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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Recycled and Refashioned: The Art of Ruby Silvious at AIHA

Tea Shirts - watercolor, gouache, ink on used tea bags by Ruby Silvious
It's no secret that the greater Capital Region has long been home to a rich community of visual artists. The reasons for this are many, including location, job opportunities, cost of living, and numerous colleges and universities with strong art programs being nearby.

Most of these local artists succeed at various levels, and some are well established in other markets (such as New York City), but it's rare that one breaks out in a big way - so when that happens, it's cause for celebration. I therefore commend the Albany Institute of History & Art for doing justice to our latest local hero, Ruby Silvious, with a terrifically likeable five-year survey of her work.

I was lucky to have had the chance to visit Recycled and Refashioned: The Art of Ruby Silvious before the pandemic shut it down in late March, and I'm delighted that the museum, which has just re-opened to visitors, extended the show's run through Aug. 30, because this is a show literally everyone should try to see.

Like most successful artists, Silvious is incredibly hardworking, as evidenced by the striking quantity and range of the work in this show. But her impressive output doesn't come at the expense of quality - indeed, Silvious seems to get better the more she produces. So, while the number of works on view can be a little overwhelming (multiple viewings are advised), the repetition of many examples in her major themes serves to underscore the wonder of this artist's intensive daily practice.

That daily practice itself is a unifying theme here, as is an abiding interest in clothing (hence the fashion reference in the show's title). While Silvious employs numerous techniques, including drawing in ink, painting in watercolor and gouache, printmaking, collage, sewing - and more - the re-use of materials is an overriding methodology in her work. In addition to the used tea bags that are her claim to fame, Silvious paints on eggshells, acorns, pistachio shells, paint chip samples, leaves, stones and, yes, even paper. She also refashions packaging material into origami bras and fanciful shoes, and combines hundreds of miniature monoprints into grand kimonos.

Perhaps my favorite item in the show (among more than 200) is a ziggurat-like coil of small daily illustrations, itself featuring more than 100 separate images, which was made by drawing on an old adding-machine tape. Like a journal, it neatly and humorously represents the artist's little pleasures and worries, often recording food items (it's clear Silvious likes snacks in addition to hot beverages) and sometimes augmented with wry comments, written in flowing block letters. As I circled this looping chain of charming notations, I was dizzied as much by their seeming endlessness as by the rotating motion of my path.

Another favorite element of Recycled and Refashioned is a display of 11 artist books that date from 2015 to 2019, in which almost all of Silvious's various approaches are represented, with a few added ideas that aren't in the rest of the show (such as embroidered thread drawings of female nudes). I'm a huge fan of artist books, and I love the way Silvious gives herself the freedom to use that medium any way she likes, even hiding one of them inside a used candy tin.

In the same small gallery with these books are 18 small framed tea-bag paintings on the theme of museum goers. These incorporate tiny renderings of famous works of art, as viewed by figures outlined in black ink. I couldn't tell for sure whether the little paintings were somehow copied (say by digital printing) or actually painted by the artist - but either way, they work to draw us in to join our miniature fellow museum goers.

Though Silvious has omnivorous tastes in subject matter (I noted landscapes, architecture, other art, tea - of course, fruits and vegetables, flowers, birds, and people), her biggest obsession does seem to be fashion, and her biggest pieces in the show are full scale and (it seems) wearable, including two paper dresses and four kimonos. The origami bras number around 20, and there are 40 individual shoes made of paper, each a joyful explosion of feminine energy.

Still, the heart and soul of this exhibition is embodied in the paintings on tea bags - more than 60 in frames and more than 75 unframed in vitrines that I counted back in March. Additionally, it was recently announced that a series of 14 new tea bag paintings that Silvious made while under quarantine have been added to the show (and to the permanent collection of the Institute) since then.

There is a very nicely produced video in the first gallery that shows Silvious's process of making these paintings - from steeping the tea to the final multicolored work of art - and it brings home just how home-grown her art really is. The fact that it has carried her on fellowships to Japan, France, Italy, and all over the world in three published monographs, just shows how universally appealing this simple discovery became.

If it was just about the great ideas - re-using everyday materials, modifying junk-food wrappers, combining hundreds of prints into a kimono, or trimming a leaf with scissors - Silvious's work would be interesting. What makes it lasting is the strenuous dedication to craft, and the personal investment of her inner self that Silvious has brought to the unassuming process of making art from daily existence. This show represents a significant achievement by a local artist who's earned it. Let's celebrate that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part III)

Installation view of Willard Boepple show at Pamela Salisbury Gallery
photo by Peter Crabtree
When I heard galleries were starting to emerge from the pandemic darkness and open their doors again to visitors, I beat a path to Hudson, which has the busiest gallery scene in our region. A friend there had made me aware of a large show by Rodney Alan Greenblat at Hudson Hall, and we were able to wangle our way in even though it was early in the week (it's open afternoons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays by timed entry to avoid overcrowding, with guided group tours at 4 p.m. each day).

