Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Friday, April 29, 2011

Graphic Design - Get the Message! at AIHA

Most of us have tried to figure out where you draw the line between fine art and commercial art. My own favorite answer to that slippery question is that it is entirely a matter of intent (not, as some would have it, a matter of quality).

This sentiment is mirrored by the opening quote of the wonderful exhibition Graphic Design - Get the Message! at the Albany Institute of History & Art (through June 12), which ponders that and more while making great use of the Institute's permanent collection and other local resources to present a broad swath of commercial design by talented artists over several centuries.

Organized into thematic sections (Foundations, Graphic Design and Commerce, Political and Social Messages, and The Creative Process), Get the Message! sprawls through four galleries and features seemingly countless original examples of printed matter in two and three dimensions, augmented by electronic, digital, and multi-media material - an appropriately dense barrage that captures so much of our overloaded everyday visual experience.

After an introductory room that touches on the range of themes with examples as intriguing and diverse as war propaganda posters and a powder-blue Tiffany box, the show delves into history with a large display of old-fashioned letterpress equipment and 19th-century broadsides that represent the birth of modern graphic style.

This room also holds a distracting installation of photographs and pulp bales illustrating the papermaking process as practiced today by key exhibition sponsor Mohawk Fine Papers. While it is a blessing to a struggling museum (is there any other kind these days?) to have such prominent corporate underwriting, I must say it's a shame to see it come at this sort of price.

The next, largest gallery puts out the really colorful stuff we readily think of as showcasing the classic elements of graphic design - illustration and typography - in the form of bright and clever posters from the past hundred or so years (examples shown at the top of this post, and above at left).

It could be argued that the 20th century, with its political causes, social unrest, and explosion of commercial advertising, was the golden age of graphic design, and this room shows why. Whether selling war bonds, popular entertainment, educational toys, or soap, the artists behind these designs knew how to get our attention and make a lasting impression.

I had the company of an old friend and longtime graphic designer on this visit, and it was a pleasure to watch how he viewed the work in this section - moving in close and often marveling at the fine-art techniques, such as charcoal drawing and oil painting, that were employed in the service of these pitches. He frequently commented with amazement at the elaborate lettering that these pre-computer artists routinely hand-painted - a nearly lost art today.

For me, it was the simplest designs that held up the best. One artist featured prominently throughout the exhibition is Woody Pirtle, an internationally-known designer active in the Hudson Valley, whose politically-charged posters use color, shape, type, and iconic images in effortless concert to illuminate, anger, or amuse (example shown above at right).

Pirtle is among several top creators - all with local connections - featured in the last section of the show (Creative Process). The others are illustrators Dahl Taylor and William Westwood; design firms Vicarious Visions and Spiral Design; and early 20th-century designers Will H. Low and Hajo Christoph. All are of the highest quality in the business and have found significant commercial success - who knew the Capital Region was such a hotbed of creative design?

The Creative Process section has the expected preparatory sketches and such, but it also shows elements of the commercial design world not typically seen outside its own confines - promotional pieces in expensively elaborate detail that design firms use to give clients an idea of what they can do. Here, Spiral Design is the mind-blower, and it's here that I think the line gets crossed back over into fine art - because, in this case, the client is the artist, and the intention is to show the artist's skill. It's some pretty amazing stuff, from all the participants, and an impressive capstone to the show's historical lead-in.

Hajo, as he was known, is also featured in a separate exhibition one floor up from Get the Message! that details his personal journey from Berlin to Castleton, where he forged a career designing witty and sophisticated packaging for many local manufacturers (example shown at the bottom of this post). There are abundant examples of Hajo's extraordinary work in both exhibitions, including delightful personal art in watercolor, oils, gouache, and other media.

By the way - here's the quote that starts the exhibition, from Paul Rand (world-famous designer of iconic logos for firms such as IBM, ABC and UPS):

Design is the method of putting form and content together.
Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition.
Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated.

Food for thought, no?

Rating: Highly Recommended

Note: Throughout the run of Graphic Design - Get the Message!, there has been a series of related lectures and events. The next two are coming soon - at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 6 (in conjunction with First Friday), illustrators Dahl Taylor and William Westwood will present; and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 8, Ellen Lupton, the author of Thinking with Type and other design guides, will address the topic How to Do Things with Typography: Introduction to an Art.

Further on, at 2 p.m. on May 22, graphic designer, typographer and calligrapher Paul Shaw will speak and sign his latest book, Helvetica and the New York Subway System; and at 6 p.m. on June 3, Laura Shore will speak on the topic The Truth About Paper.

All the events are free.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A very brief visit to New York City

Museum of Modern Art patrons view a black painting by Ad Reinhart at Abstract Expressionist New York

It had been a long time, but I finally made it to New York City last weekend, partly to catch the AbEx show at the Museum of Modern Art before it ends (which will happen on April 26).

Formally titled Abstract Expressionist New York, the show occupies several large galleries in the painting section of the museum and is made entirely from MoMA's permanent collection.

What struck me most on this rainy Saturday was how intensely crowded the museum was. It took 20 minutes just to check bags and jackets, and then the process of viewing the art became a subtle of battle of wills, wits, and patience. I really felt bad for the guards, who had to somehow try to keep watch over this priceless art, most of it unprotected by any covering or barriers, as the hordes rushed and bumped about.

