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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Metroland - RIP?

Today marks the third Thursday without a Metroland since the alt weekly's office was seized by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance for unpaid tax bills, and the feeling that it will never publish again is sinking in. (You can read the details in this Times Union article by Paul Grondahl.) Along with thousands of other individuals and hundreds of businesses, I miss it already.

My own connections to Metroland  are many and deep - it was founded 38 years ago by my niece Amy's other uncle, Peter Iselin, a very talented musician whose disco-inspired venture into publishing lasted a surprisingly long time. But Peter was never great at the business end of the deal, and thefre was visible evidence of that early on.

My own favorite recollection from the middle 1980s featured weekly sprints by staffers from the Metroland offices at 4 Central Avenue to cash their paychecks at the bank up the street before the account ran dry. I had a front-row seat to this competition from my shop window on Washington Avenue, and always enjoyed the show.

Things got a little better when Steve Leon took the helm. I freelanced for the paper under Steve in three stints totaling seven or eight years spread over three decades, initially as a photographer and then mainly as a writer, covering a variety of subjects including art (no surprise) and professional basketball (in the heyday of the Albany Patroons).

The rates for freelancers were pretty generous, and I always got paid, though it sometimes took a while. But then the pay lag began to stretch too far, so I asked for a meeting with Steve to clarify my need to get paid timely enough to cover my rent. That's when he showed me a ledger that revealed 120-day accounts payable for advertising that totaled a quarter of a million dollars. This was about 10 years ago - before the Great Recession stepped up and began wiping out newspapers all over the country.

After I quit the paper for the last time, I learned from other freelancers who had hung on that Metroland's debt to them had extended well beyond a year and had mounted into the thousands of dollars for many individuals. To me, this was unforgivable - the paper was essentially floating an interest-free loan on the backs of struggling journalists - yet I still eagerly grabbed and read it every week. Except, of course, in those weeks when it didn't get distributed because the delivery people were also fed up with waiting for their money.

So, when this month's news revealed the paper's tax problems with the state, I couldn't have been less surprised. Also, it rang another personal bell - I worked as a state tax collector from 2012-14. And, from that experience, I could guess that Metroland was buried in debt to the IRS as well, not to mention imaginable lines of other creditors. In another small twist for me, I also learned that another former employer of mine (The Daily Gazette, where I worked for 13 years as an editor) might have wanted to buy Metroland if the debts could have been cleared up.

Now it seems that one possibility is lost, and it's a loss for all of us. Metroland - thanks for a really great run.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fiber Currents/Current Fiber at FMCC

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred - Childhood Lost: The Doffer Boys, mixed-media cotton quilt
A long wished-for exhibition is now a reality at Fulton-Montgomery Community College's Perrella Gallery in Johnstown. Gallery Director Joel Chapin wanted a national fiber show, but needed expert help in creating it. He found that help in the form of Bleecker fiber artist Judith Plotner, who agreed to take on the project - the result is Fiber Currents/Current Fiber, on view through Dec. 18.

A first-time (and, according to her, also last-time) curator, Plotner has ably organized a diverse selection of 21 artists from all over the United States to fill this clean and pleasant (if somewhat tight) space with high-quality and engaging fiber-based work. These are not your great-grandmother's log cabin quilts (though quilting is strongly present); rather, this is contemporary art by top-shelf makers who utilize cloth, thread, vines, wire, plastic - and much more - to realize their personal visions.

Judith Content - Icarus, dyed satin silk
I'm a color guy, and my expectation to be dazzled by bright, rich fabrics was immediately fulfilled: The largest piece in the show is visible straight across from the entrance, and it positively glows with the energy of a brilliant palette. Pat Pauly (Rochester, N.Y.) hand-cut, hand-pieced, and hand-quilted numerous vividly printed and dyed fabrics to create the 6-foot-by-7-foot Pink Leaf 4 (yellow), a nature-inspired abstract that would rival any modern painting. It also graces the cover of a handsome catalog that was produced for the show and features full-page color reproductions of each work in Fiber Currents.

Emily Dvorin - Kid Stuff, mixed media
Judith Content (Palo Alto, Calif.) also drew my attention with her shibori dyed silk satin hanging Icarus, which updates the Greek myth, takes it east via a kimono shape, and drenches it in a rainbow of colors. Other explosions of color come from two of the four sculptural pieces in the show: Emily Dvorin's (Kentfield, Calif.) irresistible Kid Stuff incorporates dollar-store materials into a playful basket form; and Jill Rumoshosky Werner (Bella Vista, Ariz.) presents a snaking belt of multi-hued cotton that loops out of a propped-open clamshell box. Both pieces, being quite animated, are a welcome break from the preponderance of wall-hung work.

Judith Plotner - Brooklyn Ensemble
printed, stitched and painted canvas
On the other end of the spectrum, many works here use a limited palette, and many of those incorporate images derived from photographs, often applying them to the fabric with printmaking techniques. This is a successful strategy that can add texture as well as content to the works, and set them apart from their siblings in the craft world. Among these pieces are a few that take on social issues, such as Patricia Kennedy-Zafred's (Murrysville, Pa.) haunting and beautiful Childhood Lost: The Doffer Boys (pictured at the top of this post), Linda Kolsh's (Middletown, Md.) masterfully delicate Twilight, and Plotner's own Brooklyn Ensemble.

