Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Monday, December 14, 2020

In Brief: Fence Select at ACCR

Michael Oatman - American Spring (after Wallace Bergman), collage
Part all-inclusive members' show, part juried regional, the longstanding Fence Show at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy is a unique annual event. Like many other exhibitions this year, Fence was delayed a few months due to the pandemic, and so it is still on view in December, though it would normally be a summer show (historically, the show got its name because it was hung outdoors on a wrought-iron fence that surrounds a private park associated with the former location of the ACCR).

Victoria van der Laan - To Dash Against Darkness
sewn and quilted cotton
This year's Fence Select was chosen by Tang Museum Director Ian Berry, with additions selected by ACCR staff (possibly a first) and, if memory serves, this was the first time the show restricted entrants to just one submission each. Naturally, this would lead to a far less comprehensive presentation than a juried show with the typical three or more entries per participant, but it still resulted in a representative cross-section of many of the region's most interesting artists.

In this way, despite its limitations, Fence Select serves as a handy augmentation of the Annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region (aka the Regional), currently on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art through Jan. 3. Coincidentally, this year's Regional also features just one work by many of the participating artists, and several of those artists are in Fence Select - so a careful observer can actually combine those in their minds' eye to develop a fuller understanding of each of those artists.

Fern Apfel - The Yellow Envelope
For example, Fern Apfel, whose acrylic and pen on wood panel received the Best in Show award at Fence, has two related pieces in the Regional; and Victoria van der Laan, who was named runner-up at Fence for her lyrically graphic quilt, has another outstanding quilted work in the Regional.

Other important artists represented in both shows include Niki Haynes, Michael Oatman, John Hampshire, Mandi Coburn, Jeff Wigman, and Dorothea Osborn. I also noticed a few favorite photographers in Fence Select, such as Chris DeMarco, Ray Felix, and Jennifer Duke Anstey, bringing to mind the recent annual Photography Regional at Albany Center Gallery, where some of them were also represented.

Apart from these various associations, Fence Select stands alone reasonably well, but it is a bit thin, due to the relatively large space it inhabits at the ACCR. I suspect this underfilling may be the reason that five staff picks were added (making for a total of 28), and I'm glad they were, as they include some of the better works in the selection.

Fence Select remains on view only through this week, with open hours Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. - so , if you want to catch it, be sure to act now.

John Hampshire - Labyrinth 623, ink on polypropylene

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Unraveling at Opalka Gallery

Joan Grubin's E Pluribus is part of Unraveling at the Opalka Gallery in Albany
The artist Yura Adams has curated an important show at Russell Sage College's Opalka Gallery in Albany that features three other artists and herself. While it’s generally a faux pas for curators to include themselves in the show they’re selecting, Adams proves to be an exception to this rule, having plenty of experience organizing worthy exhibitions and events while being one of the region’s best and most productive artists.

Unraveling includes Adams, Joan Grubin, Ruby Palmer, and Christina Tenaglia, all of whom have ample room in the big space to spread their wings, and they all do so by bringing aspects of installation into their presentations.

Yura Adams - Geologic Time, acrylic and ink on Tyvek
Both Tenaglia and Adams have drawn or painted directly on the walls, while Grubin created her single, sprawling piece on-site; Palmer’s pieces aren’t site-specific, but they claim the space physically, in one instance by straddling a corner of the gallery. Altogether, the exhibition finds the right balance of scale and fullness without overcrowding the venue or overshadowing any of the art, which all works well individually and as a group.

A large panel near the entrance to the gallery introduces the show with a concise, cogent statement from the curator that explains the intention of the title, including equally valued interpretations that relate to the current unraveling (or falling apart) of society and the unraveling (or solving) of a mystery, in this case through the artists’ steady explorations. Her summary statement celebrating the act of “creation in the face of uncertainty” aptly describes the show’s purpose and relevance.

Though the curator’s introduction states that these are “four women artists,” it really doesn’t matter to me whether they are women or not. The qualities of perseverance and resourcefulness they exemplify are generally embodied by all significant artists (it’s pretty much part of the job description), regardless of gender.

Ruby Palmer used a minimalist dollhouse to display
ten small sculptures, five on each side
What matters more here, as in any contemporary art exhibition, is that the work is very good. Beyond that, one can seek to derive elements of a show’s meaning from the personal identities of its artists (and there are certainly many cases where that is the main point, or a significant part of it), but I don’t feel that urge in this case.

Rather, I respond to a strong collection of mostly abstract work that emphasizes form and color more than content. There is an arguably feminine perspective in Grubin’s wall-size construction, where the traditionally female craft of weaving is employed, and a few household objects that reference domesticity (including a loop potholder) are deployed, but it is so much more than that. After all, every one of us is caught in life’s vast networks, as helpless as the fly in a spider’s web. The title, E Pluribus, and the placement of tiny photographs of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela among the many parts, reveal a broader political interpretation and an inclusiveness that I think supports this point.

