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Friday, July 16, 2021

Nikolai Astrup at The Clark

Nikolai Astrup, A Clear Night in June, 1905–07, oil on canvas: That Nordic glow

This year, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., has taken a different tack with its big summer show. Rather than feature a blockbuster on the level of Renoir (2019), Van Gogh (2015) or Turner (2003), the region’s most venerable museum has mounted the first North American show ever of a little-known early-20th-century Norwegian painter named Nikolai Astrup.

Organized in collaboration with Norway’s KODE Art Museums, and curated by British art historian MaryAnne Stevens, Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway aims to convince its audience that Edvard Munch had an unjustly overlooked contemporary who – perhaps - should be regarded as his equal. It’s an intriguing and challenging argument to engage, and one that, in all honesty, can’t be concluded – but, in the process, we are given a strong show that is without a doubt well worth seeing.

The Parsonage, n.d, oil on canvas
I am delighted by the irony that, in this era of unrelenting wokeness in the arts, a leading museum is willing to stake its reputation on a dead, white, heterosexual, male painter. What nerve! What verve! What fun. Well, it could be fun, if Astrup weren’t so generally gloomy. But how can you blame him? After all, he lived in rural Norway, the son of a parson, sickly from an impoverished childhood, underappreciated.

Gloomy – yet glowing. Despite his isolated circumstances and shortened lifespan (he died in 1928 at the age of 47), Astrup burned with a passion for his chosen subjects, the Norwegian landscape primary among them - its particular light, its plants, its folk traditions, its rustic buildings, and its people. This passion led Astrup to work feverishly, not just in paint, but also extensively in Japanese-style woodblock printing (ukiyo-e), which he executed extremely well, whether in multiple colors or in monochrome.

Bird on a Stone, woodblock print
with hand coloring c. 1905–14
Fortunately, a significant portion of the expertly laid-out exhibition is devoted to the prints, including several examples of the original blocks, themselves alone worth the price of admission. But it is the paintings that dominate and best tell the story of a man in love with his rural existence and an ancient culture. This is expressed above all in the night paintings, which capture the peculiar half-light of the extreme North in summer and the opportunistic plants that explode in its short growing season.

We learn from the concise wall text that Astrup was an enthusiastic horticulturalist, and we see evidence of that in the lovingly rendered trees, bushes, and flowers that pervade his works. No shade of green escaped his searching eye, but he also exercised plenty of artistic license in his renderings, in one case featuring identical rhubarb plants in two entirely different landscape views.

Rhubarb, 1911–21, oil on canvas
We also learn that, mid-career, Astrup weathered a crisis in the form of negative criticism of his work in a Berlin exhibition, which caused him to rethink his approach and strive to modernize it. I can imagine that the comments attacked two weaknesses in his work, one of which would be equally derided today, and that is sentimentality. The other (and I’m just guessing) could have been his awkward handling of human subjects – if he’d given them half the life force he gave his plants, many of these paintings would be far better.

In any case, the later work is indeed stronger overall, as is particularly evidenced in repeated depictions of a Midsummer Eve bonfire ritual that Astrup recalls from his youth, when his strict parents forbid him to participate, as they considered it pagan. Several of these paintings and prints are presented in the final gallery of the exhibition, making a clear concluding statement about Astrup’s life, values, and skills as an artist.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire, before 1916, oil on canvas
While I’m not a huge fan of folklore, I enjoyed immersing myself in Astrup’s personal celebration of it, especially as he worked and reworked themes in paint and prints over many iterations. But I responded more viscerally, and with great pleasure, to his formal concerns, especially where color takes on its own life in certain paintings, and where otherworldly light emanates from his subjects.

This is most apparent in some of the landscapes painted at night, and in a couple of still lives made late in Astrup’s career in the interior of his home. For me, though the subject is quotidian, private, and momentary, the painter’s approach to it has taken it beyond those limits to the universal and the eternal. Perhaps, had he lived longer, Astrup would have followed this path to a place where the question of a revival would be moot.

But, whether he was truly a great modern painter, or merely a talented also-ran, Astrup’s contribution is significant enough to be worthy of the showcase he’s now receiving at the Clark and beyond.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway will remain on view in the special exhibition galleries of the Clark Center through Sept. 19; from October to May, it will travel to museums in Norway and Sweden.

Nikolai Astrup, Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand, 1926–27
oil on canvas

Two additional exhibitions currently on view at The Clark are also of great interest. Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed is an intriguing collection of Surrealist sculptural works by a non-collaborating French couple who each innovated with materials to create striking visions inspired by nature. It will remain on view through Oct. 31 in a glass-enclosed gallery on the ground floor of the Clark Center that also affords views of several pieces by the Lalannes that are installed outdoors.

Erin Shirreff, Four-Color Café Terrace (Caro, –––––,
Moorhouse, Matisse)
 2019, dye sublimation prints
on aluminum and archival pigment print

In the café area downstairs in the Clark Center, and in the nearby Manton Research Center, are several large works by Erin Shirreff, a Canadian multimedia artist who combines sculpture and photography in unique ways. While her single long video stream and simplified photographic constructions are built with layers of references from other sources, they remain fresh, not derivative. Indeed, Shirreff's elegant abstractions are successful postmodern transformations and well worth spending some time with. The yearlong installation, entitled Erin Shirreff: Remainders, runs through Jan. 2.

