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Thursday, August 26, 2010

John Singer Sargent at Fenimore Museum

It's amazing how tastes change in art. When John Singer Sargent first exhibited his portrait of Madame X, the poor response to it led him to threaten quitting the business. Now, it is not just his most famous painting, it could easily be considered his best - and, to my 21st-century eye, most of what he did after it would not be missed even if he had made good on that threat.

Though the monumental portrait, now a jewel in the crown of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not included in John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, two revealing sketches made in preparation for it are (one is reproduced above). Also belonging to the Met, these are joined by an impressive roster of works on loan from public and private collections spread across much of the United States, for an exhibition that will only be hosted by the Fenimore.

I was most drawn to a corner of the gallery where the little pencil sketches of the "unpaintable ... and hopeless[ly lazy] ... Madame Gautreau" (her actual married name) have plenty of fine company in the form of works from Sargent's early years. There we find quickly but expertly executed studies such as the demure oil on paper titled Rosina Ferrara, Head of a Capri Girl and the slightly naughty oil on canvas Carmela Bertagna, both created when Sargent was still in his early twenties.

Another strong early work from this time period, titled Head of an Italian Woman, required a very short trip from its home at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, and is somewhat inappropriately framed in a wonderfully extravagant gold conglomeration featuring Greek columns - but its freshness survives (even more vivacious, Sargent's 1883 portrait of Madame Escudier, made in Venice shortly before the portrait of Madame Gautreau, is reproduced at right, above).

These works show Sargent as a passionate young painter, intent on his craft, afire with ambition and possibility, and not yet spoiled by too much success. The later work, done mostly of society ladies in Paris, Venice, London or Boston, strongly supports Sargent's reputation as a great portraitist, but it therefore tells us far more about his sitters than about the man himself.

What motivated Sargent to paint portraits in the first place? Why so many women, and so much attention to upper-class fashions? These questions are raised but not answered by the exhibition, which serves as much as a historical representation of Victorian and Edwardian times and tastes as it does of the artist who so vividly documented them.

After pondering these thoughts for a time, I did a bit of research, and found certain insights. Sargent, though American by citizenship, was a lifelong expatriate. Born in Florence to a comfortable (but hardly wealthy) family, he was educated there, then in Paris; ultimately, he made London his home, visiting the U.S. regularly to do commissions, but never actually living there.

Perhaps his outsider status caused him to strive to be accepted in higher circles of society. Certainly it enabled him to successfully observe and record their styles and personalities, but a portraitist is always an outsider nonetheless. Equally intriguing is the fact that Sargent never married; rumors of his sex life have not been proven, but various sources suggest he was homosexual.

Nothing unusual in that time or ours: A charming, talented gay man, beloved by fashionable, older ladies, and happy to flatter them in his paintings (as in Mrs. Abbott Lawrence Rotch, 1903, reproduced above, at left), Sargent was rewarded with wealth, fame, and access to higher society. Clearly, he wanted all that - perhaps he did, and was able to achieve it because he identified with his subjects in a way that their husbands surely could not.

John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women will remain on view at the Fenimore through Dec. 31. The exhibition is augmented by a free cell-phone tour and accompanied by an amply illustrated color catalog.

Also on view at the Fenimore (but just through Sept. 6), is a major, historic photography exhibition In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers.

The show, which was created in 1989 and traveled the world for the next three years, is stuffed with 50 years of iconic images, including Dennis Stock's portrait of James Dean walking in the rain; Jacqueline Kennedy in tears at her husband's funeral, by Elliott Erwitt; Sebastiao Salgado's antlike gold miners; and a peace demonstrator fighting fire with flowers by Marc Riboud (below).

All the pictures in the show are in black and white; most are printed in the classic Magnum manner, with black borders, and many represent a style of artistic photojournalism that Magnum made ubiquitous, beginning with the inimitably incisive and graceful work of one of the agency's founders, Henri Cartier Bresson. It is both timeless and very much of its time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hudson Galleries

I've missed some important exhibitions this summer in Hudson, but I'm happy to say several really good ones are showing there currently, so it's anything but too late to take advantage of the remainder of the summer season in this regional art mecca.

