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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pulled, Pressed and Screened: Important American Prints at The Hyde Collection

Robert Cottingham - Orph, 1972 color lithograph on wove paper
Perhaps my biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied printmaking. Aside from the fact that, outside of art school, it's hard to get access to a fully equipped print shop (and, so, it was an opportunity lost) I think I would have enjoyed the processes. And I'm sure I would be a smarter person now if I had learned some of those complex techniques then.

Jim Dine - Self Portrait Zinc + Acid, 1964
etching on wove paper
That's one reason I wholeheartedly urge you to see Pulled, Pressed and Screened: Important American Prints at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, on view through Jan. 10. Organized by the Syracuse University Art Collection, Pulled, Pressed and Screened features 51 prints by as many artists and spans the decades from 1930 to 1980.

This gorgeous selection makes clear how important printmaking is to 20th-century American art and provides a wonderful window onto our history. It's also easy to love, as many of the artists are familiar names, including Grant Wood, Robert Blackburn, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Milton Avery, Romare Bearden, and Dorothy Dehner.

Anne Ryan - Three Figures, 1948
color woodcut on black wove paper
From those names alone you begin to get the picture - high quality, diversity, and commitment to the medium are hallmarks of the work gathered here. There are also many lesser-known but marvelous artists in the group, such as Boris Margo, who invented the "cellocut," a precursor to the collagraph that uses colorless plastic to create embossed relief. His example, titled Comet, is elegant and quietly beautiful and was one of my favorites in the show. Another discovery was a 1948 color woodcut on black paper by Anne Ryan. Titled Three Figures, it could almost have been a Klee or Miro print.

Jasper Johns - Periscope, 1981
color intaglio on wove paper
Like Ryan, many of the artists in this collection are primarily printmakers, especially several from the middle period of the show when graphic art retained a special place in a nation still establishing its values. The show is organized somewhat chronologically and somewhat by theme (hung on walls painted a perfect shade of ochre), so these more socially conscious artists, such as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Ben Shahn, and Antonio Frasconi, are grouped nicely together, giving us food for thought along the way. We also get a good variety of techniques to study here, such as wood engraving, linocut, and lithography.

Alex Katz - White Petunia, 1969
lithograph on wove paper
There's always the question of whether an established painter who makes prints is really a printmaker at all, but the artists included here generally delved into the medium - they didn't just use it to reproduce their paintings, but explored it as a realm unto itself. Roy Lichtenstein is a strong illustration of this idea. In his embossed 1976 screenprint Entablature VII (reproduced at the bottom of this post) you see how the print itself is his goal - with lush exploitation of the milky white paper, metal foil additions, and unusual pebbly embossing, he has created something special that is not much like a painting at all.

Among the earlier examples in the show are many immigrants, often using the graphic medium as a people's art form and as a platform to communicate ideas about social progress. This includes Harry Gottlieb, a Romanian native whose The Strike is Won is vintage WPA propaganda; Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Aerialist, which portrays a high-wire artist as a real person; and Minna Wright Cintron's acerbic Men Seldom Make Passes, which simultaneously amuses and flirts with early abstraction. Also in this group are icons of the Depression era: Reginald Marsh, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, and Wood.

After a period that emphasized abstraction, it's interesting to note that some of the later work in the show returns to social issues, with examples by Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol leading the way, capped off by a Vito Acconci six-part acquatint from 1979-81 that combines the flags of the U.S, the Soviet Union, and China. A lot has happened since, in politics and art, but Pulled, Pressed and Screened still packs a nice punch. Try to see it if you can.

Also, please note the Hyde is "pay as you wish" for the month of December.

Roy Lichtenstein - Entablature VII, 1976, screenprint embossing on wove paper

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Recommended viewing

Oded Hirsch - Totchka, 2010 still from video
This is the first time I'm recommending a show I haven't seen, but circumstances have forced my hand, as I've been unable to get there and time is seriously running out. The current exhibition at the University at Albany Art Museum, which runs through Saturday (Dec. 12) features two big-time artists who are represented by New York City galleries.

Brian Tolle - Out of Service, 2010
Platinum silicon rubber and crutches
Though this by no means guarantees a great show, I've got a good feeling about Brian Tolle: Bordering Utopia, which is a retrospective of fascinating-looking sculptures (images at right and below), and Oded Hirsch: Three Videos (image above), which I will be viewing last-minute this weekend.

Maybe I'll run into you there, and we can compare notes on whether we like this stuff or not, and why. Please feel free to comment here on your experience. I may come back with additional commentary of my own - this time, after seeing the show.