Ruby Palmer - Surprise Ending
acrylic paint on basswood
Palmer’s work also could be viewed through a feminist lens, but her dollhouse construction (as one example) could just as well have been made by a man, and its meaning would be little different if that were so. What stands out for me in Palmer’s work is her sense of humor, her playfulness, and a feeling of freedom, all of it enhanced by the power of her meticulous application of rich colors and materials. Some of her works are clearly inspired by stage sets, while others cross the line into domestic architecture. Either way, they are endlessly clever, whether simple or complex.

These strengths are also in evidence in Tenaglia’s collection of more than 30 discrete items, eight of which are wall drawings, all of them nominally presented as one piece under the title halftones and densities.  An additional installation is slyly tucked behind a freestanding wall, all of its many elements painted the same shade of gallery white as the wall itself. I particularly enjoy Tenaglia’s skilled-yet-roughshod handling of her materials, which range from raw wood to fired porcelain, and her innovative investigation of shapes.

An untitled object in painted wood
by Christina Tenaglia
Adams is essentially a painter, but she achieves a similar monumentality as Grubin and Tenaglia by stacking six large paintings into two rows, nearly filling the 16-foot height of the gallery’s end wall. Entitled Geologic Time, the six free-floating Tyvek sheets ripple and billow slightly, their utilitarian surface reflecting light in such a way as to seem almost transparent. These pieces are ever so vaguely figurative, and their scale is similar to human size, building a connection between our bodies and the environmental elements they draw from. These and several other works by Adams in the show emphasize form but also feature intriguing illusions of texture in a nod to printmaking and papermaking techniques.

Unraveling will remain on view through Saturday, Dec. 19. The gallery has generous hours (including through 8 p.m. on Thursdays) and is operating with smart COVID protocols: Masks are required, temperature is taken and travel/exposure questions answered upon entry, and a phone number is recorded for contact tracing.

Installation view of Christina Tenaglia's halftones and densities
A note on curating: There seems to be a trend – or a series of coincidences – in the region among certain artists, galleries, and curators. I couldn’t help but notice that all three artists that Adams chose for Unraveling were also included in a recent show entitled SpaceLAB at Troy’s Collar Works, which was organized by Julie Torres and Ellen Letcher. That pair, in turn, made up half of a panel of four jurors who selected the work for Infinite Uncertainty, the previous show at the Opalka. And Palmer was among eight artists included in Cut and Color, which recently closed at the Albany Airport Gallery.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Running at 62

Ready to start a virtual race with my buddy, Dick, in August (I'm the one in yellow).
photo by Dorcey Bennett
Right about now, if today were a normal Thanksgiving, countless thousands of people all over the country would be gathering for annual Turkey Trot races. Instead, a fraction of them will happily participate in "virtual" versions of those charity events, glad to at least be out there moving their bodies.

That's as good a conclusion as any to this year's pandemic-ravaged racing season, during which recreational runners experienced a near-total loss of those eagerly anticipated competitive/friendly events that help to keep us on the road, track, or treadmill week after week.

My own season was pretty good despite all that, bookended by two LIVE races sponsored by the intrepid and hyper-organized Albany Running Exchange (ARE), with a healthy handful of virtual races sandwiched in between. Though my times were slightly behind last year's, at this age just maintaining requires more effort, so I am satisfied with having regularly broken 27 minutes for the 5K distance, including my best effort, 26:11, for a virtual race on a course in Clifton Park. I also managed 26:18 on a favorite course in Ballston Spa, where the Jailhouse Rock is regularly run, and where my running buddy, Dick, and I ran it together virtually in August (pictured above before we set out).

The dilemma now is, how to get through the winter? I've been to the YMCA a couple of times on colder days, where I ran several miles on a treadmill with an increasingly sweaty and stifling mask over my breathing holes - not fun! My hope is that the Y will begin to allow runners on its indoor track (currently, for no reason I can fathom, it is restricted to walkers). Most runners will tolerate a treadmill, but it's my understanding that it's not considered good for your gait, and I much prefer actually moving through space to trying to keep up with a machine (even if that means going in little circles above a basketball gym).

Though returning to the track doesn't take away the (obviously prudent) mask requirement, it's the way I have gotten through the last couple of winters without totally losing my conditioning, so I hope to be able to continue that trend. In the meantime, I'm grabbing whatever reasonable temperature opportunities I can to run outside. (I'm willing to exercise in cold air, but I find that below 40 degrees it hurts my lungs to breathe too deeply and, one time, I gave myself bronchitis that way, so - never again.)

Another option is to just let it go, and recover from scratch in the spring - but that prospect seems even more painful than running on a treadmill all winter, so I'm resisting it. Also, I fear the loss of the psychological boost that regular running provides, not to mention the true overall goal, which is to achieve and maintain better health (as proven in many studies, running at any pace for 10 to 20 miles a week slows the aging process).