Finally, Dürer & After, a new exhibition drawn from the Clark’s extensive holdings, is slated to open tomorrow (July 17) and remain on view through Oct. 3 in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Go Home: Paul Akira Miyamoto at LGAP

Plank - oil on canvas 2021
A fine solo exhibition by the painter Paul Akira Miyamoto is on view through June 5 at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery.

Go Home presents a rare opportunity to immerse oneself in a world both real and imagined, within which Miyamoto has crafted a deeply personal tribute to his Japanese-American ancestors, while simultaneously presenting a critically important history lesson to those of us who would forget the unjust internment of generations of Americans during World War II by their own government.

Miyamoto is Sansei - third-generation Japanese-American - and his Issei grandparents, Nisei parents and older siblings lived for more than three years in the remote Poston concentration camp in Arizona, where they used their farming experience to domesticate infertile land, just as they had been forced to do when living free in California before the war.

Promise - oil on canvas 2021
Miyamoto's paintings reimagine these two scenarios as one serialized fever dream, sketching the sun-baked, clear-skied, surveilled family existence of a stoic, racially profiled people who did the best they could in nearly impossible conditions. The body of work gives voice to those people, but it is more celebration than lament. There's a quiet dignity in Miyamoto's figures, a subtle joy in his colors, and a simmering triumph in this gathering of paintings.

Miyamoto's project actually began long ago, but the majority of works in this show were made in the past year - a time in our nation's history that, unfortunately, could hold a mirror up to those terrible times and see itself fairly clearly. In addition to exploring his personal history, the artist seeks to remind us that we are in danger, even now, of such injustice being perpetrated again on American citizens if we aren't vigilant.

Shoulder - oil on canvas 2021
Along with the 14 paintings on view (ranging in size from 24"x30" to 48"x60"), there is a small selection of framed ink drawings on paper, displayed in a newly dedicated side gallery that the Arts Project has made nice use of for this show. These pieces are both more spontaneous and more specifically detailed than the paintings, featuring delicate monochrome washes of ink and tight pen renderings of camp buildings (one is shown at the bottom of this post). Made in 2018, the drawings seem like a prelude to the paintings, but stand alone as well.

Additionally, Miyamoto has created a site-specific installation in the main gallery, which is a minimalist reconstruction in tar paper and wood of a camp-type building. Stark, black, geometric, it balances the colorful paintings rather than dominating them.

Though I'm emphasizing content here, I want to point out that some of the formal and technical qualities of Miyamoto's painting are quite outstanding, with strict control of form, color, composition and, in particular, soft brushwork that makes them perhaps surprisingly sensual and seductive. His human forms are generalized, suggestive rather than specific, but crafted in such a way that their gestures speak clearly.

At a recent viewing, I noticed that several of the paintings had been sold to private collectors. This is wonderful, of course, but I hope that perhaps some of them will also end up in a museum somewhere. They're that good, and that important. Try to see the show in person if you can.

Camp #8 - ink on paper 2018

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

In Memoriam: Joel Chadabe

Joel Chadabe performs in the 1970s, using a very early PC as part of his equipment
On May 2, my dear friend Joel Chadabe died at home in Albany at the age of 82. Joel was a groundbreaking electronic musician and composer who taught for many years at the University at Albany, Bennington College and, more recently, New York University.

I first met Joel in 1987, when we each were renting studio space in a renovated factory in Albany's West Hill neighborhood, and we soon embarked on a friendship that featured many facets: Technical support, creative discussions and collaborations, countless homecooked meals, and an extended series of annual New Year's Eve and Fourth of July parties at the home he shared with Françoise and Benjamin (wife and son - for more detail, see the Times Union obituary from May 9, and the New York Times obituary, which came out on May 26).

Those parties always featured a core group of the Chadabes' friends, many of them associated with UAlbany, but also often included visitors from afar. It wasn't unusual for several languages to be spoken in those evenings, and for subjects from dance choreography to theoretical physics espoused upon by actual experts. The evenings inevitably concluded with Joel at the piano and those bold enough singing songs both familiar and exotic. It was an experience of a time nearly lost to my generation, when friendship, creativity, and love of life seemed enough to conquer the world.

Throughout, Joel worked, shuttling back and forth from college to college and from Albany to New York City, where he always had some big project going on, whether a concert series, publishing venture, or recording studio. In 1997, he published an unassuming but seminal paperback book on the history of electronic music, Electric Sound, which I enjoyed immensely, despite my nearly nonexistent musical education. Joel loved sharing his knowledge and, especially, his enthusiasm for everything creative, and that attitude shone throughout the book.

In later years, Joel and I saw less of each other. He was often in New York, the old New Year's crowd was diminishing, so the parties ended, and I got busy with my own working life away from the arts. But the connection remained, and the sadness I feel from his premature departure is acute.

Joel Chadabe was truly one of a kind, a generous soul full of childlike joy, and he will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace.

Some things never change: A recent photo of Chadabe at work with a MacBook.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Best Films of 2020

Luca Marinelli portrays the title character in Pietro Marcello's brilliant Martin Eden.
There are a lot of ways to be confused about the past year in movies. First, just seeing a film in a theater was impossible for much of the year. Then, with massively delayed releases, there's the question of whether a given movie counts as being from 2020 or not. Finally, there's the whole streaming thing - not that I really care what the source of a great film is, or what the Academy has to say about it, but there is still that old divide between cinema and TV ... never to be the same after Netflix, Amazon, et al.

