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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Daniella Dooling at the Esther Massry Gallery

3459 Macomb Street, installation by Daniella Dooling
in the Esther Massry Gallery's Vertical Gallery
Navel-gazing as an art form can be messy - and, worse yet, it is usually boring. Fortunately, neither is the case in Daniella Dooling's solo show at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery in Albany (which ended on Dec. 7).

The somewhat perplexingly titled Bloody Dick Road in the Big Hole Valley: Files from the Girl in Room 10 is essentially a full-gallery installation that features archival arrangements, combine-type sculptures, sound, video, and text. Dooling, an art professor at Bard College, devotes most of the space to critically nostalgic renderings of her childhood and teenage years, using carefully preserved artifacts from her life and the lives of certain key relatives (more on them in a bit), as well as other (presumably) found and created objects and materials.

Busing Break (for Amy)
While such self-centered expression can easily descend into ranting, spewing, and overall self-indulgence, Dooling's is as carefully considered as a Smithsonian scientific display, and is delightfully engaging. Dooling's approach is complex and inclusive, yet spare (as is clearly evident in the installation view shown below). Her sculptural style tends toward a very limited palette and an elegant, pared-down presentation, reminding me of the scientific and philosophical principle of Occam's razor, which favors the simplest solution to tricky problems.

Installation view
Much of the show's content is presented in showcases, cabinets or vitrines, aptly enough for archives, and effective enough as an art form, though I found it sometimes a little tough to see the details sufficiently to satisfy my curiosity. And, with this level of personal material from a teenage girl's drug-filled life, that curiosity easily bordered on morbid fascination.

Witchiepoo
Equally fascinating were the elements of the show that focused on Dooling's remarkable great-grandparents, who explored and promoted healing with homeopathy; grandmother, who published the important progressive journal Parabola; and an uncle owned a rustic Montana guest ranch. Dooling seems to have held on to everything of value from her forebears' and her own past, and here she organizes many elements of it into precise, unblinking displays of reflection and self-revelation.

But Dooling is not a sensationalist, and, to my relief, I found that this is not shock art. Rather, it is sincere almost to the point of sweetness, and was for me especially nostalgic for a number of reasons. Though my own teen years predated Dooling's by about a decade, it seems she relived similar experiences to mine, and though it seems she suffered more for it (the titular Girl in Room 10 was being held in the psych ward after a tough acid trip), it's clear to me she also had some fun (as I did) and got through it all in one piece.

My Grandmother's Parabola
I'd be curious to know how others react to this material - if they had a crappy teen-hood, would this be an unpleasant experience, or would it perhaps be cathartic? If they had a wholesome one, would they be repelled by the young Daniella's drug use and sexuality? My own teen years were drug-fueled, sexualized, and wholesome, and for me personally this show was an especially uplifting revival of memories of those dangerous-yet-innocent times.

Dooling's open sharing of diaries, mementos, and experiences is a gift to be savored, and it has left a pleasant afterglow - not at all the way I would expect to feel after viewing similar content handled by an artist of lesser skills. Bloody Dick Road in the Big Hole Valley: Files from the Girl in Room 10 is one of the year's best shows by an artist who deserves all the serious attention she gets.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Books: A novel, photographs, and poetry

Though it isn't a picture book, Paul Castellani's Sputnik Summer features a great photo by Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman II on the cover, and its author and his wife, Donna, are great modern art enthusiasts who attend a lot of openings, so it caught my attention.

Castellani is a professor by trade, but his academic roots stay pretty well hidden in this coming-of-age novel that takes place in the late '50s in a fading Adirondack resort town where a somewhat typical 17-year-old boy tries to come to terms with the limits of his hick town, the crummy summer resort his abusive dad runs, his own college ambitions, and the need to get laid.

The story is punctuated by news bits and advertising slogans taken straight from the publications of the day, which provides a sort of parallel narrative that suggests political and social commentary without offering it directly. Castellani is an excellent storyteller, and he keeps you interested in the twists and turns of this intelligent but inexperienced young man's rather fateful last summer at home. Put simply: I enjoyed the book and so, probably, will you or the person you decide to give it to.

