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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs at Norman Rockwell Museum

A New Yorker cover drawing
Credit for this and all other images: Artwork by Roz Chast. ©Roz Chast. All rights reserved.
Who doesn't love Roz Chast? Her quirky take on life, as seen in countless New Yorker cartoons and covers, is the essence of contemporary American neurosis and it makes us laugh in recognition of our own foibles (or, more likely, those of our friends and relatives).

A children's book illustration
So, one recent lovely summer day we took a trip to Stockbridge to enjoy Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs at the Norman Rockwell Museum - and were immediately immersed in Roz's world. And I don't just mean immersed via the scads of drawings and artifacts on view. I mean immersed as in, by pure chance, we ran into Roz's cousin Nancy, from Albany, who knew one of my sisters in Jewish youth group about 50 years ago, along with Nancy's husband, and, yes, they were depicted rather accurately in a family group portrait included in the Memoirs on display.

It used to be you wouldn't be surprised to run into one of Norman Rockwell's former child models in Stockbridge - but this was a Roz Chast show in 2015, so we got cousin Nancy instead, and it was even better.

A children's book illustration
The show, by the way, is extensive, beautifully installed, and features a lot more than framed original drawings (many of which are vivid watercolors, so you could call them paintings if you wanted to, but you might get in over your head there, considering the The New Yorker still refers to all its cartoons as drawings, and The New Yorker ought to know).

As I was saying, there are lots of other things to see, including three original hooked rugs (love 'em!), seven handmade mini-books (which can be called artists books and they are wonderful!), four early black-and-white street photographs taken in Brooklyn (not bad, either), a goodly number of intricately painted pysanka eggs (like everything else here, in the signature Chast style), and the aforementioned artifacts, such as a pair of wooden horse-head bookends and other slightly creepy souvenirs of Roz's mother's collecting habits.

Roz Chast in her studio, photo by Jeremy Clowe
There's also a chatty video that was made by NRM Media Manager Jeremy Clowe, which shows Chast in her studio and is in constant cycle on a big TV, with plenty of chairs nearby. I got shooshed more than once by folks watching the video while I talked with Nancy, so I guess they thought it was pretty good. The room with the video features a bunch of framed black-and-white cartoons deployed upon violet walls, which set them off quite nicely. As with just about everything else on view, they are expertly drawn, and hilarious.

An original page for the memoir
The show is built around 120 drawings from Chast's award-winning memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which are displayed on key-lime green walls. I mention the wall color because it sets off Chast's watercolors so well - and I must point out that her highly refined color sense is much better seen by looking at originals than in reproduction. This underlines the appropriateness of presenting Chast's work in a museum setting - yes, she's an illustrator and a cartoonist and she tells stories and she's funny, but she's also clearly an artist whose work can be aesthetically very beautiful.

A New Yorker cover drawing
I had previously read (really, devoured) the memoir in book form, so I devoted more of my time in the museum to admiring other work - the many New Yorker covers (including trial sketches), as well as a lot of other pictures and picture stories that had been published elsewhere. Just like at a good movie, I laughed, I cried, I got hungry. We left satisfied, and the drive home was lovely, though we did get a little lost.

You will love this show. If you go, plan to spend a lot of time, and definitely bring your reading glasses.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Truro Light: A Journey from Ocean to Bay by Joseph Schuyler

Harbor View, Evening
all images reproduced with this post are photographs by Joseph Schuyler
The spirit of Joseph Schuyler, who died of cancer in January, shines brightly throughout the beautiful book Truro Light: A Journey from Ocean to Bay. Schuyler, a photographer based in Delmar, N.Y., was able to plan the book (his first) but, sadly, did not live to see it published. It's fitting that it tells the story of a journey, and that its subject is a place that held deep personal importance for Schuyler, the second-to-last town out on Cape Cod.

I knew Joe for a long time, so this will not be an objective review, but I can attest that some of my in-laws, who live on the Cape, were enthralled by his poetic vision of an endlessly beautiful natural world. In a succinct, punchy introduction, Schuyler says "my goal is for you to be able to experience for yourself the sense of this remarkable place," and he accomplishes that goal handily, but not without also imbuing our experience with the sense of how he sees and feels about his muse.