Brian Tolle - Alice and Job, 2006
hand-carved Styrofoam, robotics and acrylic paint

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tick/Zellin at the PhotoCenter

Agnes Zellin - untitled photograph from Astoria N.Y., late 1970s or early 1980s
In an extreme case of better late than never, two bodies of work by photographers Paul Tick and Agnes Zellin have been mounted in a beautifully conceived exhibition at the PhotoCenter of the Capital District in Troy, on view through Dec. 13 (PhotoCenter hours are Th-Fr, 5-9, and Sat-Sun, 12-6).

Agnes Zellin - untitled photograph from Astoria N.Y.
late 1970s or early 1980s
Originally urged by their mutual mentor Mel Rosenthal more than 35 years ago, this event is the curatorial baby of Mark Kelly (creator of the former Exposed Gallery of Art Photography in Delmar), who designed and planned the installation, along with a handsome short-run book that accompanies it. Kelly has done an admirable job of presenting two collections that share many characteristics but are also quite distinct from one another.

There are many stories behind these photographs, including that of their makers, who are married to each other now. The pictures fall cleanly into the category of "concerned photography" - not quite journalism, not quite art; rather, a form of personal documentary that held sway for decades from the WPA era, through the heyday of Life magazine, and into the 1970s, when Tick and Zellin were learning their craft and prowling New York City with their cameras.

Paul Tick and Agnes Zellin
photo by Tricia Cremo
In those days, just about everybody was shooting black-and-white 35mm film in the street (a habit I understand is making a big comeback today). One feature that sets these two apart from that crowd is that they did not just grab and run. Instead, they formed relationships with their subjects and present them with an unusual depth. They also take a rather sociological stance, which comes across readily at a level of caring that many photographers lack.

It takes energy to care, and time; Tick and Zellin gave it, and this exhibition demands it of the viewer, too. The pictures are touching, many are melancholy, some are even heartbreaking. But they are neither exploitative nor facile. Tick's approach is to get to know his subjects - every one of them a bottom-of-the-gutter Bowery drunk - then capture them in beautiful portraits, which are paired with their own matter-of-fact utterances (handwritten by the photographer). The results resonate across the decades and connect directly to our souls.

Paul Tick - Untitled photograph 1978
Zellin created her larger series (there are 32 of hers, 22 of his) as a long-form essay about an ethnic neighborhood in Queens, where she clearly was part of the scene and enjoyed what appears to be easy access to her relaxed subjects. Her scenes of everyday (or night) activities are sweet and sensitive, and speak of a time and place that's becoming rare in North America, when people knew their neighbors like family.

The work is presented without titles, mats or frames, cleanly printed with white borders using modern digital technology, and it looks really good on the walls. The book is equally appealing, and I understand has sold out a first run already. Both are well worth a good, long look.

Paul Tick untitled photograph from Manhattan, 1978

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Metroland - RIP?

Today marks the third Thursday without a Metroland since the alt weekly's office was seized by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance for unpaid tax bills, and the feeling that it will never publish again is sinking in. (You can read the details in this Times Union article by Paul Grondahl.) Along with thousands of other individuals and hundreds of businesses, I miss it already.

My own connections to Metroland  are many and deep - it was founded 38 years ago by my niece Amy's other uncle, Peter Iselin, a very talented musician whose disco-inspired venture into publishing lasted a surprisingly long time. But Peter was never great at the business end of the deal, and thefre was visible evidence of that early on.

My own favorite recollection from the middle 1980s featured weekly sprints by staffers from the Metroland offices at 4 Central Avenue to cash their paychecks at the bank up the street before the account ran dry. I had a front-row seat to this competition from my shop window on Washington Avenue, and always enjoyed the show.

Things got a little better when Steve Leon took the helm. I freelanced for the paper under Steve in three stints totaling seven or eight years spread over three decades, initially as a photographer and then mainly as a writer, covering a variety of subjects including art (no surprise) and professional basketball (in the heyday of the Albany Patroons).

The rates for freelancers were pretty generous, and I always got paid, though it sometimes took a while. But then the pay lag began to stretch too far, so I asked for a meeting with Steve to clarify my need to get paid timely enough to cover my rent. That's when he showed me a ledger that revealed 120-day accounts payable for advertising that totaled a quarter of a million dollars. This was about 10 years ago - before the Great Recession stepped up and began wiping out newspapers all over the country.