So I will construct the following list with the knowledge that a few of the films are considered to be 2019 releases, but never made it to a local theater, and seem to have been left stranded in terms of Oscar consideration, whether last year or this year.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in The Father
As for me, despite the extraordinary challenges of 2020, and my own stubborn resistance to cable TV and all other subscription services, I managed to see a lot of great movies in the last year (five of the eight Best Picture nominees among them). This included actually going to the theater (an excellent option as venues have adopted safety guidelines and more people are vaccinated every day); paying for the occasional one-time stream at home; watching with trusted friends who have those monthly subscriptions; and borrowing DVDs from the library (due to the pandemic, some films that would otherwise have been screened at local theaters ended up being available on DVD first).

The following list is mostly non-hierarchical, and will include movies everyone has heard of as well as some more obscure titles. In the end, it turns out there were a lot of really good movies made or released in the last year or so, from all over the world. It will be interesting to see if that trend can continue, as I think it's safe to assume production schedules were completely whacked out for most of 2020 - and that the movie fare of 2021 may suffer for it. Let's hope not, but let's also celebrate the great ones we've got now.

  • Martin Eden - One of those 2019/2020 crossovers, this Italian-language film became my top pick early on, and stayed there with little serious competition for a long time. Adapted from a 1909 Jack London novel to a non-specific time in 20th-century Naples, Martin Eden tells a story of the class struggle from a very personal perspective, with superb acting by the very charismatic Luca Marinelli. It garnered a lot of praise at Cannes and elsewhere, but nothing from Oscar. Paying $12 to view it at home seemed like a great bargain.
  • Beanpole - The other nearly perfect film I saw last year that crossed over from 2019 and also was ignored by Oscar, Beanpole ("Dylda" in Russian) reveals the history of post-WWII Russia that we never learned in school, seen from the viewpoint of a shell-shocked young woman and her beloved, a traumatized female soldier. Every actor in this film is outstanding - but, even more impressive, the flawless direction and gorgeous cinematography are the product of a team of twenty-somethings. Amazing!
  • Judas and the Black Messiah - One of my two top picks among the Best Picture nominees, this is a beautifully crafted history lesson that resonates with our current turbulent times. Ensemble acting so good, they couldn't find a lead actor to nominate, though Daniel Kaluuya could have been it.
  • The Father - My other favorite among the Bests, powered by a masterful performance on the part of Anthony Hopkins, and equally great support from Olivia Colman. The film puts you inside the mind of a man with dementia, while painting a touchingly deep portrait of the life he lived before his decline. Both actors would be well served if they were to win a statuette tonight. [Note: Hopkins won.]
  • Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always - A perfect example of why I love indie films: Character-driven, non-name actors who bring the goods, original story, loose ends. It's a lot harder than you may think to make a movie about an economically and socially challenged teen seeking an abortion without sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, but Never, Sometimes makes it look like a breeze. Writer-director Eliza Hittman is worthy of Oscar attention, but hasn't gotten it - yet.
  • Orion Lee and John Magaro star in First Cow
    First Cow - An elegiac step back in time, this is the kind of film you need to allow to take its time, and then it will work its magic on you. Set in the early boom Northwest, it provides a most unusual take on the buddy movie, slowly, quietly, sadly, and beautifully. Underappreciated director Kelly Reichart deserves more notice than she's getting for this one.
  • Nomadland - Yes, it's a very good movie, and Frances McDormand is superb as always, as are the rest of the people who essentially play themselves throughout her character's odyssey. But it's also the most overrated film of the year. Try checking out the template (I've no doubt Chloe Zhao has done so multiple times), which I did by sheer coincidence on DVD the same week I caught Nomadland in the theater. That would be Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond. So similar, but much better.
  • Minari - The second-most overrated film of the year. Yes, it's still very good, with excellent acting ... but it's also marred by a grotesque, unnecessary, stereotyped magical Christian character, as well as just being kinda small. Films like this can - and in the right hands do - tell the intimate story while evoking the grand; but Minari never transcends its subjects' limited lives.
  • Sasha Baron Cohen leads the ensemble in Chicago 7
    The Trial of the Chicago 7 - Brilliant ensemble acting takes this history lesson to another level. It's a perfect companion piece to Judas (and possibly to One Night in Miami as well), but stands on its own as it evokes eerie parallels to our current times. Though I lived through the Viet Nam era, I was too young to know many of the details of these events in which our justice system was manipulated by the government to demonize black people and anyone who would challenge the status quo. Sound familiar? 
  • My Octopus Teacher - Nominated Winner for Best Documentary Feature, this is so much more than a nature film, as it shares a deeply personal human story enrobed in an octopus's brief, luminous lifespan. Indeed, it is a relationship movie. You'll never see seafood the same way again.
  • The Life Ahead ("La vita davanti a se" in Italian) - Sophia Loren directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Need I say more? Actually received an Oscar nomination for best original song (which I don't recall) but had a lot more going for it than that. Loren pulls off a great performance in a difficult role.
As in prior years, there are films that I haven't seen yet, but intend to, that possibly would have made this list. They include Sound of Metal, One Night in Miami, and Mank (and, perhaps, Promising Young Woman). But, first, I've got to catch up with tonight's film - a retro-futuristic Brazilian Western called Bacurau. Oscar will have to wait.