So, with diminished goals (e.g., I think it's time to abandon hope of ever breaking 25 minutes for a 5K), I plan to go forward, grateful that I can still run when so many others cannot, and with the knowledge that one day, sooner or later, I also won't be able to do it.

In conclusion, I'd like to borrow a beautiful quote from today's Times Union Preview section, in which Kristen Garzone, of Troy, said it all to writer Tresca Weinstein: A race is the celebration of the hard work you've put in, and even though a virtual race isn't as exciting as a regular race would be, it's still something we can enjoy with our immediate family members or the other people in our pod. A lot of things have been taken away from us in this pandemic, but running is still there, and when you're running, you're untouchable.

Amen to that!

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Closing museums now is the wrong move

A view of the Smithsonian Museum before the pandemic

Frustration. Disappointment. Perplexity. These are a few of the emotions I experienced after reading a Washington Post report that the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art are set to close due to a recent increase in the number of COVID cases in the Washington, D.C., region.

One unaddressed question arises: Who’s getting COVID from visiting a museum? (Or, even less likely, at a zoo – yes, the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian’s organization and will also close.) Since the beginning of the pandemic, as essential businesses including big-box grocery and hardware stores remained open, I’ve asked why museums should be barred from opening, when they typically attract much smaller crowds than those stores (especially with no foreign visitors coming in).

And, eventually, starting in late June, the museums were released from forced closure. The Smithsonian reopened its seven museums in stages beginning in July, and they have recorded about a half-million visits since – a fraction of their normal traffic. But now, despite what is obviously a low-risk scenario with a big upside (after all, who among us doesn’t need some nice, uplifting distraction like a museum or a zoo right now?), the great minds that lead that institution concluded “that caution needed to prevail to protect our visitors and staff.”

I wonder whether those leaders are also advising their staff to wear helmets while bicycling, to drive defensively, and to avoid murder hornets while they’re at it.

National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman admitted, “It can’t help but feel like a step backward.” No kidding! It’s definitely a step backward, and for no good reason.

By now, we all have seen plenty of evidence that shows which activities are spreading the virus: Close, sustained, personal contact - usually within families; indoor gatherings where people talk a lot and loudly (as in bars); tightly packed outdoor circumstances (like, you know, pro-Trump rallies); or any close contact while not wearing masks. Otherwise, transmission is very rare.

All the museum administrators need to do for everyone within their purview to remain safe is what they’ve already been doing: Limit attendance, observe social distancing, and wear masks.

To make decisions based on an overabundance of caution sends the wrong message: Be afraid, shut down, quit living. The right message is this: Wear a mask, maintain distance, and enjoy life as much as possible - which includes going out and doing other very dangerous things, like riding a bicycle, driving in a car, or walking in the woods (where the hornets may live).

Note: The above quotes were taken from a report published by The Washington Post on Friday, Nov. 30.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Ivy League leads, again

It took a pandemic to make me proud to be a product of the Ivy League. I received my bachelor's degree in studio art from Brown University in 1979, but it was a bad fit, and I largely hated the place, only making it through thanks to a fully credited year at the Italian University for Foreigners and a lot of time spent at nearby RISD, where I took more courses than the allowable limit for Brown students and shared housing with some of those wacky art students.

But setting aside the proto-Gordon Geckos of my time at Brown, and the centuries of entitlement that have floated the elitists who typically graduate from Harvard, Yale, and the rest, this educational confraternity has led the nation twice in making the right call on shutting down its sports programs before the coronavirus itself had the chance to do the deed more brutally.

You may recall that the first sports league in the US to declare a full stop last March was the Ivy League.

It didn't matter that they were in the midst of their annual league basketball tournament, or that the NCAAs of March Madness fame and glory would be next - the great minds of those combined institutions (including the many top scientists on their faculties) knew it was time to mask up and hunker down. The next day the NBA followed suit, leading all the other college and pro leagues that then joined the inevitable months-long pause, one by one.

And, now, it's happened again, as the second wave of the virus is taking hold of the country, and the Ivies announced on Thursday that they are canceling all winter sports. This will have immediate local impact, as two of the mots popular teams in the Capital Region (Union College and RPI hockey) compete in the ECAC, a league that includes six of the seven Ivies (making up half of the total number of ECAC teams).

And, I predict, this is just the beginning. Like last spring, there will be more canceled sports seasons to come. Don't get me wrong - I don't celebrate the loss of healthy competition for collegians, nor the potential massive loss of revenue for the professional leagues if they also shut down again; neither do I applaud the disappointment to millions of fans who need the distraction of sports entertainment now more than ever.

And I am truly grateful for the mid-pandemic professional sports seasons that were recently completed - somehow, almost miraculously, without widespread illnesses or deaths - including baseball, soccer, hockey and, my favorite, basketball.