After I quit the paper for the last time, I learned from other freelancers who had hung on that Metroland's debt to them had extended well beyond a year and had mounted into the thousands of dollars for many individuals. To me, this was unforgivable - the paper was essentially floating an interest-free loan on the backs of struggling journalists - yet I still eagerly grabbed and read it every week. Except, of course, in those weeks when it didn't get distributed because the delivery people were also fed up with waiting for their money.

So, when this month's news revealed the paper's tax problems with the state, I couldn't have been less surprised. Also, it rang another personal bell - I worked as a state tax collector from 2012-14. And, from that experience, I could guess that Metroland was buried in debt to the IRS as well, not to mention imaginable lines of other creditors. In another small twist for me, I also learned that another former employer of mine (The Daily Gazette, where I worked for 13 years as an editor) might have wanted to buy Metroland if the debts could have been cleared up.

Now it seems that one possibility is lost, and it's a loss for all of us. Metroland - thanks for a really great run.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fiber Currents/Current Fiber at FMCC

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred - Childhood Lost: The Doffer Boys, mixed-media cotton quilt
A long wished-for exhibition is now a reality at Fulton-Montgomery Community College's Perrella Gallery in Johnstown. Gallery Director Joel Chapin wanted a national fiber show, but needed expert help in creating it. He found that help in the form of Bleecker fiber artist Judith Plotner, who agreed to take on the project - the result is Fiber Currents/Current Fiber, on view through Dec. 18.

A first-time (and, according to her, also last-time) curator, Plotner has ably organized a diverse selection of 21 artists from all over the United States to fill this clean and pleasant (if somewhat tight) space with high-quality and engaging fiber-based work. These are not your great-grandmother's log cabin quilts (though quilting is strongly present); rather, this is contemporary art by top-shelf makers who utilize cloth, thread, vines, wire, plastic - and much more - to realize their personal visions.

Judith Content - Icarus, dyed satin silk
I'm a color guy, and my expectation to be dazzled by bright, rich fabrics was immediately fulfilled: The largest piece in the show is visible straight across from the entrance, and it positively glows with the energy of a brilliant palette. Pat Pauly (Rochester, N.Y.) hand-cut, hand-pieced, and hand-quilted numerous vividly printed and dyed fabrics to create the 6-foot-by-7-foot Pink Leaf 4 (yellow), a nature-inspired abstract that would rival any modern painting. It also graces the cover of a handsome catalog that was produced for the show and features full-page color reproductions of each work in Fiber Currents.

Emily Dvorin - Kid Stuff, mixed media
Judith Content (Palo Alto, Calif.) also drew my attention with her shibori dyed silk satin hanging Icarus, which updates the Greek myth, takes it east via a kimono shape, and drenches it in a rainbow of colors. Other explosions of color come from two of the four sculptural pieces in the show: Emily Dvorin's (Kentfield, Calif.) irresistible Kid Stuff incorporates dollar-store materials into a playful basket form; and Jill Rumoshosky Werner (Bella Vista, Ariz.) presents a snaking belt of multi-hued cotton that loops out of a propped-open clamshell box. Both pieces, being quite animated, are a welcome break from the preponderance of wall-hung work.

Judith Plotner - Brooklyn Ensemble
printed, stitched and painted canvas
On the other end of the spectrum, many works here use a limited palette, and many of those incorporate images derived from photographs, often applying them to the fabric with printmaking techniques. This is a successful strategy that can add texture as well as content to the works, and set them apart from their siblings in the craft world. Among these pieces are a few that take on social issues, such as Patricia Kennedy-Zafred's (Murrysville, Pa.) haunting and beautiful Childhood Lost: The Doffer Boys (pictured at the top of this post), Linda Kolsh's (Middletown, Md.) masterfully delicate Twilight, and Plotner's own Brooklyn Ensemble.

In addition to Plotner, Niskayuna's Lori Lupe Pelish and Russell Serrianne of Glens Falls (the show's lone male participant), represent the greater Capital Region. Serrianne's use of shellacked grape vines perhaps pushes the definition of fiber the furthest - along with New York City artist Nancy Koenigsberg's Melon, a "drawing in metal" that uses nothing but copper wire to depict a pumpkin-ish fruit.

Lori Lupe Pelish - The Circus Life
appliqued, embroidered and quilted fabric
Pelish uses elaborate piecing technique to create detailed portraits out of printed fabric, as in The Circus Life, while other artists in the show achieve a similar richness by combining imagery with heavy stitching, especially Dominie Nash (Bethesda, Md.) and Wen Redmond (Strafford, N.H). Still others achieve these depths with stitching and surface treatment alone, including Kevan Lunney (East Brunswick, N.J.) and Sue Cavanaugh (Columbus, Ohio), whose triptych Ori-Kume #31 is among the most impressive works in the show, both technically and in its effect on the viewer.

