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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at Fenimore Art Museum

A view of the installation of Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore
all photos provided by Fenimore Art Museum
Heroines of Abstract Expressionism, the current feature show on view through Dec. 31 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, is representative of a recent art-world trend, whereby collectors (rather than curators) initiate major museum shows. It makes sense - with art prices soaring, it's often the collectors who are better able than the museums to bear the cost of assembling a body of work significant enough to draw attention. So, the two camps increasingly work hand in hand to reach the art-savvy public. A harbinger of this trend was the aptly named Sensation, which presented the private collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997, to great acclaim and controversy.

While much more sober than sensational, HerAbEx is still a revelatory gem. Created by Southampton collectors Rick Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield, who drew from a broader swath of modern American artists in their collection, it puts the focus on 19 women members of the mid-century movement that rewrote the history of modern art. It's a striking and intimate gathering, totaling 34 drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and is accompanied by a fine, slim catalog with several essays and good color reproductions of all the work in the show.

Lee Krasner - September Twenty-Third
ink, crayon and collage on lithographic paper 
Among the 19, there are names that range from the widely celebrated to the largely overlooked. Most of us already know about Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Grace Hartigan, and Dorothy Dehner - all of whom had significant recognition in their lifetimes. But what about Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, and Charlotte Park? These, and others, were new to me here.

A few motifs emerged as I wandered and relaxed in the comfortable upstairs gallery that holds all but one of the pieces (the other, shown here at left, being placed just outside the entrance). Most of the two-dimensional work is on paper (only six pieces are oil on canvas), and all of the work is relatively small in scale (that is, relative to the monumental scale of much of the AbEx masters' output). These limits can be explained by the seriously prohibitive purchase prices of larger works by such noted artists, but also suggests that the women in this group may have worked smaller overall than the men, possibly due to scarcer resources and, almost certainly, more human-scaled egos.

Elaine de Kooning - Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall
acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas
It's also worth noting that a large portion of these artists are Jewish - not surprising, considering the time (immediately post-WWII), the place (primarily New York City and Long Island), and a similar demographic among the men of the movement. Additionally, many studied under or were directly influenced by the same people, in particular Hans Hofmann.

A poignant sub-theme of the show is the marital status of these women artists - many were married to major art-world figures (including painters, sculptors, and critics), whose shadows would have been difficult to escape (the solution frequently being divorce). That includes de Kooning (married to Willem, divorced in 1957), Frankenthaler (associated for five years with Clement Greenberg, then married to Robert Motherwell and divorced in 1971), Park (married to James Brooks), Dehner (married to David Smith, divorced in 1951), and Krasner (married to Jackson Pollock until his death in 1956). Some of the label copy in the show (all of it succinct and nicely readable) makes references to those conditions and how gender affected these artists' careers, a sad commentary on their time in contrast to today.

Perle Fine - Untitiled, oil on paper mounted on board
It struck me that quite a few works in the show are not truly abstract, instead plainly representing figures and landscapes - and even including two recognizable portraits. One prominently featured painting (which collector Friedman cites as the start of it all for him and Wakefield) appears abstract at first, with slashing strokes of bold color and calligraphic black marks - only to reveal itself as a direct interpretation of an early cave painting depicting a bull. Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall (shown above, at right) is one of six pieces by Elaine de Kooning included in the show. There are also four by Krasner and three each by Dehner and Nevelson, while the rest of the included artists are represented by just one or two pieces.

Though de Kooning is clearly intended to be the star of the show (and her best works here support that), Krasner was the revelation for me, and her Earth No. 7, a gouache on paper, emerged as my top pick. Other favorites include a luscious pink acrylic on paper by Frankenthaler (seen in the image below), a marvelous untitled bronze by Dehner that felt like a three-dimensional Motherwell painting (also seen in the image below), and a brooding maelstrom of black ink by Joan Mitchell. Those four works alone are well worth the trip to Cooperstown.

I also particularly liked a trio of paintings that evoke the brash, calligraphic style of Franz Kline: A captivating double-sided oil on paper by Michael West (she changed her name from Corinne Michelle West at the suggestion of Arshile Gorky) and an oil by Perle Fine (shown above, at left).

Overall, Heroines of Abstract Expressionism provides a great opportunity to see work by many worthy artists in a worthy setting, and for curious folks who haven't yet come to appreciate abstraction, it offers a window into that world. The show is meant to travel, but an agenda hasn't yet been set.

From left, works by Helen Frankenthaler, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, and Mercedes Matter are seen in Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Group shows galore

Installation view of Upstate Artists at The Laffer Gallery (photo provided)
It's the time of the year when galleries, both commercial and public, put on those crowd-pleasing shows with lots of artists and, often, smaller/more affordable work for gifting opportunities.

