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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Out of Site: Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood

Amelia Toelke Home Sweet Home, wood, auto paint, steel support
There's simply no excuse for me to have put off visiting Chesterwood so long - in fact, for my whole life until, at last, this summer. What a place to have overlooked!

Daniel Chester French's home and studio in the Berkshires is sublime. French was the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, and being the top dog in his field at the time, was able to create an enviable place to live and work in rural Stockbridge, Mass. The spoils of that success are now on gracious display, beautifully preserved and maintained, and the site has bridged the centuries to remain a vital resource for contemporary sculptors today.

Brian Kane & Michael Oatman
The 8th Wonder, inflatable
The annual summer show of site-specific work known as Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood is now in its 39th year, and is a fun compendium of current ideas and approaches to outdoor sculpture. This year's show was curated by Sharon Bates (recently retired from running the Albany International Airport Art & Culture Program), who has a bit of history with Chesterwood, including having been an artist in residence there in 2016. Bates has always been a witty curator, and that is abundantly in evidence here.

The show includes 14 works of art by 14 artists (with two pieces by one artist, and one piece by two) and is sited along a manicured woodland path. This path and other elements of the grounds (such as a flower garden) were among French's ongoing efforts in this "work-in-progress" of a summer studio, and it adds to the delight of the experience to think about such a classical, workmanlike artist as French in contrast to the way we make and interact with sited sculpture today.

One is immediately struck by the lighthearted tone of the show upon arrival at the entrance to Chesterwood, where a monumentally scaled, gold-tone nameplate necklace announces Homesweethome from a grassy berm. This neo-Pop statement by Amelia Toelke is among the minority of pieces in this collection that was not made specifically for the occasion, but it is so apt and so perfectly sited that I'm glad she didn't hesitate to use it again.

Douglas Culhane A Ghost House
wood, paint, hardware
The rest of the works in the selection echo Toelke's postmodern attitude. Many use non-traditional materials, engage the viewer with irony, or eschew three-dimensional form altogether to engage with the setting in ways that probably would have confounded the 19th-century sensibilities of French. But that, of course, is a good thing.

What French would surely approve, though, is the fact that this experience requires a lovely stroll through the woods (for which you may want to bring bug repellent). In a few cases, the works really aim to capitalize on this aspect of the installation. For example, Colin C. Boyd's prehistorical obsession finds form here in a display of ancient deer-like critters that almost look at home in these woods; and Debra Zlotsky's Just a Minute! directs visitors to study a tiny patch of the local flora, and then mark it with a string-tied red label (leaving me sorry for the staff who will have to untie the hundreds of tags already employed).

Derek Parker Between the forest and the trees
wood chairs, trees 
Derek Parker's piece was one favorite, not least because it interacts with the woods and the path and the viewers who travel it. His seven or eight wooden chairs impaled by standing trees at various heights are dotted through one area that connects two parts of the path, making for multiple discoveries, and delighting over and over like the rise and fall of a roller coaster. Roger Bisbing also engages the space and the walker with a tall, wide grid of welded steel that blocks off part of a field and woods, but also has openings you can pass through; it is almost intrusively bright in its colors, but so easy to see through as to be almost invisible.

Roger Bisbing Pass Through, painted steel
Other eye-catching works include Chrissy Scolaro's bright plastic towers, Amy Podmore's absurdist pseudo-bronze concoction, titled WHIPLASH, and Portia Munson's two floating banners made from her scanner photographs of deceased birds. I really liked the effect that Munson, an artist in two dimensions, was able to achieve in that outdoor space by floating two translucent images high up in the trees, in essence returning the spirits of an owl and a hawk to their rightful place, soaring above the forest floor.

Another favorite is Matt LaFleur's The Camp, which places several wooden tents into the woods, exactly like a scouts' camp, but not like one at all, as they have no entrances and are painted with bright, multicolored stripes. The piece is at once nostalgic and brand-new.

Out of Site: Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood continues through Oct. 9 and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Events associated with the show include walking tours on Fridays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 11.

