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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mike Glier at Opalka Gallery

The image above and other images accompanying this article are by Mike Glier
The title of the current show at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery - meander, because you can't see much while marching - could simply express a philosophy, but I feel it also aims to serve as a sort of explanation. This 35-year survey of Mike Glier (extended till Feb. 8) features several rather disparate bodies of work - the titular meandering - each of which displays technical mastery, intellectual rigor, and engaged passion. Glier paints, brilliantly. Glier draws, with consummate ease. Glier conceptualizes, deeply and effectively.

But there remains the sticky problem of Glier's diversity, and it can't be overlooked. We want our artists clearly recognizable - the market dictates this, and people's overworked minds and hearts demand it. How then do we view an artist who refuses to present a unified vision, who is - inconstant?

I'm not very familiar with Glier's career history, but I expect this variability - or the appearance of variability - has plagued him. I also assume he has chosen not to let the perception of others affect him very much - otherwise, why run the risk of changing tracks? In this very ambitious presentation of great swaths of his best work, Glier and curators fearlessly place portraits next to abstracts, text-splashed sticks next to landscapes, and political commentaries next to familial musings.

The overall effect is impressive, but confusing. While Glier's skill and commitment are undeniable, one must read the wall text and label details to grasp the singularity of his vision, which is more about ideas than images. In the end, his message is primarily as an environmentalist, expressed by a talented painter who is as deeply sensitive to humans and other creatures as he is to the land they inhabit, who is worried about political and economic power-mongering, and who strives to make these concerns apparent in his lushly beautiful art.

Rather than try to describe it all to you, I offer a few choice examples here (leaving out the overtly political work, which I find caricaturish) and urge you to go see for yourself what Glier does so well, and has done for all these decades.

Also, at 3 p.m. on the last day of the exhibition (Sunday, Feb. 8), the gallery will host a talk by Sage professor Steven Leibo on the effects of global warming in this region. After the talk, Glier will be on hand to answer questions about his work. That should provide a great opportunity to understand this complex artist a little better.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region

Jeanette Fintz - Traveler's Reflection 3, acrylic on canvas
The annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, hosted this year by the Albany Institute of History & Art, raises the usual set of questions while presenting the usual confounding mash-up of regional art.

Popularly known as the Regional, this show has been running for nearly 80 years, making it one of the longest-standing exhibitions of its kind in the U.S. It's always an annual high point for fans of the local art scene, and can be either a high point or a low point for participants, depending on their success in entering, personal taste, or overall degree of crankiness. This year's edition was mounted on a later schedule than the usual summer appearance and will be up through Jan. 19, affording a nice opportunity for the procrastinators among us to see it, even as 2015 arrives.

Stephen Niccolls - Nudges, oil on canvas
Typically (for the Institute) this Regional is overstuffed: It includes 142 works by 75 artists, which is about one-third larger than what I consider a healthy portion for one viewing. I'm pretty sure it's not the biggest Regional in memory (I can't say with certainty when that was or how many artists were included) but I think it drew a record number of entries - reported to be more than 800 by 278 artists - so the able juror, Stephen Westfall, can be forgiven for perhaps running out of the moral strength it requires to keep cutting when you've already eliminated a ton of good art.

Indeed, the show includes very few dogs, and it does present a great deal of truly outstanding work in a variety of forms, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, fiber arts, collage, drawing, sound and video, and mixed media. Westfall, however, is a painter (apparently of some renown), and his bias is so pronounced that we could arguably describe this Regional as a show of painting. According to the show's catalog (nicely produced and abundantly illustrated), Westfall also planned the layout of this Regional, in which we find solid thematic groupings and some worthwhile innovations (my favorite being the placement of four wonderful photographic nudes, one pair each by Mark McCarty and Dan McCormack, in the Institute's 19th century sculpture foyer, where these modern sprites get to cavort with those of a former time).

Susan Meyer - House of Windows, wood,
steel, acrylic, hardware, paint, flocking,
wheels, succulents, toy deer
My response to the now-common practice of curator as creator is one of discomfort for the artists whose work has been subjected to interpretation by a juror who is, in my opinion, imposing his own vision onto other people's work and using that work to express himself. Is that what the Regional's sponsors intend when they choose a juror? I hope not - rather, I would expect them to ask the juror to seek to understand the submitted work, to attempt to see it in a collective context, and then to choose a show that best expresses those discoveries. Put simply, there is too much work and too much Stephen Westfall in this Regional.

That said, it's a good show, and some of Westfall's installation ideas bring freshness to a format that runs the annual risk of being stale or stuffy. Here, he deploys Colleen Quinn's ALL SOULS, a collection of cartoonishly painted-over beach balls, into three of the museum's spaces, placing them high, low and in between. He also has placed a floor sculpture by Ginger Ertz that represents a babbling brook (crafted in colored pipe cleaners) among landscape pictures from the museum's 19th century collection in the entry hall to the exhibition; put a plaster piece by Linda Horn that looks like a giant prehistoric crawling bug high up on a wall in a narrow gallery; and set one painting by Stephen Niccolls entirely outside the exhibition, where it serves as an emblematic welcome to the exhibition. Emblematic of what? Of the painterly geometry that pervades the rest of the show, of course.