I'm aware of four such exhibitions currently on view at quality venues, as follows:

  • Thompson Giroux Gallery, Chatham - The appropriately named En Masse 2019 includes small works by more than 80 artists, and will be up through Jan. 12. This intimate gallery shows a lot of top-notch work, and the list of artists included here reflects that. 
  • Albany Center Gallery, Albany - Featuring one piece each by more than 140 artists, this annual members show was judged for prizes by Union College curator Julie Lohnes, and will be on view through Jan. 10. Full disclosure: I am one of the included members.
  • Saratoga Arts, Saratoga Springs - The arts council's annual members show is up through Jan. 4, with an online descriptions that cites "close to 230 pieces of artwork ranging from painting, drawing, printmaking, functional art and sculpture displayed chromatically in salon style," which sounds to me like an overwhelming feast for the eyes.
  • The Laffer Gallery, Schuylerville - Upstate Artists is an annual juried group show, this year selected by Jon Gernon, and on view through Jan. 12. With only 30 artists, it will be the least cluttered of this set, but still abundant enough.

Combined, these shows include more than 500 works by nearly as many artists (no doubt with some overlap), much of it at the highest level you'll find anywhere.

So, if you need a little break from the holiday rush and, especially, if you can use a gift of a work of art, check them out. Remember, supporting local artists and local art venues is a gift that truly keeps on giving.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Embody at Mandeville Gallery

Firelei Baez - given the ground (the fact
that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it)

acrylic and oil on canvas
There's always a mystery to strong group shows - does the curator start with a theme and then find artists that fit it, or does she start with some art she likes, and then discover the theme as it emerges? At shows like this I find myself asking, what do these artists have in common, and what brought them together? Is it taste? Meaning? Technique?

In the case of Embody, an outstanding exhibition on view at Union College's Mandeville Gallery through Jan. 19, curator Julie Lohnes has provided a number of intriguing threads to follow - and though I can't claim to have unraveled them all, it's great fun to try. She has also answered the origin question in a short essay at the front of a handsome catalog produced for the show (which the gallery provides free to visitors) - but where's the fun in that?

Chitra Ganesh - Sultana's Dream: Justice is Virtue, linocut
Going on with my search, I note that many of the ten included artists are from far-flung places - Haiti, Japan, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, and Iran among them - while those from the U.S. seem to have significant non-European ethnic ties: A strong indicator that the unifying principle of the show relates to expression of ethnic identity.

As the title implies, the works in Embody are all figurative, but the treatment of the human figure varies widely here, as does the range of techniques applied, from painting and fabric sculpture to drawing and several forms of printmaking. Still, it all pulls together, maintaining equilibrium.

One key to this delicate balance is that the overall quality of the work in the show is very high (though not perfectly consistent - a couple of pieces didn't quite hold up for me). That such a diversity of forms doesn't devolve into a mishmash is a credit to Lohnes's sharp curatorial vision. This consistency even stretches across shows - I recall, for example, one of the first shows she produced at the Mandeville was a 2014 solo by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who would have fit quite cleanly into this group.

Amir H. Fallah - The Light Within, acrylic on panel
Upon careful viewing, it becomes apparent that collage is the unifying element among this disparate swath of artists, even if most are not actually creating collages at all. The layering of images and conjunction of parts is more direct in some works, more subtle in others, but it's there, always. At the same time, there are, in equal parts, extremely vivid colors (especially in paintings by Amir H. Fallah, Firelei Baez and Didier William, in digital collages by Stacey Robinson, and in mixed-media prints by Saya Woolfalk) and superbly managed monochromes (in linocuts by Chitra Ganesh, mixed-media drawing by Simonette Quamina, and lithographs by Toyin Ojih Odutola). Being partial to neither, I enjoyed it all.

Perhaps the most difficult work in the show to grasp is a set of fabric sculptures by aricoco (Ari Tabei). These wearable pieces seem to want to be part of a performance, rather than exhibited in static poses. It was also terribly difficult to resist touching their multifarious textures and fasteners. Woolfalk's mixed-media digital prints struck me as the most accessible, with their seductively contemporary palette and smooth inkjet surfaces. The most compelling pieces in the show for me were two monumental drawings by Quamina that include torn assemblage and raw, textural graphite rubbings (a technique we all know from childhood that's not often seen in fine art). I also got a kick out of Robinson's slick Afrofuturist collages, which most literally exemplify the curator's stated source of inspiration for assembling this collection of artists.

In all, it's a hugely pleasurable and engrossing exhibition that's sure to compel a couple of good trips around the Mandeville's unique circular gallery space, housed inside an extraordinary building at the center of campus, the Nott Memorial.