Another book that recently came into my possession serves double duty as the catalog of the current exhibition at the Photography Center of the Capital District in Troy. Both are titled Structures and feature the work of two photographers: Ian Creitz and Robert Feero.

It is always different to experience a body of photographs in a book as opposed to an exhibition, and this publication offers an opportunity to compare the two experiences, at least until the show comes down on Dec. 15. In this case, the selection is changed, but the real differences between a show and a book are in terms of scale and juxtaposition.

This book uses the page-to-page flow as part of the presentation - not always entirely successfully, but in an engaging way. Creitz is the more traditional of the two photographers, and he works in many formats and styles: color, black and white, panoramic, and straight on. He has a very good technical command of the medium and apparently loves to seek out decrepit buildings to shoot in, bringing back highly detailed and arresting images of his sad subjects.

Creitz sometimes uses heavy-handed digital effects to make his pictures look antique - an unnecessary effort, as the battered places he explores already amply show the effects of time. Feero, a former abstract painter, also applies a certain digital gimmick, in which the image is refracted into four parts to make a kaleidoscopic mandala. But, in Feero's case, he gets away with it because he has a very keen eye for the type of composition that will work well with this technique, resulting in a particular geometric vision all his own.

A few of Feero's pictures use black and white, but he is really a colorist (the painter lives!). His subjects, mainly buildings and bridges, are so transformed by the multiplication as to be nearly unrecognizable, yet they are essential to Feero's approach. The book is very nicely printed, so the pictures hold their power in the reproductions, and it is attractively priced at $15, though for that you do have to put up with a spiral binding. It would make a very nice gift for any art, architecture, or photography enthusiast.

Barry Lobdell and Michael Tucker collaborated to create Pull Over, a collection of poetry and black-and-white photographs that celebrates symbolism, spirituality, and simplicity. Tucker, the poet, worked for decades in special education and describes himself in the book as a "Vietnam War resister who proudly served with the hippies in Boston." His writing is as sincere as expected, and retains some of the hopeful idealism of that era.

Lobdell's photography was already quite familiar to me through exhibitions and a business relationship, but this presentation casts it in a different light, and I find the combination of the two artists' visions to be mutually beneficial. While each stands on its own, the consistent pairing of a short poem and a single picture on every page or spread of the book creates a fine balance and a lovely rhythm.

The book, an oversized paperback, opens out horizontally to provide a 23-inch-wide layout, and many of the photos are bled to three edges to take full advantage of this expanse of space. The images range from domestic moments to landscapes and cityscapes and are nicely reproduced in a full range of black-and-white tones. Each picture accompanies a poem with related subject matter - not illustrating the words so much as augmenting them.

Tucker's poetry is unadorned and direct, but also at times clever. If for no other reason, I can recommend this writer on the strength of his having the courage and humor to rhyme Cheetos with Speedos. He repeatedly targets certain topics, such as the title poem's advice to stop and look and appreciate, not in a cloying way, but in a gently urgent manner that makes it clear he values the Zen approach to life.

Tucker is a searcher - as is Lobdell - and this brings them together quite comfortably. Priced at $19.95, this book is a good value that will make a fine gift. In fact, I'm planning to give it to my mother-in-law for Christmas - but, please, don't tell her! Pull Over is available at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Market Block Books in downtown Troy and Northshire Books in Saratoga Springs.

The Seagull   by Michael Tucker
The warm blanket of dawn,
Pink and billowing,
Draws back across
The first blue,
The moon a blur
Of white,
Nowhere now can there
Be night,
Against the gentle, sleepy clouds,
A messenger of the moment,
Circles high,
Greeting day and us.

This sentinel of morning stillness
Is too a seagull,
Looking for a spilled French fry,
Parking lot leftovers, garbage.
We live in two states at once.
In divinity, in vulgarity,
Two sides of one moment.
Will we see through ourselves?
Will we look up?
What we see
Will be our destiny.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at Mandeville Gallery

This contemporary take on the Sisyphus myth, titled Sissy and the Plutocrats is, at six by eight feet, the largest painting in the Jaune Quick-to-See Smith show at Union College. All the paintings reproduced here are oil and acrylic on canvas.
A fine, small show of paintings and prints by the Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith fills Union College's Mandeville Gallery, situated in the extraordinary Nott Memorial in the center of the college's campus green. Smith is internationally known for the skillful way she combines primitive, symbolic imagery with modern painterly style, and as an articulate voice for women and Native Americans.

