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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Victoria Palermo: RAUM at John Davis Gallery (and other Hudson shows)

cant and wont - platinum cured silicone rubber

Here's a heads-up for serious followers of contemporary art: There's less than a week left to see the exhibition Victoria Palermo: RAUM at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, and you don't want to miss it. If Palermo is new to you, this is as good a time as any to start following her work; or if, like me, you've followed her career for decades, you will be deeply gratified to see this amazing new work.

Palermo (no relation to Blinky), has always worked intimately with color - painted onto found sticks, poured onto paper from a nail-polish bottle, printed in patterns like wallpaper or, in this case, infused into the jellylike body of sheets of pure silicone rubber. Equally, Palermo works with form - her work relates to abstract approaches, but never completely leaves the referential realm - and she is as much a designer as she is an artist. In other words, she has always carefully constructed her pieces, even though there is also a degree of expressive freedom in them.

more or less
The earliest pieces I know of hers verged on expressionism; this new work, instead, pulls from the purity of Modernist architecture to develop miniature worlds of space and light - and, of course, color. Her nine freestanding works in this show are all on the scale of a model, and are presented near eye level on pristine stands crafted of white panels set on top of galvanized steel legs.

This elevated point of view is effective, helping us to get in close and experience the little spaces from inside and out. Moving around them, their varying degrees of transparency and translucency create ever-changing blends of color. One can also imagine that different lighting, especially the cycle of natural light through a day, would add to this engaging process.

Like many artists today, Palermo gives her works curious titles that, like the pieces themselves, hover between the literal and the fantastic, such as no beginning no middle no end, and cant and wont (apostrophes purposely missing). Some of the titles are more playful, as are some of the pieces they label, like bookish, plaidish, and in candyland. Speaking of candy, this work tantalizes the sense of taste by closely resembling jelly candies (I'm waiting for one to be titled Turkish delight); forget the nearly irresistible temptation to touch these gooey, wiggly structures - you'll struggle with the temptation to take a bite.

domino theory
In addition to the sculptures, Palermo has created a number of relief pieces in the same material that are mounted in frames under glass, an effective and less expensive alternative approach that retains the physical fascination of the other work but lacks the changeability of the full-round pieces (one is shown at left); the show also includes a few acrylics on paper that read more or less as sketches of architectural ideas related to the sculptures.

Take note: Victoria Palermo: RAUM ends on Sunday, Dec. 4. The gallery is open Thursday to Monday from noon to 5 p.m.

Rating: Must See

Also showing in Hudson (through Dec. 11) is a five-woman collection playfully dubbed Hudson River School of Women at Carrie Haddad Gallery. Haddad's annual landscape show has no surprises, but this is a worthy showcase of regular gallery artists who are all very good painters of landscape themes (the tongue-in-cheek title does not announce any real school here).

Jane Bloodgood-Abrams (an untitled piece of hers is shown at right) comes closest to the Hudson River School style, in that she favors mystical skies and sunsets; her larger paintings are rather misty (which may bother others like me who don't see as clearly as they used to), while the smaller ones virtually glow from within.

Juliet Teng works in a style that recalls the great American painter Wolf Kahn; like his, her treed landscapes are recognizable but stretch the boundaries of natural color to interesting places (a piece of hers is shown below). Similarly, Tracy Helgeson sometimes reverses color from sky to ground to trees, but Helgeson's palette is narrower than Teng's, relying largely on neon pinks and reds, where Teng ranges through the whole spectrum.

Perhaps the most intriguing of this group is Laura Von Rosk, whose style over the years remains consistent, but who grows subtly stronger over time (or else I am growing subtly more receptive to her style over time). These small, intensely hued and highly polished works on panel play a little game with viewers, by representing sweet, folk-artish fantasy landscapes in all seasons, but always clearly referencing strong female forms in mounds and V-shapes. Also represented in the show, by just two large, textured paintings of birches, is Susan Stillman.

Rating: Recommended
Pink Trees - oil on canvas by Juliet Teng

Another fine show in Hudson is a retrospective of works on paper by D. Jack Solomon at the Hudson Opera House, a nice public space in the open central foyer of a large performing arts center. I have written at length about Solomon's work here, so these comments will be brief - suffice it to say that this selection of 25 years' production is a very fine representation of the artist's evolving styles.

Comprising samples from several large bodies of work dating from 1986 to 2011, 25 Years in the Hudson Valley - On Paper offers some wonderful surprises even to those of us who already know him, and firmly supports my opinion that Solomon is one of the area's most important painters. The show runs through Dec. 10; the gallery is open daily from noon to 5 p.m.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Restoration - mixed media on paper mounted on wood by D. Jack Solomon

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kiki Smith and Whiting Tennis at the Tang

Two artists of both shared and contrasting sensibilities are presented in solo shows at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum through the end of the year. Kiki Smith is by far the more famous and influential of the two; her show did not originate at the Tang, having been brought in from the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle. Whiting Tennis, who hails from Seattle himself, is the subject of a Tang "Opener," whereby the museum's curators make a point of introducing an artist not previously broadly exposed in this area. So we have the known and the unknown side by side; the Seattle connection may be intended or not.