William Didier - Kochon Sa a Lou / This Pig is Heavy

collage, acrylic and wood stain on panel

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Quick Take: Ken Ragsdale at LGAP and Upstate Invitational at Laffer Gallery

Ken Ragsdale - A New Crop 2018, digital photograph
Two shows worth a look are going to end soon - maybe you can find a way to squeeze them in around the holiday crush.

Ken Ragsdale: Memory as Process Revisited, at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery through Dec. 6, is a mini-retrospective of one of the Capital Region's best-liked artists. Ragsdale is popular for several reasons, but that doesn't mean his work isn't challenging.

This collection of about 20 pieces includes a few earlier works, among them a charming tiny drawing from 1984, but the core of the show is a strong series of more recent, large framed photographs made in Ragsdale's signature style, in which he creates elaborate sets in white paper, then bathes them in washes of colored light before recording them with a camera. Ragsdale is drawing from visual memories of his childhood in the rural Northwest to create strikingly concrete (yet dreamlike) scenes of subtle, slow destruction.

This show is a great opportunity to get a sense of Ragsdale's process while enjoying a larger group of his work than has been exhibited in the area in quite some time.

Audrie Sturman
Vine 4, clay
In Schuylerville, Eric Laffer has accomplished the nearly impossible feat of keeping a fine art gallery going for about eight years, and his effort shows no signs of flagging. The Laffer Gallery is a beautiful space that consistently hosts strong shows of work by mostly regional artists, with a mix of painting, sculpture, ceramics, prints, and photography. The artists in the gallery's 7th Upstate Invitational, currently on view through Dec. 1, were selected by juror Laura Von Rosk from last year's annual juried group show at Laffer, an interesting arrangement whereby Laffer has delegated curatorial choice within his own space (this year's juried show, selected by Jon Gernon, will open on Dec. 7).

The featured artists, Fern Apfel, Robyn Morgan Giddings, and Audrie Sturman, hang well together, as all place great emphasis on form and color. Giddings and Apfel are painters with direct or indirect elements of paper collage, while Sturman is a ceramic sculptor working at a notably large scale for her medium. Sturman's many tower-like structures in this show are muscular and brash, with great textures and brightly glazed or painted surfaces.

Robyn Morgan Giddings
Stuffed 2, mixed media on canvas
Among the three, I am most impressed by Apfel, who I've followed for a long time, and who seems in recent years to have burst through into a marvelous world of abstraction. In her layered images, old-time ephemera are given new life with the vibrant colors of today. Nearly photographic realism contrasts with built-up areas and edges of paint to create complexity in these compositions.

Giddings' flat, often patterned painting approach emphasizes simplified interior elements (usually furniture) and combines them with photographic prints depicting items of clothing or flowers. I found this work rather decorative, and indeed it seems to be quite intentionally and unashamedly so. Overall, the Invitational is a highly appealing display in a very sophisticated, yet welcoming space. If you love art and haven't been to Laffer Gallery yet, you are long overdue.

Fern Apfel - The Monkey Applauds, acrylic and pen on board

Saturday, November 16, 2019

2019 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region at The Hyde Collection

Mixed groups of individual works are a staple of this year's Mohawk Hudson Regional.
The Annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region has rotated to The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls this year and, as ever, it is a must-see show for followers of the local scene. Now in its 84th year, the Regional will be on view at the Hyde through Dec. 4.

Charles Geiger's oil on linen Cactus
received the top award at this year's Regional.
Juried by Victoria Palermo, a longtime standout artist from the Adirondack region, this year's edition has a curated feel - Palermo didn't aim to select the best or most representative artworks so much as she sensed an overall direction of the submissions - a huge haul of more than 1,500 works by 365 artists - and pulled together a sweeping version of how she saw that vast body.

The main theme is climate, though numerous works unrelated to that theme are also included. A total of 92 pieces by 83 artists made the cut (many more artists than usual, but still maintaining a high level of quality). One result of that selection is that very few artists are represented by more than one piece. Instead, the show is largely organized in ensembles that build relationships and contrasts among the individual artists' works. While this approach can set your head to spinning, and may always not honor each artist sufficiently, it does make for a stimulating and rich presentation.

Rebecca Murtaugh is represented in the Regional
by a group of five ceramic sculptures.
The 2019 Regional is installed throughout the Hyde's many galleries (except the central one, where a fine traveling exhibition of prints by Picasso, Braque, and Léger holds pride of place through Jan. 5), an arrangement that can be disorienting at first, but which rewards persistent wandering with many strong experiences. A press release explains that artworks centered on the environment are exhibited in Feibes & Schmitt Gallery, the stairwell of the Museum’s education wing, and Rotunda Gallery. Submissions selected for the exhibition that aren’t related to climate are in Hoopes Gallery and Hyde House.