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren star in The Life Ahead

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 43rd Annual Photo Regional: Youth Spotlight

Ally DeRusso - father daughter dance
Publisher’s note: Get Visual has a longstanding policy of not reviewing student work; however, the annual Photography Regional is too important to leave out. My solution for covering this year’s youth-oriented Regional was to invite a highly qualified third party to take up the challenge. I am grateful that Timothy Cahill agreed to provide the following review. –D.B.

By Timothy Cahill

The Opalka Gallery has always been slightly restless around the Photography Regional. The annual gathering of the photographic tribe has become something of a stepchild exhibition, hosted by a number of venues, each of which gives the show its own spin. In 2003, then-Opalka director Jim Richard Wilson organized the Photo Regional as an invitational, transforming what had been an open-call, juried exhibition into a curated one for the first time.

Natalia Gillespie - Abundance
For this year’s iteration of the show, on view at Russell Sage Albany’s Opalka Gallery through April 24, current director Judie Gilmore announced a new innovation: an age restriction. The 43rd Photo Regional:  Showcase on Youth would be limited to artists between the ages of 16 and 26. This ran the risk of producing an exhibition that had the qualities of an end-of-semester display: studious and well-intentioned, derivative and artistically immature. It also offered an opportunity, in the words of the Opalka’s press release, “to celebrate our region’s young photographers and offer them an opportunity to show their work alongside their peers.”

For sure, there are aspects of the exhibition that are earnest and derivative. But, as juried by Khidr Joseph, Jayana LaFountaine, and Anna Schupak, the show does not feel at all unseasoned. In its freshness, intelligence, and diversity, this year’s Photo Regional is hugely satisfying.

I’ve taught photography to undergraduates, and most were, as young people must be, possessed by themselves and their familiar surroundings. This is death to a photographer. Writers are taught to write what they know, but photographers cannot be nearly so interior. They must immerse themselves in what they don’t know - the unknowable realm of otherness that is the visible world. What they discover there becomes the foundation of their art. 

Julia Larberg - Rainbow Self with One Leg Raised
This is an issue in the age of the curated self, social media and the ego-spectacle of the selfie. But, in the hands of a good explorer, even the self can be an undiscovered country, as it is in Julia Larberg’s sunny nude, Rainbow Self with One Leg Raised, or Maggie Lang’s COVID-laden Life Under Quarantine series. I don’t know if the person in Natalia Gillespie’s black-and-white Abundance is the photographer or not, but the field of daisies used as a backdrop wraps the figure in a glorious reverie halo. Jesse Asher Alsdorf, using still life in lieu of portraiture, offers a “discovery in self worth” in his text-and-photo triptych, Bruised Flowers.    

Often, though, when these young artists turn the camera on themselves, their interest is more persona than personal. Ally DeRusso enlists the 20th-century technology of the Polaroid instant camera for her set of five diptychs, casting herself in mini psychodramas narrated by enigmatic titles: smack you in the teeth, father daughter dance, and so on. This is the case too with Madison Scisci’s black-and-white video drama, The Release, in which she films herself in a dual role that leads either to reconciliation or liberation.

Mateo Guevara Lemeland - Neon Boneyard
The woman who Sebenele Ndlangamandla depicts in Float may or may not be the artist herself, but she is clearly playing the part of the goddess. Ndlangamandla’s portrait of a woman embraced by sky and water, gazing pensively out of the frame, is placed between nearly identical images of ripples on a lake or pool, as if she rose from the water there and disappeared again. Like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, this startling woman obviously hails from another realm.

All the photographers in this year’s Regional came of age during the dystopian regime of Donald Trump. In those years, either the past was being rewritten 1984-style by the president’s henchmen, or rendered devoid of any coherent narrative or meaning. Constant exposure to historical gaslighting might have turned these young artists ahistorical, but it hasn’t. If anything, they are the captives of history, of political divisiveness, systemic discrimination, environmental degradation. In response, documentary photography provides some of the show’s most compelling moments.

Catherine Rafferty - A Nation that Forgets
Some of the work is unsettlingly detached. Walker Bankson’s documentary portraits, like his Untitled (Miles Fighting), explore an unsettling banality in contemporary masculinity. The mordant anti-landscapes of John Bonetti (Fountain at the End of the Dam) and Anna Nuler (Ice Cream Castle) reveal the barrenness of the modern built environment. And Mateo Guevara Lemeland’s garishly surreal Relic and Neon Boneyard suggest that the world itself has somehow curdled in place.

Other documents are more visceral. Anna Schupak takes us into the middle of a protest in her Troy series. In a pair of images, Catherine Rafferty juxtaposes the overheated red-white-blue of a Trump rally with the same palette in more somber tones. Her A Nation that Forgets places the blue dress and sandal of a black woman against red paint thrown like blood on the base of a public monument, where the inscription warns, “A Nation That Forgets Its Past Has No Future.” The “white” of the image is represented visually by the paleness of the cement plinth, and conceptually in the photo’s implication of racism.

