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Friday, February 26, 2010

20 Printmakers at Union College Arts Atrium

It's a neat trick for a curator: Ask some artists to participate in a show, and then have each one invite another artist to join them. You get freshness, diversity, surprises - and don't have to take much heat if it doesn't really work as a whole.

Union College printmaking professor Sandy Wimer has applied this technique to craft a really nice printmaking invitational featuring 10 regional artists and the 10 artists from beyond the region they invited. Here and There: Two Degrees of Separation presents the participants in pairs, with a short statement from each inviter explaining their choice of invitee. There is also a useful introductory essay by curator/printmaker Debora Wood of Northwestern University, which neatly sums up the major techniques and overriding philosophies of the printmaking media for those not well-versed in them (which, honestly, means most of us).

The Burns Arts Atrium at Union College is a clean, well-lit exhibition space, slightly off the beaten track but not hard to find on the campus (behind or around the corner from the Yulman Theater), and its long, horizontal space works well as a frame for this sprawling display of 40 pieces of art.

The local artists are mostly familiar names, and their counterparts are mostly new ones for local viewers; the range of media thay employ is wide, including lithography, woodcut, several forms of etching, monoprints and, of course, digital, augmented in some cases by watercolor or collage. There is no uniformity of style or subject matter, not even between most of the pairs, though the work falls largely within the parameter of being smallish in scale.

It is important to point out that all these prints were made by the artists, who identify as printmakers (whereas many artists who make prints work primarily in other media and use printmaking as a tool for creating multiples, often in ateliers that specialize in helping them to do that). As a survey of what printmakers these days are doing, it's an excellent representation, and the quality of the work is consistently high.

One can approach the show as a sort of smorgasbord, and just enjoy the lovely techniques, strong imagery, and challenging ideas - or you can think about the relationships between the artists who are paired up (not to mention those among the original 10, many of whom have close ties within the local community). I found both processes worth exploring.

Some highlights:
  • Milt Connors invited Judith Hugentobler, because both look at mass-media images and seek to transform them. These works are perhaps the least traditional in the show - Connors uses black-and-white photography (created or found?) while Hugentobler makes color digital collages based on old Hollywood head shots.
  • Sandy Wimer invited Bill Hosterman, whose exquisitely crafted etchings provide a microcosmic counterpoint to Wimer's own macrocosmic lithographic views. Both employ great subtlety in their applications of traditional media.
  • Allen Grindle invited Jason Stewart, whose flippant irreverence nicely balances Grindle's esoteric grimness.
  • Thom O'Connor invited Cècile Boucher, a French Canadian whose digital montages display Gallic humor blended with Canadian defensiveness. O'Connor's spectrally transformed, photo-based self portraits make you realize that Boucher's work is also a kind of self-portrait, but more cultural than personal.
  • Sunghee Park invited Manuel Guerra, contrasting the ways in which each has brought elements of their ancestral culture into making contemporary American images.
  • Harold Lohner invited Jenny Robinson, a San Francisco printmaker, whose work relates to Lohner's indirectly, by way of their shared level of excellence.

I was piqued to find that in every pair but one the inviter chose a person of the opposite sex. I don't know if this is common in the art world as a whole, or more so among printmakers, but I hope it's a sign that we've reached a point of equality between men and women in a realm where that was quite markedly not the case for centuries.

Key to images (from top to bottom):

Sunghee Park Pear Tree 2 lithograph, chine collè, colored pencil
Marion Preston Untitled watercolor, woodcut
Cècile Boucher Don't Look Back digital
Jenny Robinson Gasworks spitbite, drypoint
Bill Hosterman Reach etching
Allen Grindle Receptor etching, watercolor

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Larry Poons at Esther Massry Gallery

Larry Poons Monkey Liner 2008, acrylic on canvas

Larry Poons is a little, grey man who makes big, colorful paintings. His recent visits to The College of Saint Rose to install a solo exhibition and give an artist's talk stirred up quite a bit of excitement and just as much controversy - not surprising for an old-school enfant terrible whose reputation for pushing boundaries appears to have been well-earned.