Lemon Eye Home Rainbow Device
by Rodney Alan Greenblat
Though I was already a bit familiar with Greenblat's painting, this was a revelation in that the show features several very big sculptural pieces from decades past, along with a profusion of very recent work, most of it in two dimensions. Being highly productive hasn't hurt Greenblat at all - the quality is remarkably consistent - and he is clearly having a whole lot of fun, not surprising from an artist whose greatest success involves creating children's books, cartoon characters, and video games.

Many of Greenblat's pieces include a sort of avatar called Lemon Eye, whose cheerfulness seems undiminished by wisdom. I think we can all use some of that right now, and I absolutely loved the show, which is entitled Something to Look Forward To. It continues through Aug. 23.

Pamela Salisbury Gallery was my other primary target on this mission, because it used to be John Davis Gallery, which was always my favorite in Hudson (not meant as a knock on the many other worthy galleries there!) and which I hadn't seen yet under the new owner's management.

Fence 5.2.20 BB, 2020 - screenprint by Willard Boepple
Pamela proved to be as gracious as her predecessor, and the space is virtually unchanged (phew!). So is the quality of the work on view, in this instance four separate solo shows that maintain a high standard and will satisfy anyone's need for rich colors. I particularly liked the screenprint variations in a show by Willard Boepple that is presented on two floors in the main gallery. Boepple also offers a terrific series of neo-Constructivist sculptures, some of them in small-scale 3D-printed versions that are quite charming. Boepple is a colorist of the first order, and this show is not to be missed.

It Won't Rain, 2020
watercolor on paper by Maud Bryt
In the gallery's rear carriage house, a multi-level barn-like structure, Maud Bryt, Richard Kalina, and Ying Li each have a floor to spread out in. Of those, I was most drawn to Bryt's subtle, suggestive watercolors that reflect actual sites and landscapes, but feel more like interior journeys. All four shows will run through July 26.

I also visited Carrie Haddad Gallery, where Jeri Eisenberg, Louise Laplante, Allyson Levy, and Lori Van Houten are joined in a group show entitled Natural Worlds. Though unified by the theme, this group of four is very disparate in style and media, offering a likely match in taste to a broad range of art lovers. My choice would be Eisenberg's ethereal enlargements of flowers and leaves (see image at end of this post). The show continues through July 26 has been extended through Aug. 9.

Shelter, 2020 - gouache by Jenny Kemp
The Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery just reopened on Saturday, July 11, with a solo show of paintings by Jenny Kemp, a favorite artist of mine for years, who I recently reviewed as part of a group show at Carrie Haddad. Her Lake George exhibition features a hefty swath of brand-new work, and continues through Aug 14.

The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls has announced it will re-open on Saturday, Aug. 1, by appointment only. Visits will be limited to seniors and high-risk individuals from 10 a.m. to noon, then will allow the general public from 1 to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday each week.

The National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa has re-opened, and its Jan Rutland Artists' Space currently features a show that had just been mounted when the shutdown hit. A is for Abstract in the Adirondacks! is open from 10-4, Tuesday through Saturday, through Aug. 1.

Also in the northern zone of the Capital Region, Schuylerville's Laffer Gallery re-opened on June 13, leading the charge with a typically classy three-person show featuring Robert Moylan, Tracy Helgeson, and Regina Wickham. A Cultivated Vision will continue there through July 26.

Acacia No. 3, 2018, Japanese Kozo paper infused with encaustic by Jeri Eisenberg


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part II)

Vanderbilt Estate, Hyde Park, New York, part of the Fenimore Art Museum's 
Blue Gardens: Photographs by Steve Gross and Susan Daley
As New York State’s Phase 4 of reopening kicks into gear, many major museums are getting there, too.

After months of utter drought, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown has led the charge, and is open now (as of Friday, July 3), with a slate of new shows, and reduced admission rates.

Next up will be the three biggest draws in the Berkshires: MASS MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, and the Norman Rockwell Museum. They issued a joint announcement that they’d be open with reduced capacity (per Massachusetts guidelines), controlled by timed-entry reserved tickets, beginning next weekend (July 11 for MASS MoCA, July 12 for the others).

A quote from the news release, credited to the museums’ three directors, hits just the right note:
“We strongly believe in the restorative power of art and cannot wait to share our galleries and grounds with our guests.”