Many of the artists in Fiber Currents incorporate words into their work, often for political purposes (such as Highland Park, Ill.'s Kathy Weaver, work pictured below), which places this show squarely in the postmodern time frame - a time when artists have pushed all kinds of boundaries. Though here the primary boundary is one of materials (and it is well stretched by the artists included) it makes sense that these same artists are stretching other boundaries as well.

Kathy Weaver - Habeus Corpus-The Great Writ
nylon line and airbrushed, hand-stitched cotton

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Many Rivers at Saratoga Arts

Frank Wimberley - Blue Wave, 1982 acrylic on canvas 
If you don't want to miss the Saratoga Arts exhibition Many Rivers, which celebrates the 40-year history of Black Dimensions in Art, Inc., go now, because it ends on Nov. 7.

I'm glad I caught it, even if toward the last minute, because it is a rich compendium of outstanding artists in many media, and because it is a thoughtfully curated show with a compelling theme. Organized by Stephen J. Tyson and Stanwyck E. Cromwell (who also both have work in the show), Many Rivers includes more than 40 works by 21 artists from a broad geography - mostly local, but with roots from many distant lands and islands.

Daesha Devon Harris - My Soul has Grown
Deep Like the Rivers,
2012 mixed media 
The title theme was presented to each artist (or artist's estate) with a request to provide work in response to it  - so, not unexpectedly, water does predominate, However, the show is grouped into sub-themes that suggest other topics, such as abstraction, light, cultural history, storytelling, travel, and more. The purpose of the BDA is to give support to artists of the African diaspora, so one finds works here that express this reality - for example, a brightly colored, thickly painted oil by Cromwell titled Allusions of Home, which conjures up his memories and (possibly) dreams of a Guyana he hasn't seen in decades, or Robert Charles Hudson's 2015 Shoofly, a painting the colors and patterns of which evoke centuries of folk art, underscored by his incorporation of a quilted square in its center.

Hudson's combination of disparate media is right in the mainstream of this show - I was struck by the preponderance of collage elements through about half of the work, including Hollis King's wry and lovely graphic Beehive Lady, Elizabeth Zunon's charming children's book illustration I can hear that whistle blow ... and Femi Johnson's Black Betty the Mermaid, which is simultaneously seductive and threatening. Perhaps the best of these mixed-media creations is Daesha Devon Harris' trio of manipulated and embellished photographs, which are placed behind glass that's etched with compelling snippets of folk writing.

Betty Blayton - Ancestor Bearing Light, 2007
acrylic and mixed media on canvas
I was also struck by the deep streak of abstract expressionism in the show, best exemplified by three exquisite paintings from the great Frank Wimberley, but also strongly represented in works by Betty Blayton, who includes three sweet tondo paintings partially inspired by jazz, and Tyson's snappy black-white-and-red acrylic inspired by the decorated dwellings of his forebears in Burkina Faso and Ghana. Also particularly worthy of note are three paintings on paper by Herbert Gentry, who died in 2003, and had a long career in France (like many African-American jazz musicians) - one immediately picks up on the mid-century Frenchness of these remarkably fresh works.

Though the show is a retrospective of sorts, a healthy chunk of the work is dated 2015, so it lives more in the present of these artists - and the broad movement they represent - than it does in the past, which suggests a potent future for the BDA organization as it enters its fifth decade. Kudos to the organizers and to Saratoga Arts for presenting this fine collection.

Elizabeth Zunon - I can hear that whistle blow ... , 2009 oil paint and collage

Friday, October 23, 2015

Janet Werner: Zero Eyes at Esther Massry Gallery

The painter with one of her works. All other images are oil on canvas by Janet Werner.
Regular readers of this blog know I rarely run a negative review. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that I write about art to build enthusiasm for it, not to knock it down. Usually, if I see something I'm not keen on, I will just let it go. But there are times that something falls short, and I feel it must be pointed out. You can tell  this is going to be one of those times - but always remember, my opinion is nothing compared to each viewer's personal response to the art - and I urge you always to seek your own experience.

Jelly 2010
So Zero Eyes, the current exhibition of paintings by Janet Werner, on view at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery through Dec. 6, is not my cup of tea. Why don't I like it? Tough question! But I'll do my best to explain.