Matt LaFleur The Camp, wood and paint

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: Renato After Alba

Eugene Mirabelli
Eugene Mirabelli, the author of Renato After Alba and several other books of fiction, is among the two or three best novelists living in Delmar, N.Y. If you think that is damning with faint praise, think again - the others from there that I know personally and have read (Paul Castellani and David Vigoda) are also terrific. Could it be something in the water?

Renato After Alba, which was recently published by McPherson & Company and has received several independent publisher awards this year, is a bittersweet elegy of a novel. In it, Mirabelli gives us a new glimpse into the heart and soul of Renato Stillamare, an orphan of unknown origin adopted into a colorful Sicilian-American family who he introduced to us as the narrator of The Goddess in Love with a Horse and who became the protagonist, as a mature but vital, and rather conflicted gallery artist in Renato the Painter.

Now we have Renato as an older man, struggling to make sense of the sudden loss of his wife, Alba. Mirabelli employs the skills of descriptive narrative with aplomb, but the depth and breadth of this short book (188 loosely filled pages) is a special achievement, made more effective by its ostensibly narrow focus into the thoughts and feelings of one man for one year.

That the man is a ferociously talented painter, and that the year is possibly the most important one in his long life is what gives the book its kick. The tight narrative of the story is expanded by well chosen digressions into astrophysics, Italian culture, and small-business economics. But it is the quality of the writing that makes it great - with masterly craft that hides all its sweat to produce an immersive exposition of an inner life.

As with all excellent books, you can open Renato After Alba at any page and get lost in its flow of words. Here, they invoke the fugue of grief:
Sometimes it was me who had died and Alba who was living and I'd see her walking solitary in the quiet before sunset, walking slowly along the empty sidewalk in the little college where [our daughter] Skye and her family have their home, or I'd see her at the table in our kitchen where she had set out two or three yellow place mats, but only one dish, eating alone in the silent kitchen, and my heart would contract in pain.

And, here, they recall a long-ago family conversation:
"This French philosopher, Albert Camus, he thinks life is absurd," Zitti said. "Absurd and with no purpose."
"We make purposes as we go along," Nicolo said. "We keep changing that purpose, but the important thing is to have a purpose, a goal. Making progress toward our goal gives us pleasure, and as soon as we get there, we discover another goal, further ahead."
Aunt Marissa, his wife, said, "Always going and never arriving. I don't know if that's so good."
"The purpose of life is to work," my father declared. "Work saves more souls than Jesus."
Zitti continued, "Camus says that death makes life absurd and pointless."
"You think your mother's life was pointless?" Candida asked him.
"I didn't say that. We're talking about Camus' beliefs, not mine."
"Camus is absurd," Candida murmured.
"Maybe the poor man has no family life," my mother suggested.
Zitti shrugged and opened his hands, palms up, to show he didn't know what to make of any of this. "Or maybe he says those things simply because he's French."

As Mirabelli unfurls Renato's slow walk through desperation, his ever-present folly (after all, he is a man) and, ultimately, his decision to paint again, we walk with him in sympathy. This may be a book about grief - that's the peg it hangs on - but it is really, like all novels, simply a book about life and how we live it.

Despite his advanced age, Renato discovers something new along this journey: That we don't just live life by accident - we choose to live it. He may have arrived on a snowy doorstep in Lexington, Massachusetts, by accident, and his wife may have died by accident, but Renato's decision to go on is entirely his responsibility. That the book helps us truly understand his reasons is its gift.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Less is More: 2017 Regional at AIHA

Richard Barlow Roadside Picnic II - chalk on blackboard paint on wall
The 2017 edition of the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region (popularly known as the Regional) is on at the Albany Institute of History & Art and, as ever, it is a must-see for all local fans of contemporary art.

Victoria Palermo Reds - wood,
poured resin and colored plexiglas
This year's show was judged and installed by Jack Shear, a photographer, curator, collector of photography, and the president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. You may recall Shear's gift last year of over 500 photographs to the Tang Teaching Museum (reviewed here); now he has given the region a different sort of gift by providing an unusual, sharp perspective on the Regional, and by adding a couple of unique elements to the show that I found most welcome.

