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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

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