First, let me say, Werner is a legitimate painter, with a degree from Yale and work in many collections (mostly in her native Canada) - not a hack or a neophyte. And the 16 generally quite large paintings in this selection demonstrate that she has control of her medium. But she chooses to exercise this control to make, by turns, cloyingly sentimental, hammer-over-the-head ironic, or just plain sloppy images. This is annoying.

Stalker 2012
Werner's colorful, daring work unfortunately falls squarely into the realm of (stifling a huge yawn here) gender and identity politics. Her approach seems to be to start with a fashion photograph, then recast the "ideal" woman in the picture as a monster. Werner's figures tend to be elongated even for supermodels, with undersize heads, awkward bodies and random parts - hands, nose, breasts - that go huge.

Girlfriend 2014
The scale of her paintings is sometimes played to great advantage, such as in the inexplicably titled Stalker, which, at nine feet tall, still lets a vast swath of grey paint crowds its office-worker subject into the bottom of the frame. Another strong vertical, titled The Glove, presents a red-haired debutante type on a hot pink background. Her haughty gaze is rendered with deft, layered strokes - but the titular magenta garment is slapped out crude and flat, with a cartoon daisy drooping from its grasp.

Moriah 2015
The work in the show covers a fairly long slice of time (2009 to 2015), affording the viewer a general sense of Werner's progress - from smaller to bigger, from playful to grotesque, from believable to bizarre. Among the latest pieces, Moriah shows the most promise by splitting the figure down the middle, obscuring its face not with simple defilement as in many of the others but with destructive transformation.

With 50 years of American feminism under our belts, it's easy to see what Werner is trying to say - but does it all bear repeating? Maybe it's important, after deKooning's take on scary women, for a woman painter to have her say. But I wonder - what does it add?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Seeing Double: The Anaglyphs of Eric Egas at Albany Institute of History & Art

Eric Egas - Fippery, archival pigment on canvas
Stereoscopy has been with us since the birth of photography in 1839, but outside of 3D movies, few of us give it much consideration. Eric Egas is an exception.

More than 30 years of efforts to capture three dimensions in flat images are presented in Seeing Double: The Anaglyphs of Eric Egas, which opened at the Albany Institute of History & Art on Aug. 15 and runs through Oct. 25 (an anaglyph is a blue-red stereo photograph). The exhibition, in Egas's words, provides "portals for viewers to enter into a state of ambiguity" through gazing at these images both with and without the red/blue glasses provided (they also work with the images shown here - just be sure to put the red lens over your right eye).

But stereo is only part of the Egas effect. He makes variations on the classic red/blue separation, and then pushes those colors so that the overlapping images become as fascinating in themselves as they are when viewed in 3D. Egas has, over the years, increased the scale of these prints, and adopted a lush layering of pigment on canvas - in the end, they are sometimes more painting than photograph, featuring rich areas of reed, blue, green, and purple. A few images even flirt with full color rendition (while still being anaglyphs).

This turns the exhibition, with more than 50 prints, most of which are at least four feet wide, into a multi-level experience: One is encouraged to spend time viewing the images without the glasses, then with them and so on back and forth, providing transformational changes that often surprise the senses.

Smith-Dallas 1983-2008
Beyond these innate visual  effects, Egas loves to play with space, often combining, reversing, and inverting images to further disorient the viewer (but in a good way). Among the earlier, less complex examples, mirrors often appear, which in themselves take on spectacular depth in the stereo format; some of the later pieces render more elaborate subjects into labyrinthine forms, complex textures, and symbolic or surreal meanings.

Egas features a broad range of favorite subjects, including animals (alive and stuffed), people in social situations (as well as portraits and self-portraits), architectural spaces, gardens of many kinds, and a variety of tchotchkes from lawn art to flea market wares to baroque ornamentation. His sense of humor is sharp and off-beat - this is a show to be enjoyed as well as studied.

Some of the most arresting images for me are the ones with tropical subject matter - this is perhaps influenced by my personal experience  of visiting Eric at his home in Puerto Rico in 1997 (we met around 1985, when he had a show of his early anaglyphs, including some of the ones in this exhibition, at my former gallery in Albany). There's something special about seeing an overall leafy texture in the flat image, and then getting lost in the complexity of layers of foliage once you put the glasses on. It's magic.

Some of Egas's attempts end up reaching a bit too far, to where you may not even be able to see the 3D effect, but the reach is worth a try, as the entire body of work is experimental - and experiential - in nature and intent. Overall, with this very ambitious installation that nicely stretches the boundaries of the Institute's usual emphases, Egas has successfully involved us in his unique and engaging vision.