First up (beginning with what will end soonest and going on from there) is a fine display of large-format color photographs by Victoria Sambunaris at Nicole Fiacco Gallery. The pictures are direct responses to 19th-century Western landscape photographs, updated by being in color, but otherwise only different in scale than the sort of works they pay homage to.

However, while the spirit of this work is similar to the geological-survey work of the past, these changes in scale and color do a lot to change the overall effect. Sambunaris has a knack for choosing scenes that include physically tiny details that reveal 21st-century truths, nearly hidden though they may be in the eye-pleasing atmospherics of these big, smooth prints.

The work is savvy and expertly crafted. As in most Fiacco exhibitions, the presentation is almost too spare, with just seven images spread around the big, white box of a room. Also on view in the more intimate upstairs space are several unframed ink drawings by Troy artist Gina Occhiogrosso, titled The Road. Both exhibitions run through Sept. 4.

John Davis Gallery is featuring Caroline Ramersdorfer, an international sculptor with local ties, along with several other gallery artists in the four-story rear carriage house space. Ramersdorfer often works on a monumental scale (well documented in wall panels on view in the gallery), and the gallery's ample courtyard accomodates one such piece; however, the rest of the work on view is modest in size, and some of it is notably tiny.

If you thought that contemporary artists no longer carve marble, this show will be an eye-opener. Ramersdorfer's work, however, does not look backward. Neither does it present objects meant to be walked around and admired in the traditional way of three-dimensional carvings. Rather, most of the pieces in this show depend on the viewer's willingness to look through their multiple layers from a certain point of view, from which they tend to take on an almost illusionistic degree of depth and complexity.

Ramersdorfer's forms are abstract, though they could be understood to represent microscopic visions of organic or chemical materials, and they play with a nice variety of the textures that a medium like marble can take on, as well as some translucency. A couple of the smaller pieces are executed in wood (natural or painted), which works well enough as a study ("maquette" to some), but did not impart the same feeling as the completed stone carvings.

If you go to Davis, be sure to check out all four floors of the carriage house, a marvelously old and crusty structure, which serves well to display drawings by Constance Jacobsen, paintings by Farrell Brickhouse and Lois Borgenicht, sculptures by John van Alstine and Jon Isherwood, and a giant banner of an installation by Sam Sebren. It all ends on Sept. 12.

The most important show in Hudson right now, and probably one of the more significant shows to be mounted there in some time, is a retrospective of Edward Avedisian at Carrie Haddad Gallery through Sept. 19. It's almost unheard of for Haddad to devote the entire main floor of her gallery to just one artist, but in this case it makes a lot of sense, because the Avedisian we see there is at least three artists all by himself.

There is the master of color-field stripes in the front room, the smearer and splatterer in the middle, and the almost Pop-style renderer of domestic interiors and exteriors in the back. For me, Avedisian's stripe paintings are irresistibly beautiful and yet transcendent, making the other abstracts seem cloddish in comparison; meanwhile, the representational paintings are extremely competent and were, apparently, necessary for the artist as he transitioned from New York City life to sleepy Hudson in the '70s.

This is truly a must-see exhibition on the level of the finest galleries and museums anywhere. Avedisian, who was once a very sought-after guy on the New York art scene, left all that behind - not to work quietly in the country while maintaining a city presence, but to cut himself off from it - and the quality of many of these paintings (dating from 1960 to 2003) clearly demonstrates that he had the stuff if he had wanted to remain.

Instead, he melted into near-obscurity, then died in 2007, leaving behind a very impressive legacy we are lucky to have a chance to see before collectors disperse it all.