Rainer Turim - Tompkins Square Park
Inevitably, the artists engage with the natural world. In Rainer Turim’s Tompkins Square Park, a tree growing through a chain-link fence becomes a parable of humanity buckling under nature’s force. Conversely, Gennaro Vargas’ splendid Peruvian Mountains preserves a paradise of human labor in harmony with the earth.

I admit I can make no sense of the arbitrary nature of the exhibition’s 16-26 age range, except to muse, somewhat cynically, that the aim was to attract high schoolers to Sage’s art programs. As it turned out, there is no one under college age in the show, the average age being about 22. (The  only teenager is Xiaoxuan Lisa Li, whose tense, formal manipulations more than hold their own with the older exhibitors’ work.) 

Rather than the weird high-school-to-post-MFA age swing, why not a more traditional “under 30” show, a range that allows for a greater number of mature emerging artists? The three jurors, all of whom are under 26, have given a hybrid feel to the exhibition they organized. While a call for entries opened the show to all, one suspects some of the artists were hand-picked by the jurors from among their friends and colleagues. The final selection feels more curated than the typical juried exhibit. 

Xiaoxuan Lisa Li - Bat I
This hybrid quality is heightened by the inclusion of the jurors’ own work in the exhibit. This is a major departure from prior Regionals, in which the jurors functioned entirely as disinterested umpires, not player-coaches. The show is organized to mitigate the confusion this might cause, with the jurors’ work sequestered in the atrium of the Opalka Gallery, separate from the main body of the show. But it’s unclear how exactly to read this separation: is the juror’s showcase part of the Regional, or an adjunct exhibition?

These are serious questions but, ultimately, they should not detract from the Regional’s comprehensive virtues: its quality, its presentation, and above all its exhilarating diversity. In what has too often been an exhibit of aging white dudes, this year’s 37 artists and 76 artworks provide, in both surname and subject matter, a purposeful look across racial, gender, and geographic boundaries. Yet the jurors’ obvious attention to identity never overwhelms the individual artists’ voices.

Jahniah Kum - Resilience
It is especially thrilling to see the work of so many young black artists on view here: Tyler Ki-Re’s lushly extroverted Unchained; Jahniah Kum’s intimate domestic documents Marz and Resilience; the tender maternal portraits of Jayana LaFountaine’s Postpartum series.

Singularly impressive are the “portraits” of six black sitters in Khidr Joseph’s Make Afros Great Again series.

Joseph gives us the backs of their heads, emphasizing their hair styles, and it’s enough. From this, we get a smart and sensuous alt-MAGA manifesto about black people’s hair and its fraught history of political and social meaning. The centuries of this struggle cannot be separated from the work’s visual beauty. Nevertheless, at a certain point, I surrendered entirely to the artist’s retinal stimulations - the pleasure of the textures revealed by his studio lights, and their kinship to the eros of color, of hair, flesh, fabric, even the chromatic seamless backgrounds. The “anonymity” of the sitters yielded to their uniqueness. The last and highest diversity is the inviolable individual.

Timothy Cahill has reviewed art in the Capital Region since 1995. He has exhibited his photography in the Photo Regional and other group and solo exhibitions. His work is in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Khidr Joseph - Make Afros Great Again

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Jamie Rodriguez at the ACCR

Totenkopf, Die Werbung, The Invisible Enemy - installation by Jamie Rodriguez
Jamie Rodriguez is one of the more interesting artists to have emerged on the local scene in the last decade or so, and his current solo exhibition at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy is a well-earned showcase of his latest work.

A frequent prize winner in the annual Mohawk-Hudson Regional, Rodriguez has distinguished himself with challenging, multilayered installations that combine painting, drawing, and sculpture, often to a confounding effect, and this show, entitled Warenfetischismus: Commodity Fetishism is no exception.

Montserrat Landscape #1
oil paint on canvas 2019
I noticed from the first time I saw his work that Rodriguez is a very skillful painter, and this exhibition showcases that aspect of his art by featuring 15 oils on canvas, most of them sun-washed landscapes in an Impressionist style that clearly evokes Cezanne and Van Gogh. The four large mixed-media installations that comprise the remainder of the show all incorporate similarly executed paintings, a stylistic innovation I don’t recall having seen employed by any other artist.

So, labels aside, Rodriguez is a creator who ably applies whatever materials he needs to make his statements – and those statements are ambitious, on a global scale. These installations evoke international politics, with references to Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and capitalist America; environmental issues, including water shortage, habitat loss, and pollution; economic matters such as the commodification of food; religion, via icons and altars; and historical references in the form of architectural elements, decorative tilework, and weaponry.

Argumentum ad baculum, (Fact Check:
To The unhinged and useful idiots, the
Revolution has been canceled as part of
culture, No Justice, No Peace for Wendy's,
The Rubicon has been crossed) -
(detail view of installation)
The last item is perhaps the crux of this work, which openly concerns itself with war and conquest. But the naturalistic concerns are also central, as Rodriguez deploys multiple animal figures - foxes, lambs, raccoons, and various rodents among them - as avatars. His statement accompanying the show offers clear insights into his intentions, while welcoming viewers to make their own interpretations of the work. In part, it says: These narratives can draw attention to many different topics, that can be interpreted in any way the viewer connects … I want to evoke emotion and awareness of the individual to confront the issue of how art functions within a particular set of social and cultural patterns, historical perspectives, and belief/faith systems, while maintaining a sense of humor and humility.