Jenny Kemp  - Mellow Yellow, gouache on paper
In all, there are 70 paintings included, and all but a few of the sculptures, fiber work, and most other media are decidedly painterly as well. I noticed that most of the sculptors in the show each had two pieces selected, but then they were not shown together; instead, each artist's works were systematically separated into different rooms, while the great majority of the painters' works, also largely selected by twos and threes, were not separated. There were two exceptions to this treatment of the sculptures: Joann Axford's three delicately decorated white porcelain vase forms (unique among the rest of the selected work in both medium and scale) are presented together in a glass case; and Susan Spencer Crowe's three-dimensional pieces remained together but, being wall-mounted, they come across more as painting than sculpture anyway.

Another factor that added to my discomfort with Westfall's method is that a large swath of the photographs selected were segregated in a lesser gallery, along with other work that seemed to be among the show's secondary choices. Pride of place in the exhibition's main gallery was given to three photographs by Jim Allen and two by Julie Pamkowski, and I agree with the juror that they are better than most of the ones in the other room - but then, why keep the others at all? If it weren't for a terrific little painting by Jenny Kemp; a finely seen color photograph by David Ricci (which I liked much better than another one of his that took a prize); a large mixed-media painting by the ever-wonderful Wendy Williams; and a few other choice pieces in that room, I'd say the juror should simply have eliminated the whole bunch, rather than not-so-subtly kicking them to the curb within the exhibition.

Richard Garrison - Circular Color Scheme: Walmart,
May 22-27, 2013, Pages 1-2 "Celebrate With Savings",
watercolor, gouache,and graphite on paper
As regular readers of this column know, I adore painterly abstraction, and I actually really liked a lot of the work in this show, including many pieces the juror singled out for awards. Most compelling were two potent panels in greens and blues by Jeanette Fintz (nicely deployed on opposite sides of a narrow space); Richard Garrison's methodical yet agitated gouache studies; Susan Meyer's two colorful architectural fantasies; and the aforementioned Niccolls painting, titled Oscillator, along with his smaller Nudges. Additionally, there were some terrific - and not painterly - sculptures, including Specimen by Mary Pat Wager and Tendere by Peter Dellert. The show has many other highlights and is, naturally, not to be missed.

Also, upstairs from the Regional is a fascinating historical exhibition of quilts and coverlets, titled Undercover: Revealing Design in Quilts, Coverlets, and Bed Hangings, on view through March 8, and well worth checking out.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Abecedarius at The Arts Center of the Capital Region

An installation view of Abecedarius
When Colin C Boyd and Michael Oatman won the 2013 Emerging and Established Artist Awards from The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, it wasn't said that they'd be collaborating on a show there, but it certainly comes as no surprise that they did. That show, a rollicking compendium of these two artists' individual and overlapping obsessions, is Abecedarius (subtitled "A Cautionary Alphabet of 26 + 1 Works).

The Convenience Effect, a 2014 collage
by Michael Oatman in a shaped frame
made by his father, Gordon Oatman
I don't know what sort of history Boyd and Oatman have with each other, but I'm going on the assumption that this is their first co-production, as it mostly re-presents significant past works, new works both major and minor by each artist, and just one jointly made item, making it in effect a two-person show. For those already familiar with the two artists, Abecedarius is a welcome return to some really fascinating and fun stuff, augmented by some really cool new stuff. And for those new to either maker, it's a pretty broad and deep immersion - not quite a retrospective, but in that direction.

Foreground, American Bison 2012 by Colin C Boyd;
background, Over (After Durer) 2014 by Boyd and Oatman
For me, the really engaging subtext of this show is discovering the elements that Boyd and Oatman share - each has for years produced fictional histories, pseudoscience, anthropological fantasy and so on. While Boyd tends toward the really old, and populates his share of the exhibition with many archaeological references, Oatman's take on anthropology is of the more cultural variety, particularly expressed in retro-futurism.

Still, both are miners of deep troves of rich material, and both exercise overactive imaginations, the result being always intriguing and entertaining. The conceit of the show is that it presents one work of art for each letter of the alphabet (plus one more), so there's the game of finding these references (easy enough by looking at the labels), and then perhaps the more challenging game of figuring out what it's all supposed to mean.

The Branch, or the Site of Our Complete Liberation 2012
multi-panel collage by Michael Oatman
The show's labels are evocative, following the classic pattern of a children's ABC book (or a mystery series), so you start with Oatman's "A is for Alien Craft" and Boyd's "B is for Balance Scale Act" and go on from there; but, given that the works were not actually created to fulfill this structure (all have other more specific titles and they range in date from 2007 to 2014), it comes off as a fun but false construct. That said, there is a lot of fresh work in the show by both artists, and I'll take any excuse offered that allows us to see it.

Favorites include "F is for Fauna + Firearms," which offers a trio of minimally layered collages by Oatman, revisiting one of his best themes with sweet subtlety; and Boyd's "Z is for Zetetic," with a museum-of-science-worthy scale model of a conceptual spacecraft designed by the Flat Earth Society, appropriately suspended above the viewer.

As I write this, the show has just one day left and will close after Dec. 23. Can we agree for purposes of this review that B is for Better Late than Never?

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