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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagan at Albany Institute of History & Art

Larry Kagan - Hershey Art, 2011 - light and steel wire
all photos by Gary Gold
There's a particularly close relationship between sculpture and drawing. I first noticed this during college, where drawing teachers are often sculptors, and have seen the parallel reinforced regularly ever since. I think this is partly due to the fact that sculptures, like most drawings, tend to be monochromatic, as well as the fact that modern sculptors typically piece together bits of material in an additive process that is far more similar to drawing than it is to painting (where color tends to be the driving force).

Spike, 1977 - cast acrylic
I've also noted a similarity between photography and sculpture, based on other factors, particularly the concreteness of three-dimensional art and the reliance of photography on three-dimensional reality as its subject. Now, in the work of Larry Kagan as presented in a sumptuous retrospective at the Albany Institute of History & Art entitled Shape and Shadow, these connections are made even stronger through a different element altogether: Light.

According to catalog material provided by the Institute, the Troy-based Kagan began as a printmaker before switching to sculpture in the 1970s. One can see evidence of the tactile qualities of prints in some of his first steel works (more on that later), but the earliest body of work represented in this exhibition uses colorless cast acrylic, a medium that plays directly with light within its transparent and translucent forms.

We're Losing Our Ozone, 1989 - steel
In several of the acrylic pieces on display, Kagan has added electric lights to the pieces, energizing them in ways that exploit the particular light-transmitting qualities of the material, while defying the viewer's received experience of viewing a sculptural object under illumination from without. One of those pieces, Wormholes, also seems to break new ground by adding twisting tubes to undulating folds of flat acrylic. Another, entitled Spike, uses hyper-geometric forms and contrasting textures - but no special lighting - to play with our perceptions.

Later, Kagan would return to playing directly with light, but a middle period in which he picked up industrial scrap as a medium would find him flattening his forms into wall reliefs, in effect drawing with steel. One example, shown above at left, perfectly exemplifies that period in a piece entitled We're Losing Our Ozone, which belongs to the Institute, and is displayed to good effect with a smaller maquette of similar design that led to the monumentally scaled final version.

Smoke, 1980 - steel
Crevice, 1979 - steel
First, though, Kagan held onto the robust three-dimensionality of his acrylic work in rough-hewn plate-steel works that emphasize simple forms and heavily rusted textures. A group of eight miniatures from 1979-1981 are presented near the start of the exhibition on two shelves, like friendly toys that beg to be picked up and played with (in the museum it's strictly "do not touch," but these pieces were in fact intended to be handled). These are the tactile qualities I was referring to earlier in relation to Kagan's start in printmaking. The two examples shown above represent the spirit of that group.

Cousin Rose, 1997 - light and found steel
Kagan's wall reliefs (such as Ozone) are the first works by him that I recall seeing when they were being exhibited locally in current exhibitions in the '80s, and I recall that there was shadow play going on then, but it was subtle and not particularly directed. In a striking exception, unique in this show and perhaps unique altogether, Kagan's 1997 Cousin Rose combines two wall-mounted found-steel forms of wire and mesh with the unfocused shadows cast by standard gallery spotlights to make an amusing and affectionate portrait of a lady whose flowery hat draws her face and whose fluttering scarf renders her shoulders.

Hibiscus, 2015 - light and steel wire
This presages what would come ten years later, as Kagan began to craft his steel-wire constructions to cast astonishingly precise shadow drawings from focused spotlights, and is reprised in some of the later shadow pieces in which Kagan takes a simpler and looser approach. For example, Hibiscus, shown at left, much more closely resembles Cousin Rose than it does the work that comes between them in time, such as Stiletto II, shown at the bottom of this post.

Several other of the more recent works in the show also reveal a softening of the starkly illustrative style Kagan had adopted with the earlier shadow works, and with that they also add a looseness to the handling of the steel wire that draws the eye away from the shadow image and back into the sculptural form that makes it.

Light Bulb, 2013 - light and steel wire
While the images cast by these more recent works are still quite representational (including a wry portrait of Andy Warhol), their simplified armatures and freed-up gestures make them more appealing and engaging than the earlier shadow works. It's a subtle shift that shows Kagan continues to evolve and improve, a welcome development in what is already a distinguished career. The show will remain on view through June 9.

Stiletto II, 2010 - light and steel wire

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Photography Regional 41 at Collar Works

Jeff Lansing - Albany Warehouse District 1 (with text added by Collar Works)
Every Photography Regional is unique, but the 41st edition of this popular and often controversial annual is even more different than most, due to a new venue and particularly tight jurying.