Carrie Haddad Photographs is also breaking from tradition with the inclusion of a painter, Lionel Gilbert, in the lineup of three artists on view through Sept. 26. This experiment succeeds (unless you have a problem with a gallery that has the word photographs in its title showing traditional paintings), largely because the two photographers, Kim McLean and Harry Wilks, though quite different from each other, both take a decidedly painterly approach.

The focus is on McLean, a voraciously inventive and ambitious maker of extremely detailed digital constructs that, though they use some photographic source material, really read more as paintings. They refer both directly and indirectly to major historical photographs, while evoking the lighting, techniques, and surfaces of more recent media such as CGI films and video games.

I've never been a huge fan of the created photographic image, and I find the artificiality of McLean's work somewhat tedious (though I have no doubt many others find it endlessly fascinating). But I have to admit that his exuberance is catchy, and his colors are simply gorgeous, even when muted to a nearly monochromatic palette in certain strong examples.

The more understated, but still pretty wild prints by Wilks (example above left), and the vintage modernist oils by Gilbert (example below) are also well worth seeing, though I wish there were a bigger selection of Wilks' work.

Another show worth checking out (though I missed it on my visit), features paintings by Frank Cressotti and Barbara Friedman at BCB Art through Sept. 19.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lunch talk with Domestic Dramas artists

A brown bag lunch at Albany Center Gallery on Thursday (Aug. 19) featured lively discussion with nine of the 12 artists represented in the show Domestic Dramas, which runs there through Sept. 11.

I like the idea of a midday break to hang out with artists. So, apparently, does ACG director Sarah Martinez, who has made this series a mainstay of the events tied to each exhibition at the gallery. This one was a casual affair, with only a few seats to go with simple snacks and refreshments that visitors picked up and carried around while viewing the art as each creator made a brief introduction to their works.

About two dozen people listened and commented as the artists spoke in a loosely connected order, from Gary Glinski to G.G. Roberts and on through Denise Saint-Onge, Gina Occhiogrosso, Catherine Quinones-Austin, David Austin, Erin Colligan, Kim Hugo, and Scott Hotaling. The hour went by quickly with so many speakers, and the discussion leaned more toward the entertaining than the academic, making for an atmosphere that would have suited any curious downtown worker who might have wandered in.

As it was, not many unconnected onlookers were present, but I hope that can improve. While it's understandable that going to galleries and talking to the hipsters therein can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, this is the perfect low-key atmosphere to make newcomers feel welcome to join in. The gallery is right to continue offering this opportunity for a more interactive kind of art-viewing experience.

Emblematic of the show and the spirit of these impromptu talks was Roberts's work and presentation. Her exuberantly creepy clown-doll installation, augmented by several of her own retro-style paintings, is something anyone could connect to, as we all have childhood memories of the kind of subject matter she explores.

Roberts herself is a larger-than-life personality, with a booming voice and a sharp sense of humor, who described her work as "cheerful, yet kind of evil and sinister, too," and who touched us all with her request for a moment of silence in memory of Staff Sgt. Derek Farley, a local soldier who recently died while attempting to defuse a bomb in Afghanistan.

Another highlight of the talks was when Saint-Onge showed a two-minute video that shows the many steps in the painstaking process of mezzotint that she employs to make her exquisitely toned black-and-white prints.

Colligan, whose photographs chronicle in a minimalist way her very young daughter's open-heart surgery, still had difficulty addressing the topic in words - but the sight of the toddler scooting cheerfully around the gallery proved she is completely out of danger herself.

It was a fun event, and it's a fine show. The other artists in it are Ashley Norwood Cooper, Benjamin Entner, and RFW.

Note: As a member of the ACG Exhibits Committee, I was involved in the early discussions that led to the creation of this exhibition - and I contributed its title - but the ultimate decisions about which artists and what works to include were entirely the responsibility of the gallery director.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fence Select at Arts Center of the Capital Region ...

The Fence Show at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy has cemented a place in the annual schedule of many of the area's exhibiting artists, much like the better-known annual Mohawk-Hudson Regional. Though this regional has less prestige, and may draw from a narrower range of practitioners, recent years have demonstrated it is of equal quality to its older sister (which will have a Hyde Collection debut later this year).