Amen to that!

Additionally, the Albany Institute of History & Art has announced it will reopen on July 25 (better late than never). Watch this space for an upcoming review of the outstanding solo exhibition by Ruby Silvious that I viewed at the Institute shortly before the pandemic shutdown.

Meanwhile, according to the Glens Falls Post Star, the Hyde Collection “may open” in August, and a recent Daily Gazette report notes that Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum has no projected reopening date. Neither does the Williams College Museum of Art, which plans to resume operations when the college restarts in the fall, but will remain closed to the public even then.

These are among the best museums around, and will continue to be greatly missed until they find a path to reopening. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Until then, though, we have a lot of fresh exhibitions to get out and see this summer. Make the most of it, and please support these vital regional institutions.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Galleries are re-opening! (Part I)

Nurse Patricia (Nurse Patti)
gouache on paper
Whether by appointment only, masked and sanitized, or take a number and wait, greater Capital Region galleries are starting to re-open with fresh shows, and it feels good to be let in the door.

I recently visited Albany Center Gallery, where two solo shows have been mounted, each with a particularly poignant place in our current historic moment.

Steve Derrick, a video game developer by trade, took inspiration from the global coronavirus pandemic to create scores of gem-like portraits of front-line healthcare workers, many of whom have already received the portraits as gifts from the artist.

Nurse Ema
Stanford Health Care, San Francisco, CA
gouache on paper
Half the gallery space is devoted to a fine set of 30 of these works, all about 6 by 8 inches vertical, hung unframed on little clipboards in a continuous line where we can confront and examine them at eye level.

This works perfectly, as many of them feature the subject face-on, giving direct eye contact. Whether behind masks, goggles, and face shields, or uncovered, the individual faces depicted have a powerful presence. Not insignificant is the fact that, in this selection, only three of the workers depicted are men, and the majority are people of color. This is who we rely on to save our lives every day.

Derrick, a highly skilled painter in gouache, applies a masterful touch to his brushed-on colors, often creating beautiful passages of pure paint where the subjects' colorful clothing is involved, and in equally rich areas depicting skin. His doctors and nurses often bear glaringly apparent PPE marks, along with bloodshot, sometimes tear-filled eyes.

But it's not all anguishing, as many of the workers also display their fierce humanity in the form of deep, searching, compassionate stares that, when you step in closer, drill right through you.

Entitled Healing: Portraits of the Pandemic, Derrick's show is not to be missed, as much for its artistic skill as for its emotional honesty.

Duane Ivan Todman at work
Duane Ivan Todman, a young painter whose life was tragically cut short in May, is the subject of a memorial exhibition in the other half of the gallery that highlights his finished works along with many sketches or works in progress (please scroll down to see my previous post for a fuller story and two of Todman's exquisite images).

While the literal fact of this show's existence is nothing short of heartbreaking, I believe Todman would be proud of the result, which is entitled Shining Light. I knew Duane, and was deeply moved by the experience of viewing his work on display. I think you will be, too, whether you knew him or not. Both shows continue at the gallery at 488 Broadway in downtown Albany through July 18.

A celebration of Todman's life will take place in a small park outside the gallery from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 11. Tickets purchased here with a $10 donation to the Duane X Arts Foundation are required in order to attend.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

In Memoriam: Duane Ivan Todman

A recent unfinished self-portrait by Duane Todman
It is with great sadness that I recount the death of Duane Ivan Todman, a 27-year-old multi-talented artist who was shot by an unknown assailant in Schenectady last Saturday.

Duane and I became acquainted two or three years ago when we met during a reception at Albany Center Gallery. He struck me immediately as an unusually serious person who was deeply thoughtful and very dedicated to his artistic pursuits. He showed an interest in having input from me, and we proceeded to talk from time to time about his pursuit of a career as a neo-Renaissance painter.

One of those talks took place in his studio at The Barn in Albany, where Duane also lived. Having lived in my own studio for many years when I was younger, this was a very comfortable experience, leavened with philosophical discussion and casual critique of his current work, which included portraits, still lifes, and figures.

Duane made great progress in his technique during the few years I knew him, and regularly told me he was seeking the right studio school in which to hone his skill. Apparently, he was about to realize that next step in his dream, as an obituary in today's Times Union reports that Duane had won a scholarship to the Academy of Realist Art Boston, and was set to go there next year.

Duane also was reported to have been working on a book, a screenplay, and musical recordings.

In our last email communications, which took place in March, Duane mentioned the book project and asked me if I'd be willing to read a first draft, to which I enthusiastically agreed; however, he hadn't yet followed up on that, so I never learned what the book was about.