Sand Trees
Schuyler's vision as a photographer has always been eclectic - he was widely known for work in black and white that recorded decades of productions by Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre, did catalog work, sold pictures to commercial stock agencies, and regularly exhibited fine art prints - and that is also true in this book. We see landscapes, nature details, architecture, and abstracts along the journey, and in a signature Schuyler touch, a lot of the pictures are taken in low light, rather than the blazing sun that draws so many to this ocean shore.

This journey is as much imaginary as real, more like the experience described by Thoreau than a contemporary trek, and it is very sparsely populated - people appear only tiny or in silhouette, roads are entirely absent, and the things we make show up in just a few of the photos. Even animals occupy a small place here, though when they do appear they clearly belong, such as a big green frog in a pond, and a quartet of naked nestlings, mouths agape.

What Schuyler captures best is the atmosphere, from foamy waves to misty marsh to limitless tidal flat, and the quiet that pervades these uncivilized locales. As we follow him on his journey, he stops to point out delights we may have missed - numerous shots peppered through the book present patterns in the sand, evocative cloud shapes, phenomena of light, reflections in the water. He delights in all things, and we can't help but share in that delight.

Low Tide, Head of the Meadow
Schuyler also has a way with transformation - one of my favorite images (on the back cover of the book) shows a tidal pool at sunset, in which the pool appears to be a giant jellyfish hovering below the surface of the bay beyond. All the special qualities of the moment are captured with consummate technique in a picture that both embodies and transcends the subject.

Speaking of technique - it is always a topic when talking about photographs, but this book thankfully does not even bring it up. Suffice it to say that Schuyler was schooled and skilled in photographic art and technology, and he became a sought-after expert on SLR digital photography when it was still in its early phase (circa 15 years ago). I believe the pictures in this book are all from digital capture, and they use it to excellent effect, especially in low light.

Ballston Beach Fire
One thing I love about Truro Light is that it also delves into darkness, but doesn't create a dark feeling. To some, this may make Schuyler less of an artist, but I respect the integrity of a person who remained true to his own quite sunny disposition and chose to present his world from that point of view. And indeed, the work is, as the title says, about the light in all its changes across Truro's mile-wide scope.

Freshwater Lily
Schuyler spent 10 years taking these pictures and no doubt a lot of great shots had to be cut, but the structure of the book demands that each picture contribute to the overall flow, which is organized in sections (Oceanside, Inland, Pamet Harbor and so on). Not to nitpick, but I found it bogged down a bit in the middle, where a sequence of eight flower details seemed unnecessary (though still beautiful). Perhaps I was just too impatient to get to the other shore.

View from Tom's Hill
As I am writing this, I am in a cafe in the mid-Cape area. A local man sitting nearby was curious about the book, so I let him have a look. When he handed it back, he simply said he would be buying several copies, and would make sure the local library picked one up, too. I sure wish Joe had been here for that. If you want to pick up a copy, please support your local independent bookstore - it will be available there or (if you must!) at Amazon.

Low Tide, Pamet River

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maxfield Parrish at the Fenimore Art Museum

Maxfield Parrish - Masquerade oil on board 1922
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
If you think an exhibition of work by an early-20th-century illustrator with broad commercial appeal is not to be taken seriously, think again. Maxfield Parrish: Art of Light and Illusion, on view at Cooperstown's Fenimore Art Museum through Sept. 7, is a knockout.

Girl on a Swing oil on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Parrish was the most popular and highest paid commercial artist of his time and, judging from the art, artifacts, and facts on display here, he earned it. While skill alone never makes great art, it can't hurt - and Parrish had enough skill for ten great artists. Initially educated through his artist father's tutelage and a seminal two-year European sojourn as a teen, Parrish first took an architecture degree, then went to study under Howard Pyle, himself a memorable illustrator of the day, before embarking on a career that revolutionized the field of commercial art reproduction.

The Storm oil on canvas 1907
The Addison Gallery
Parrish got his start illustrating children's books, quickly establishing a knack for fantasy and fun, while executing flawless representational techniques. Some of the early work in this exhibition demonstrates a prodigious ability for black-and-white rendering, whether in line or texture, as well as some of the most impressive hand lettering you will see this side of a medieval manuscript.

But Parrish would gain his greatest success as a colorist, perfecting a layering technique in painting that lent itself to stunningly vivid lithographic reproduction; this paved the way to his becoming the most popular artist in America - his 1925 Daybreak was said to be present in one-quarter of all homes - and creating a style that remains iconic today.