I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith includes a very great number of photographs, but it also features sculptures, drawings, prints and mixed media, all of which are what the artist is widely known for producing. She is considered a feminist, in that her work runs counter to male-dominated viewpoints regarding the female body in art, and she is clearly very much of her time - a child of the '60s and '70s, wild and undisciplined in many ways.

The installation of I Myself Have Seen It is highly structured, however (see view at the top of this post), prominently featuring a narrow ledge at the bottom edge of the gallery's walls that supports an array of countless 4x6-inch color prints in minimal plastic box-frames, running like a subtitled narrative below the entire text of the exhibition. On the walls are many larger, properly framed photographs, as well as the other works, in great big groups and sequences.

Smith's imagery is process-oriented, often derived from ongoing sculptural installations, and it is gritty, grim, even gruesome by turns. Bodies are depicted nude, distorted and dismembered; faces are expressionless. This is not easy work to confront and, despite a lyrical patina to some of the colorful photographs that belies Smith's overall deathliness, difficult to enjoy.

In contrast, Tennis, who has his own flirtation with deathly imagery in the form of gallows- or coffin-like forms, is like a breath of fresh air. Where Smith is grim, Tennis is playful. Where Smith seems to carry the scars of a brutal childhood, Tennis seems to be carrying on the joy of childish exploration. Like Smith, Tennis is comfortable working in a variety of media; unlike her, he seems to have mastered his techniques, whereas Smith appears to be locked in a never-ending struggle with them.

Tennis shows a curious mix of influences: Pablo Picasso, Philip Guston, and Ed Ruscha all come easily to mind when viewing this collection. One room, which contains just five pieces, all dated 2011, represents all these influences and more. A painting titled Droopy (shown at right) is loosely brushed in narrowly limited shades of grey (Guston); another painting with collage (shown below), similarly structured but far more colorful, picks up the Cubist vein (Picasso); and an all-white wall relief that accurately depicts a streetscape has uninflected observation at its core (Ruscha). Then there is a perfectly formed geometric octagonal prism atop a crusty, wooden found table - going in another direction entirely, yet still in harmony with the rest.

Two crowded groups make up the highlight of this show in the sense of revealing Tennis's process. On one wall, a constellation of 36 drawings, prints, paintings, and constructions mirrors the type of installation used in Smith's exhibition downstairs. These works are variously cast, painted, printed, texturized, stamped, or shaped. Tennis is one of those artists who doesn't worry about how he makes it, he just has to make it however it needs to be made.

In another space, a large display of objects on shelves (shown at the bottom of this post) provides potential hours of perusal - there are 108 little sculptures in it, all around 6 inches tall, all handmade. It's an impressive display of ingenuity and skill, but also of freedom.

A lot of the work in Tennis's show is from the past year, showing an artist who seems to have really hit his stride; it's a pleasure to discover this work, which is exactly the experience intended by the Opener series.

Ratings: Smith - difficult to recommend; Tennis - Highly Recommended

Friday, November 18, 2011

Richard Deon: Paradox and Conformity at the ACCR

Installation view of Richard Deon: Paradox and Conformity
Photo by Richard Deon

You probably remember the Richard Dreyfuss character in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whose obsession with a curious monolithic shape takes over his life. Another Richard D. has a similar obsession, as evidenced by a fascinating solo exhibition at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy titled Richard Deon: Paradox and Conformity.

The show represents an extremely adept artist with a conceptualist’s thought processes, an installation artist’s approach, and an illustrator’s skill, who is not afraid to employ a wide range of media (acrylic on canvas, sculpture, collage, inkjet) to articulate his vision. And a rather peculiar vision it is, drawing heavily from elementary-school primers, historical references, and ideas about painting and corporate culture, just to name a few obvious influences.

Remaining Palette
acrylic on canvas by Richard Deon
Deon’s style is a confounding mix of the personal and the coldly technical. His notes to the exhibition, placed next to key pieces, reveal a quirky and deeply felt connection to the images and their content, while the manner in which the works are made borders on the mechanical. In one note, he refers almost passionately to a “blister yellow” field of color on a canvas that is “text ready.”

Most important, the work is almost fiercely consistent, making for a unified presentation of five years’ worth of material (augmented by a couple of related works that date several years earlier) that tightly fills the Arts Center’s ample main gallery. In contrast to nearly every show I’ve see in this space before, where sparseness has been the rule - and not always to good effect - this show is a bit overcrowded. If the work were not so clean and texture-free, it could be claustrophobic.