That’s a lot to pack into any work of art, and Rodriguez gives it a good shot. My overriding response to this show is that it has a potent sense of urgency. The sprawling, highly detailed tableaux incorporate a great many carefully constructed elements, which undoubtedly have taken a lot of time to create, yet they still feel improvised, even slapdash in a way, as though the artist feels too pressed to add even the slightest extra bit of finish to his product. Only the paintings appear polished, serving as a counterpoint to the roughly representational sculptures into which they are integrated.

It’s enough to make you breathless.

Warenfetischismus: Commodity Fetishism - Artworks by Jamie Rodriguez will remain on view through April 16.

Polarity Integration: The Universal Game, Zwischenzug, Spiritual Algorithm, end game-"Transcension", Think, Think Tank? Paradigm Shifts
mixed-media installation by Jamie Rodriguez, 2021

Saturday, April 3, 2021

We went to the Spectrum!

Here's the evidence. You can see our
assigned seats highlighted in yellow
by the box office attendant.
I've been regularly attending movies at Albany's Spectrum 8 Theatre since it opened in 1983 (and its progenitor Third Street Theater for years before that), so you can imagine the excitement my companion and I felt last night as we set out to see Minari on the first day this venue was operating in more than a year. It was like being a kid again.

You also may be surprised to learn that I do not have Netflix (nor Amazon Prime, nor Hulu, etc. - not even cable TV), so with the theaters shut down since last March, and the library prohibiting on-site browsing until a week or two ago, the last year has had its challenges for my movie viewing habit. This was somewhat alleviated by the following compromises:

  1. Netflix et al at a friend's house: A few of my friends and I came to an understanding early in the pandemic that we would trust each other's behavior enough to remain in each other's pods (thankfully, with perfect results, i.e. none of us got or transmitted COVID). And one of those couples has a bunch of streaming services and a generous heart. So, from time to time, we'd make a movie date and the four of us would cozy up in their living room to watch something special (among them: My Octopus Teacher).
  2. Borrowing from the library (in my case, Albany Public): This has always been a primary source for me, both to pick up on recent stuff that I'd somehow missed (often due to too-short local runs) and to fill in any of the many gaps in my viewing history. Once the library began to accommodate curbside pickup, I began to regularly request and then borrow whatever I could think of to ask for that they had available (trickier than browsing, as you have to know what to look for, but still quite useful).
  3. Hoopla: Another library service, this is a free streaming platform (well, free to use - I assume the library pays something for it) that has a very big selection of not always very desirable movies (from what I've heard, Kanopy is better, but Albany doesn't offer it). Through that, we haven't seen any current or recent hits, but in a pinch it proved to be a lifesaver, and we discovered some really cool stuff, especially documentaries (such as one about the thousands of rabbits that flourished in the no-man's-land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall).
  4. Pay-per-view streaming: Some films that probably would have come to the Spectrum had it been open were not available on any of the other services, and could only be seen by paying a fee. Considering that we would have gladly forked over a twenty to see the best of these in the theater, paying $12 to watch them at home was well worth it (that's the usual rate for good stuff, though some movies are cheaper, depending on the source). This was great, once we got it going, but there were a couple of hitches at first, due to our not being hooked up for streaming to begin with. The really tricky part was finding an adapter to connect my new-ish laptop to our 12-year-old unsmart TV - and then waiting several weeks for it to be delivered, back when global commerce was totally disrupted by the "Wuhan" virus. But it worked out pretty great in the end, highlighted by our viewing of my favorite movie of 2020, Martin Eden

By the way, last night was the fourth time I've been to the actual movies since the pandemic re-openings began, and my recent experiences seeing two films at The Madison Theatre in Albany, and one at Criterion Cinemas in Saratoga Springs were very good - I will gladly return to either of them as needed. 

But, now, we have our favorite Spectrum again, and I am stoked, both for the sheer pleasure of it and because it means it won't be long before I've seen enough of the best films of last year to be able to write my annual roundup - maybe even before they announce 2020's belated Oscar winners.

Note for the potentially nervous: At all three theaters I've attended, you get an assigned seat, there's plenty of distance between groups, and masks are required - so it's as safe as you're going to get in this world.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

March to March at the National Bottle Museum

An exhibition featuring the work of 42 regional artists has been mounted in the JRM Artists' Space at the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa and will hang there through May 1 has been extended through May 29.

The view above shows a fraction of the entire show, which is entitled March to March and its effect on Art and Artists, and was created through an open call by organizer Fred Neudoerffer.

The detail below includes my own contribution to the show (it's the larger one in the middle).

Hope you'll want to go check it out - hours are Weds-Sat 10-4. Enjoy!

photos by Fred Neudoerffer

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Earthly at Esther Massry Gallery

An installation of numerous works by Julie Evans is the focal point of Earthly
all photos provided

The current five-person show at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery in Albany is a lively, cohesive example of curatorial ingenuity.

While each artist in the show is highly skilled and clearly worthy of attention on her own, in this setting the five women's works take on greater complexities of meaning through their interrelationships, losing nothing of individual strength in the bargain. The theme of the show, which is entitled Earthly doesn't shout - in fact, it's so subtle you could miss it altogether - but it succeeds in holding the collection together organically.