A Good Mixer oil on artist board 1924
This painting was owned - and imitated - by Norman Rockwell
Some would dismiss that style as inconsequential fluff from a sillier time - and there's truth in that thought - but Parrish's best paintings are so perfectly constructed, so masterfully rendered, and so unabashedly seductive as to be, frankly, irresistible. He was also extremely influential, as the show points out on a wall panel citing George Lucas, Andy Warhol and others as acolytes and collectors of Parrish's work.

Guest Curator Megan Holloway Fort intelligently organized the show in a cycle, beginning with a fine landscape painting by Parrish's father, and concluding with several landscapes that represent Maxfield's later-in-life commitment to fine art rather than illustration. Along the way, she includes a good variety of examples of Parrish's working photographs, drawings, props, and cutouts, providing an intriguing lesson about a craftsman so meticulous that he regularly machined metal and wooden forms to use as source material for photographs he shot and developed himself as guides to his paintings.

Ecstasy Mazda Lamps calendar lithograph 1930
Pithy quotes abound in the exhibition notes: A New York Times critic wrote that everything Parrish did was "an exercise in conspicuous virtuosity"; Holloway describes the "theatricality, fantasy, sentimentality, and good humor" of Parrish's oeuvre; and Parrish describes himself as "a machinist who paints." He also said, perhaps too tellingly, as he quit the illustration trade in 1936: "It's an awful thing to be a rubber stamp."

So, after achieving the financial success he sought, Parrish dedicated himself to painting landscapes; and the ones presented here are just marvelous. I found myself craning in to scrutinize every detail - the closer I got, the more there was to see, masterfully materialized in color, texture, and line. In the end, it was very difficult to leave this immensely satisfying show.

Potpourri oil on stretched paper 1905

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Shows to See

Van Gogh and Nature will be at The Clark through Sept. 13
Just like that, July 4th is over and it feels like summer will be soon be a distant memory, too. A bunch of museum exhibitions ought to be part of those memories, if you can organize it, with Van Gogh and Nature at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute topping the list.

Roz Chast's style is unique
Other shows not to be missed include:
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., through Oct. 26. The sardonic and self-deprecating New Yorker cartoonist is about as far from the Saturday Evening Post as you can get - which is why I can't wait to see this show in Rockwell's house.

Near Stockbridge is Boston Sculptors Gallery at Chesterwood 2015, featuring 24 Boston-area sculptors' responses to the work, estate, and gardens of Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French, through Oct. 12.

A pop-up book by Andy Warhol at WCMA
The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol at The Hyde Collection through Sept. 27 and Warhol by the Book at the Williams College Museum of Art through Aug. 16. Warhol lovers can get their fill this summer. WCMA, always an under-the-radar favorite of mine, also offers a spate of other cool shows, including a spotlight on their stellar collection of works by Maurice and Charles Prendergast, a dive into history titled Imagining the Trojan War, and a featured exhibition of James McNeil Whistler.

Notice: A Flock of Signs by Kim Beck at Art Omi
The Fields Sculpture Park at Art Omi, which features about 80 long-term sculptural installations along a winding nature path, adds new works every year; I am long overdue for a revisit, and recommend it for all ages who have yet to go.

A Burchfield watercolor
that inspired his wallpaper design
Also on my to-do list are a show about Charles Burchfield's wallpaper designs at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie; Lit at the Albany County Airport Gallery; and the 2015 edition of Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, set to open this week at the University at Albany Art Museum.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed with all these options, you are not alone - I haven't gotten to any of these shows either. But today, we are heading out to Cooperstown for yet one more must-see: Maxfield Parrish: The Art of Light and Illusion at the Fenimore Art Museum, on view through Sept. 7. Watch this space for a review of that exhibition to come soon. And be sure to enjoy your summer, however you spend it, because it surely will not last!

Maxfield Parrish - What better art for a summer's day?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Walter Launt Palmer: Painting the Moment at the Albany Institute of History & Art

Wheat and Poppies, 1889-90 pastel on paper
Everybody knows the blockbuster show of the summer is Van Gogh at the Clark - all the more reason you should check out the work of his Albany contemporary, Walter Launt Palmer, on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art through Aug. 16. Born into an artistic family in 1854 (Vincent was one year older), Palmer started early and enjoyed a long, successful painting career. At first he held to the Victorian mode, but by the 1880s he was a full-on American Impressionist, no doubt influenced by the same movement that brought us the ever astonishing Van Gogh.