But it is starting to look like madness to try to continue the NFL season, or to resume the NBA, etc., if things don't turn around very soon. I've no doubt that the great minds that run these leagues are currently consulting with the great minds that know the science - many of them educated at or teaching at Ivies - and that they will come to the right conclusions that will keep athletes, coaching staffs, and fans safe.

In the meantime, stream a good movie, read a good book, eat some good takeout with carefully vetted family and friends - and take good care.

Monday, October 19, 2020

In Brief: D. Jack Solomon at LGAP

D. Jack Solomon - Call on Me, acrylic on canvas 38x50 inches

A favorite artist and a favorite venue have teamed up to produce something special this fall. Sixteen paintings by D. Jack Solomon currently fill the Lake George Arts Projects's Courthouse Gallery in Lake George Village, and the result is nothing short of a knockout.

Solomon, who recently moved to Hudson from Surprise, is in the twilight of a quietly impressive career that seems to have gained steam over time. I first became aware of his work in 2004, when he showed at Albany Center Gallery, and I became a fan immediately.

Skedaddle 24x18 inches
The Lake George exhibition is something of a late-period retrospective, featuring works that date from 2007 through 2016 and, while there are standout pieces among them, the overall strength of this selection is particularly consistent.

Solomon's painting style leans heavily on elaborate design elements, often delineated in black, and he supports these elements with beautiful passages of smoothly applied color. He works in acrylic, with the masterful control of the medium you'd expect from a lifelong painter - but one shouldn't take this achievement for granted, even if he makes it look easy. Indeed, Solomon is the real deal.

What exactly do I mean by that? To be an artist worthy of attention, one must accomplish certain things. Though our current era seems to have abandoned ideas of traditional technique (and there's nothing wrong with progressing to new standards that break old rules), I would argue that it's still crucial that any work of art show significant control of its medium (whatever medium that may be). Otherwise, we're just mucking about. Clearly, Solomon passes that test with - sorry - flying colors.

Long Gone 24x18 inches
It's also necessary for an artist to find something new to say, or a new way to say something; and to say it in a voice that's recognizable. That's sometimes referred to as having a personal style, but I prefer to call it voice or vision. Again, Solomon checks the box. You know a Solomon when you see it and, in a show like this one, you get to immerse yourself in the vast sea of the unique visual vocabulary he's developed and perfected.

Finally, an artist has to reach you. Maybe this is an element of taste, or timing, but I think it's also a matter of heart. Is it too late in the human experiment to value sincerity? If not, then Solomon gains by being steadfast. But - unlike me - he also maintains a wonderful sense of humor. This playfulness is perhaps the final puzzle piece that makes his work so enjoyable, so intriguing, and so lasting.

Paintings by D. Jack Solomon will remain on view at the Courthouse Gallery through October 30.

Installation view of D. Jack Solomon paintings at Courthouse Gallery

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Regionals, regionals ...

Juror Karen Davis peruses the Photo Regional Salon at Albany Center Gallery
Thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic, we now have a perfect storm of regional exhibitions that are all on view simultaneously. With three annual juried shows having been rescheduled, and a new lockdown-themed juried show now open at a prominent college gallery, it’s a boon to regional artists and their fans.

Laura Brodsky's fatherhood 2 won one
of four top prizes at the Photo Regional

First up, the 42nd Annual Photography Regional at Albany Center Gallery began on Sept. 8 with a salon-style installation of 200-plus submissions by more than 80 photographers. Karen Davis, co-owner of Davis-Orton Gallery in Hudson, then culled those submissions into a Select show that re-opened on Sept 18. It features 43 photographers (of which I am one) and includes 49 pieces, with 11 of those works receiving special recognition. Heads-up: The Photo Regional will close this Friday (Oct. 2), so you’ll have to hurry if you want to take a look. I recommend that you do.

Jill Baucom's Blackberries won one of
four top prizes in the Photo Regional
Also recently opened, on Sept. 19 (through Jan. 3, 2021), is the 2020 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region (aka the Regional), which is the most significant show in the annual calendar locally and, now in its 84th year, one of the longest-standing shows of its kind in the nation. The Regional rotates among three venues, and is hosted this year by the Albany Institute of History & Art, which tapped MASS MoCA Senior Curator Susan Cross as juror. In keeping with Regional tradition, an accompanying catalog with an essay by Cross is planned by the Institute and will be available in a few weeks.

Amy Silberkleit - 1918 stone lithograph
Perhaps due to Cross’s high profile as a curator in the region, the show attracted more than 700 entries by nearly 250 artists across all media. Cross whittled these down to 108 works by 73 artists (of which – you guessed it – I am one), also selecting 19 among them for special awards that range from $1,000 cash to $100 gift certificates. She then planned the installation of the show in five contiguous spaces within the museum, using the variously sized galleries as venues for thematic groupings.