Odessa Straub - Supplemental Soul Suppository 2019
I don't have a favorite in this show, though I'd say the layered, lyrical installation of nine ink-on-Mylar assemblages by Julie Evans is its focal point. Dated 2011-2014, these mixed-media organic abstractions retain their freshness, enhanced by the playful nature of their presentation here, in which an unframed series of swooping and morphing forms adhered directly to the wall serves as a lattice to connect the more stolid framed and mounted works.

Also installed directly on the walls are three of four sculptures by Odessa Straub (the fourth being a freestanding floor piece). Straub has a Surrealist bent, with a Dadaist sense of humor and surprise. How else could one so elegantly combine such inapt objects as a live underwater plant and a leather speed bag (the type used by boxers to train), among other witticisms? There's also an undercurrent of mad-scientist menace to Straub's combines, while they are still sleek, playful, and colorfully pleasing.

Meg Lipke - Garden Gates II 2020
Meg Lipke also works in three dimensions, but her two pieces in the show play off the wall as pumped-up frames that become their own pictures. Lipke's more modest piece (which is untitled) has multiple openings in a pillow-like structure of stuffed fabric, with highly vivid coloration activating its upbeat claim on a small square of wall space. Her much larger Garden Gates II, also made of painted stuffed fabric, is less bright and slightly droopy - but, at nearly 9 feet tall, its presence is clearly stated.

Yet another sculptor, Tamara Zahaykevich, is represented by a group of five pedestal-mounted forms that hold together quite nicely as a group, though they span well over a decade of production from 2007 to 2021. Like Evans' work, these lean toward abstract biomorphism, with a limited color palette and carefully worked surfaces.

Two Tamara Zahaykevich sculptures
Variety comes as Zahaykevich works these pieces' surfaces in many different ways, from meticulously detailed to roughly scrubbed. One piece, entitled Robert Wisdom is more architectural, as were some of Zahaykevich's pieces that were included in the excellent Cut and Color show that recently ended at the Albany Airport Gallery.

The overall installation of earthly is somewhat sparse, which allows for one side of the gallery to remain unlit for viewing the wall-projected video contributed by Laleh Khorramian. Entitled I Without End, the nearly 7-minute-long time-lapse animation is a curious vision of sad romance, played out by carefully cut orange peels in a miniature chateau-like setting.

Khorramian's soundtrack ranges from lightly industrial to orchestral, including atmospheric voices at times, and it sits comfortably in the gallery space, not loud, almost soothing. Her imagery is at turns abstract and representational, but its real magic comes in the unpredictable movements of drying organic material over time, and it is surprisingly affecting. I don't have a lot of patience for longer-running video clips in a gallery setting, but this film held my attention for two complete viewings.

Credit is due the two curators of Earthly, Saint Rose Associate Professor of Art Susan Meyer and Massry Gallery Manager Erin Sickler, who've assembled this grouping with sharp eyes and clear minds, allowing the whole to honor each of its parts. The show will remain on view through March 17.

A still image from Laleh Khorramian's 2008 animation I Without End 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Terry James Conrad: Object Permanence at Opalka Gallery

Terry James Conrad adjusts his musical installation at the Opalka Gallery.
all photos provided
We’ve all heard of the three Rs - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – and most of us know that the first two are the more effective approaches to problems associated with waste. But they’re also harder to do, so we’ve tended to focus on recycling, which, also known as remanufacturing, has more and more clearly been revealed as not much of a solution at all.

Tin cans reduced to essential shapes
It’s admirable to try to reduce our production and consumption of stuff, but there’s a conundrum in it: Doing things – which often means making things – is what gives our lives meaning. And that goes double for studio artists. Just try to imagine all your favorite creators having built their careers without leaving behind a trail of stuff. Not at all likely.

All of which makes the unusual approach to making art that Terry James Conrad has pursued so fascinating. Currently the protagonist of a solo exhibition and series of events at Sage College’s Opalka Gallery in Albany, Conrad has taken that second R to heart, and made Reuse his raison d’etre. The result is both intriguing and – perhaps a surprise - esthetically appealing.

One of Conrad's presses in use - the paper
is at the bottom, under the cans
Conrad is essentially a printmaker, though this installation also includes numerous small sculptures, four handcrafted wooden guitars, and a large musical apparatus, in addition to three homemade printing presses that are being actively employed during the exhibition. The level of skill involved in all these works is extremely varied, from pounded, foil-wrapped tin cans that evoke outsider art to fancy woodworking and metalcraft on the guitars. Somewhere in between is the Rube Goldberg-esque music machine, which Conrad set into sonorous motion during my visit. (He’s in the gallery every Thursday adding a residency component to the show.) Unlike many sound installations, the contraption’s rhythmic emanations were not unpleasant or intrusive; rather, they suited the room and the other art in it quite nicely.

It’s worth trying to explain about those presses. Conrad has invented a unique method of printing, which uses gravity to create downward pressure on a matrix of folded, joined, and grouped tin cans that are placed on top of the printing paper. Each press is a multilayered stack of found stuff, not all of it functional, but all of it adding to the overall visual and symbolic effect of the conglomeration. After homemade inks are piped into the interior spaces of the cans, where they pool and soak for several days, an embossed and colored image will be permanently impressed upon the page, formed of deep lines from the cans’ edges and flowing colors within and around them.