The opening reception for Larry Poons: Recent Paintings at the Esther Massry Gallery on Feb. 5 was absolutely packed, as was that evening's talk, and the air was abuzz for days after as scandalized art lovers, their eyes glittering, asked each other if they'd been there or not.

Though I couldn't stay for the talk, I gather that this icon of bad-boy painters fulfilled all expectations with his obscurity and outbursts. I also heard about various moments of provocative behavior during the installation process, further burnishing my impression that Poons has the outsized ego to match his world-famous New York City painter's image (that's him in the photo above, taken by Massry Gallery Director Jeanne Flanagan in front of the 2009 painting La Famiglia).

So, I expected to have a very hard time liking the paintings when I returned to the gallery to take them in (viewing them at the opening, despite their scale, was an impossibility). And, at first, that's how it was: The work felt angry, undisciplined, and unresolved. Still, I knew it couldn't be that simple. Poons requires the viewer to work - not as hard as he does, but harder than we're used to when looking at abstract art.

What happened eventually, as I gave the show more time over two extended visits, was that the paintings began to open up, revealing their depth and - can I bear to write it? - sensitivity. In fact, what had appeared quite ugly to me on superficial inspection started to actually seem beautiful.

The show includes just 11 paintings (all acrylic on canvas), but they are so big and complicated that the spacious gallery feels almost overfull. Seeing the installation as a whole is extremely difficult, and looking at the paintings from any great distance is fairly useless. Perhaps a different kind of installation that breaks up the space would have helped by forcing a more intimate viewing distance.

From close in - that's where I began to have a better experience of this work. At less than two feet away, one enters the world of the painting, and is immersed in the myriad marks and colors that make up its surface. Not coincidentally, that's also the distance from which Poons most likely would have made the paintings. Entering his point of view, the conflicts that pervade the bigger compositions go away, and the light begins to overtake the darkness.

Once on better terms with the extremely painterly surfaces of these works, it becomes easier to look at them again from further away - the colors that were obscured in the complexity reach out, and the structured aspect of the compositions becomes more apparent. This is of course more true with some than others (such as the painting shown above, titled Playing for Keeps).

My favorite piece in the show best combines both of these characteristics, providing a structured composition that looks good from most distances and imbuing it with the filtered light of a spring garden (shown below, it is titled Grayson 45). Many would argue that this work is only about the painter and the paint, and they could very well be right. But I found, again and again, that staring at these paintings was a lot like having a face full of flowers - a not entirely pleasant feeling, but not entirely joyless, either.

The show continues through March 21 but will be closed for Spring Break from Feb. 28 to March 7.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dan McCormack at The PhotoCenter

You don't have to love the nude female form to like Dan McCormack's photography, but it wouldn't hurt. A survey show of 51 of his pieces, on view at the Photography Center of the Capital District through Feb. 21, depicts almost nothing other than women, all of them nude except when presented just from the neck up, and it does so in a great variety of methods and media.

To those of you who have read my recent review of the Carroll Dunham show at UAlbany, this will sound repetitive, but it happens to be true: This work is not so much about the subject, or the image (though many of the images are quite wonderful) - it is really very much about the process.

In this instance, we are pleasantly confronted with a cornucopia of photographic alternative processes: cyanotypes, palladium prints, silver prints, photograms, and digital pigment prints are derived from original negatives made with everything from a homemade pinhole camera to a four-lens novelty 3-D camera to an office scanner to a Fuji 6x17 Technopan (the dollar range there goes from empty oatmeal box to so expensive that you don't buy it, you rent it by the day).

So, what is McCormack about? Like I said: Process, process, process. Oh yeah, and he really, really likes women. Reminds me of Garry Winogrand, a venerated street photographer of the '60s who published a book titled Women are Beautiful, and who meant that in the most sincere and accepting way. McCormack's women are not necessarily beautiful in the classic sense, but he sees them as beautiful and he makes them so in his pictures. He also makes them look monstrous - yet still beautiful.

