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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

African American Abstract Masters at Opalka Gallery

I went to see African American Abstract Masters at The Sage Colleges' Opalka Gallery expecting a history lesson - and I got one - but I was delighted to find that the history this show covers goes all the way to the present.

The Opalka has presented important shows of AbEx artists throughout its tenure, one of which was a solo a few years ago by Frank Wimberley, who has two pieces in this exhibition (including the one shown at right). That kind of continuity and adherence to a mission is nice to see in a college gallery, and we're lucky to receive the benefits of Gallery Director Jim Richard Wilson's deep and long-term interest in this vital segment of American painting.

African American Abstract Masters was curated by Mary Anne Rose and organized by Anita Shapolsky Gallery and Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, both of which showed the work last spring in New York City. The current installment of Rose's choices features 14 artists, nine of whom are represented by two works each; of the rest, one has three pieces and four have just one in the show, making a total of 25 pieces dating from 1949 to 2009.

The broad time frame of the works included, and the many pairings (most of which bridge decades), affords wonderful opportunities to compare and contrast the evolution of painting styles, both in general and by individual artists. For example, Ed Clark's two pieces are dated 1978 and 2009 (the latter is shown at the top of this post), yet they are of similar scale, share the same medium (acrylic), and are both made with sweeping strokes of a pushbroom-sized brush. Even so, each has the feel of its particular time.

Conversely, Joe Overstreet's two paintings, also 30 years apart, could have been made by two different artists - the one from 1960 is loopily colorful and energetic, while the one from 1990 is in black and white and has strictly constructed geometry. Yet Overstreet can't be accused of inconsistency - each of these paintings ranks among the strongest pieces in the show.

Not all the work in the show is purely abstract. The earliest piece, Harlan Jackson's Mask No. II (from 1949; shown above at left), has the primitive art and rituals of Haiti as a source, and is properly placed in time at the apex of American painting's transition from Surrealism and Cubism into Abstract Expressionism. It reminded me of work from the same period by Jackson Pollock, before he launched into the drips, and truly reflects the roots of the AbEx movement.

Other transitional work in the show includes the Theosophistic 1953 Composition by Thomas Sills and Betty Blayton's two pieces, Forced Right (from 1975; shown at the bottom of this post) and Riot (from 1967), which have figurative references. Blayton is one of just two women in the show - hardly surprising, considering the time and context. While it was surely pretty difficult to make it as a black artist in the '50s and '60s, it was equally tough to make it as a woman painter in the macho world of Abstract Expressionists - so for a black woman it had to be nearly impossible.

The other woman, Alma Thomas, is represented by a watercolor, one of the few works on paper in the show. Hers is a muscular but muted study in red and black that has a nice dialogue going with a similarly sized piece opposite it that is one of the show's unqualified gems. Titled Study in Black and White, this gouache on paper is by Sam Middleton - but it could just as easily be by one of his far more famous contemporaries (say Motherwell or Gottlieb). No wonder it is part of the curator's personal collection.

Other notable works in the show include an outstanding Norman Lewis painting (shown above at right); the two Wimberleys (also about 30 years apart and providing a thought-provoking contrast); and the only print in the show, a sweet piece by the genius lithographer Robert Blackburn titled Faux Pas.

It's not too late to see African American Abstract Masters, but don't delay - the show ends on Dec. 12.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Also involving compelling abstract art, an exhibition at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery by Creighton Michael will have its artist's reception as part of the 1st Friday events for December (from 5 - 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 3). Michael, who will speak in nearby St. Joseph Auditorium on Friday at 7 p.m., uses three-dimensional "marks" to create works that range from wall-mounted squares of small objects to a room-sized installation - all of which he refers to as drawings.

Tangible Marking: The Dimensional Drawings of Creighton Michael opened on Nov. 14 and will continue through Jan. 23, when a special music performance related to the show will take place in the gallery.