Library at Arbour Hill, 1898 oil on canvas
This comprehensive exhibition of Palmer's three significant series fills the big upstairs gallery of the Institute, which owns most of the paintings presented here (a select few are borrowed from private collectors). It begins with early still life and nature sketches, revealing a very skilled hand that would later be put to the particular task of painting lavish interiors. Two of those highly detailed works that he was regularly commissioned to make depict rooms in the house that gave Arbor Hill its name (now known as the Ten Broeck Mansion) and, with their dark, Victorian air, show why Palmer eventually stopped this pursuit - it was ruining his vision.

Venetian Scene 1890-1900
watercolor and pastel on paper
Transitioning through better interiors painted in England, Palmer re-emerged into the light, and an extremely adept landscape and cityscape painter was allowed to blossom. The influence he acquired during extended visits to France and, especially, Venice led to a finely tuned sense of atmosphere that at times recalls the Luminists (George Inness, for example) but also reveals Palmer as a latter-day Hudson River School painter (he was tutored at an early age by Frederic Edwin Church). There are several mountain views included in this exhibition, and they are as good as most produced by the members of that great group.

Catskill Clove, 1880 pastel on paperboard
Eventually, Palmer became known as a painter of snow scenes, which he executed in a range of modes featuring subtle shades, surprising colors, and the intensity of his final frosted fantasy (shown at the end of this post). One reason I like these paintings is that they remind me of Salem, N.Y., painter Harry Orlyk's vividly colorful explorations of snowy landscapes, and it's gratifying to feel there is a continuous chain of regional artists going back through the centuries.

Winter Twilight, 1903 oil on canvas
In usual Institute fashion, Painting the Moment is amply labeled with informative details about the artist, his times, and not only the pictures themselves, but the people and places they depict. This adds to the overall experience of the exhibition as a window on Albany's past as a significant center of wealth and power.

It's worth noting that the Albany Institute is also featuring Triple Play, a trio of baseball exhibitions that will hold the attention of fans and non-fans alike for hours. It runs through July 26.

The White World, 1932 oil on canvas

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fence 50 at ACCR: Democracy in Action

Fence 50 installation view - Photos provided by the Arts Center of the Capital Region

It's been 50 years, and the Fence Show is still going strong at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. I can remember in the early '80s hanging the works on the spikes of the wrought-iron fence that gave the show its name, and it retains the wide-open feeling it had then of being a show for the people.

This year's edition attracted 382 entries from a total of 237 artists, 40 of which were submitted by 33 K-12 students, and as is the tradition, all are on display in a jam-packed salon presentation (as seen in the photo above) through June 27. Such clutter would require a stepladder - and a lot of time - to properly peruse, but that's what juror Julie Lohnes (curator of Union College's collections and Mandeville Gallery) must have done in order to choose works for the Fence Select edition of the show and designate the prizes.

A detail of Fence 50
Such a democratic enterprise has its pluses and its minuses. The only requirement for inclusion is membership in the ACCR; it appears submissions were limited to two per artist, and I'm guessing there was a size limit - but otherwise, if you brought it, it got in. The result: Everybody gets to participate (yay!) but a fair amount of truly awful work is thereby presented, and even the best work pretty much gets overwhelmed by the swirling mass of media in the show (see examples immediately above and below).

Then again, if you like to keep up with the local art scene, this affords a chance for a broad overview of it, and provides a rare opportunity to see everything that was submitted along with the juror's choices (they are denoted with a little card, visible in the photo above). This can be a fun exercise, and I guarantee every visitor will not agree with all the juror's choices of what to include or exclude.

A detail of Fence 50
My own thoughts ran naturally to second-guessing Lohnes' process, as at first I scratched my head over how few works she had tagged for Fence Select (by my count - not including the students - she picked 42 works by 32 artists out of 342 submitted by 204 artists; fewer than 13% of the entries and 16% of the artists made the cut). Man, I thought, that's harsh! But after a while, the reality began to sink in of just how much mediocre stuff was there to troll through, and I was eventually nodding in appreciation of Lohnes' careful culling.