At that time, he also sent me images of two paintings, one finished and one in progress, which I include with this post. As you can see, they are both excellent. Based on the strength of these paintings, I initiated an attempt to connect Duane with a New York City-area dealer of African American painters, but that had not yet borne fruit - perhaps stalled by the intensity of the pandemic in that area.

Now, with one brutal and senseless act, all that promise is gone, and we are left to grapple with the loss of this fine young man. One can only hope that Duane's killer is brought swiftly to justice, and that his family can temper their grief. May he forever rest in peace.

A recent figurative painting by Duane Todman

Monday, May 18, 2020

My favorite musician

Corinne Bailey Rae performs on a recent tour.
If Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell had a baby, she would be Corinne Bailey Rae.

This British singer-songwriter is that unique, and that good.

I became an instant fan in 2006, while watching the great and too-short-lived TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which Howie Mandel, portraying himself as the guest host of a fictional Saturday Night Live-type show, introduced Bailey Rae as the episode's guest musical artist. As she launched into Like a Star, the camera only lingered on Bailey Rae for about 10 seconds before pulling back to the drama of the program's fictional characters. But, by then, I was totally hooked.

Debut album cover
Sure, I wasn't alone - that year's debut album launched two big hits (Like a Star and Put Your Records On), got a bunch of nominations, and sold millions of copies, as did her second album, The Sea, from 2010. Eventually she won a couple of Grammys, one for a Mitchell song she recorded with Herbie Hancock, and several of her songs make up the soundtrack of the film Venus, in which Peter O'Toole created a role that nearly won him the Best Actor Oscar he so richly deserved throughout his career but never won.

Album #2: The Sea
Still, she is greatly underappreciated. This may be due to the challenge of today's extremely individualized or (conversely) overgeneralized commercial music market. Wikipedia has Bailey Rae categorized in the R&B and neo soul genres - as close as you're going to get, but far from the complete picture. She is really not a soul singer, but being bi-racial (and therefore perceived as black) probably pushes that label forward; neither is she a folk singer, but you could just as easily go there.

Third album cover
Maybe uncategorizable, but I'd probably choose pop as the nearest description, because it captures the infectiousness of her every song, and it's vague enough not to exclude the variations in style she easily embraces. Her lyrics have poetry, and charm, and bite. Her tunes are often atmospheric, though more than a few are also totally danceable. What it comes down to is that nearly impossible feat: She is an original.

I think Bailey Rae's third album, 2016's The Heart Speaks in Whispers, is even better than the other two, not a surprise for an artist of great talent who takes long breaks between releases. I find myself still listening to it often, and still getting new feelings from it each time. Live, she exudes a joy that is absolutely radiant, yes, like the sun. If you want to see what I mean, check out this NPR tiny desk concert.

I'm in awe. Just wanted to share that!

Bailey Rae performs at NPR in 2016

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A modest proposal

It's April 2020, and the top subject on just about everyone's mind is how to reopen the U.S. economy while maintaining a safe environment in relation to the novel coronavirus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has set May 15 as the date to begin this process in New York state, with many limits sure to remain in place, and careful decisions to be made on which businesses or services should restart.

My big question is: Where will art museums and galleries fit into this plan?

I think they should be among the first businesses to reopen, for the following reasons:

  1. We are all starving for culture and entertainment, and art exhibitions are a great way to feed that need
  2. It requires very little on-site staff to open an exhibition space
  3. As with other essential businesses, such as supermarkets or hardware stores, necessary protocols like sanitizing surfaces and the wearing of masks would be simple to implement in most exhibition spaces
  4. Apart from major events, such as opening receptions, most exhibition spaces do not attract large crowds - so it would be relatively easy to enforce and maintain social distancing inside and outside these spaces (city museums that do attract large crowds would need to manage them more intensively, though the current lack of tourism would significantly reduce that load)
  5. Touching the art is generally a no-no anyway, so there would be very little opportunity for transmission of the virus via people's hands, but museum shops and coat checks may need to remain closed to minimize that risk
  6. Museums that charge admission depend on those funds to stay alive, and need to again allow visitors in order to stem the bleeding as soon as possible so they don't go belly up
  7. Nonprofit and for-profit galleries that don't charge admission need to keep their physical presence in the public eye (online just doesn't cut it) - otherwise, their sources of revenue will soon dry up and leave them insolvent

We desperately need the lift that art provides, and we can't afford to lose these vital community resources for all time. With these thoughts in mind, I propose that Gov. Cuomo seriously consider adding museums and galleries to the list of businesses that may reopen their doors when the next phase of New York on Pause is implemented.