Find this assessment surprising? That probably means you haven't seen this year's Fence Select, which was meticulously chosen and assembled by Tang Teaching Museum curator Ian Berry, and which you really must check out if you intend to keep up with who's who on the local art scene.

The list of participants includes names familiar from past editions of both exhibitions, such as Deborah Zlotsky, Ray Felix, and Abraham Ferraro, among others, along with new (to me, anyway) names such as Neil Fryzer, Admiral Donald "Duck" Wilson, and Niki Haynes. There are 53 works in all by 38 artists, representing a strikingly inclusive range of media from mezzotint to magic marker to modified exit sign, and it all holds together with deceptive ease.

The individual artists deserve credit for their fine works, but the real magic maker here is Berry, who was somehow able to cull from a jam-packed gallery full of submissions (as seen in the popular Fence Salon) a crisp combination that reflects the depth and breadth of this region's artists while expressing his sharp curatorial vision. Berry has organized numerous successful shows in his tenure at the Tang, and he also put together the first show in this space, titled Showroom, when the ACCR opened here around 10 years ago.

I will admit I didn't like that show, and my own taste sometimes clashes with Berry's - but his style has grown on me and, I daresay, he has grown a lot as a curator over these years, so I generally expect to like what he does now even if I don't necessarily like his specific choices of art. This is one place where art curating relates to film directing - some directors (Ang Lee, for example) can take almost any sort of story or genre and put it together in a film that you will love regardless of your taste in movies.

A skilled curator can take a concept about art and pull together work that will convince you of it via a fascinating journey through a gallery. Berry's introductory text to Fence Select, in which he invites the viewer "to craft open-ended narratives," describes his concept clumsily but well enough to make it clear. For me, the show delivered on Berry's promise, as a singular organism telling one large, ever-changing story of a vibrant community of artists who refuse to be defined by any style or movement, with boundless creativity and a crystalline sense of purpose.

One outstanding example, pictured above, is Ferraro's Mailable 2, a sculpture that was mailed in four parts as is, requiring some assembly and, more important, some thought to suss out. This piece does many things any ambitious work of art ought to try to do: it transforms its subject matter (in this case, I will take a leap and say the subject is shipping and assembly), makes masterfully innovative use of common materials, communicates visually, and doesn't take itself too seriously. These feats make the piece engaging, enlightening, provocative, and fun - the same characteristics I have come to expect from any show with the Berry touch.

Also on view at the ACCR through Sept. 3 is a weird and witty solo exhibition by Caitlin Foley titled Transmogrify.

Employing various alternative media, including some very nicely constructed artist's books, Foley plays with dualities - a tote that's a tent, sets of favorite or least-favorite sounds, a bird-bicycle that needs your assistance to pedal itself (shown below, with a real finger poking through it). Foley's vision is quirky, if not quite bizarre and, as seen here, is not fully formed - but that's okay for a first-year Syracuse University MFA candidate who shows this much promise.

... and other Troy shows

Just across the triangular Monument Square from the ACCR is the Clement Art Gallery, where curator Jon Gernon is developing a strong reputation for bringing together regional and national artists, particularly in the realm of realism. The current show there, represented by the card reproduced above, is perhaps his finest effort yet.

Allusion to Illusion: Contemporary Realism Today features five artists who are extremely skilled at rendering representational images in vividly colored, painstakingly textured detail. Two are from beyond the area, while three are local (including Gernon himself). Steve Carrelli, from Chicago, and Gernon work in egg tempera; Carolou Kristofik and Russell Gordon (the other locals), work in oil on linen; and Erin Gergen Halls, of Minnesota, works in colored pencil.

One of the fascinating aspects of so-called realism is how different each artist's interpretations end up appearing. A key facet of this exhibition is that its artists are very expressive - not mere imitators of the way things look - and highly individual in their modes of expression.