This year, the peripatetic show has found a Troy home at Collar Works, a raw and ample nonprofit space that opened for business a little over three years ago under the guidance of Executive Director Elizabeth Dubben, and quickly made a name for itself as an innovative hub of the local contemporary arts scene.

Justin Baker - Frodo's Ghost II
Historically, the Photo Regional has always rotated among sponsoring organizations. When it began in 1979, responsibility for it was shared between Albany Center Gallery and the former Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (RCCA) in Troy. After RCCA (now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region) bowed out in the mid-'90s, other venues took up the cause, including Fulton Street Gallery and the PhotoCenter in Troy, and the Albany Airport Gallery in Colonie. Albany Center Gallery has continued to be in the mix since it first hosted in 1980; Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery has held the show every three years since 2003; and now there's Collar Works, which I hope will remain as a regular host in the cycles to come.

Natasha Holmes - Babble, Bubble
Regular followers of the Photo Regional will be struck by how different in scope the current iteration is from the previous 40: With only 18 works by 15 artists, it's by far the sparest version ever. The only comparison I can make would be to the 2003 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region Juried Exhibition at UAlbany's Art Museum, which had just 17 artists and 35 works in it (trivia buffs may note that one artist, Justin Baker, was selected for both). Typically, either of these Regionals will include far more work (for example, two years ago at ACG, the 39th Photo Regional included 72 pieces by 51 artists).

That said, whereas the 2003 Mohawk-Hudson Regional was overwhelmed by the UAlbany Museum's vast, two-story space, Photo Regional 41 sits fairly comfortably in the low-ceilinged Collar Works gallery. On my first visit, having heard about the small number of works included, I doubted they could hold the space - but I found that dividing walls, along with sensible pairings and groupings of related pieces, have given the minimal selection enough support to stand up.

Theresa Swidorski - Forest Gate
Chosen by Brooklyn-based curators Kathleen Vance and Daniel Ayecock from submissions by 88 artists, the show hews to the traditional; few of the images deviate very far from the camera-made, though the collection feels contemporary in style, subject, and coloration. Only three of the 18 pieces are monochromatic and, of those, just one is black and white (the other two being a cyanotype, which is blue, and a digitally-reproduced toned darkroom print in a range of dark browns). Overall, the technical and visual quality of the images is high but, as with all such shows, there are a few clunkers (I'll leave it to the readers to see the show and decide for themselves which ones those may be).

Coby Berger - Albany Super Storage
Another distinction of this Regional is that, though it was juried from an open call (i.e. not an invitational), no prizes were awarded, apart from the jurors' decision to give the "top three" among the accepted artists two pictures in the show, while the other 12 selected artists have one picture each. Those three - Justin Baker, Chris DeMarco, and Jeff Lansing - are all worthy of the distinction, and the pairs of pictures included by each make strong presentations.

With so many variations on the usual theme, this Photo Regional provides a lot of food for thought. Is it better to see more or fewer artists in a large group show? Does seeing two or three of an individual artist's pieces help you understand and appreciate their work better, or could more time spent with just one piece provide greater insight? Can 18 artists adequately represent a region? For that matter, can any show represent a region at all?

Chris DeMarco - Test Site 2
As in most Regionals, this show includes a number of familiar names as well as a few new ones. In addition to the jurors' top three choices, I particularly liked George Guarino's geometric and heavily textured digital photo assemblage titled Daughter Mother; Natasha Holmes's Babble, Bubble, a fun-filled concoction of commonplace objects; Robert Coppola's colorful bit of Americana from Santa Cruz, Calif.; Theresa Swidorski's spooky reverse-printed Forest Gate; and Coby Berger's painterly urban study Albany Super Storage.

Other work that caught my eye included unrelated mist-shrouded night scenes by William Gill and Christopher Herrera, and a quiet suburban scene by Monica Hamilton. The other artists included in the show are Kieran Barber, Hannah Alsdorf, Scott Keidong, and Hillary Raimo. It's worth noting that Hamilton and Barber are both college students (at Skidmore and Saint Rose, respectively), showing that even a very tightly juried show can offer first-time professional opportunities for up-and-comers. That kind of openness is one of the things that makes an annual Regional like this both popular and vital to the community.

Photography Regional 41 runs through April 27. Please note, Collar Works has limited hours: 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Monica Hamilton - Layers of Green, Layers of Wheels, Leadville, Colorado