Deborah Zlotsky - Yours, Mine, Ours
vintage scarves

The largest of those galleries contains vast splashes of bright colors provided by works in many media – painting, sculpture, photography, collage, and textiles among them – with a large portion of those pieces being abstract. In a nearby, somewhat smaller room, again featuring the full array of media, the theme is landscape.

Yet another medium-sized gallery includes works that mostly engage in political or social commentary, again with many media represented but, in this case, weighted much more toward photography (not including my own, which are abstract, and hang in the larger gallery).

One feels the effects of 2020’s global and national upheavals in Cross’s selection of prizes, many of which went to the more topical works in the show, yet the overall effect of this Regional is what it should be: a well-distributed cross-section of the region’s best art, organized - but not dominated - by theme.

Jeff Wigman's oil on panel Arrival in Hell is included in Infinite Uncertainty.
Wigman also has work in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional and the Fence Salon.
Fortunately, another local gallery took up that thematic challenge by specifically requesting topical work for an open-call show juried by Sharon Bates, Stacey Robinson, Ellen Letcher and Julie Torres. Infinite Uncertainty opened at Sage College of Albany’s Opalka Gallery on Sept. 1 and includes approximately 100 works selected from over 250 total submissions. It closes on Oct. 10 so, again, you’ll have to hurry if you want to see it - and I recommend that you do.

It’s worth noting that seven of the 33 regional artists included in Infinite Uncertainty are also included in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional (in which four of them received awards), an overlap that underscores the meaningful relationship between the two shows. Like the Regional, Infinite Uncertainty features work across many media, a good bit of it colorfully or monochromatically abstract, but much more of it representing interpretive responses to our current social issues.

Tatana Kellner - Scream
collage, acrylic, and charcoal on paper
Each artist’s work is accompanied by statements that explain the impetus for the selected pieces, ranging from technical adaptation to using available quotidian materials during art-supply-chain shutdowns to direct commentaries on hot topics like the pandemic and BLM protests. The writings provide a telling window into the interior lives of artists, and make a strong statement about both their resilience and the power of art to buoy the human spirit in hard times.

Altogether, Infinite Uncertainty is a relatively rare instance of a carefully curated large group show at an urban Capital Region gallery featuring only regional artists. Though 33 seems like a lot of participants, the spacious gallery has enough room to accommodate multiple pieces by most of them, and numerous pieces by many, making for a great degree of depth in this presentation.

This mixed-media collage by Paula
Drysdale Frazell is in the Fence Salon
Finally, the Fence Salon show opened on Sept. 11 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy and will remain on view there through Nov. 7, after which it will be rehung as the Fence Select, which will be juried by Tang Museum Director Ian Berry. Please note that the Arts Center is operating on a modified schedule – open Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. or by appointment.

Here, too, there is significant overlap with artists who are also in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional (I counted nine), which comes as no surprise considering the prestige of the juror and the longstanding tradition of this show, which I have often referred to as “the other Regional.” There’s also some artist overlap between Fence and the Opalka show, as well as between Fence and the Photo-Regional. I can only begin to imagine the thought processes that went on with these artists as they tried to determine which works to submit where. 

I will revisit the Fence show on this blog after it has been juried and re-hung as Fence Select.

In the meantime, please do yourself a favor and get out to see these treasure troves of high-quality, current regional art while you can.

Mike Glier's oil on canvas Swallows Hunting is part of the Mohawk-Hudson Regional.
Glier is one of three former Regional jurors who have work in this year's show.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Masterful prints at the Fenimore Art Museum

Albrecht Dürer - Agony in the Garden (Christ on the Mount of Olives), 1508
detail of a print from the Engraved Passion series

It can be easy to overlook printmaking as an art form, especially in our current digital age, where a few clicks will get you a nice image made of ink on paper. But two very different shows currently on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown serve as timely reminders that it wasn’t always so easy, and that it still takes vision to make easy into wonderful.

All fans of visual art know the name Albrecht Dürer, but most of us probably didn’t know that Dürer “singlehandedly transformed printmaking from a craft to a fine art” in the late 1400s and early 1500s, as postulated and amply demonstrated by the traveling exhibition Albrecht Dürer: Master Prints, on loan to FAM through Nov. 22 from Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Museum.

Fall of Man from the Small Woodblock Passion, c. 1510
The show includes more than 20 examples of Dürer’s woodblocks and copper engravings, including all 16 of the “Engraved Passion” series. Though the prints are quite small (typically about 2.5 by 4.5 inches), they are packed with detail; and, though they are monochromatic, they feature an engaging range of tones and textures, emphasized by Dürer’s signature chiaroscuro style. A few examples of work by contemporaries who influenced or were influenced by Dürer are also included here, and they provide the context to support the idea that his work transcended illustration to achieve true artistic expression in a medium generally meant for popular consumption.