Still, it was possible to find short intervals of peace - even joy - while viewing the incredible wealth of paintings, sculptures, and photographs that are included in the show. Among my best moments on this visit was the discovery of Robert Motherwell's small 1941 gem Little Spanish Prison (shown at right), a painting I don't recall having seen before, possibly because it languished in the museum's storage (though that's just a guess).

Another epiphany came from the mesmerizing effect a certain purple, brown and blue Mark Rothko painting had on me - it literally caused a sort of vertigo, and I found it almost impossible to tear myself away from it. Obviously, the painter had honed his craft to the point that he knew exactly how to use color, texture, and composition to enter the brain via the eye and create this intensely meditative experience. Astonishing.

It was gratifying to see a smaller room filled with wonderful black-and-white photographs as part of this exhibition; most of them, naturally, are by Aaron Siskind, whose supremely silvery prints could make you pretty nostalgic for the old darkroom technology. Also represented here in relative abundance are Harry Callahan and Minor White, while most of the rest of the photos shown are one-offs by the likes of Walter Chappell, Fred Sommer, and - surprisingly - Nathan Lyons.

Speaking of photography, another current show at the museum offers a historical survey of the medium seen through the eyes of women. Not being much in the mood for a ponderous lesson, I jumped ahead and then homed in on my favorite of the bunch: Helen Levitt, represented by a glorious set of 14 color prints from the '70s and '80s (one is shown at left).

Levitt's happy eye never fails to delight, and her uninflected observations of life in the streets of the city are unparalleled. Adding to my bemused amusement was the thought that many young viewers of this work may very well be seeing a phone booth in use for the first time in their lives.

Earlier the same day, my constant companion and I were drawn into a brawny and spare display of sculptures by Tom Doyle at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Chelsea (through April 30). The calligraphically gestural works in rough-hewn wood and colored bronze (one is shown below) resonated in my memory later, in a room at the Modern dominated by Franz Kline paintings and David Smith sculptures.

Doyle's work would have provided perfect company to those two, and there would have been room for one or two of them. Ah, well, wrong generation - but, thank goodness, it seems Abstract Expressionist New York is still alive and kicking.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In Memoriam: Nadia "Trink" Trinkala

A shining light of the Capital Region art scene was extinguished on Thursday, April 8, when Nadia “Trink” Trinkala died suddenly on Peebles Island in Waterford. She was 44 years old.

Nadia (pronounced Nay-dee-ah) was known to all gallery-goers as a smiling free spirit with fantastic taste in clothes and an extremely generous personal warmth that touched all who came in contact with her. A recent Times Union article described Trinkala as “a painter and jewelry designer, [who] was part of the artistic resurgence of Troy when she opened a gallery, design and furniture business on River Street in 2004.”

But Trink’s story didn’t end or begin there. After a career as a travel agent, and then selling vintage furnishings in Los Angeles, Trink returned to the Capital Region in 1997; in 2002 she opened a gallery in Cohoes that had a big impact on that city and on the lives of some of the artists involved.

Co-directors Tom D’Ambrose and Bob Gullie helped put on a show at Trink Gallery, titled Visions and Vibrations: The Visual Art of Musicians, that included work by already famous creators such as George Frayne (Commander Cody) and Martin Benjamin, as well as kick-starting the visual-art careers of such musical talents as Michael Eck, Chip Fasciana, and Sergio Sericolo, all of whom have gone on to significant local and regional recognition.

According to D’Ambrose, the gallery’s grand opening drew 1,000 people and caused traffic to back up along Remsen Street. He adds: Nadia had the most beautiful creative spirit of anyone I have ever known ... . She inspired creativity in a countless number of people in upstate New York and New York City, where she had been living for the past few years in DUMBO. Nadia rocked every city she had a gallery in ... Cohoes, Troy, and Hudson. The last time I spoke to her she wanted me to join her in a project that I feel had the potential to bring her beautiful creative spirit to a global stage. She was committed to changing the world through art and music. The world has lost its brightest supernova … .

Later, Trink (the furniture store) moved to Troy, adding a gallery called CJ Gallery at Trink, which showed the work of Wren Panzella, Piper Brown, Christopher Murray and others. D’Ambrose relates a highlight of that experience, when Kid Rock bought two Panzella paintings from the gallery on Labor Day Weekend. (That’s a Panzella painting in the photo of Trink at the top of this post, and one of her own works at right, above.)

A later incarnation of the furniture store and gallery had a brief tenure in Hudson, after which, according to the Times Union obituary, “Nadia … turned her energies toward her natural calling in life - to help others through her compassion and creativity. She began working with the disabled at ARC, Center for Disability Services, Carriage House, Living Resources, and Questar. Her honest spirit, which saw the person as opposed to the disability, led her to reach people in remarkable ways.”

She went on to seek certification in the field of Creative Arts & Music Therapy at The New School in New York and had recently been researching a practical and philosophic framework around the idea of "The Human Citizen." A LinkedIn page listed her occupation as “community enhancement.” She will be greatly missed.

Note: A memorial service for Nadia Trinkala has been scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at Cohoes Music Hall. For more information on this and other initiatives in Trink's memory, click here.