Peace Deal
painted wood, wheels by Richard Deon
The primary element in Paradox and Conformity is a flat shape that appears in nearly every piece, whether painted, cut out, formed in plastic, or blind-embossed. Apparently taken from the silhouette of a tabletop microscope with a cover on it, this iconic shape functions as an archetype, taking on different scales and meanings in different contexts. Whether as a sail, an award, or a talisman, the shape gains power from placement and repetition, just as symbols always have done throughout history and in human culture today.

Deon uses other archetypes in this body of work, among them a pedantic scholar, a stoic Everyman, and a small airplane, all of which are rendered in a flat-black shorthand. One can't help but ask the question over and over while exploring the show: What does it all mean? Clearly, it is the artist's intention to stimulate this quizzical state, but his game is not without a payoff - one is likely to leave the show with a pretty good idea, conscious or unconscious, of what we think it means, just as we do when we contemplate our everyday lives.

And that, I think, is the strength of this work. Though it is artificial almost in the extreme (and it's no accident that the first three letters of that word spell "art"), it is also deeply connected to who we are, where we come from and - one would suspect - where we are going.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Early Morning by Fern Apfel
Also on view, in the Arts Center's Foyer Gallery, is a sweet, strong exhibition by Fern Apfel titled Studio Wall. Apfel is a longtime favorite of mine, and this collection shows why - modestly sized but with an ambitious mix of media, Apfel's art is like a cultural note-taking process with beauty as a requirement. Be sure not to miss it when you go to see the Deon show. Additionally, upstairs in the Faculty Student Gallery there is a solo exhibition by landscape painter Deborah Bayly.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Michael Bierut: 30 Years/90 Notebooks at Esther Massry Gallery

By Sara Tack

It’s not often that a graphic design show appears in a gallery or a museum and even less often that one shows up in the Capital Region. That’s why it is pretty exciting to see a show of the magnitude of Michael Bierut: 30 Years/90 Notebooks get curated specifically for The College of Saint Rose’s Esther Massry Gallery in Albany.

Bierut, a partner in the renowned design consultancy Pentagram, has had a brilliant career, designing for a host of national and international clients. He is the author of 79 Short Essays on Design and founder of the popular online journal Design Observer. He’s a senior critic at Yale School of Art and frequent guest speaker at design conferences and organizations across the country. His work has won every design award there is to win, including the prestigious American Institute of Graphic Arts medal.

What distinguishes Bierut’s work from much of the design we see on a daily basis is that his pieces use clever, conceptual twists that create messages we have to think twice about. His ability to do this so poignantly is grounded in his knowledge of the subject at hand, his understanding of how to use modernist form to imply meaning, and a natural gift: intuitive wit.

Most of the pieces in the show are posters and most are in black and white. Sometimes the work has (what appears to be) such a simple concept you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it yourself. Yet the beauty comes from just how profound he makes “the simple.”

In one of the few multi-colored works - Obama Fifty State Strategy, 2008, a campaign poster for Barack Obama - every U.S. state’s name is re-presented and strung literally together without word spacing. Separated only by color, we read the play on words starting with Alobama and proceeding alphabetically through Wyobaming.

In the 7th Annual Book Fair to Help the Homeless, Bierut turns a black-and-white image of an open book upside down to create the roof of a house. At the bottom of the poster is a small, out-of-scale, solitary wooden chair. In a poster advertising the play The Well of Water, at the Parallax Theatre (one of many posters for the theatre in the show) we see a stark charcoal line drawing of a woman’s hair and upper torso. The rest of her face is created from stylized photographs. The eyes are hot and cold faucet knobs, her mouth the spout of the faucet where the water emerges. What is he saying about The Well of Water using a faucet metaphor to represent a woman's face? One would have to see the advertised play to find out.

There are quite a few stunning pieces in the show designed for the Architectural League of New York. Usually their purpose is to announce a lecture, or an event series. My favorite is Scale. This 36-by-48-inch horizontal has a solid black circle just under 36 inches in diameter anchored to the left edge of the poster. On the far lower right end of the circle is one word reversed out to white. The typography - all caps, san serif bold letters, not more than 1/4” in height - reads “SCALE.” The sheer literal contrast of scale focuses us on one of the most defining principles in art and architecture. This is extremely powerful.

Light Years, also for the Archi- tectural League, overlaps the letters of these two words laid directly over the other in varying translucencies. Without any literal illustration or photography, the layering of the letters on a solid black background visually suggests distance over time as we read the words “light years.”

Another set of posters for the Yale School of Architecture runs the gamut of Bierut’s thinking. Architecture and Psychoanalysis Symposium is both clever and funny. A modernist, 1960s-style psychiatrist’s couch is turned 90 degrees running vertically up the side of the poster. At a moment’s glance our minds transfer the image of the couch into an architectural structure/building.