For more 1st Friday information, click here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

2010 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region at The Hyde Collection

There’s no way I could write an objective review of the 2010 edition of Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region, held this year for the first time at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls. I didn’t enter the show – which would immediately disqualify me from writing about it at all – but the 72 accepted artists include my studio mate, several people I represent in a corporate rental service, at least a dozen personal friends and acquaintances, a couple of professors at the college I attend, and even an ex-girlfriend.

So, please don’t expect me to offer a full critical assessment of this year’s art and artists. But – no worries – there’s still plenty to say about the show.

First, the new venue. No doubt there are people who were not pleased when this longstanding staple of the annual Capital Region exhibition circuit added a spot in its three-year rotation at the feet of the Adirondacks. That would mean a lot more travel for many of the people involved (49 hail from Albany, Rensselaer, and Schenectady counties or points south), and possibly smaller audiences than the show would draw at its Albany locations (the University Art Museum and the Albany Institute of History & Art). But I was thrilled, for a number of reasons, when I heard that the Hyde had been named as the new third wheel (replacing the Schenectady Museum, which changed its mission several years ago to showing only scientific exhibits).

The Hyde has a venerable collection, features plenty of lovely exhibition space, and is run by a team of consummate professionals – making it an ideal setting for the Regional. Bringing the show north seemed likely to attract new artists, and apparently it did, as this year set a record with almost 1,500 entries by 340 artists (though, curiously, only one of those accepted is actually from Glens Falls); it also revives the memory of the Adirondack Regional, a Hyde tradition that was dropped around 20 years ago. And it’s a great decision for the Hyde itself to take this opportunity to reopen its doors to the legion of local fine artists who will now refer to it as “their” museum.

So, how has it worked out this time? While there are a number of North Country artists in the show (some of whom have been in it before), the majority of included names are still rather familiar. This year’s juror, Charles Desmarais of the Brooklyn Museum, shows no particularly bizarre taste; the eclecticism of his choices appropriately represents both the region and the art world as a whole. Desmarais did choose to include more artists than usual, and in most cases just one work by each (somewhat like Ivan Karp, who selected 72 works by 71 artists for the 2005 show at the Albany Institute). This makes for a very broad but not very deep viewing experience.

Prize-wise, the Hyde has done reasonably well. In contrast to the 2008 Regional, which gave just six cash awards totaling $1,550, this year nine artists received a total of $2,450 in cash prizes (though the University Art Museum did better last year, distributing just under $4,000 in cash prizes to 12 artists). That's in addition to purchase prizes from the three sponsoring institutions and five gift certificates that were also awarded. As always, a nicely printed color catalog accompanies the show; it contains an informative introduction by Hyde Executive Director David Setford and an essay by the juror.

Desmarais begins his essay by saying "Modern Life is a negotiation between what things are and what they first appear to be." He then goes on to invoke the confusing and contradictory TV images of our current era, and then to either flatter or insult us (you decide) by pointing out that "artists, practiced liars that they are, tend to be great at sorting this stuff out." A purposely provocative introduction to a show that is, essentially, a snapshot of the concerns and sensibilities that our best local artists – and our culture as a whole – hold dear.

I do have a complaint or two about the show. One is its breadth – a strength to some, I think so much inclusion tends to place too sharp a focus on the curator's choices and not enough on the artists'. As a viewer, I would always rather see larger bodies of work by each artist in a group show so that I can better understand the whole of what that artist may be trying to say. Instead, when a curator (or juror) creates sweeping cross sections of scores of artists' individual works, it becomes too general a statement.

On the plus side, that general statement is precisely what many people expect the Regional to provide. Also a plus in this specific case is the arrangement of the installation, where chromatic and thematic groupings form a coherency that would otherwise be lacking in such a survey. It does make for a handsome appearance and some fun associations.

My other complaint must fall on the shoulders of the artists – and that is that a fairly thick slice of the work in this show is getting pretty stale. Too many pieces in this selection are dated 2008 or before and, as is no surprise with that being the case, I've already seen much of it (and so, presumably, have a lot of other art fans). C'mon people! It'll be 2011 by the time this show comes down – if you haven't got something good from the last two years, then maybe you shouldn't submit.