Not that Dürer eschewed popularity – on the contrary, according to the exhibition wall text, “his prints circulated throughout Europe, making him one of the most influential artists of his age.” Something like today’s YouTube or Instagram stars, he gave the people what they wanted, providing his own special twists in the form of naturalistic curiosities, bravura line work, and visual puzzles. The woodblock print Fall of Man provides one example of these strengths – whereas a simple rendering of Adam and Eve with the snake would do, Dürer adds other animals such as a bear (or is it a boar?) and a peeping lion, along with his classic personal logo on a trompe l’oeil metal tag.

Joachim and the Angel from The Life of the Virgin, 1504
Dürer honed his craft and his vision during a trip to Italy in his 20s – no surprise that exposure to the culture that spawned Renaissance art would make him a better artist, too – but his work still radiates a German sensibility in its emotional restraint and controlled, almost analytical approach. Equally, the religious and moral subject matter of these images speaks of their time and place, and presumably of Dürer’s Christian devotion, but there’s much more than Biblical storytelling to their content. Another fine example is Christ Shown to the People, in which several exquisitely detailed human figures, a darkly vivid forest, and a microscopic farming scene are all crammed into a small engraving, emulating some of the best qualities of Italian art of the time.

All in all, with a little patience (and maybe a magnifying glass, available for use in the museum), this display of Dürer’s master works will greatly reward any visitor.

Kykuit Estate, Tarrytown, New York
Flashing forward to the 21st century, an exhibition of beautifully realized inkjet-printed photographs by Steve Gross and Susan Daley entitled Blue Gardens makes a strong complement to the Dürer show.

Gross and Daley work as a duo, and they built this collection of images over more than a decade (mixed in with other projects), by visiting numerous venerable parks and estates to capture their seemingly timeless outdoor spaces using digital cameras.

The resulting show of 22 prints, all of them transformed to the mellow blue tones of a cyanotype, provides both a document of these special places and a lush and pensive visual style that the pair have cultivated over many decades of photographing landscapes and gardens together. The beautiful consistency of this group belies the diversity of its subjects, ranging from South Carolina to Upstate N.Y.

Untermyer Park, Yonkers, New York
All but two of the prints are a medium size for photographs (about 11” by 18”), which is small enough to draw you in close, but still big enough to allow you to enter the space and peruse the finely rendered details of plants, statuary, architectural elements, and water features (natural or man-made). Two of the prints are much larger (about 30” by 40”), which helps them work well when viewed from a distance, and emphasizes their strong compositional effects.

In many of these pictures, the sky is a powerful presence. This may have been part of the reason for printing in blue, or just a happy byproduct of the decision to render the gardens themselves in blue, but the effect of that choice works beautifully (I have tried to imagine these images in a classic grey monotone instead, and it doesn’t seem to work at all). In any case, the skies are crucial to the work precisely because, while the rest of the subject matter is virtually unchanged from its inception a century or more ago, the ever-changing sky captured in a fleeting moment firmly anchors the images as photographs, timeless though they may seem.

Blue Gardens will remain on view at FAM through Dec. 31.

Steve Gross and Susan Daley - Crane Estate, Ipswich, Massachusetts

Saturday, August 29, 2020

MASS MoCA, at last

A view of James Turrell's Into the Light at MASS MoCA
A recent survey reported that just 13% of Americans are happy - the other 87%, may simply need a visit to MASS MoCA.

A lot of people hear the words "contemporary art" and immediately think they can't relate (why they seem to think they can relate better to 19th-century art - i.e. Monet - is beyond me). But the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is so friendly, and the art there so fresh and varied, that I believe it could make many converts of those stodgy grumps.

On a recent (much delayed) foray, my wife and I viewed nine exhibitions (among many others), and we really had a good time doing it. Need I explain that the place is huge, with nine buildings and some spaces so vast they might be better measured in acres than square feet? So it requires stamina, and a lot of time, if you want to try to see it all.

Blane De St. Croix - Hollow Ground 2020
(seen during site-specific installation)
The primary temporary show, entitled How to Move a Landscape, features several monumental works by Blane De St. Croix, an eco-artist committed to battling climate change by making art about the effects it can have in far-flung places, such as above the Arctic Circle. It also includes a great deal of smaller-scale work, covering a range of media from drawing to sculpture, installation, animation, and video, in addition to a research section that offers sketches, photographs, and other ephemera.

Unlike most political artists, De St. Croix hasn't lost his sense of humor - much of his work is quite playful, even as it confronts our pending global disaster. Notable in this regard is an electric train set that runs in a circle near the entrance to the exhibition, piercing a wall tunnel-like twice as it goes round and round. Its cars are loaded with modeled tranches of tundra, neatly offering a solution to the show's titular problem.

This witty miniature is balanced by a massive, tilting construction in the huge gallery beyond that looks for all the world like a life-size swath of melting glacier, which you can perambulate and walk under, and even poke your head up into (via some of its melty craters). Technically, De St. Croix's sculptural illusion is effective, yet it's also obviously a physically challenging bit of installation. Entitled Hollow Ground, I found it very likable and, frankly, far more interesting live than it looks in pictures.