UPDATE, 5/9/20: The New York Times reported on May 8 that upstate museums could be allowed to open sooner than those downstate, in the third phase of re-openings (along with restaurants, but still behind some retail) rather than the fourth (which includes entertainment). You can read it here.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Spookily prescient

Illustration by Matt Rota, stolen from The New York Times, and cropped (with apologies) 
Don't you just love a good coincidence? I know I do.

Though my daily routine is only lightly influenced by the current stay-at-home normality (as I stopped working a bit less than a year ago), it has still afforded me additional time to do those things I've been meaning to do but managed to avoid by going out to more pleasant experiences, like concerts, movies, and dinners, that are now impossible.

So I'm sorting through old stuff, a long-overdue project. I'm not a hoarder (really!), but I do get lazy and take too long to complete things I've started. That's why I have a terrible backlog of unread newspapers and magazines in my room, but it's also why they don't just go wholesale into the recycling bin - I want to go through them first. I started and I mean to finish.

Over the past year, the occasional fit of constructive reviewing, sorting, and tossing of these archives always produces a gem or two - and so I am encouraged in my folly. This effect was more than abundantly clear a few days ago when I randomly picked up and read (well, cherry-picked) an entire Sunday New York Times from September, 2012.

In it, there was a spookily prescient op-ed by David Quammen, whose book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was soon to be published. There he asked the question we all now know the answer to: What will cause the next global pandemic?

His answer included the following:
     Scientists who study this subject — virologists, molecular geneticists, epidemiologists, disease ecologists — stress its complexity but tend to agree on a few points.
     Yes, there probably will be a Next Big One, they say. It will most likely be caused by a virus, not by a bacterium or some other kind of bug. More specifically, we should expect an RNA virus (specifically, one that bears its genome as a single molecular strand), as distinct from a DNA virus (carrying its info on the reliable double helix, less prone to mutation, therefore less variable and adaptable). Finally, this RNA virus will almost certainly be zoonotic — a pathogen that emerges from some nonhuman animal to infect, and spread among, human beings.

In other words, the now universally loathed and feared COVID-19.

Quammen knew what he was talking about, but it's not like he was some sort of prophet. Indeed, as a good reporter, he cites his sources: Scientists. They knew, and we were supposed to be prepared. Oy.

Even more coincidentally, that same 2012 edition of The Times quotes Walt Whitman's famous 1855 poem Song of Myself, in which he stated "I contain multitudes." This phrase became the title of a 2016 book by the science writer Ed Yong, which beautifully and clearly explains just how ubiquitous and powerful microbes are. Those of you who know me well may remember my constant raving a couple of years ago that Yong's book had changed my worldview. Through it, I learned that the microbes have always been in charge of things on Earth, that they always will be in charge, and that we are merely their oh-so-temporary guests.

At this point, I trust that every well-informed person understands this truth, thanks to the novel coronavirus epidemic. The microbe is in control - we are completely at its mercy, now and for the foreseeable future.

That is our reality and it can't be denied (though some continue to try).

A seven-and-a-half-year-old copy of The New York Times has no consciousness or intention (neither does a virus), but it brought those qualities to life in me as I sat in my favorite chair, just reading and stirring up a little dust.

This life is temporary. We have very little control over what will happen to us from one day to the next. So, let's be smart and try to make the best of it. Be kind, be generous, be respectful. Love one another. Support the things you care about. Now is the time.

Note: Click here to read Quammen's entire op-ed.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What will the exhibition spaces do?


When The New York Times published its seasonal special section on museums on Friday, March 13, it was already too late. That day, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared a national emergency, and venues all over the country set about shutting their doors until further notice.

Browsing through those pages, I fought back tears to see brilliant shows at fabulous exhibition sites advertised in gorgeous displays, some of them two pages wide. Uncountable donor dollars spent, staff hours worked, plans made, contracts drawn up, masterpieces shipped - and now, none of it even visitable.

It's a tragedy our national media are too busy to make much comment on, though one article printed in the Daily Gazette that caught my eye was perhaps the saddest note of all: An unprecedented coming together of works by the Italian Renaissance master Raffaello, which opened on March 5 at the Scuderie del Quirinale Museum in Rome, was cloaked in darkened silence three days later, representing losses to that institution and its partners of hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in missed admissions.

Closer to home, every museum and gallery is closed indefinitely. I could barely count all the emails I've received announcing these measures, from top venues like Chesterwood, The Hyde Collection, the Albany Institute of History & Art, and MASS MoCa, as well as college and commercial galleries like the Massry at Saint Rose, the Opalka at Sage, Carrie Haddad in Hudson and Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville. And many more. Our own Albany Center Gallery (I'm the treasurer there) is lucky in a sense, as the current show was being installed at the time of the widespread shutdown and wasn't set to open until March 31 - but now it seems unlikely it will ever open to the public.