Note: Eric Egas will have an exhibition of new work at Brill Gallery in North Adams, Mass., from Nov. 7 through the end of December, with a public reception and artist's talk from 6 pm to 8 pm on Saturday, Nov. 7.

Island 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Scott Brodie Retrospective at Albany Center Gallery

Scott Brodie - Waputki 2, oil on canvas 2015
There's one thing nearly all painters have in common: They love to push paint around. A power-packed retrospective of nearly 40 years of work by Scott Brodie at Albany Center Gallery (on view through Oct. 3) amply illustrates this fact, and equally demonstrates that it is true whether the image is photo-realistic, totally abstract or anything in between.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
And, if you think it's not possible for a painter to work in such (apparently) divergent styles while maintaining a singular voice, think again. We all evolve over time, but even in a long-term retrospective an artist should show consistency - if they don't, it's a sign of inadequate commitment to a vision. Yet Brodie's show, despite its diversity, makes clear that his vision has remained quite clear over the long haul and, in my opinion, has grown stronger of late.

The consistency comes in the way Brodie engages with color and (secondarily) form in all his paintings. The earliest example in the show is a somewhat academic but somehow still playful study of cardboard boxes from 1977. In it, one can recognize the handling of paint that remains characteristic in his latest works, such as the lush, juicy Waputki 2 (shown at the top of this post) and numerous other recent near-abstractions in the show.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
More closely related to the box painting are a couple of examples from the late '90s that depict colorful books. Here, as with the boxes, it is apparent Brodie is more interested in how the subject looks - or, more important, how it looks when he paints it - than he is in what it means. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the essence of abstraction. Jump ahead, again, to the most recent work in the show, and you see landscapes rendered as pure form and color. No, it goes further - you see richly brushed paint exploring the forms and colors that were once part of a landscape.

Brodie's images of books are joined in the show by a couple of (literally) sweet studies in pink and grey, depicting a scatter of Sweet-n-Low packets. These, from '07, form another across-the-decades link to the boxes, but also fit right in with the new landscapes, which favor similar color schemes. Wait, did I call the new paintings landscapes? Well, there you are, then - I guess they're not really abstract after all.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
One finds in these landscapes an affinity with bright, hot light, whether taken from the American Southwest or the Italian peninsula, and their titles evoke their geographical and cultural sources. Elsewhere, the show provides six small acrylic studies on paper as a window onto the artist's process of abstraction. Two of the studies are clearly the basis for two larger finished oils, while the others show how rocks and bushes can become lines and colors before being presented as final, more formal compositions. Notably, this whole group is identified by compass locations, rather than place names, in the titles.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
Other work in the show comprises a middle period in which Brodie applied his rendering skill and affinity for dimensionally plastic paint dabs to a range of subjects that he pointedly treats equally. These include shoes, vegetables, bushes, figurines, and a hat - all lovingly portrayed, all blandly unembellished by commentary. Brodie's very dry sense of humor is most apparent in this period, and the paintings are very good - but I like it better when he gets a little more passionate.

This is a rare opportunity to see a beautifully installed collection of a lifetime of work by one of our region's foremost painters. Try to catch it while you can.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Feibes and Schmitt collection going to Hyde

By now many of you know that Werner Feibes has donated about a third of the extraordinary modern and contemporary art collection he amassed with his partner Jim Schmitt to The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, as the news has been splashed all over local media (such as here by Paul Grondahl in the Times Union). The rest of the collection is promised to the Hyde as well, and Director Erin Coe rightly declares it "a transformational gift."

I'm excited for the Hyde, proud of my friend Werner, and sad for the recent loss of Jim ... but not surprised by this bequest, as I predicted it in a 2003 Metroland review, which I wrote when the Hyde mounted a superb exhibition called Form(ation) that was drawn from the Feibes and Schmitt collection. The news also brings to mind a story:

It was my good fortune sometime around 1985 to accompany Werner Feibes on a buying trip to a New York City gallery. At the time, I was a young gallery owner myself (in Albany), struggling to find customers for works by regional artists in the $300-to-$500 range. With Werner, I was exposed to quite another art world.