Freshness aside, the quality of the work in this Regional is almost universally high – the juror seems to have hit only a few wrong notes, and those he selected for prizes do seem to stand out (including the work reproduced with this post).

In addition, I would like to name a couple of pieces that were not singled out by the juror, but that might have been: Anne Diggory's luminous hybrid media piece titled let there be white and Joel Griffith's chilly, dusky acrylic painting titled House on West Kerley's Corners are both wonderful examples of the continuing power of traditional subjects (landscape and still life) to resonate. Another fine piece, titled Reading Room, by Regional stalwart Allen Bryan, shows what digital photography can do without losing the qualities of film photography.

And, speaking of photography, it is a pleasure to note that, 20 years after this competition ceased to bar photography from its submissions, film- and digitally-based media again make up a substantial portion of the work chosen (33 out of 93), including several prize winners.

Rating: Recommended

The 2010 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region exhibition continues through Jan. 2, 2011. An annex show of 14 additional works selected by the juror (and including nine artists not in the Hyde show) was on view at the nearby Tom Myott Gallery in the Shirt Factory but it closed shortly before my visit. Instead, I found a beautiful solo show by Saratoga Springs artist Regis Brodie that just opened there; it is well worth a visit.

Works of art, in order from top of post:

Jane Bloodgood-Abrams Presence, 2010 Oil on panel 24 x 24 in. The Hyde Collection Purchase Award

Deborah Zlotsky Piquance, 2009 Powdered graphite on vellum 40 x 25 in. Spiral Design Studio, LLC $250 Juror’s Award

Peter Crabtree Carter Campbell, 2008 Photograph 17 x 22 in. Grindle Custom Framing $100 gift certificate

John Hampshire Labyrinth 229, 2009 Permanent marker on panel 24 x 48 in. University at Albany Purchase Award

Gina Occhiogrosso Homework (Phase 1), 2008 Dollhouse with furniture, DVD player, lights 36 x 48 x 36 in. Maryann Bell $500 Juror’s Award

William Jaeger Along Bernard’s Wharf and Railroad, 2007 Photograph, inkjet print 22 x 29 in. NBT Bank $250 Juror’s Award

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Battlesight at the ACCR

It's as though the International Center of Photography opened a branch in Troy. The exhibition Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers is that good, and that important.

Curated by Timothy Cahill, director of the Center for Documentary Arts at The Sage Colleges, and hosted by the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, Battlesight presents the work of three very diverse photographers who share a common subject: War. Cahill introduces the show by explaining that we live in a time in which there are few mass-media outlets for such images, as opposed to the Vietnam era, when the war was brought into everyone's living room by magazines such as Look and Life and by the evening news on TV.

His point is that we are disturbingly unconnected today to the devastation being wrought in our names with trillions of our dollars, and that this represents a culture out of balance. Aside from the obvious question of whether the work of these (or any) photographers being shown in an art gallery (or anywhere else) can change that balance, one must acknowledge that our time is nowhere near as innocent as the '60s started out, and that people these days are more and more difficult to reach - that is, to move emotionally - with pictures (or anything else).

But it's certainly worth trying. And these three - if nothing else - represent a deep commitment to doing that without fear, year after year. Cheryl Diaz Meyer, Balasz Gardi, and Teru Kuwayama are excellent photographers and have each won many well-deserved awards. By bringing them together, Cahill has created a different context for their work than you would find in a book or magazine - and that is part of the reason this show matters.

Rather than comment on the content of the work, which most viewers will have no trouble understanding and interpreting on their own (and which is evident in the examples shown with this post), I'd like to point out some of the less obvious aspects of the exhibition and its trio of participants.

First, there are three distinct sensibilities at play here. Diaz Meyer, who won a Pulitzer Prize while working for The Dallas Morning News, is the traditional "objective" reporter, taking relatively uninflected pictures and putting them together to tell a journalistic story. Gardi, a Hungarian freelancer, comes from the grand European tradition of humanistic photography made popular by the Magnum agency; his work is clearly meant to be allegorical. Kuwayama, a graduate of the University at Albany, uses equipment and techniques more generally associated with artistic photography, and fulfills that promise by offering works that lean toward self-expression.