McCormack is clearly very interested in the relationship among images - a great deal of the work shown here is presented in multiple form as diptychs, triptychs and so on. Only a few pieces stand alone - most of those are elegant, diminutive cyanotypes (blue prints) of a woman engulfed by water or lushly, even psychedelically colored pigment prints. The latter group involves a lot of solarization, which can have some pretty cool optical effects on its own, but then McCormack works in layers and layers of vivid pigment to complete the transformation.

Tiny images contact-printed on standard silver paper from the four-lens camera's negatives are grouped by fours, up to 24 together, which evokes Muybridge, but without the continuity. Taken to another level are several pattern prints that repeat almost to infinity, making a grid that looks more like a weaving than a photograph.

The selection and installation is very thoughtfully done. Despite the number and range of the works included, it is easy to experience it as a whole - this is a tribute to the curating of the PhotoCenter's Katy Wright, but also to the clarity and consistency of McCormack's vision.

Though he has a long history of working in this region, and has shown his work a whole lot, McCormack's solo shows are few and far between - try not to miss this opportunity to see both the breadth and depth of an important, under-recognized artist.

Installation view provided by the PhotoCenter; all other photos by Dan McCormack

Please note: the PhotoCenter's hours are 5–9 p.m. Monday,Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; and noon–6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; also by chance - call (518) 273-0100 and you may find someone in at any time (that's what I did one early afternoon).

And, while you're in the neighborhood, check out the current exhibition at Martinez Gallery on the Broadway edge of Monument Square, where a show titled What are You Doing Now? includes a strong cross-section of regional and international artists, including George Hofmann, Leigh Wen, Gay Malin, George Simmons, and Caren Canier (whose small painting/montage is pictured below). Hours are 2-5 p.m. Weds-Sat and by appointment, (518) 273-9377.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Photo Show Alert

Boy Elvis - Graceland photograph by Marla Sweeney at NYSM

Here's a quick heads-up for photography fans: There are a number of important photo shows going on in the immediate Capital Region that I haven't yet had a chance to mention. One has an event today (Thursday, Feb. 11), another opens tomorrow, and a third will run just 10 more days, so you gotta hurry if you want to see it.

In order of imminence:

  • Martin Benjamin's retrospective solo show titled Atomic Age at the Yates Gallery of Siena College in Loudonville has a reception today, preceded by a slide talk. Benjamin will speak in the Standish Library's lower level lecture hall L26 from 4 to 4:30 p.m.; a reception for the show will follow in the gallery upstairs, along with a signing for Benjamin's new book titled Atomic Age, and will go till 6. The show opened on Jan. 28 and will remain on view through Mar. 12 during library hours (which are pretty extensive).

  • Opening tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 12) without fanfare will be the latest installment in the Bank of America Great Art Series at the New York State Museum. Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from the George Eastman House Collection is a very personalized selection of images, by those both famous and not, drawn from an archive so huge there are even two of MY pictures in it (no, they're not in the show - but they might have been). A not-so-famous example is shown above; some of the better known names in the show include Ansel Adams, Lewis Hine, and Dorothea Lange. The show will run through May 9.

  • A solo retrospective by Dan McCormack titled Varied Projects opened on Jan. 8 at the Photography Center of the Capital District in Troy and covers more than two decades of work too diverse and original to be categorized. It runs through Feb. 21. A complete review of this show will be posted here by the start of the weekend - so please check back. Meanwhile, take note that the PhotoCenter's hours are a bit quirky: 5–9 p.m. Monday,Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; and noon–6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Carroll Dunham Prints at University Art Museum

When's the last time you saw a retrospective solo show of prints by a major artist? For lovers of etching, lithography, wood engraving, linoleum cut, monotype, even digital – it's time to rejoice. The exhibition Carroll Dunham Prints: A Survey at the University at Albany's University Art Museum – a massive, rollicking installation of more than 100 works on paper – is a unique opportunity to revel in these and many more of the endless technical variations that fall under the heading of printmaking.

Known primarily as a painter, Dunham began to experiment with printmaking in the mid-'80s – and he really got into it. Covering a 20-year span from that beginning to the recent past, the show will surprise viewers with its versatility, scale, and brilliant color. It will also shock more than a few people with its content.