Kristofik's still lifes play with ordinary items and art objects of similar colors, then contrast them with another dominant color. For example, one of her pieces depicts a flock of yellow rubber ducks arranged in front of a deep blue wall. Others feature all red and black subjects, while another is a meditation in shades of paper-bag brown. All of them are masterfully composed and painted.

Gordon, who lives in Cambridge, N.Y., but has never shown inside the state until this exhibition, is the most commercially successful of the group. His extremely traditional still lifes in the Dutch style demonstrate why that is - but it is on the strength of his other paintings, particularly two marvelous trompe l'oeil pieces that appear to be presented back-side out, that he can hang a reputation of originality and true artistic significance.

Perhaps the most original stylist here is Carrelli, whose unframed temperas on linen mounted on panel fool the eye and tickle the brain with illusionistic paper envelopes as their picture planes. Like Gernon, Carrelli adds snatches of pencil sketches and other curious objects as elements in his constructions, using the smoothly-polished surface and tiny hatchings typical of egg tempera to marvelous effect.

Gergen Halls is the only artist in the show who clearly refers to photographs for her drawings, which places some of them in the special category of photo-realism (a style that had its heyday in the 1970s with artists such as Ralph Goings and Janet Fish). Others border on illustration, both in the sense that her technique is so impeccable as to be nearly flawless and that some of her imagery is less personally evocative than that of the other artists in the show. Still, it is visually sumptuous, whether depicting a friend taking a drink or an arrangement of scuffed containers of Tiger Balm.

Allusion to Illusion: Contemporary Realism Today remains on view through Aug. 26 - try not to miss it.

Tom Nelson View from Mt. House I oil on paper

Up the hill from Monument Square is the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer, a multi-use church and arts venue that operates in conjunction with RPI but is independently run by the Rensselaer Newman Foundation.

The current show there, titled The Big Picture: Expansive Landscapes includes four regional artists, of whom I am one. I also organized the exhibition (the fourth time I have done so at this venue), so I certainly won't be writing a review of it. But I break precedent here on Get Visual to recommend a show I'm in on behalf of the other artists - painters Gail Kort and Tom Nelson (one of whose works is pictured above), and photographer Barry Lobdell.

The Big Picture runs through Sept. 30, and is open every day - if you go, you may have to turn on the lights yourself, but it's worth the trouble. And, while I'm breaking the rules, there below is a tiny reproduction of the 8-foot photograph I've contributed to the show. It is the first and very probably last time I'll publish one of my own pictures here. Enjoy!

David Brickman Le Pilat, France 2007 photograph

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Kathleen Thum at Lake George Arts Project

It’s hot, it’s muggy – by all means, go swimming, go boating, go fishing! And if you happen to be doing any of those things in the Lake George area, you might also want to go to the Lake George Arts Project for Kathleen Thum’s marvelous exhibition, which is there through Aug. 13.

Thum is an inventive and intuitive painter whose work combines sinuous lines with seductive surfaces, weaving a visual story of energy and interconnectedness. Systems of tubes and grids are arrayed and layered in the 26 works on view, which comfortably fill the LGAP’s clean, well-lit space with their mostly understated colors and forms.

Working in a variety of media (graphite, colored pencil, ink, gouache, and acrylic) on materials such as vellum, Mylar, wood, and rice paper, Thum maintains a strong consistency throughout. A nice rhythm is established by the installation, particularly along one wall, where 12 almost square, small works on panel are arranged in a long line that alternates from light to dark, light to dark. These pieces, all very recent, refer to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with titles such as Spew, Green Gusher, Well Out, and Barriers and Spreads, but they do not shout about it.

Instead, the new works reiterate themes from the show’s earlier pieces (all dated 2008), creating the odd sensation that Thum was already on this track years before the pipes broke, and it was just natural for her to continue with it after. Additional larger paintings (including the one shown at right) expand on the dripping oil-rig theme while maintaining continuity with Thum’s earlier tropes using tubular systems and gridded matrices.