The statements made by each photographer support these distinctions. Diaz Meyer's emphasizes courage (a totally straight-ahead American take on reporters and soldiers doing their duty); Gardi's emphasizes the desperation of his marginalized subjects (who are presented as deeply - and universally - human); and Kuwayama's emphasizes his own various journeys, projects, and ongoing exploration (essentially casting him as the traveling seeker of meaning).

Cahill, as curator, is the fourth wheel - his selection, choice of print size and framing design, and overall installation of the exhibition add up to a uniquely orchestrated experience of this particular set of sensibilities. It is (I believe) his first attempt at organizing such an exhibit and, while not perfect, it is quite a successful effort. The viewer is taken on a ride into difficult territory and emerges at the end still whole yet subtly, perhaps imperceptibly - but definitely - changed.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers is on view through Dec. 19. There will be a second reception for the show during this Friday's (Nov. 26) Troy Night Out from 5 - 9 p.m.

Caption information, in order from top of post:

Balazs Gardi - An Afghan man holds a wounded boy in front of a house in Yaka China village, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, East Afghanistan, October 20, 2007. The boy received several shrapnel wounds from a rocket as a U.S. air strike targeted a suspected insurgent position in a nearby house the previous night. The air strike killed five other civilians and injured at least seven villagers including children.

Teru Kuwayama - An ethnic Kyrgyz horseman, carrying an Afghan flag, patrols the Afghan border with Tajikistan. Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan 2005

Teru Kuwayama - The ruins of Kabul. Following the retreat of the Soviet Army, internecine fighting between rival mujahideen factions leveled the city and displaced millions. 2002

Cheryl Diaz Meyer - Mini Bus - Corpses of children lay in a pool of blood in a minibus at an intersection near Hatif Haiyawi, an area loyal to Saddam Hussein, during the Second Tank Battalion's advance on the outskirts of Baghdad. Controlling civilian movement left numerous deaths as Marines responded to suicide bombers, soldiers posing as civilians and other ambush tactics. April 5, 2003

Balazs Gardi - U.S. soldier collapses in exhaustion during Operation Rock Avalanche, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, East Afghanistan, October 25, 2007.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer - Dust Storm - Marine Staff Sergeant Brian Flaherty of New York, Delta Company of the Second Tank Battalion, disconnects a fuel bladder from a tank as a dust storm rages in Southern Iraq. The move north toward Baghdad was one of the most aggressive tank road marches in Marine history. March 25, 2003.

Also of note: Two other important exhibitions of photography are on view in Troy, and both will be part of the Troy Night Out festivities: Autobiography, featuring the work of Nicholas Walster and Susan Bartoldus, has been extended by the Photography Center of the Capital District through the weekend; and Iceland Landscapes by Michael Marston will have its artist's reception on Friday at Fulton Street Gallery (it runs through Dec. 4). I recommend both.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Immodest Proposal

When the city of Albany announced it would eliminate its annual budget of $350,000 for local arts funding, I sighed - and then got busy soliciting donations for my favorite ex-beneficiaries of the city's largesse. And when the New York State Museum announced it would be closed on Sundays beginning at the first of the year, I thought, "That sucks, but it was great while it lasted."

These cuts are the inevitable result of an economy in a tailspin and a culture that has always undervalued the arts and education. Yet I see hope, and it is exemplified by an existing community-based organization that is thriving right in front of our eyes: The Albany Public Library.

Funded as an independent tax district that the voters approved in a special referendum, the library system has blossomed all over the city with new and renovated branches that look beautiful and are always buzzing with activity. They are inviting, well stocked, high-tech, low-carbon edifices to the fact that Albanians DO care about culture and education, and are willing to pay to make it available to all citizens.

Why can't we do the same for Albany arts funding? The city has about 90,000 residents, which translates to about 35,000 households - so, for just $10 per household, that $350,000 can be replaced. I'm not sure how it's done (Dennis, Elissa, Holly - any advice?), but I think it's worth a try.