Shock and Awe
I'll admit I was not familiar with this artist before hearing about this show, but it lived up to expectations in a number of ways. First, Smith is a mature artist who knows her way around a canvas, and who maintains a sense of humor while addressing socially- and politically-charged issues. Second, the selection presented here is limited in scope while still being broad enough to satisfy a first-time viewer. So it clearly communicates her vision and messages without being overwhelming.

The space is circular, which suits this presentation particularly well, as Smith establishes and returns to certain themes repeatedly. One can comfortably walk around and around, taking in the imagery and relating it from one piece to the next without concerns for order or hierarchy.

Theatres of War (lithograph)
There are nine paintings and six prints in this selection, and it is immediately clear that, for Smith, printmaking is a serious pursuit, not a cheaper substitute for painting. One of my favorite pieces in the show is a lithographic riff on a war shirt that evokes Jim Dine's Bathrobe series as well as other modern or Pop art styles, but remains clearly a Smith invention. (seen here at right).

Imperialism
Other work brings the wunderkind Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat to mind, not a bad thing at all, because Smith infuses his neo-primitive, graffiti-inspired style with her own distinctive and powerful set of cultural symbols. One of those symbols, seen in the top, left area of the painting reproduced at the beginning of this review, is the rabbit, which seems to exist as a stand-in for Smith herself, or for her people in general. At times rendered into a flat cartoon, at others more expressively drawn, this character seems to know who it is and where it stands in the context of the picture, not to mention in the world beyond the picture.

In this way, Smith exudes her own confidence and convinces us that the things she cares about are worthy of our attention. The show ends on Nov. 30, and the gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. See it if you can.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mary Pat Wager at Albany Center Gallery

A visitor contemplates one of Mary Pat Wager's reliefs at ACG.
photo by Mike Wagner
In the great tradition that Albany Center Gallery has become in its 35+ years of existence, the current retrospective by sculptor Mary Pat Wager is a big, sprawling show of important work covering a span of several decades. Wager is a familiar face on the regional art scene including at past ACG shows, but this major exhibition is still a long time coming and a welcome sight.

Featuring scores of works from 1978 through 2014, Collections: A Retrospective was independently curated by Jackie Weaver and includes wall-hung and free-standing pieces in steel, wood, copper, bone, bronze, stone, brass, glass, paper, and more, usually combining several of these materials in one piece. It's organized clutter, marvelously inventive, sophisticated-yet-direct assemblage by an inveterate collector (some would say hoarder) of stuff.

Yes, Wager loves stuff, and she lovingly turns it into art. It's almost that simple, and would be if she were less of an artist. But where craft fair or roadside sculptors are entertaining, Wager is deeply engaging. Her direct involvement in metal casting, often represented by free-form melted bits she's scavenged from the process, is just one source of the profound connections Wager forges with her materials and thereby shares with her audience.

If you love pure form, if symbolism turns you on, or if you just kinda like steampunk, see this show. I like it because I see fascinating conjunctions and droll juxtapositions throughout; I like it more because I see a very clever eye at work; and I want to go back because that's only the beginning of the fountain of
creativity on display here. But you better hurry, because it ends on Nov 21. Albany Center Gallery is open from noon to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 518 462 4775.

Solitary Confinement, 2014 mixed media by Mary Pat Wager
all other images are sculptures by Mary Pat Wager

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Theme and Variations: Gail Nadeau at FMCC

An installation view of Angelus at FMCC
The show Angelus by Gail Nadeau at the Perrella Gallery of Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown raises a lot of wonderful questions. The very talented Nadeau works in digital media as well as traditional forms such as silver-based photography and oil paint, and all are present in this 60-piece installation.

Is it a retrospective? Well, there are images from 1985, 2014 and in-between. But, no, it’s not a retrospective. Is Nadeau a photographer, a painter, or what? Well, she does show photographs here, and very painterly mixed-media pieces. But, no, I wouldn’t call her either a photographer or a painter. Rather, I think printmaker would be the correct term.