I don't recall the name of the gallery, but it was on the upper East Side of Manhattan and very elegant. Werner was there to see a Jean Arp relief constructed of painted wood, about 16 by 20 inches as I recall, in black and white (of course). The gallery presented it on a velvet-draped easel in a private room, where we murmured our approval and greedily eyed this vintage gem. The asking price was $15,000. Of course, Werner negotiated a discount, then coolly wrote a check for $13,500 - and, in a flash, we were on our way back up I-87 in Werner and Jim's boxy Volvo wagon (the Arp would be shipped).

I was totally speechless (think about that, you who know me personally!). I had just seen how art dealers really operated, and how sharp collectors did, too. The money that changed hands so easily was almost equal to my entire annual income (and I worked a lot of hours to earn it), but I didn't doubt that the Arp was well worth it. Neither do I doubt that it is now worth at least 15 times as much. It was a beautiful work of art and I hope to see it again some day at the Hyde.

Werner's generosity in inviting me on that trip was genuine, but this donation is beyond generous. The collection has been appraised for several million dollars; yet Werner's comment to  Grondahl was "What the hell would I do with all that money?" Good point - the true collector thinks about value in a different way than most of us. In the meantime, Werner still gets to live with the rest of the artwork, then it all goes to the Hyde upon his death. I wish him a very long life.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region

Daniel Brody - Game On/Game Over, still from digital video
Every year, the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region offers a good opportunity to take the pulse of the local art scene in one time and place, and this year's edition at the University at Albany Art Museum is a prime example of how that works.

Though the vagaries of who submits work each year and especially the taste of the juror will have a distinct impact on what's seen, there's usually a broad enough coverage to be reasonably representative of what artists in the orbit of Albany are doing.  And because these artists are also in the orbit of New York City, one can also get a sense of what's current there and, by extension, in the art world as a whole. This year's juror, Rachel Uffner, owns a New York City gallery, so the sensibility of the show is most likely that much more imbued with the bigger art world point of view.

Fern T. Apfel - Skyline, collage and acrylic 
If so, then the current art world, whether regional or global, is still very much about painting, especially painterly abstraction, with a strong side interest in the figurative and the decoratively patterned, and flirting a bit with representation on the Pop side of things. There are 44 artists included (out of a daunting 367 who entered the competition), which is a good number - neither too many to get a grip on in one viewing, nor too few to hold the space - and about three-quarters are represented by multiple works, which is always desirable in large group shows.

Ian Myers - Fish, oil on canvas
Noticeably in short supply in this selection is photography which, in the 25 or so years since the medium was first allowed in the Regional, usually has a strong role. Instead, the few photographs chosen are relegated to subsidiary locations in the gallery and, except for Jess Ayotte and Han Dogan, both of whom present slyly low-key black-and-white prints, and Katria Foster, whose works read almost as abstract paintings, the offerings are weak.

Then again, video has two strong entries, including Daniel Brody's digital animation Game On/Game Over, which won the top prize and is well worthy of the honor, and a concrete-poetry piece by Kyra Garrigue. It's intriguing that Garrigue's Poem: Untold Story has company in another concrete poetry work, this one formed in Morse code that was drilled into three smooth panels of birch by Colin Chase.

Monica Bill Hughes - Boob Bouquet
acrylic, ink, spray paint, and glitter on canvas
Other sculptural works are among the more compelling pieces here, including two slightly chilling scale models by Roger Bisbing and a very impressive series of five works in ceramic and wood, buffalo horn, or mammoth ivory by Robert Augstell; both Bisbing and Augstell won awards. Top awards were also taken by outstanding painters, including Monica Bill Hughes's naughty, lush still lifes; Stephen Niccolls's wonderful retro-Modernist compositions; two tongue-in-cheek works by Ian Myers; and two cleverly titled mixed media paintings by Kelsey Renko (artists who have the courage to title their works creatively get extra points from me).

Also outstanding: Charles Geiger's technically brilliant tropical arabesques; Mona Mark's scrupulously pared down exercises in monochrome; Jenny Hutchinson's meticulous, playfully layered paper-cuts; and Susan Spencer Crowe's boldly colored and formed wall reliefs.

Overall, this Regional suffers a bit from being on the wan side, color-wise, and from a lack of scale (only a handful of pieces exceed 5 feet in size). It is therefore overwhelmed by the cavernous white space of the UAlbany Museum. On the other hand, the two-story gallery's large, open central staircase allows a view of half the show all at once, which is a terrific advantage in getting the big-picture sense. And that sense is that the scene is plenty vibrant enough to survive another year. We'll get to reassess again at the next Regional, set for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls.

By the way, this exhibition ends on Sept. 5, so if you want to catch it, you must act now.