Jane Feldblum's mixed-media Winter Garden
is displayed on an antique chair at the Hyde.
In particular, the pieces in Hyde House are placed among the museum's impressive, historical permanent collection, providing sometimes intriguing, sometimes confounding collisions of style, material, and period. Past Regionals have included similar pointed installations, both here and at the Albany Institute of History & Art, providing a nice twist that I always enjoy. For a historic house museum to make space for such intrusions, even to the extent of displacing specific objects from its collection, is truly generous.

It's worth noting that Palermo's selections seem to include more three-dimensional work than most Regionals (no surprise there, as she is a sculptor herself), and far fewer photographs than usual (a bit confounding, as I have no reason to think she is biased against that medium). The photo-based works she chose lean toward the abstract, colorful, and process-oriented - just one is a straight, black-and-white landscape print.

John Yost's three-monitor video portrait
re-creates the look of 19th-century photography.
There are also several videos, always a plus when presented right, and the Hyde did a good thing by projecting three of these in rotation on a big wall opposite handy benches. An additional video submission (shown here at left) is tucked into a very quiet nook, but it won the Hyde purchase prize, so it's clear they meant no harm there.

Scott Brodie's acrylic on canvas
Project Lamentation Discard:
Decommissioned after Electric Shock

is oddly sentimental.
I also feel compelled to point out that the complex installation of this sprawling show feels natural, whereas the last Hyde Regional felt over-curated to me. We live in a time of curation - restaurants, clothing stores, cruise lines and so on all use the term now for carefully chosen and organized experiences. In the art world, too much curation can feel like a subjugation of the art itself. Call me old-school, but I still want the artists to lead, not their interpreters (including critics like me).

But curation is, of course, necessary. And, properly done, it can avoid the pitfall of undermining the individual pieces for the sake of a more overarching vision. I think this show reaches far, but still gives the individual artists enough room to breathe, enough space in which to be taken in directly by the viewer. That said, the viewer will need to take the time and effort to allow that interaction to happen.

Ryan Parr's oil on canvas Green Wall
transforms its subject using scale and perspective.
Among the chosen are many familiar names from past Regionals (including 2016 juror Michael Oatman), but many new names appear as well. This may not be the point of such a traditional format, but it sure feels right.

I was struck this week to realize that I've witnessed nearly half of the rather long history of the Regional (including a period in which I submitted regularly and was included often). In light of that extended view, I can state without a doubt that this Regional represents quite a robust peak in local artistic output. Perhaps, as the main theme might suggest, artists are inspired by a sense of urgency. Or maybe this is just a good place to be if you want to pursue art, which is never an easy task. Whatever the reason, it is cause for celebration.

Go, enjoy the show and, in particular, keep an eye out for more from this very impressive lineup of creators, who also just happen to be your neighbors.

This group of prints and paintings, organized around the theme of landscape,
is part of the 84th Annual Regional at The Hyde Collection.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Running at 61

That's me finishing strong at the Nick's Run to be Healed 5k in Clifton Park
photos by William Laviano
About a year ago I published a post entitled Running at 60, in which I described some of the challenges of recreational running as an older person, and within which I set a new challenge for myself: To get a first place age-group finish in the annual Dunkin' Run (a favorite, as it is right in my neighborhood). I also promised to provide an update here on that quest.

Well, forgive my bragging, but Mission Accomplished. However, quite unexpectedly, this proved to be unexpectedly unsatisfying. The reason being, I'd been trying (and failing) for about two years to break 26 minutes in a 5k race - and this year's Dunkin' Run was no exception, as I clocked a 26:15. Also, the next nearest competitor in my age group was minutes behind me - so finishing first really had no meaning.

The happy 2nd- and 3rd-place finishers
After that, I felt even more motivated to try to break that pesky 26 minutes, and I trained a little harder than usual for my next race, enjoying some beautiful late summer trail runs with a friend who used to be much faster than me but - well, he's older now, so we can run together these days.

The results are proof that working harder can help you achieve success. On Sept. 27, on a perfect afternoon in Clifton Park, I ran my best 5k race yet, finishing in an official time of 25:52, good enough for second place in the 60-and-over division, while my running partner took third. Though the organizers were only giving awards to the first-place finishers at that race, I went away feeling like I'd taken home a trophy (but without the need to store it). Now THAT was my true Mission Accomplished!

So, what's next? Considering that the person who came in first in that Clifton Park race was minutes ahead of me (and my same age), maybe I can try to get better at this. Anybody think I can break 25 minutes?

UPDATE: A couple of weeks after posting this piece, I entered a 5k race in North Greenbush, sponsored by RPI. I'm not sure how, but I finished in 25:04 (to my astonishment). Clearly, the goal for next year is to break 25. Winter training, here I come!