Diamond Studded Dress with Rock
Are digital prints really art? Well, that depends. In this case, Nadeau presents a lot of digital prints, and 48 of them are of almost exactly the same composition – yet I feel that this display would convince even the most die-hard skeptic that this digital work is indeed art. And how is that? Well, let me tell you …

Among the intriguing selection of images in this collection are a handful of traditional black-and-white photographs (output as inkjet prints but, trust me, you won’t see the difference) and one rather large color photograph, which is the template for most of the other prints in the show. There are also a few  pieces that read as collage paintings, which use an inkjet print of a mixed-media image as the underpainting of the final creation.

Plum
The black-and-whites and the colorful combines all include female figures, from babies to girls to women to possible fairies or angels, and all are wearing flowing dresses. Nadeau explains in a quite readable artist statement her fascination with the dress as a touchstone and a symbol; then she treats it as her theme.

Using the one, simple composition from her original color photograph of a white christening gown suspended on a thin hanger flat against a wall, with a spray of wildflowers on the floor nearby and part of a framed picture on the wall, Nadeau riffs endlessly in a digital environment, adding color and texture, changing contrast, and slightly altering the compositional elements.

The Disappearance
The result is (perhaps surpri- singly) completely absorbing. Many of the images are very small (in fact, the largest are just 12 by 13 inches), but they are power-packed. The intimate nooks of the Perrella provide numerous spots for small groups of framed prints as well as single ones, and the gallery’s most prominent wall holds the show’s coup-de-grace, a stunning grid of 30 unframed prints with black borders.

The tininess of Nadeau’s smallest prints (they are about 3.5 by 4.5 inches) demands close inspection, and it is always richly rewarded. One group of three, at a distance, seems largely monochromatic; but up close, their muted tones reveal sparks of bright color. Many of the prints do use black, but often with such elaborate textures that they glitter like silver. Others use big spots of primaries like yellow or blue, thereby reaching out to grab us from across the room.

This body of work is about process, as is all true printmaking, and it is also about transformation. It is not to be missed.

Note: Angelus has been extended - it was to end on Oct. 31, but will now remain on view through Nov. 14. Gallery hours are M-F, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment 518-736-3622 Ext. 8977.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Brief: Ramersdorfer and Van Alstine at LGAP

A view of Confluence of Opposites III at Lake George Arts Project
featuring Storm Warning II, left, and Sisyphean Circle, right, by John Van Alstine

The idea of a show of only sculpture shouldn't seem at all radical, but it is uncommon enough that it bears noting. And when such a show is presented by equal partners in a domestic relationship, each with significant international showing experience, at the best little public gallery in our region, it is noteworthy indeed.

Inner View - To the Bone alabaster and marble
by Caroline Ramersdorfer


Caroline Ramersdorfer and John Van Alstine are not opposites at all, despite the flowery title of their well-wrought exhibition; rather, they share similar characteristics that are more significant than nationality or gender or material or technique. Both work in three dimensions but really emphasize a frontal view of their carefully assembled compositions; both combine strict geometry with naturalistic forms; and both work in dramatic, abstract gestures.

Ramersdorfer, a native of Austria, now lives with Van Alstine in Wells, N.Y., and the sweetness of this pared-down selection reflects the comfort that it is virtually in their own backyard (by Adirondack standards, 30 miles is a stroll). A total of 11 works fill the Lake George Arts Project's modest space, but not too tightly, and are bathed there in spectacularly directed light that alternately rakes the textural surfaces of Van Alstine's raw stones and infiltrates the layers of Ramersdorfer's polished marbles.

This fine exhibition offers a chance to see a unique grouping of works (three are borrowed from private collections) without distraction in this quiet space in the heart of Lake George Village. I recommend you take a foliage drive and stop in - it will be up through Oct. 17.