In an artist’s statement, Thum goes on at length about the body’s cells, nerves, and skin as the model for her searchings, but I didn’t get that so much from looking at the paintings and drawings; they seem rather mechanical to me, more like a factory’s works than an organic system’s. This merely underscores that she’s headed in the right direction now that she identifies these images with human-made systems rather than the system inside a human.

The paintings are quite lovely, with very subtle passages of color and texture that draw the viewer in to look as closely as possible, and then challenge you to resist the temptation to touch the surfaces. These range from flat to silky to shiny, and often incorporate intriguing translucencies, whether through the use of frosted Mylar or through drawn and painted overlays. The largest pieces are pinned directly to the wall, but float slightly away from it, adding their slight cast shadows to the sense of layering.

Those works, while successful, are not as uncommon-looking as the more recent pieces on paper mounted to panel, where Thum makes maximum use of the white areas around her colored coils to manipulate the picture plane more directly. Two medium-sized recent pieces, titled Scribble and Plait, that accomplish this particularly well were hung together in a stack and emerged as my favorites from the show. Black Gold, another outstanding piece of the same size (22 by 30 inches), takes a different tack, filling the page with rows of brightly striped pipes and ominous dark puffs to generate an uncomfortably pretty tension.

This is the first local solo exhibition by Thum, who earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is a visiting professor at Skidmore College. I hope there will be more to come.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Frank Giorgini at Broderick Fine Art Gallery

The ceramic tile maker Frank Giorgini is equal parts naturalist, artist, and alchemist. These three identities are given full expression in his current installation at the Broderick Fine Art Gallery (upstairs at Ruby's Hotel) in Freehold, N.Y., which he owns with partner Ana Sporer, the considerably talented chef of the restaurant under the gallery.

GRACKLE: Birds of Clay features a cycle of twelve 19-inch-square glazed and raku-fired clay panels, augmented by four slightly smaller test pieces, plus 16 much smaller tests on display in a small side room, providing viewers with the simultaneous experience of amazement at the unique works and enlightenment as to Giorgini's process. A longtime workshop instructor, Giorgini has published books and CDs on ceramic techniques, so even in a personal exhibition he can't resist the opportunity to educate.

Fortunately, this does nothing to limit the immediacy and mystery of these graphic and highly textural works, which were inspired by a morning-coffee revelation as Giorgini watched a group of the underappreciated crow-like birds as they established a pecking order around his yard feeder. Impressed by both their attitude and their iridescence, Giorgini instantly realized he had an ideal subject to explore with the special qualities of his chosen medium.

Known for large-scale tile installations he's created for public spaces in New York City, as well as for an extensive line of handmade African-style udu drums (which earned him the distinction of being the only living artist represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's musical instrument collection), Giorgini has always drawn from nature for his subject matter, often depicting frogs and lizards, as well as a variety of birds, on his tiles and drums. The grackles, therefore, make for a smooth continuation of his artistic output. This series, however, takes on new directions in terms of the scale of the individual tiles (he refers to them as plaques), the exaggerated graphism of their designs, and the extension of the subject into a cycle of related images and ideas.

All these elements combine as a great step forward for Giorgini the artist - but the alchemist isn't far behind, as the test tiles and photos with text explaining the firing process attest. Though it is possible, indeed common, for molded tiles such as these to be pressed out in editions, the vagaries of the glazing and firing guarantee individuality to every one, usually in the form of happy surprises generated by heat, smoke, and chemicals.

It's fun to observe and contrast the impressive control Giorgini has over his medium and his acceptance of the fact that, ultimately, it will not be controlled - just like those feisty birds in his yard.

GRACKLE Birds of Clay opened Friday, July 31, and will remain on view into September.

The BFA Gallery is open during Ruby’s dining hours: Thurs 5-9, Friday 5-10, Saturday 5-10; and by appointment: 518-634-7790.