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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