Friday, September 6, 2019

Pulse at Carrie Haddad Gallery

Pulse artists include, from left, Jeanette Fintz, Dai Ban, and Ginny Fox
photo provided by gallery
An outstanding show of abstract art is currently on view at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, but you'll need to get there soon, as it closes on Sept. 15. Pulse: Color & Form in a Visual Rhythm features the paintings of Jeanette Fintz, Jenny Kemp, and Ginny Fox, and the sculptures of Dai Ban. The four artists works are successfully mixed in the installation, but the gallery's several rooms also provide areas that focus on each artist individually, a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

Dai Ban - If You Touch Me, I Will Push You to the End
precision board, lacquer paint
I was already familiar with two of the artists (Fintz and Kemp), but the bodies of work presented here were mostly new to me so, along with the discovery of Ban and Fox, the show felt very fresh. Fintz is given pride of place among the selection, with her latest large-scale paintings displayed in the big front room of the gallery - and, frankly, they deserve it. Blending tight, mathematically precise forms with free, liquid washes, in a scaled down desert palette, Fintz's layered images are both striking and subtle. They draw from the impact of form and size, but also from the lasting power of complexity. Truly great stuff.

Ginny Fox - C18-9, acrylic on two panels
Ban's wall-mounted constructions hark back in form and color to both early and late Modernism, evoking Russian Suprematists as well as '60s minimalists, but they still feel contemporary, perhaps due to their elegantly crafted shapes and surfaces. Built of thick planes combined into angular reliefs, then finished with flat pigment or bright metal leaf, his pieces are lively explorations of dancing motion. The evocative titles he gives these works add a surprising emotional element, further placing them squarely in the present. 

Jenny Kemp - Raised, acrylic on linen panel
Kemp paints in parallel stripes, often curving them into sensual shapes that evoke body parts or other natural forms, but the work remains essentially geometric. Her masterful use of color relationships helps give these works the depth required to fascinate. Seeing her paintings in this exhibition gave me solace for having missed Kemp's solo show at Union College's Mandeville Gallery last year, though, to her credit, these are newer works. She moves fast and is definitely one to try to keep up with.

Forgive me for saying it, but I feel Fox is the weak link here. Her smeared and scraped acrylics seem to have some depth, but I doubt they could hold any serious viewer's attention for very long.

Jeanette Fintz - Permanently Temporary #1, acrylic on canvas

Friday, August 23, 2019

Renoir: The Body, The Senses and Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow at The Clark

The Bathers, 1918-19 - oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
All works shown are by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, except where noted
Each summer's must-see show is usually at The Clark (aka the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute) in Williamstown, Mass., and this year is no exception. But Renoir: The Body, The Senses isn't a typical blockbuster - rather than just mount a massive display of the great artist's work on the centenary of his death, this show's creators have delved into a central theme of the French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oeuvre, and have built on that thread using striking examples from a stellar supporting cast.

Paul Cézanne - The Battle of Love, c. 1880
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
So, if you're going in order to relish the Renoir nudes (that's the theme), you won't be disappointed. But expect much more: There are so many other artists' paintings in this show that it really isn't a solo at all. And, frankly, a few of them could easily overshadow Renoir, if given the chance.

Still, after viewing many telling juxtapositions at the Clark, I found that Renoir, at his best, could  stand up to Cezanne, Degas, Corot, Delacroix, Matisse, and Picasso (among others), though at times I had my doubts. Credit the show's organizers for having the courage to allow viewers this unique opportunity to compare and contrast (they are Esther Bell at the Clark, and George T. M. Shackelford, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where the show will be installed in the fall).

Three Right Figures and Part of a Foot
(Study for The Great Bathers), c. 1884–87
chalk on paper, private collection
Their intentions are to show Renoir's influences (in part by including others' paintings that he owned) as well as his influence (represented by those who followed in time), as well as to present his entire career through a single subject. The show fulfills both goals nicely. It also allows plenty of immersion in Renoir himself, especially in one room that presents a series of study drawings that led to a single very large painting (entitled The Great Bathers, it's not included in the exhibition, but related examples serve as helpful mates to the drawings).

For a former student of figure drawing, this lovely oval-shaped room filled with dazzlingly executed studies in red and white chalk was like a dream, worthy of long minutes spent gaping from near and far (helped by nifty benches that mirror the walls' curves). These drawings alone could have cemented Renoir's position as one of the all-time greats.

Bather Arranging Her Hair, 1885
oil on canvas, Clark Art Institute
But the best of the paintings do trump them. One of those, entitled Bather Arranging Her Hair (from 1885 and part of the Clark's large collection of Renoir's work) is outstanding in that it works the figure and her drapery into a compelling distant seascape, all of it perfectly rendered in Renoir's seductive Impressionist colors.

