of the museum, the presence of the artists is as strong as if we were in their studios the day after these works came into existence.

The entrance to the exhibition, which features a Dove painting of the moon that looks like a towering plant and an O'Keeffe painting of a jack-in-the-pulpit that resembles the Northern lights, sets the proper tone. These are awe-inspiring artists; juxtaposing the two enhances the already powerful experience of seeing their work individually. This fabulous show will not travel - you must see it here and now, and I recommend that you do.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916. Watercolor on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/8 in.

Gender quiz answers: The painting reproduced above at the right is Georgia O'Keeffe's Red & Orange Streak, 1919. Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches (68.6 x 58.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987 [Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]. The one below it at left is Arthur Dove's Fog Horns, 1929. Oil on canvas, 18 x 26 inches (45.7 x 66 cm). Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Anonymous Gift, FA 1954.1 [Courtesy of and copyright The Estate of Arthur Dove / Courtesy Terry Dintenfass, Inc.].

Additional credits: The painting reproduced at the top of this post is from the collection of Deborah and Ed Shein [Courtesy of and copyright The Estate of Arthur Dove / Courtesy Terry Dintenfass, Inc.]; the one at the bottom is from the collection of Barney A. Ebsworth [(c) 2009 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York].

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ben Schwab and Blake Shirley at Albany Center Gallery

Up-and-coming painters Ben Schwab and Blake Shirley have been paired for a show at Albany Center Gallery, making for a good opportunity to see recent bodies of work by artists somewhat new to the area. But it's also a strange match - sort of like The Odd Couple's Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, with Schwab as the neat-freak and Shirley as the slob.

Despite their differences of approach, subject, and scale, the two artists' works are comfortably intermingled in the gallery's four rooms, which include 10 or so pieces by each that date from 2007 and later. Schwab, who came from Philadelphia to Albany to teach at The College of Saint Rose, paints and draws architecture. Shirley, who earned his MFA in 2007 and teaches at the University of Connecticut, paints on paper or canvas in a hybrid of styles; his subject matter, though not always recognizable, tends toward the domestic.

Schwab's paintings, with one exception in this selection, are small and tight (the one pictured at the top of this post, titled Troy, is large for him at 12 by 27 inches). They depict somewhat simplified jumbles of urban buildings with a rich but not expressive color range and, in most cases, with perspective lines extended into the space around the structures. He often uses a high point of view, which emphasizes the slight otherworldliness the floating lines create and underscores the sense that humans (absent in these images) are not really part of the process.

Some of Schwab's work harks back to the early 20th-century paintings of Modernists like Charles Sheeler, and has a distinctly Midwestern sensibility. This inkling is born out by a scan of his bio, which includes study in Missouri and Indiana. But Schwab is no yokel - he has also studied in Florence, and traveled in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, England, the Netherlands, and France; last year, he went to Tokyo on a Saint Rose faculty research grant. His painting in the show titled Nihonbashi Tokyo is among his best.

Schwab's drawings, whether sketchy in graphite on gesso, or lush in charcoal on paper, add another dimension to the show. While they further reveal the artist's skill and process, the charcoals in particular also display a warmth that is sometimes lacking in the paintings.

Shirley works very loosely compared to Schwab, far more colorfully, and much larger. His work in the show ranges from about 40 by 50 inches to about 8 feet square, and it seems to get better as it gets bigger, perhaps because the larger canvases give his brush more room to move.

At first, I was put off by Shirley's mundane content - stuff like laundry, junky furniture, and an incongruous old-fashioned rolling blackboard are strewn through his images almost haphazardly, often in such a topsy-turvy way as to make you wonder if the paintings are hung upside-down. But, the more I looked, the better I liked these paintings.

Sometimes you have to give an artist a chance to bring you into his world before you pass judgment. Do I care about cheap couches and busted file cabinets? Not a whit. But I came to enjoy the way Shirley paints them, without being concerned for what it all might mean.

In these works, bright clouds of color obscure a rendered catalog of objects, breaking up spatial relationships and shifting scale (the example shown above is a 2009 oil and acrylic on paper titled Caught). A lot of it is pretty messy and unstructured, with some paintings even appearing unfinished - but, at the same time, Shirley's work is pure eye candy in its more abstract sweeps of gestural color.

In a world where too many shows are curator-driven and thematic, it's good to see singular bodies of work by artists who are focused on the task of creating them, and to have a chance to understand them in their own context. The gallery is doing an important service by offering this type of opportunity to regional artists and their followers.

By the way, the Schwab/Shirley show opened on July 14 but will have its reception on Friday (Aug. 7) from 5 to 9 p.m., as part of the regular 1st Friday festivities.

NOTE: In the interest of full transparency, please be aware that I am a member of Albany Center Gallery's exhibits committee, which reviews and rates submissions by artists.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hudson galleries

July gave us record amounts of rain. So, how about a little snow for August? That's part of what Carrie Haddad Gallery offers in its annual Landscapes exhibition, which opens with a reception tonight (Saturday) from 6 to 8 p.m. The snow is courtesy of Washington County painter Harry Orlyk (image above); the other featured artists are Tracy Helgeson, Robert Koffler, and Don Bracken.