As short as this post is, I've struggled for two weeks to get it written.

Because, what can I say? How do you respond to such circumstances when your whole life and that of most of your friends has revolved around making and presenting art in physical form and three-dimensional space? It's an irrevocable loss.

To be fully realized, the visual art experience requires direct interaction between art and viewer - and we can't have that right now. Institutions the world over that give body and soul to make these experiences possible, and that barely survive even in the best of times, are now in very deep trouble.

I feel for these institutions, and I especially feel for the artists whose opportunities have suddenly transformed into obstacles. Careers will be interrupted - even derailed - by this event. Some will never recover (imagine a young musician, whose first significant gig just got canceled - will they ever get a shot like that again?). It's heartbreaking.

Many of these institutions are (naturally) seeking and finding creative ways around the problem. Most are putting their collections, past shows, or current shows online to be viewed virtually. My best suggestion is to think of the venues you like best (or have always wanted to visit) and go to their websites now. Enjoy the content they are providing with today's limited means. Go back again and again as they add to their creative offerings.

And, then - please - seriously consider making a donation. They need you now more than ever.

Monday, March 9, 2020

DEAR DAVID / HI JAN: Brickman & Galligan discuss film

In an editorial recently published at Nippertown, David and Capital Region expat Jan Galligan discuss the film 1917 through a series of emails. The piece is also being published in print in the Puerto Rican journal En Rojo (pending translation into Spanish).

Here's a taste of their discussion:

David:
Thanks for sending your Nippertown article with your selections for The Best of 2019. We enjoyed your take on all the films being considered for the 2020 Academy Awards and agree with your selection of 1917 as one the best films of last year.

Here’s our interpretation of that Sam Mendes movie:
The first half of the film, until the main character is shot and the screen goes black (for a significantly long time) is all real, it actually happens.
The second half of the film, when he “wakes up” after that long blackout, all takes place in his imagination ... 

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

William Stone "Apperception" at Hudson Hall

Seated and Seatless 2006
Serendipity was my friend a week ago when I was in Hudson on a Tuesday for business unrelated to art, but ended up seeing a really cool art show anyway. Galleries aren't generally open at that time of the week in weekender-centric Hudson, but Hudson Hall was, and William Stone's solo show there proved to be worth the trip by itself.

Entitled Apperception, this collection of nearly 30 works spans the past decade (with a few earlier pieces) and provides a good range of freestanding and wall-mounted examples of this very witty sculptor's output. Working mostly in wood, Stone likes to play games with our perceptions by transforming familiar objects and materials with both dry and playful attitudes.

Some of the wall pieces use found paintings as their foundation, combining respect and irreverence in equal measure to elevate such mundane objects into something more. These include Orogeny, where a mountainscape has been jigsawed so it pops off the wall, and Signatures, a favorite piece of mine in which Stone has excised and lovingly reframed a constellation of just the signatures from half-a-dozen or so garage-sale paintings.

Live Edge Out 2018
Other wall works feature unfinished bark or slabs of lumber as the picture itself, flush-mounted or framed suitably in raw wood. These sculptures were not equally successful, but they all have the quality of making the viewer see something freshly, a worthy purpose for a piece of art. The rest of Stone's work in this exhibition (all of it freestanding) accomplishes that same goal quite neatly.

I should stop for a moment here to note that Stone is not just playing - he executes each piece with consummate craftsmanship, creating cleanly finished objects that use the qualities of fine woodcraft to mimic functionality, while simultaneously undermining it.

Fall Line 1991
So when Stone transforms three nondescript wooden chairs into one extraordinary one, by slicing them apart and reassembling them, you end up with a perfect illustration of the cliché "greater than the sum of its parts." And you can still sit on it.

Other altered chairs make up a good part of the rest of the show, along with more complex pieces of furniture apparently built from scratch. Another favorite of mine shown here is among the most recent - Stair Share, from 2019, evokes an Escher illusion, but it's neither illusory nor impossible. Rather, it is both pointless and potentially handy - a clever bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary on our fascination with finely crafted objects and their uses.

I enjoy Stone for his simplicity - or directness - and for his sly sense of humor. You will, too.

Hudson Hall (aka Hudson Opera House) is in the middle of Warren Street and is open every day. The exhibition runs through March 15.