Other outstanding works in the show are not so dependent on color, in particular the only one of a male figure. Entitled Boy with a Cat, this enigmatic painting is prominently used in publicity for the show, perhaps due to its frisson of 21st-century androgyny, or maybe simply because it is so good. Juicily flanked by two equally provocative female nudes, one by Corot and the other a Renoir of the boy's older sister (who, at twenty, was Renoir's lover), the painting provides the moment in the exhibition where any viewer still possessing hormones must surrender to the understanding that this art is unashamedly about sex.

Boy with a Cat, 1868
oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
(Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

But, of course it's also about much more - form, color, light and,  most importantly, the freedom to break the rules, to experiment. It's easy to forget that it was super radical in the 1880s to paint a figure in realistic strokes, to include colors that weren't flattering, to distort reality to make it feel more real. These efforts and effects are among the reasons Renoir was highly esteemed among his peers, even if he was often reviled by contemporary critics, and why his influence then - as now - matters.

So, if, like me, you see the Degas pastels, the Cezanne oils, the Picassos and the Matisse in this show and think, "gee, they were even better than Renoir," bear in mind that those artists regarded  him as a master to emulate. If he devolved in later years into a commercialized shadow of his former self, cranking out the popular kitsch (my opinion, as represented by the image at the top of this post), it doesn't tarnish the giant achievements of his younger days.

Edgar Degas  - After the Bath, Three Nude Women, c. 1895
pastel on paper, private collection
Speaking of youth, the show did bring up one question for me, regarding the apparent age of Renoir's models. It may be that in his time it was socially acceptable to lust after underage girls (and make pictures of them), but in our present moment it felt a bit icky to be in a public gallery ogling paintings that emphasize both the childishness of the subjects' faces and the engorged readiness of their bodies (e.g., A Young Girl with Daisies, painted in 1889 when the artist was about 70 years old, now found here, reproduced on a yoga mat). I'd be curious to know if anyone else felt at all the same, and whether this was also part of the organizers' intent.

In addition to the Renoir exhibition, the Clark is presenting Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow, which features several strong paintings and prints by a sister of the iconic feminist painter (Renoir ends on Sept. 22, while O'Keeffe continues through Oct. 14).

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe
Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II, c. 1931-32
oil on canvas, private collection
Relatively unknown, Ida O'Keeffe had a minor fine art career while working mostly as a teacher, but her work is worthy of the attention this show brings to it, and the show provides a unique opportunity to see the work as a body, with all of its elements having been brought together from diverse private collections. The show also includes a fun array of snapshots of Ida and other family members, taken by her brother-in-law Alfred Stieglitz (and of him by Ida).

It's clear that Ida had a promising start, as the centerpiece of the show is a series of six variations on a lighthouse, each a stunning experiment in Modernism that she executed while still a student. Other paintings in the show exude the same lushness we've come to know from her sister's studies of flowers, as well as total abstraction, and curious night paintings in grisaille.

This inconsistency is no doubt part of what held Ida O'Keeffe back from a bigger success but, altogether, her art is still well worth a look.

Also worth some time during your visit is a sound installation originally created in 2001 by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff that "deconstructs Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century choral work Spem in alium (Hope in any other) by assigning each of the forty voices to a single freestanding speaker in the gallery" (description from the Clark's website). The result, entitled The Forty Part Motet, is an intriguing and powerful listening experience, and certainly not the usual fare of this generally more traditional venue (continuing through Sept. 15).

Summer's not over - yet - so get out and enjoy these shows while you can.

Installation view of The Forty Part Motet, by Janet Cardiff

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The best movie of the year so far ...

Jimmie Fails stars as a young man trying to recapture an imagined past
in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
My frequent movie-discussing companion Dick said it, and I agree: The Last Black Man in San Francisco  is the best movie of the year so far.

Dick and I have often noted that originality is the holy grail of contemporary filmmaking, and we value it above other qualities (e.g., production values) when rendering a judgment. In the case of TLBM in SF, no compromises need to be made.

This debut feature co-written and directed by Joe Talbot is miraculously successful as a story, as a visual experience, as a vehicle for some very fine acting, and - most important - as an original, heartfelt, poignant, and challenging work of art. It tells about a young man (Jimmie Fails, played by Jimmie Fails) whose day-to-day existence is rooted not in the reality of his circumstances (lacking home, family, career) but in the greater reality of his love affair with a Victorian house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in San Francisco.

Along with his sidekick, the budding artist and writer Mont (beautifully portrayed by Jonathan Majors), Jimmie maintains and then, after it's been abandoned by the current owners during a contentious estate battle, squats in the house he believes his grandfather built with his own sweat in the 1940s.