While it might seem underwhelming conceptually, this summer landscape show sets a very high standard and even gets pretty edgy with Bracken's work, where extreme texture and a narrow tonal range evoke Anselm Kiefer. Koffler's neo-Modernist woodsy scenes range from seductively vivid to pensive (in his less colorful moments). Helgeson's more eye-pleasing palette and geometry dominate the big front room, where a surprisingly diverse collection of her quasi-formulaic works are grouped in exuberant clusters. And Orlyk, painting feverishly in his well-established Impressionist style, is brilliant as always.

Additional spotlight exhibitions by Linda Cross, Thomas Locker, and Russell DeYoung in the gallery's back room and upstairs spaces extend the landscape theme and, apart from Locker's cloying Luminism, maintain the level set by the feature show's artists.

Down at the opposite end of Warren Street, BCB Art has a solo show of works on paper by Sasha Chermayeff (shown below in her studio) that ends Aug. 9. Chermayeff's father is the graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff, and the graphic influence is readily apparent in this direct, gestural work that emphasizes primary colors and pared-down technique.

There is a childlike quality to this work that may or may not appeal to serious art viewers. I found it somewhat decorative, reading a bit more as designs for textiles than as resolved paintings - but a few of the works do go beyond the surface.

A collection of folded paper accordion books added heft to the presentation; also, a group of six smaller paintings, framed and presented in a grid, worked quite well.

A counterpoint to Chermayeff's no-frills approach comes in the form of the layered and very thoughtful mixed-media work of Yale Epstein, now on view at Albert Shahinian Fine Art. The solo exhibition, titled Inscriptions II: The Eloquent Brush, opened in late June and has been extended to Sept. 13.

Epstein, based in Woodstock, is in his 70s and has a very long list of achievements, including many shows locally and internationally, dozens of public and corporate collections, and a rapidly growing list of commissions. Known primarily as a printmaker, he moves easily from press, ink, and paper to oil, acrylic, and canvas. A strong, coherent selection of all his mediums is presented in this beautiful, multi-room gallery.

Among the more impressive pieces in the show is Chronicle I, a 4-foot painting reproduced at left. Its colors, composition, and calligraphy are representative of much of the work in the show, all of which has a distinct Oriental flavor. I was told that Epstein's characters are invented but, to one not schooled in Chinese writing, they felt authentic; it's interesting to note that a number of his commissions have been for sites in the Far East.

What Epstein aims for - and achieves - in this work is an experience of cross-cultural communication that transcends both time and geography, as alluded to in his introduction to a beautifully printed color catalog that accompanies the show. It is an extremely rich body of work by an artist totally immersed in the essence of history and connection.

A quite different, but equally compelling solo show of paintings is offered at John Davis Gallery through Aug 16. David Hornung combines heavily pigmented oils with encaustic to produce flat colors that are aesthetically similar to gouache, a medium he also favors. Plenty of works in both mediums are featured in this very clean presentation, where Hornung shares cheerful, allegorical scenarios that verge on illustration but remain poignantly personal (the example above is titled Remembering M).

It might be hard to pull this off if Hornung were less of a painter, but the work is no less convincing for being rather charming. I always find an encounter with paintings of such skill to be the perfect antidote to our era's emphasis on concept over craft. This work shows you can be original without abandoning strong technique.

And, speaking of original, there's a brilliant installation in the Davis Gallery's carriage house (out back, beyond the sculpture garden) by Leticia Ortega and Dionisio Cortes that conjures a stunning and relevant experience out of the simplest of materials: plastic bags of water. Titled when skies are hanged, it has been extended to Aug. 16, and is a must-see.

My final stop of the day was at Carrie Haddad Photographs, where a show titled Afterglow: Four Photographers and the Hand-Held Light will run through Aug. 30. Comprising photographic images that have been created through the use of hand-applied lighting with long exposures, this exhibition brings back an alternative technique, often called "painting with light" that was popular in the '70s.

In fact, some of the work in the show by David Lebe dates just about that far back, which is fine with me. (Side note: not all "contemporary" art needs to have been made last week to be worth looking at.) Along with Lebe, Robert Flynt and Warren Neidich work in black and white; Gary Schneider is the lone color practitioner in the group.

All four work directly with the human form (Lebe's Scribble, shown above, notwithstanding), in significantly varied ways. Neidich presents a grim grid of 12 images against a black background that emphasizes the skull-like qualities of the human head. Lebe works mostly with the male nude, sometimes adding hand-colored elements, to evoke a spiritual sexuality. Flynt crosses boundaries and genres by montaging and collaging elements into a wall-sized constellation of images pinned, flush-mounted, clipped in glass, or framed.

All of these are strong - but my favorite is Schneider, whose full-length, life-size frontal nudes (the one shown at right is titled Laura) evoke cadavers, despite the subjects' open eyes and alert expressions. They also afford the rare opportunity to examine a living stranger's anatomy, nasty bits included, which I'm pretty sure all of us can't resist doing any more than a dog can resist its rude sniffings.

So much comes down to sex and death; Schneider's work, and this show as a whole, makes that quite clear, but in a way that still feels life-affirming. And that's what good art is all about.

NOTE: Hudson's galleries have varied hours; most are open at least from noon to 5, Thursday through Monday, but to be sure, check their websites.