Stair Share 2019

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The best films of 2019

George McKay, center, probably deserved an Oscar nod for his lead role in 1917.
Well, I'm a little late to the party, but I have a couple of good excuses - and, anyway, at least I get to publish my list before the Oscars are announced this evening. Proud to say, this year I actually saw every Best Picture nominee (and all but one in an actual movie theater - the one being Joker, which I caught on DVD the day after it was released in that format).

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
star in Everybody Knows
As usual, I have a quibble or three with the Academy, but it looks like the front-runner this year is 1917, which is also my top pick, so you never know. Following right behind, however, is a film that got zero notice from the Academy (though some critics gave it due props), which is sadly ironic in that it's an all-black production that easily deserved the attention and could have helped to save the annual hue and cry about Oscars-so-white if it had been properly recognized.

Instead, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is this year's most-overlooked movie at Oscar time (see my full review here). Honestly, I'm not cynical enough to think that Academy voters disregard good material just because the people who made it are black; rather, I think they are simply too self involved to be able to appreciate a lot of fare that isn't right up their alley - hence, outstanding non-traditional or foreign material often gets overlooked.

That said, you may notice that the much-ballyhooed Korean film Parasite didn't make my short list (though its Oscar success may have helped the Academy dodge the racism bullet this year). I acknowledge that Parasite is extremely well made, but it is too brutally dehumanizing for my taste. I've gotten the impression that many people found its class-struggle story to be groundbreaking - however, 2018's Japanese production Shoplifters told a very similar story, while humanizing all its subjects, which to me was both more difficult and much more worthwhile. (Then again, a movie-savvy friend told me that Parasite was his favorite film of 2019 and Shoplifters his favorite of 2018, so maybe I'm just confused.)

Other films that the Academy liked more than I did were Ford v. Ferrari, which told a very good story, but in such a drawn-out fashion and with so much time spent inside a race car that I got bored (despite great performances by Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and others, as well as a lot of unsubtitled but perfectly executed Italian dialogue - a surprise treat for me); and Little Women, which also featured some very good acting but was almost unbearably twee and, at times, so anachronistic as to be groan-inducing.

But the rest of Oscar's favorites made my list - so, here we go:
  1. 1917 - This is what a truly great movie is supposed to be. Advice to anyone who a) hasn't seen it and b) hasn't seen the trailer: Don't watch the trailer, it will ruin the film - just go see it. And, yes, I mean GO to a movie theater and immerse yourself in the darkness for an unforgettable experience.
  2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco - A stunning achievement by a crew of first-timers, strikingly original and deeply personal. Will hold up just fine on video, so borrow this one from your library or (if you must) stream it.
  3. The Irishman - Scorsese and his team of regulars do it again. Forget what they say - it's not too long!
  4. Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood - Tarantino does it again, only this time with a bit more subtlety (though not too much of that, after all, it's Tarantino). Leonardo DiCaprio is really good here, but Brad Pitt is even better, and ought to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.
  5. Jojo Rabbit - Imperfect, but enhanced by extreme originality, it's gratifying to see a film this quirky get noticed by the stuffy ol' Academy. Probably won't win anything but, in this case, the nomination is the prize.
  6. The Farewell - Nominated for a bunch of less prestigious awards (and winning quite a few), this movie was inexplicably left out of the running for Oscar, despite being a near-perfect indie film by an American (albeit Asian-American) director. The story would fit any family, especially any family with recent immigrants, but ol' Hollywood apparently couldn't relate. Extra props to UAlbany product Awkwafina, who starred and earned a Golden Globe for her efforts.
  7. Transit - Similar to Jojo Rabbit, in that it re-imagines a WWII scenario with deft originality, this film takes place in the France of the present, but depicts the displacement of people there under the German Nazi invasion of the 1940s. Lyrical, beautifully filmed, heartbreaking.
  8. The White Crow - I'm no ballet critic, but I enjoyed every minute of this adaptation of the true life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, probably because it so effectively shows how the passion of a great artist helped him overcome terrible odds.
  9. Joker - Much better than I expected, and not at all a comic-book movie (though based on comic-book characters), this film captured my attention and never let it go. Joaquin Phoenix will win the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant performance as the horribly mentally ill Arthur Fleck.
  10. This is a tie. Marriage Story and Everybody Knows have significant commonalities - family relationships gone dramatically awry, superstar casts, indie vibes - but they are also starkly contrasting: One takes place between brutally competitive New York City and Los Angeles, the other in a charming Spanish village; one involves a rather superficial decision to divorce, the other a decades-old, crime-laced mystery. But they share crackling dialogue, beautifully shot scenes - many of them intensely intimate - and a couple of nice twists. While Marriage Story earned best-actor nods for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Everybody Knows got bupkus, though its male lead, Antonio Banderas, was nominated instead for his work in Pain and Glory. Obviously a good year for him - and for Johansson, who also was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Jojo Rabbit. Impressive achievements for both.
Still to be seen: I've yet to catch up with the aforementioned Pain and Glory, and would also like to catch The Two Popes (which had each Pope interpreter get an Oscar nod), and another African-American themed movie called Waves that got an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to 92% for Little Women and a perplexing 68% for Joker).