That said, as always, some excellent work seen here will not be in Fence Select, such as a haunting black-and-white self-portrait by oft-included painter John Hampshire; two fine small photographs by Dale Winsor; and Sara Pruiksma's quirky mixed-media confections. But, overall, Lohnes got it right - choosing a good variety of media (submissions ranged from functional to conceptual in all materials) and maintaining a high level of quality. I noticed she chose a lot of graphic media (photographs and prints make up more than a third of the selected works), many rather small-scaled pieces, and not much three-dimensional work, leading me to worry that Fence Select will be too sparse.

Still, it will be intriguing to return and see how the Select edition fills the gallery and to enjoy the works in it with some breathing room. That show runs July 18 through Aug. 29, along with a solo show by last year's Fence winner Marilee Sousie. This year's prize winners are photographer Ray Felix (Best in Show) and painter Catherine Chwazik (Runner-up). The students will also be represented in a select edition of 10 works by 10 artists, including top prize winner Eliza Henneberry and runner-up Nora Kane.

Fence 50 installation view - Photos provided by the Arts Center of the Capital Region

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Studio Visit: David Arsenault

Center of Attention - Oil on canvas by David Arsenault
His work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper. He was voted "Best Visual Artist" by the readers of Metroland in 2002. And as a past president and Oakroom Artists stalwart for many years, he has shown a lot in Schenectady and just about everywhere else a painter can in the Capital Region. But David Arsenault has moved on - to Rockport, Mass. - and he's not looking back.

Swaying in Time - oil on canvas
I recently caught up with Arsenault in his newly opened gallery in Rockport, a sweet seacoast town on Cape Ann with beautiful harbors, rocky sea walls, inviting cafes, many galleries, and a long history of resident painters. He moved there only last fall, but has already immersed himself in the cultural scene and staked his claim to the town's iconic "Motif #1," a satisfyingly geometric red fishing shack (seen in the painting reproduced above).

Arsenault was pushed to this decision by a helpful interruption to a long career in publishing (he was trained at Sage College of Albany as a graphic designer), and pulled by an equally helpful wife who has often relocated and was ready to do it again. They landed well, renting a nifty wooden house in town and the crisp space that houses the gallery (seen in this photo), where Arsenault has a well-lit painting loft and lots of nice walls to display his finished work, situated a stone's throw from the Motif on a charming, touristy stretch called Bearskin Neck.

Going Topless - oil on canvas
If you've seen his work in the past, you know Arsenault has one chief concern: Light. Unlike many painters who cherish this element, he used to paint night scenes often (an old favorite you may recall features the multicolored glow of the Malta Drive-In), and he also frequently addresses the matter of sunlight as it enters domestic interiors (as did his idol, Hopper). But the current work I saw on this visit is all about the light in the sky, over the water, and on the land of Cape Ann.

Cape Ann Rocks - oil on canvas
This is not a new subject for Arsenault - he spent a lot of time over the last decade or so painting in Cape Cod, where he also often showed - and he began visiting Cape Ann in 2013. But the full-time immersion is new, and the setting of Rockport, as rugged as the name implies and constantly windy, is a prime jumping-off point for this new life. The fact that Arsenault and his wife, Sue, an independent interfaith minister, set off to make their way there just as winter approached (and what a winter it turned out to be!) speaks to the boldness of the act, and goes a long way to explain how quickly these two have been embraced by the local community.

Rock Star - oil on canvas
But, now that the gallery is officially open (as of April 11) and the tourist season has begun, it's time to see if the decision will work financially. So far, Arsenault is off to a good start, having already sold a few originals and several reproductions (he has long marketed his work at several price points to reach a broader market). One concern is that Rockport tends to be popular this time of year with Europeans - but the euro is down sharply against the dollar; another is that surviving as an artist depends an awful lot on luck.

In the meantime, though, Arsenault is in a great spot - he can just keep painting every day until the next sale walks through the door. And, judging from what I saw on this visit, I'd say it's going to work out just fine. To see more of David Arsenault's art, he recommends you go to his gallery's Facebook page (The Art of David Arsenault). Another option is his website. Or you could just jump in the car and go check it out amid the other wonders of Rockport.

Good Harbor Spring - oil on canvas by David Arsenault