Ad Minoliti - Fantasias Modulares
Underscoring De St. Croix's emphasis on scale is a "monumental miniature" entitled Broken Landscape IV that depicts a long, deep slice of the U.S./Mexican border. The meticulously crafted sculpture stands eye-high, and is dozens of feet long, with tiny details of grass, telephone wires, and, of course, the barrier fence marching along its surface.

Near the sprawling St. Croix exhibition is a relatively small one-room installation by the Argentine artist Ad Minoliti that more than makes up for its size by deploying great swaths of cartoon-bright colors. Indeed, Minoliti is something like Disney for the cultural elite (that's us, dear reader!), and served on this visit as a delightful palate cleanser as we moved on through the museum.

Ledelle Moe, whose massive concrete heads and figures occupy the famously football field-sized Building 5, is another sculptor utilizing scale to powerful effect. Entitled When, the installation seems to impose silent contemplation on its viewers, similar to the awestruck effect of standing in a vast temple or cathedral.

Ledelle Moe - Remain  at left; Congregation at right
While this collection includes works from as early as 2005, the show's central piece is current. 2019's Remain is an 18-foot-high kneeling female figure that evokes the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In addition to the figure, Remain incorporates a complex scaffolding of metal rods that support innumerable small concrete forms of uncertain identity. The sculpture is deeply impressive even while remaining rather mysterious, as is the rest of the work in this show.

Another sprawling exhibition currently at MASS MoCA, entitled Kissing through a Curtain, engages with questions of communication, crossing borders (its 10 artists come from all over the world), and - obliquely - our current crises of COVID and racial injustice. Unfortunately, I found the work simply didn't engage my interest, much of it seeming to try too hard.

Justin Favela - Popocatepetl e Iztaccihuatl vistos desde Atlixco,
after Jose Maria Velasco
, 2016

In one example, Justin Favela's painstaking paper and glue renderings of numerous landscape paintings by Jose Maria Velasco, which are provided as a starting point for the show, come off as merely colorful kitsch. In another, Kim Faler has suspended a panoply of enlarged sculptural renderings of chewed wads of bubble gum. Are you kidding me? In the end, I couldn't find the inspiration to care about any of these artists' obsessions.

On the other hand, the Them and Us/Ellos y Nosotros exhibition by the Mexican-American artist ERRE (aka Marcos Ramirez), communicates and engages effectively across languages and and borders, using varied media while literally straddling the frontier between Tijuana and San Diego.

I loved this show for its audacity in making art out of common materials such as printed metal signs, cloth fabric, wood, neon, and kernels of corn, and for its liberal incorporation of the Spanish language (significantly, there are more than 50 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., though it is still not an official language here).

ERRE - Orange Country
ERRE (the written rendering of the Spanish rolled "r") is an ingenious creator whose installation at MASS MOcA incorporates a full-scale re-creation of a section of border wall as a divider between the show and the rest of the space on the second floor of Building 6 (a fabulous building, by the way, which opened about three years ago and is gorgeous all by itself).

His messages are both simple and complex, featuring a mysterious video of a fictional desert crime scene, proverbs presented as shimmering metallic-colored eye charts, a four-poster bed with a map of Mexico in pounded nails, and an elegant but deeply chilling curved cage. For me, this is what political art strives to be, but so rarely succeeds.

Wendy Red Star - Medicine Crow
More educational than political, but very pointedly cultural, is an exhibition in MASS MoCA's Kidspace gallery by the Native American artist Wendy Red Star. In Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird, Red Star uses altered archival photographs to examine historical truths about her Apsáalooke (Crow) nation, and creates large-format color self-portraits that debunk stereotypical views of Native Americans.

Not just for children, this work is witty, well crafted, and draws you in. Though a timed reservation for the smallish Kidspace is recommended, we were allowed to walk in, as the space wasn't at capacity. Also, it's possible to visit just the Kidspace gallery without paying admission to MASS MoCA, should you so desire.

Speaking of planning ahead, in these pandemic days one must set up a timed entry ticket to visit MASS MoCA (and masks are, of course, required) but it's such a huge space that keeping adequate distance once inside is no problem. I found it easy to reserve a timed arrival window online, and when we got there a few minutes late due to road construction delays, we were ushered in with a welcoming smile.

More urgently, to view James Turrell's truly extraordinary exhibition Into the Light, one must gain a specific timed entry slot by "purchasing" a free ticket online. If you do, you will be treated to an immersive experience unlike anything you've ever been through (see images at top and bottom of this post). In it, your retinas will get a bit of a workout, and your cones (the color receptors) will be having a ball.