First, Shear mined the Institute's collection for works of art that had been purchased from past Regionals over many decades; these pieces (more than 20 of them) were then installed salon-style at the entrance to the exhibition, providing a refreshing reprise of those past purchase-prize winners. I will describe Shear's other innovation a bit later.

Niki Haynes To What End mixed media collage
So - how is the show? With just 87 works by 32 artists selected from 600 submitted by 268 artists, this Regional is unusually spare - and that's a good thing. All but a few of the artists have three pieces on view (the rest have two, except for two artists with a single, very large-scale work on view: Richard Barlow, whose 27-foot wall drawing is shown at the top of this post, and Tatana Kellner, who is represented by a 12-foot grid of 30 monoprints). This added depth allows the viewer to understand each artist's point of view much better than would be possible in a broader-based, more inclusive and, presumably, more cluttered curation.

Peter Crabtree PFOA Portrait: Loreen Hackett: Activist
archival inkjet print
Further, Shear has organized the exhibition into sections that group the artists loosely under themes (nature, figure, three-dimensional abstraction) that are like curated shows within the show. This also helps the viewer probe deeper into the meanings of the individual artists' work by putting it in context; though the Regional itself is a context, these sub-themes supercede the idea of a regional identity to touch on trends that artists around here (and everywhere) are currently exploring.

Within these themes, there is an additional subset of images set into a smaller gallery (with a warning outside for those with youngsters in tow) which are all photographs of people, some of them nude. Considering that Shear's collection at the Tang includes many such images, this makes sense. One might guess that photographers intentionally submitted work of this nature, or that more people who produce this sort of work submitted to the show. In any case, Shear did the expected by including these examples, some of which are in the slightly shocking realm, but the majority of which are nowhere near that turf (such as Peter Crabtree's wonderfully sensitive portraits, an example of which is shown at right above).

Dave Waite Guardian - archival inkjet print
As a lifelong follower of photographic art, I can say with confidence that, regardless of anyone's predilections, the photos included here are worthy; they also represent a great diversity of approaches, which helps show just how much this medium has done to liven up post-modern art. Among my favorites are three traditional landscape studies by Dave Waite (example shown at center above), Ray Felix's light-infused nude portrait of a heavily tattooed young man, Allen Bryan's masterful digital concoctions, and Laura Christensen's witty, mixed-media transformations of antique pictures.

T. Klacsmann Raptor and Automata
mixed media collage
I should note that not all of the photographs are in this one room - many are also included in a larger gallery with art of other media. Among those other media, sculpture is particularly well represented, as is drawing and other works on paper. Painting has a pointedly slight presence here compared to most Regionals - perhaps a commentary on what sort of approach Shear sees as being relevant in today's art scene. The top prize in the show went to a mixed-media collage (shown at right above), and a number of other collages also are included. Again, as a lifelong follower of collage art, I'm perfectly OK with this.

Jake Fallat 1997568-1
cast aluminum
The only two oil painters in the show are about as different as could be from each other - Jane Bloodgood-Abrams makes 19th-century-style cloud studies and Paul Sattler makes neo-expressionist extravaganzas (example shown at the bottom of this post). Again, this shows the juror's integrity, as he is not following a discernible style in his selections, but exercising thoughtful and tasteful decision-making about what to include.

As for Shear's other addition to the Regional, Back: A Re-Installation of 19th Century Sculpture, is a delightfully engaging intervention into one of the Institute's staple displays, and the first time that any Regional juror has directly participated in the show as far as I know.

The 2017 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region runs through Sept. 3, and will feature three artist talks in the galleries at 6 p.m. on one Friday each month: July 7, Aug. 4, and Sept. 1. Admission to the Albany Institute of History & Art will be free on Sunday, July 2; admission is also free every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Paul Sattler Letters to Cross (Reading the Letters from H. Matisse to H-E Cross)
oil on canvas