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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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