Then we realize what we are looking at and can’t help but laugh at being let in on the visual and verbal play. Furthermore, we realize that, although the poster was installed vertically, it could also be presented horizontally (as shown above). It is more difficult to read the detailed text in this orientation, but that text now takes on the role of the architectural reference, suggesting a city skyline.

So what does the title 30 Years/90 Notebooks have to do with the show? There are two cabinets displaying many of Bierut’s black-and-white composition notebooks that he started using in 1982. He has accumulated 92 books in his 30-year career and can’t go anywhere without his most current notebook. They are used for everything from client meeting notes to thoughts on design, miscellaneous ideas, doodles, conceptual sketches, and working out his design process on any given commission. Many of the displayed pages allow viewers to make connections and see the thinking behind the work on the walls of the gallery.

Two-page spread from a Michael Bierut notebook

A commemorative poster was designed for the exhibit by Bierut himself and is available for sale at the gallery, signed or unsigned. Michael Bierut: 30 Years/90 Notebooks is on view through January 22, 2012.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Guest reviewer Sara Tack is principal artist at Smith and Jones and adjunct professor of visual communication & design in the Electronic Media Arts and Communication department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mark McCarty: Skin at Opalka Gallery

It is appropriate that the exhibition Mark McCarty: Skin at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery begins with a self-portrait, because this show is as much about McCarty as it is about the many people depicted in it. Long awaited (McCarty's last solo show - aside from a wonderful mini-exhibition of iPhone pictures that just ended at McGreevy ProLab - was in 2004), comprehensive (the show presents 35 pieces, 36 if you count the one that is, inexplicably, included twice) and focused (all the works are black-and-white portraits) Skin happened because Opalka Director Jim Richard Wilson recognized that it needed to happen.

McCarty has been making both personal and commercial photographs for over 30 years, and both have brought him considerable recognition. But the effort to mount a major art exhibition is easy to leave aside when you are dealing with clients, raising a family, meeting deadlines. So McCarty continued to make the personal work - that's essential - but has tended to only show it in dribs and drabs, usually at one or another regional group exhibition.

Now, we have the opportunity to look at a broad and deep slice of those pictures - still limited to a particular long-term project or two, but a good choice was made to present a very personal segment of the total output, rather than a more diverse survey. It tells a deeply compelling story of lives written on the skin of those living in it, and of McCarty's place amid those lives as participant, observer, and compassionate collaborator.

Like a lot of commercial shooters, McCarty is well versed in a great array of technical skills and styles. This show includes a couple of grainy 35mm shots; 11 images from a square-format rollfilm camera; and 23 prints from 8-by-10-inch sheet film (these in two sizes). All the prints have been produced by digitally scanning the negatives and printing in ink on heavy paper - but you would hardly know it, as they have the look of gelatin-silver prints in texture and tonality.

More than half the pictures are of McCarty's immediate family - wife and children - including his first wife, Vicky, who died of cancer when their daughter, Kate, was still a baby. One of the most affecting images in the show (and no less so for being about 4 by 5 feet) shows Vicky and Kate from behind, their oval heads in rhythm, the regrown hair on Vicky's not nearly as thick as the first-grown hair on Kate's.

In this, as in nearly every image in the show, the subjects are unclothed; those who are not part of the nuclear family include a number of elderly Alzheimer's patients, and others of all ages. Almost never is the picture a "nude," though some get near that when the subject's face is obscured or cropped out. Not surprisingly, those tend to be the less compelling images.

The textures that give the show life are mainly those of the face, with all its lines and freckles, the hands (ditto) and, in certain strong instances, the hair and nails. One very expressive portrait of the photographers' nude second wife crops out her head, but allows her hands to receive the treatment of a sensitive portrait. Another image, of a woman identified as Emilee, shows mainly her torso from the side, folds of fat, stretch marks, scars and all. And another, of the only non-white person in the show (named Miss Ada), is full-face with eyes squeezed shut - but behind one set of lids, there's a hollow socket.

Though the pictures in Skin go back to 1985, it is worth noting that these last three were all made in 2011, clearly demonstrating that McCarty remains at the peak of his creative and expressive abilities. Still, the exhibition works very much as a whole, as a timeline of one life's intimacies and contiguous looks outward in the form of portraits. McCarty's world is here, as is his world view. It is a vital viewing experience.

Rating: Must See

Note: A very handsome catalog, with an opening statement by the artist and essays by Phyllis Galembo and Lyle Rexer, has been printed to accompany the exhibition Skin. Larger and more sumptuously designed than past Opalka catalogs, it is priced at $20, a nice deal. Be sure to check it out when you go.