The big question remains: Would the city's voters approve a new tax for the arts, just as they did for the library? If so, we would suddenly look like the most enlightened community in the U.S. And we could look forward to seeing some pretty spiffy new arts centers, too.

Let's do it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Imaged Word at Albany Airport Gallery

For more than 10 years now, the Albany International Airport Gallery has been providing complex art-viewing experiences for travelers and those who await them; the current show there, titled The Imaged Word, continues that tradition by combining the work of 11 rather diverse artists whose themes relate directly or indirectly to literature.

Far more than a show of book artists (though a few of those included do clearly fit that description), The Imaged Word explores relationships between visual art and writing from many different angles. There are pieces that are almost completely formal, such as Fawn Potash's lovingly rendered black-and-white photographs of old books (one shown below at left), and those that are almost completely conceptual, such as Barbara Todd's ethereally poetic musings on simple stones and the words of Paul Celan.

The large, rambling gallery space upstairs at the airport is well suited to such an inclusive presentation, and its many glass partitions are put to good use in placing some of the abundant text that is included. While I tend to object automatically to art exhibitions that require people to stand and do a lot of reading, in this case it is both totally appropriate and, as many of the gallery's visitors are there expressly to kill time in a valuable way, largely welcome. Still, most of the art speaks volumes with or without the supplemental intellectual rigor.

One of the exhibition's most striking works, an inventive and suggestive wooden sculpture by William Ransom, is perhaps the least directly connected to writing, though it is accompanied by a passage from a T.C. Boyle story. Made from two long, interlocked branches of a tree and their respective sections of trunk, Hold Back Hold Forth (shown at top of post) evokes folk-art traditions while transforming its materials into a sort of two-seater merry-go-round. Like Boyle's writing (which I've always loved), it has a wry sense of humor combined with a feeling of impending doom.

The signature piece in the show is a hall-of-mirrors trick performed by Aaron Stephan, who has built a room-sized arch of venerable volumes and then multiplied it as far as the eye can see (shown at right). His installation is tucked into a corner of the gallery where its unfinished exterior suggests construction under way. I found this design detrimental to the pristine appearance of the rest of the gallery - but perhaps a finished exterior would have provided less of a surprise in the discovery of what it conceals.

Another installation, by Paul Katz, presents an excruciatingly detailed diorama of objects and paintings, all of them covered with obsessively delineated patterns of words from William Wordsworth's epic poem The Prelude (shown at bottom of post). It is a powerful piece in scope and scale, both humbling and inspiring in its representation of artistic diligence, and I think the most emblematic of the show's core theme of the interaction and inspiration between expressive media.

Also deeply imbedded in process are three intriguing small sculptures by Amy Podmore. One was directly inspired by a certain poem a friend of hers had written; for this exhibition, that person was then asked to create new poems in response to Podmore's other two works. This back-and-forth relationship can be quite common in the daily life of dedicated artists, but it rarely gets presented to the public as such, and so is a special addition to this collection.

Painter Gabe Brown includes two connected bodies of work in the show. Her colorful and somewhat fantastic (but modestly sized) paintings are hung in a tight group above a vitrine full of word-stuffed sketchbooks that provide their keys. Across the room, nearly countless blank books of varying size have been filled by Brown with sinuously undulating black lines of ink - one example of the artist-book mode that the show embraces.

In two other examples, Robert The and Scott McCarney have sliced their books into new, three-dimensional forms. McCarney's Last Lines of Poetry, made from one stripped volume, hangs above the gallery's entry stairway like a chandelier. The has modified two books (one shown above at left) by precisely excising the shapes of a scorpion and a scarab beetle from their spines, coolly upending our childhood recollections of playful pop-ups.

The other artists in the show, Fern Apfel (OK, what are the odds of having both a Fawn and Fern in the same show?) and Gayle Johnson have made deftly drawn and colored portraits of beloved books - Johnson's are campy pulp covers (one shown at right), while Apfel's are anonymous groupings that are mainly about color and patina.

The Imaged Word continues through Feb. 27, 2011, and is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Rating: Recommended