An example of a James Turrell hologram
Turrell is a light sculptor. How do you sculpt with light? Turrell does it by creating smooth, deep, white spaces and then washing them with liquid color. The illusions thus created are mesmerizingly potent. In one of the works constructed at MASS MoCA (and officially scheduled through 2025, though we were told that was extended to 2042), you enter the space and see effects both inside it (i.e. around yourself and the others in there with you) and outside its entrance (where the colors change magically in response to your eyes' mechanisms). It's hard to describe, but unforgettable.

Additionally, there are quite a few other works by Turrell, including about half-a-dozen holographic projections, numerous very sleek architectural models of his plans for lightworks inside a crater he owns in Arizona, and several other individual light sculptures, one of which resembles a snowy black-and-white TV screen (though it is actually a shaped, empty void). Some of these require that you enter a darkened space through labyrinthine path, and then let your eyes adjust. Others work in ambient light, creating spatial illusions that are simply fascinating. Go and see for yourself.

Note: Ledelle Moe's When is scheduled to end on Jan. 3, 2021, and ERRE's Them and Us will run through summer 2021, while the other shows we viewed appear to be ongoing, either without a published ending date or with one very far in the future.

It's also worth noting that When and Them and Us are curated by Susan Cross, who is the juror of this year's Mohawk-Hudson Regional Exhibition, set to open at the Albany Institute of History & Art on Sept. 19.

A view of James Turrell's Into the Light at MASS MoCA

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

It's the NBA playoffs!

NOTE: On Wednesday, August 26, players for the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a widespread protest of the shootings in Kenosha, Wisc., among major league teams, resulting in the postponement of that day's NBA playoff and WNBA games, as well as several Major League Baseball games. The NHL followed suit the next day. Some NFL practice sessions also were canceled.

As of Friday, August 28, those leagues were planning to resume play, based on the players' decision that it would be more effective to continue to use the high-profile platform of their televised games to promote the cause of social justice and racial equality than to go on strike.

I stand in support of the protesters in placing the need for change above the desire for sports entertainment (see the Bucks players' statement here). The following content of this post remains as I originally wrote and published it on August 18. - DB.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks are the two best players in the NBA, and their teams each topped their respective divisions going into this season's playoffs. Will they meet in a Finals series set in October for the first time ever?
Close readers of this blog will recall that, from time to time, I write about basketball, and I can't resist the opportunity to celebrate publicly the successful return this summer of the NBA inside its Florida bubble.

I've always liked this league for its solid leadership, respect for players, and willingness to adapt to change, and the coronavirus pandemic provided further support for that opinion. The league was the first at the pro level to announce a shutdown (following the even more impressive leadership of the Ivy League, which pulled the plug before anyone else in sports), and it has been the clear United States leader in figuring out how to come back safely.

With a severely shortened season, the NBA's eight-game-per-team "seeding" round proved to be a total blast, with terrific technical innovations, stunningly competitive games, and no COVID outbreaks. I only caught a few of those games, but they were all highly entertaining, due in part to the "virtual" fans shown live on mega-screens surrounding the courts (imagine a Zoom meeting on steroids) and in part to the virtual silence, which allowed the TV audience (not to mention players and coaches) to hear the on-court patter.

The culmination of this phase of action was a fabulous "play-in" game, the first of its kind ever in the league, in which Portland and Memphis battled to a last-minute victory by the Blazers, placing them first in line to confront the league-leading Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, which began this afternoon. Portland's late run to the final seed included three consecutive games in which its star player, Damian Lillard, averaged 51 points a game. That's right, averaged.

I should also mention the classy and effective way the league has handled the urgent issue of Black Lives Matter within the context of presenting entertainment in the form of professional basketball, by establishing a long list of slogan options for players to wear (or not wear) in place of their names on the backs of their uniforms. For the first week or so of games, these slogans appeared above the number with no player name shown at all, underlining the players' desire to place this issue above their own egos. Later, the players' names were added below the numbers, while the slogans remained in the top position (I don't know if this was planned or an afterthought - I will say that it helped me identify who was who on the court, so it may have come from popular demand).

I liked a lot of the slogans, and it was interesting to think about the choices each player made - for example, a younger, brasher guy might wear "I Am A Man," while a lot of the older guys opted for "Peace" or "Education Reform." "Black Lives Matter" and "Equality" seemed to be the most popular choices - with "Equality" appearing in several different languages on foreign players' jerseys (I observed and then confirmed Serbian, Latvian, Slovenian, German, and Italian among them).

Most interesting of all was "Group Economics," touted for the approved list and then worn by Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver, along with a couple of other players (and quite adequately explained here). This level of educational opportunity just doesn't normally come with major league sports, and I loved seeing it as part of every game.

Meanwhile, throughout the league, there are so many stars vying for a Finals ring that fans can rightly expect plenty of fierce competition and outstanding play in the weeks to come - with no risky travel, clear and strong controls in place, and what appears to be little likelihood of COVID-related issues (unlike, ahem, MLB).

My hat's off to the NBA, its administrators, coaches, and players for having the ability to pull this off together. And may the best team win.

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.