Conrad has embellished these found cans with colored foils 
Conrad makes his inks from everyday sources like walnuts and rust, and uncommon ones, too, such as silt taken from 565 meters below the ocean. Many of the more than 30 finished prints in the exhibition are displayed without frames or glass, making it easy to examine their soft textures and subtle variations in tone. Others are shown in frames, most notably a suite of black-on-white lithographs embellished with pastel-colored frames - but the unframed works are the stars of the show.

Four Conrad prints
The prints are abstract and have equally abstract names, and they are fun, funky, even stylish, with geometric forms and an array of mostly muted colors. Their method of display appears to be yet another Conrad innovation: Angled out from the wall on painted wooden supports, and placed well below the usual eye-level of gallery art, they invite relaxed intimacy and close examination. The experience is enhanced by the opportunity to also examine the tin-can constructions that made these prints, as they are also on view in the gallery, along with a number of simpler transformations of tin cans that evoke early Modernist minimalism.

The show is billed as a survey, with prints ranging throughout the last 10 years. Most of them have white backgrounds, but a triptych entitled Benthic is brown and soft like suede, fully stained with walnut ink around its other colors and floating shapes. Benthic is also larger than the other prints, and super-fresh (dated 2021), suggesting a strong current direction.

Terry James Conrad: Object Permanence will remain on view through March 13. The Opalka Gallery is open to the public, with generous visiting hours that include Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. I highly recommend that you make time to see this outstanding show by a uniquely dedicated and talented artist.

Benthic 2021 - monoprints by Terry James Conrad

Friday, February 5, 2021

Painted Stories: Susan Hoffer at LGAP

The day we were sent home to stay home. March 13, 2020. Essex County, NY
In a time when many museums and galleries are closed to the public, those few that continue to fulfill their mission of mounting new shows that can be viewed in person are especially valuable.

One of those crucial venues is the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery in Lake George Village, which hardly skipped a beat in its exhibition roster through the pandemic, and currently hosts an outstanding solo show of paintings by the Adirondack artist Susan Hoffer.

Entitled Painted Stories, the collection of 21 recent works holds together nearly perfectly as a solid body of work built around the theme of technology's place in our daily lives, with an awareness of current events and deeply personal connections as a complex underlay. In other words, these paintings are ripe with content, living up to the show's title, while simultaneously being subtle and intimate.

From the Warsaw Ghetto to Lake Clear: Never Again
Hoffer has a lot going for her here: First, her technique is off the charts. Working in oil on cradled hardwood, she layers glazes of transparent color under heavily built-up impasto to achieve both a luminosity and an extremely active surface, a rare combination of effects. She also organizes her space, and the people and objects within it, with the confidence of an orchestra conductor, making for compositions that are particularly engaging.

Hoffer's paintings are portraits, but they are equally domestic interiors - think of Vermeer as a comparable example. And, like Vermeer, Hoffer uses lens-based technology extensively as a base for her creations. Don't misunderstand - this is NOT photorealism. Rather, it is a carefully honed process that utilizes a multitude of photographs for reference, often incorporating visual effects that can come from the subject having been seen through a lens. 

The resulting pictures are bathed in a dazzling light, highly detailed, and realistically representational - but they never appear to be anything other than a painting, and they feature many beautiful passages of paint and color, more than enough to satisfy lovers of that sort of thing. Further, these luscious paintings show as much attention to mundane objects - say, a glass of beer - as to people's faces, maybe even more in some instances, which I find intriguingly rigorous.

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So we have a painter of stories who is also a painter of floors, and fabrics, and furniture. The evocative titles, the carefully arranged scenes, and the people depicted combine to provide context and develop deeper meaning to each work, but one can also simply get lost in the lush strokes of paint.

This is why it's so important to see these paintings in person - trust me, they just don't translate online (worthwhile art rarely does). Instead, allowing your eyes to roam over their surfaces will amply reward the time and effort spent in going to the gallery.

Watching the healthcare debate:
No pre-existing conditions allowed
That said, there's a lot more to these elaborate compositions than sensual pleasure. What started out in 2017 as a thoughtful painter's response to our nation's particular and peculiar political situation, evolved in 2020 into a meditation on the effects of the pandemic, and the direct or indirect way the situation was enmeshed with our dependence on electronic devices.

Thus, in all but five of the works presented here, the subjects are absorbed with looking at a screen, or, if not directly looking, they also aren't looking out at the viewer, and a screen or other device is present. (In the show's only self-portrait, Hoffer is shown in her studio listening to a podcast while she stares off into space.) One is made to ask: What does this say about our time and its preoccupations? In the effort to stay informed and connected, are we losing more than we're gaining? Alternately, in the handful of paintings where we are directly confronted by the subject, we are forced to have quite other kinds of thoughts, about that person, their circumstances, and what all of that may mean to us personally. Either way, it's quite a powerful experience.

Painted Stories: new work by Susan Hoffer will remain on view at the Courthouse Gallery through February 19. The gallery is currently open by appointment only, preferably with 24 hours' notice. Call 518-323-5499, ​or ​email to schedule your visit.

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