What follows is worthy of Shakespeare. Masterfully photographed by Adam Newport-Berra, and sensitively scored by Emile Mosseri, it belongs on the big screen. Don't wait for streaming or video - see it now.

Jimmie peers into the house he would love to re-occupy

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Basquiat x Warhol at The School

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol - Eggs, acrylic on canvas, 1985
Summer in the greater Capital Region means blockbuster art exhibitions, and 2019 is no exception. However, despite Renoir being at the Clark, Sloan at the Hyde, and Ritts at the Fenimore (all sure to attract a great deal of worthy attention), this year's top draw surely is Basquiat x Warhol at The School in tiny Kinderhook, a venue that has been a project of the New York City art dealer Jack Shainman for the last five years.

Warhol - Campbell's Soup Box, box constructed
with acrylic, canvas, and silkscreen, 1986
It's a testament to the lucrative NYC art trade that Shainman can afford to offer this tremendous gift to all art lovers within reach of Columbia County. Though the exquisitely renovated former public school is only open on Saturdays from 11 to 6, admission is free, staff are plentiful and professional, and printed checklists are there for the taking. Like other modern spaces (MASS MoCA, for example), The School features many galleries on multiple floors, high ceilings, white walls (except where original pastel paints remain gloriously peeled and layered) and plenty of distance between the artworks and their labels (an approach I like for its lack of intrusiveness).

While previous shows at The School featured gallery artists and the works were generally for sale, this iteration is made up entirely of privately owned pieces which, considering the exalted historical status of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, gives it the aura of a museum exhibition. Though these facts don't guarantee universal appeal, it is a very likable show for anyone who can handle Pop, abstraction, and expressionism, along with a generous dollop of adult content.

Basquiat - installation view of 45 Marker on Ceramic Plates, 1983-84

Per the gallery's press release, the crux of the exhibition lies in the collaborative paintings and interconnected practices of the two artists. Widely criticized when the collaborations took place in 1984-5, this re-examination proves that time passing is the best method for judging the true value of a work of art.

Beautifully installed in the venue's most expansive room, eight large jointly made paintings are augmented by more than 100 individual works, including Warhols from as early as 1964 and Basquiats from 1980 to 1987 (the year Warhol died). A large chunk of the Warhols are Polaroids (many of them quite wonderful), and there are also three Warhol short films and a 2018 PBS documentary on Basquiat running continuously.

Warhol - Installation view of 16 Polaroid Torsos, 1977
Surrounding the centerpiece of the show with so much individually made work has multiple effects: First, it puts the collaborative work in context by presenting many examples of work by both artists from the same period; it offers the opportunity to consider each of the artists on his own; and it invites the viewer to compare the two artists.

Each facet of this process is rewarding. There are rooms where Warhol's or Basquiat's pieces stand alone, as well as spaces where they are intentionally juxtaposed.

Warhol - Ladies and Gentlemen, acrylic and
silkscreen ink on canvas, 1975
In one broad hallway, extended bodies of work on paper by each of the collaborators hang separately but equally in a balance of black and white (see the example by Basquiat at the end of this post). And, now that I said it, one has to consider the aspect of this story that addresses being black or being white. Basquiat, an African American of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, didn't hold back on expressing his rage at racism (even within the highest levels of the art world, to which he was admitted so young, and where some would say he was treated as a very highly paid mascot). Yet Warhol, as white as they come, was also an outsider - gay, with a strangely neutral affect, inhabiting the NYC underworld of gender benders decades before it became popular, he crossed boundaries easily.

This is evident in a number of the works shown here that may surprise people who know Warhol primarily from his factory-made Pop art, in which his masterly hand at drawing is applied to beautifully rendered portraits of drag queens and transvestites - all of them black.

Aside from race, the show delves into another taboo subject - that of death. Indeed, this is its true core. Especially in the collaborative paintings, but elsewhere too, the preoccupation with death is palpable – images of skulls litter the exhibition, along with other direct references to the end we can't escape. The Basquiat that opens the show, a football helmet adorned with human hair that he advised Warhol to wear in order to understand the black experience, is itself a proxy skull.

Basquiat - Il Duce, acrylic, oil stick,
and spray paint on canvas, 1982
Death is also repeatedly referenced in paintings and silkscreens that address the fragility of the human heart. The largest collaborative painting (13 feet long) is titled Heart Attack, and several Warhols in the show directly depict the organ. A small but potent Warhol silkscreen from 1984 re-creates a public health poster that explains How to Tell You're Having a Heart Attack. Basquiat's work, though often humorous and colorful, is nevertheless persistently ghoulish.