Roger Bisbing - Lunch 1961, brass, cast bronze, and aluminum

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark

Vincent Van Gogh - A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889 oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
Here's what's obvious: You must not miss Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which ends its exclusive run there on Sept. 13. Simply put, you will never get another chance to see such a breathtaking collection of this artist's work - gathered from all over the world - together again. Ever.

Here's what may be less obvious: The title of the show, and its claim to being “the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s abiding exploration of nature in all its forms” are off the mark. Take, for example, the brilliant painting reproduced above. The sky and mountains are not wrought by human intervention, however personally interpreted by the painter, and the wind ruffling the many plants below that sky is all natural. But what about those plants, and that landscape they inhabit? This is not by any means a natural place. It is dominated by a cultivated wheatfield, cypresses, and olive trees that were, I'm fairly certain, planted by people, in a place that was most likely clear cut centuries before Vincent laid eyes on it. Is this nature?

Giant Peacock Moth, 1889
Chalk with pen and brush and ink on paper
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Elsewhere in the exhibition, text and images do support the intriguing and meaningful notion that Van Gogh was keenly interested in and moved by natural phenomena, particularly plants and insects. It could be argued that his deeply felt and vividly expressed responses to the world around him, including forces of weather and geology, are the wellspring of his genius and his popularity. But much of what Van Gogh observed so sensitively and depicted so richly (even in this selection) was culture - agriculture most particularly, as well as architecture, industry, religion, and other human inventions.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
oil on canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
And the power of his work, the legacy that keeps the crowds coming to blockbusters such as this one, is as much about human nature - in the form of the psychology of the sensitive, spiritual, suffering artist - as it is about anything else. Frequently overheard throughout my visit to the exhibition were comments related to Van Gogh's psychological states: his anger, his ecstacy, his mental illness, his tragic suicide at 37. Many of the finest paintings in this show were made while Van Gogh was living in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, where he had placed himself voluntarily; in one late letter, referring to a painting that depicts a landscape in the rain (shown at the bottom of this review), he wrote, “before such nature I feel powerless.” Not to belabor a point, but the painting also depicts a dense little village across its middle.

The exhibition is also about history - Vincent's personal history, tidily summed up in wall texts that guide visitors through sections devoted to key locations and periods in the artist's career (Holland 1881-85; Paris 1886-88; Provence 1888-90; and Auvers 1890), and the history of his influences, with excellent examples of other artists' work, including a lovely Monet from the Clark's collection, works by Millet, and woodblock prints by Hiroshige (all considered major influences on Van Gogh).

Undergrowth, 1887 oil on canvas Centraal Museum, Utrecht
What many people will learn for the first time here is the stunning fact that Van Gogh's entire career as an artist spanned barely 10 years, only five of which were spent painting. He is (rightly) revered as a towering figure of modern art (Impressionism was the first modern movement), yet he was very young, and still rapidly developing, when he died. The chief benefit of the "nature" thesis presented at The Clark is that it caused a good number of minor works to be included - drawings, sketches, early paintings, and experiments - which demonstrate how incompletely formed this artist was even a year or two before the final burst of creative intensity that cemented his importance.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Who knew that Van Gogh tried pointillism, or made bumbling botanical illustrations, or was, early on, apparently rather intimidated by color? That he struggled for years before finding his own mode of expression puts him on equal footing with all unsuccessful artists - that he actually found his mode and then realized it fully enough in the brief time before his death to leave a lasting legacy is an astounding achievement. Nature caused Vincent to do this, and its overwhelming forces cost him both his sanity and his life. What he accomplished along the way is one of the most valuable slices of human culture to be found anywhere. The Clark show offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to soak up a huge chunk of it. Go and revel.

Rain–Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Whistler's Mother

The Clark is also showcasing one of the most famous American paintings of all time, through Sept. 27. Popularly known as "Whistler's Mother," James McNeill Whistler's monumental  Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) normally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but it is here on loan as part of a reciprocal arrangement from a recent European tour of some of The Clark's French masterpieces.

We recognize Whistler's own masterpiece from the countless reproductions, parodies, and ads that have borrowed the dour central figure, which experts have said is only incidentally part of this modern composition. The Clark has provided well thought-out accompaniment in the form of numerous fine lithos and etchings, as well as several examples of the painting's many pop-cultural takeoffs. Grab the trolley or take a stroll up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to enjoy the view and peruse the painting's "musical notions of harmony and balance."

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1
(Portrait of the Artist's Mother) 
1871 oil on canvas Musée d'Orsay, Paris