In all, 2019 was a far better than average year for films, as was 2018 - a promising trend, with Amazon and Netflix deserving much of the credit.

Transit, starring Franz Rogowski, center, was one of the best films of 2019
and earned a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

A natural sandstone concretion from France that is about 5 feet wide
all photos by Robert Blake
Is Mother Nature an artist? That question came to mind as I perused the mind-blowing collection of minerals at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven on a recent road trip.
My old friend Rob, a rock hound and certified gemologist, guided me on this trip, and assured that this collection is truly dazzling even to an expert (he grew up near Harvard, which has a similarly impressive collection, but he said the Peabody's outshines Harvard's in terms of the size of the specimens and the way they're displayed).

To rank amateur me, the outstanding impression was of sculptural brilliance. Sure, the collectors who pay a king's ransom to own such specimens are as affected by aesthetic concerns as anyone, but they're still gathering objects that came from nature, not an artist's studio. Though there's no individual creator making these objects - just chemistry plus time - the results are no less visually exciting than a carefully executed sculpture. After all, who wouldn't be pleased to display the beer-can sized specimen of beryl with albite from Pakistan shown at right, above, on a nice pedestal in their living room?

A stunning specimen of pure gold found in California
By the way, the Peabody is best known for its dinosaur exhibits, which were not on view for our visit (and won't be for years, pending massive renovations), but the mineral exhibits alone were well worth the trip to New Haven (a city I'd never visited, despite having once lived in Connecticut for several years). Additionally, the museum has an equally impressive bird collection, and quite a few excellent dioramas featuring a broad array of environments and their respective animal specimens.

The heart of the mineral collection is in a special gallery dedicated to a donor and Yale alumnus named David Friend. Here, examples of extraordinary value from the collection are grouped with equally outstanding specimens on loan from the friends of Friend. We were told that this selection rotates every couple of years, as many more items than can be displayed are available. Just a few are shown in the photos in this post, but the full display is extensive, featuring all types and sizes, as well as a good sampling of gems for fans of wearable art. All of it is beautifully mounted and dramatically lit with high-tech spotlight arrays.

So, check out these examples, and think about going. Alert: Those renovations will take over the entire museum as of this June - and it won't reopen until 2023. Now's the time.

Our blogger examines a giant fossil of prehistoric plants and fish

Sunday, January 5, 2020

In Brief: Michelle Bowen at ACCR

Michelle Bowen - Mind and Body with Soul
acrylic on linen
A unique concept drives the current solo exhibition titled Huelitic Code: Language Through a Prism, which features prints and paintings by Michelle Bowen at the Arts Center of the Capital Region through Feb. 2.

Bowen has invented a system of colors associated with letters, something akin to automatic writing, in that it decides for her what colors to use in each work of art. The majority of her paintings are clean, geometric designs that nest series of stripes in symmetrical arrangements that use her system to represent short sets of related words (while some comprise asymmetrical series of tiny squares that represent longer texts).

I don't know what method Bowen used to determine which colors represent each letter - it appears random - but it's certain the resulting paintings would look very different if that set-up were changed. Whatever the basis of choice, the word-derived images are often very appealing as color studies, but can also be slightly confounding. For example, Bowen has produced a set of smaller works that each represent a color by name, but the colors assigned to the letters follow the code, not the color being represented. So, in one instance, the painting that represents "blue" has no blue in it.

Black and White with Heart, acrylic on linen
Sorry if that is hard to understand - but it's the nature of the show to be a bit of a puzzle, and an eye-pleasing one at that. For me, the richest compositions and the simplest joys in this exhibition are purely visual, though Bowen's penchant for provocative juxtapositions (e.g. "autocracy" and "democracy") is stimulating and easy enough to comprehend visually.

It got a lot tougher for me to relate where Bowen chooses to represent much longer passages, described as being from scripture, as well as other literal evocations of spirituality, such as in a painting that makes a colorful geometric abstraction out of numerous names for "god," which felt a bit preachy.

Bowen's strength is in the originality and impeccable execution of her concept - I'm happy with any system an artist employs if in the end we have something absorbing or beautiful to contemplate. Bowen succeeds on both counts.