A little sign in the museum's sober-to-the-point-of-ascetic entry foyer greets visitors with the warning that "some [of the] work may not be suitable for all audiences," and, sure enough, many depictions of genitalia wait inside. But the reality of Dunham's obsessively biomorphic imagery is hardly pornographic. Though insistently graphic (and often quite absurd), the R-ratable content of this work is all but washed away in a sea of process.

One thing I regret from my days as an undergraduate studio art major is that I never took a printmaking course, and I feel that lack now as I seek to express just how deeply imbued in process printmaking is. It is (for some) a dreadfully laborious medium. But it offers infinite variation and, emboldened by the possibility of large multiple editions, draws most serious artists in sooner or later. These days, there are a number of printing shops that provide artists who are not versed in the technical details of printmaking the expert assistance necessary to fully realize their vision in ink on paper. Dunham has taken full advantage of such opportunities, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.

Beginning with some relatively pedestrian monochromatic lithographs from 1985 (example at right), the show quickly accelerates into vivid color, building to prints that are as large as they are complex – up to 26 templates go into some of them, and many are five feet or more across. Bigger is not necessarily better, of course, but I mention size to emphasize the point that today's printmaking is no longer about your great-grandfather's 4-by-6-inch bookplates.

In Dunham's case, big or small, much of the work is created in series, which adds to the viewing experience but is at times a little too repetitive. One such series (I think it has 17 prints in all) hangs in the upstairs Nancy Hyatt Liddle Gallery, and feels almost like a separate exhibition. While this 2004-6 series, made in gestural black strokes on creamy white paper that organize a geometric rendition of landscape, provides relief from the cartoonish madness of much of the rest of the work in the show, in the end it pales by comparison.

Another recent series of five etchings with aquatint, elegantly presented unframed in a wood-and-glass museum case, directly predates the untitled lithographs. This group creates a bridge between those studies and Dunham's more sensational work by combining bold, dark strokes and abstract design with sweet and subtle areas of color. The title, Closing In, may be intended to suggest that the artist felt like he was closing in on something special with this series.

The sense that these small, square prints are significant is reinforced by the presence nearby of several much larger pieces, some of them eccentrically shaped (example below). These most recent works in the show – some screen-printed, some monotypes – share the type of marks and sensuality that characterize Closing In. It's good to see that, like most artists worth their salt, Dunham seems to be getting better as he matures.

But that doesn't mean his juvenile side isn't also worthwhile. Though few of the pieces in this survey have evocative titles, one series alone makes up for that – brilliantly colored, characteristically cartoonish, and embossed to the point of paper abuse, the three prints titled Waiting for Wood (one is shown at left) make too much fun out of a certain pornographic predicament. Or was Dunham merely anxious to get a UPS delivery of supplies? They are wood engravings, after all.

If you still have doubts about seeing this admittedly over-the-top exhibition (and I know I did at first), my advice is to forget about the content (it really isn't the point anyway) and just immerse yourself in the myriad forms Dunham dishes up. It's sure to be a raucous good time.

The exhibition Carroll Dunham Prints: A Survey was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., and runs at the University Art Museum through April 3. A hardcover catalog, published by the Addison, is available at the show for $45 (list price $65). Dunham will give a talk at the museum at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb 22, as part of the ACT (Art & Culture Talks) series there.

A Special 1st Friday

Just a quick heads-up for all you culture vultures out there - tonight's 1st Friday in Albany has a lot to offer (and no snowstorms on the way that I know about), so plan to get out and take advantage. Among the items on my list:
  • Larry Poons, renowned abstract painter, will talk about his show at The College of Saint Rose's Massry Gallery beginning at 7 p.m.

  • An exhibition of magically lighted black-and-white photographs taken in Egypt by Sarite Sanders is featured at the Albany Institute of History & Art, which always offers free admission (and nice munchies) on 1st Friday.

  • and the Contompasis brothers' reborn Marketplace Gallery (40 Broadway) will be open for the first time after a devastating fire wiped it out last fall. Today's Times Union tells the story here. The party there typically lasts all weekend, so go early and often.

Of course there's much, much more - you can get details and a PDF map by going to the 1st Friday website ... or find one in the current Metroland. Events begin at 5 p.m.

See you there!