Inner View - Layers V, detail - marble by Caroline Ramersdorfer

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Catching up with the Albany Institute


A view of the Small + Seductive installation
We’ve all been there – you’re aware of a show you know you want to see, and it has a long run, so you leave it till later because you know you have plenty of time to catch it before it closes … and then, inevitably, time goes by and, in the best of circumstances, you catch the show on its last day – or, more likely, miss it forever.

Pink Hat - Gayle Johnson, gouache on paper
That’s how, on Sunday, I caught the last day of a fine show of five photographers at the Albany Institute of History & Art, and then took the opportunity to peruse an ongoing exhibition called Small + Seductive, which continues through Sept. 28. Featuring about 50 works of art (a few of which are multiple-piece series) by 37 artists, Small + Seductive is the third in a recent series of shows from AIHA’s collection of contemporary art. The first of that trio included only photographs (full disclosure: two of those were mine) while the second was made up of large-scale work in more traditional fine art media.

From Here to Eternity - Wendy Ide Williams
ceramic sculpture
This latest exploration of the archive is, as the title suggests, made up of smaller works, all but a few of which are from the late 1980s on, and consists mainly of paintings, sculpture, and prints. Like the other two shows, Small + Seductive provides the viewer with an excellent overview of the Institute’s collecting proclivities and a good cross-section of many of the region’s most beloved and influential exhibiting artists. It is also very helpfully labeled with descriptive information and “According to the artist” statements from the living as well as some of the dearly departed.

Wall text explains that most of these works were acquired by the Institute via annual purchase prizes from the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, though others arrived by donation – and even commissions – from artists, collectors, and supporters of the museum’s mission. Still others were acquired during the transition out of the art field by the Schenectady Museum and Planetarium and the concurrent de-accession of its art collection.

Catskill Creek - Judy Alderfer Abbott
 
oil on board


In addition to revealing the taste of Directors past and present, this selection shows the overwhelming influence in this region of the fine art program at the University at Albany. Though I didn’t take a head count, it’s clear the majority of artists represented here either taught or studied at the U (some have done both), and many of them continue to teach and show hereabouts, extending that legacy on and on.

While many of the artists have just one piece in the show (whether they have others in the collection is left unsaid), several are represented by multiple works. Among them is Gayle Johnson, a painter who died tragically young, but who left behind vibrant portraits in gouache, twelve of which hang here in a grid. Richard Garrison also shows a grid of colorful paintings on paper (16 of them), while an elegant vitrine displays six of a slipcased set of ten etchings by Thom O’Connor.

Untitled - Dennis Byng, cast lucite
Among the three-dimensional works are a busily and evocatively painted ceramic shrine by Wendy Williams (it looks more like a fountain to me), discreetly aligned with a powerful painted-concrete head by her husband, Allen Grindle. Larry Kagan, a prominent sculptor with a solo show set to end on Sept. 14 at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, is represented by a tiny framed metal relief of a flag; and the great Dennis Byng has a brilliantly decadent-looking cast plastic cube on a pedestal across the room.

Painting dominates the show, fittingly enough for one of the Hudson River School’s best repositories, and landscape features in many of the paintings. Three excellent small views by Marjorie Portnow and a fascinatingly detailed image of a forested Catskill Creek by Judy Alderfer Abbott were gemlike discoveries for me. Other strong landscape paintings include a photographically distorted wide-angle by Tom Nelson and a Fauvist composition by Carol Caruso that depicts a favorite place, the Albany Rural Cemetery.
Albany Rural Cemetery
Carol Caruso, oil on canvas
A few other paintings run far afield from realistic rendering: A mesmerizing field of strips and dots by Peter Taylor; a lush, expressive interior by Richard Callner; a slightly nightmarish fantasy by Robert Cartmell. There are a few stabs at abstraction in addition to Taylor’s, and a couple of real challenges to the status quo in terms of materials, but most of the work here stays well within the bounds of traditional and modern art, as you would expect from one of the nation’s oldest museums.
Equally, from such a venue, you would expect the contemporary art collection to be of high quality – and it does not disappoint at all in that regard. So, catch it while you can – even if it’s on the last day (again, that would be Sept. 28). And get ready for the must-see show up next at AIHA: the 2014 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, set to open with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 26.
View of Shaker Creek - Richard Callner, watercolor and gouache on paper