Though it's sad to recall both men's deaths, just a year and a half apart (Warhol from complications after gall bladder surgery, and Basquiat of a heroin overdose at age 27), this exhibition shows the lasting legacy of their extraordinarily vital energies, and leaves the visitor uplifted by the joy they clearly took in sharing their artistic pursuits. To paraphrase my friend Margo, who joined me there, we just loved it.

Basquiat x Warhol continues through Sept. 7.

Note: Images reproduced here are © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; or © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, New York 2019

Basquiat - Anatomy, set of 18 framed screenprints on Arches 88, 1982

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fence Select 19 at ACCR

Installation view of Fence Select 19 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region
Each year in the Capital Region two big shows provide an opportunity for local artists to expose their latest work and for art fans to see a broad range of what the regional scene has to offer. Those two shows are the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, which rotates venues, and The Fence Show, hosted annually by the Arts Center of the Capital Region (ACCR) in Troy. Each show serves these purposes in contrasting ways.

The current edition of Fence Select (a curated selection of 62 pieces pulled from the 400+ works submitted to the all-inclusive, salon-style Fence Show) has a quite a few of the same artists you might find in a typical Regional - but that's where the similarity begins to fade. Most notably, Fence lacks gravitas - it's casual. The artworks are arrayed in straight lines, but with little apparent relationship among them (see example in view shown above). It's possible that this quirky arrangement was done in homage to the Fence Show's origins - it began several decades ago with the artworks being hung from the spikes of an iron fence that surrounds Troy's Washington Park, where the ACCR was located at the time.

Jeff Wigman - Pug Chihuahua Mix, oil on paper (detail)
Also quirky: Several of the included artists (juried by Art Omi Curator Nicole Hayes) had two pieces chosen, but none of those pairs are hung together. Meanwhile, somewhat counter-intuitively, all but two of the prizes went to artists who had just one piece chosen (the exceptions being Runner-Up Jeff Wigman and Honorable Mention Catherine Austin).

On the plus side, those prizes were numerous and rich - a total of about $3,000 was awarded to 11 recipients, including a Student Best in Show and a Student Runner-Up, who received $100 each. That kind of encouragement to young (or, for that matter, established) artists is invaluable.

Then there's the numbering system. Rather than re-number the works after re-hanging them from the Salon installation, the ACCR has retained each piece's original submission number, making for a whacked-out game of seek and find when attempting to locate works by referring to the numerically ordered checklist. Additionally, at the time of my visit, the checklist was missing five of the selected pieces altogether, so I couldn't even identify those artists or their works' titles (hopefully, that's been rectified).

As is usual with a juried show, there are a few odd choices here, including several that are - forgive me - plain awful or, at best, pedestrian. It seems Hayes has curious taste. I'll leave it for you to decide which may be the weaker players, but let's just agree to accept the show as a bit underwhelming overall and move on to the highlights.

Lori Lawrence - In the Light, oil on canvas
Among my favorite pieces in this selection are non-prizewinners by artists I've known for a long time. Lori Lawrence, emerging from a prolonged hiatus, has two particularly strong paintings of natural scenes with gloriously unnatural coloration. Also glorying in unbridled color sense is a large painting on paper by Wendy Williams that, wisely, was given pride of place at the start of the exhibition. I also discovered a few new names worth keeping an eye out for, including Janet Barnett, whose delicate, pedestal-scale wood sculpture entitled Autumn Wind captures movement remarkably well; and Aindrea Richard, whose mystically complex and adroitly painted untitled gouache received an Honorable Mention from the juror.

Mary LaFleur - ceramic
Other prizewinners include Jamie Rodriguez (Best in Show), whose amusingly titled combination of painting and sculpture stretches boundaries of medium, expression, and - possibly - decorum (see image at bottom of this post); Catherine Austin, who makes drawings from old Polaroids (I think); and Mary LaFleur, who received a staff award for her expressive ceramic horse (shown at left).

The show has a fairly small selection of photographs (most of which, regrettably, are forgettable) but three stood out to me: Chris Demarco's study of a kudzu infestation; Theresa Swidorski's negative image of a forest; and Robert Coppola's color picture of a tiny house in Maine.

Fence Select will remain on view through July 7. Also on view in the ACCR's Foyer Gallery is a crowd-pleasing collection of works on paper by Mary Sherwood entitled Drawing on Experience, which will remain there through Sept 6. An artists' reception for both exhibitions will be held Friday, June 28, from 6-8 p.m as part of the monthly Troy Night Out events.

Also of interest in Troy is a retrospective exhibition of photographs by Eric Lindbloom, extended through June 30 at the PhotoCenter (example at right, above). Fans of traditional black-and-white photography will be thrilled by the craftsmanship and ethereal quality of Lindbloom's masterful work.

Jamie Rodriguez - It's unfortunate what happened to Peter Stuyvesant and his peg leg, mixed media (detail)