In addition to Plotner, Niskayuna's Lori Lupe Pelish and Russell Serrianne of Glens Falls (the show's lone male participant), represent the greater Capital Region. Serrianne's use of shellacked grape vines perhaps pushes the definition of fiber the furthest - along with New York City artist Nancy Koenigsberg's Melon, a "drawing in metal" that uses nothing but copper wire to depict a pumpkin-ish fruit.

Lori Lupe Pelish - The Circus Life
appliqued, embroidered and quilted fabric
Pelish uses elaborate piecing technique to create detailed portraits out of printed fabric, as in The Circus Life, while other artists in the show achieve a similar richness by combining imagery with heavy stitching, especially Dominie Nash (Bethesda, Md.) and Wen Redmond (Strafford, N.H). Still others achieve these depths with stitching and surface treatment alone, including Kevan Lunney (East Brunswick, N.J.) and Sue Cavanaugh (Columbus, Ohio), whose triptych Ori-Kume #31 is among the most impressive works in the show, both technically and in its effect on the viewer.

Many of the artists in Fiber Currents incorporate words into their work, often for political purposes (such as Highland Park, Ill.'s Kathy Weaver, work pictured below), which places this show squarely in the postmodern time frame - a time when artists have pushed all kinds of boundaries. Though here the primary boundary is one of materials (and it is well stretched by the artists included) it makes sense that these same artists are stretching other boundaries as well.

Kathy Weaver - Habeus Corpus-The Great Writ
nylon line and airbrushed, hand-stitched cotton

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Many Rivers at Saratoga Arts

Frank Wimberley - Blue Wave, 1982 acrylic on canvas 
If you don't want to miss the Saratoga Arts exhibition Many Rivers, which celebrates the 40-year history of Black Dimensions in Art, Inc., go now, because it ends on Nov. 7.

I'm glad I caught it, even if toward the last minute, because it is a rich compendium of outstanding artists in many media, and because it is a thoughtfully curated show with a compelling theme. Organized by Stephen J. Tyson and Stanwyck E. Cromwell (who also both have work in the show), Many Rivers includes more than 40 works by 21 artists from a broad geography - mostly local, but with roots from many distant lands and islands.

Daesha Devon Harris - My Soul has Grown
Deep Like the Rivers,
2012 mixed media 
The title theme was presented to each artist (or artist's estate) with a request to provide work in response to it  - so, not unexpectedly, water does predominate, However, the show is grouped into sub-themes that suggest other topics, such as abstraction, light, cultural history, storytelling, travel, and more. The purpose of the BDA is to give support to artists of the African diaspora, so one finds works here that express this reality - for example, a brightly colored, thickly painted oil by Cromwell titled Allusions of Home, which conjures up his memories and (possibly) dreams of a Guyana he hasn't seen in decades, or Robert Charles Hudson's 2015 Shoofly, a painting the colors and patterns of which evoke centuries of folk art, underscored by his incorporation of a quilted square in its center.

Hudson's combination of disparate media is right in the mainstream of this show - I was struck by the preponderance of collage elements through about half of the work, including Hollis King's wry and lovely graphic Beehive Lady, Elizabeth Zunon's charming children's book illustration I can hear that whistle blow ... and Femi Johnson's Black Betty the Mermaid, which is simultaneously seductive and threatening. Perhaps the best of these mixed-media creations is Daesha Devon Harris' trio of manipulated and embellished photographs, which are placed behind glass that's etched with compelling snippets of folk writing.

Betty Blayton - Ancestor Bearing Light, 2007
acrylic and mixed media on canvas
I was also struck by the deep streak of abstract expressionism in the show, best exemplified by three exquisite paintings from the great Frank Wimberley, but also strongly represented in works by Betty Blayton, who includes three sweet tondo paintings partially inspired by jazz, and Tyson's snappy black-white-and-red acrylic inspired by the decorated dwellings of his forebears in Burkina Faso and Ghana. Also particularly worthy of note are three paintings on paper by Herbert Gentry, who died in 2003, and had a long career in France (like many African-American jazz musicians) - one immediately picks up on the mid-century Frenchness of these remarkably fresh works.

Though the show is a retrospective of sorts, a healthy chunk of the work is dated 2015, so it lives more in the present of these artists - and the broad movement they represent - than it does in the past, which suggests a potent future for the BDA organization as it enters its fifth decade. Kudos to the organizers and to Saratoga Arts for presenting this fine collection.

Elizabeth Zunon - I can hear that whistle blow ... , 2009 oil paint and collage

Friday, October 23, 2015

Janet Werner: Zero Eyes at Esther Massry Gallery

The painter with one of her works. All other images are oil on canvas by Janet Werner.
Regular readers of this blog know I rarely run a negative review. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that I write about art to build enthusiasm for it, not to knock it down. Usually, if I see something I'm not keen on, I will just let it go. But there are times that something falls short, and I feel it must be pointed out. You can tell  this is going to be one of those times - but always remember, my opinion is nothing compared to each viewer's personal response to the art - and I urge you always to seek your own experience.

Jelly 2010
So Zero Eyes, the current exhibition of paintings by Janet Werner, on view at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery through Dec. 6, is not my cup of tea. Why don't I like it? Tough question! But I'll do my best to explain.

First, let me say, Werner is a legitimate painter, with a degree from Yale and work in many collections (mostly in her native Canada) - not a hack or a neophyte. And the 16 generally quite large paintings in this selection demonstrate that she has control of her medium. But she chooses to exercise this control to make, by turns, cloyingly sentimental, hammer-over-the-head ironic, or just plain sloppy images. This is annoying.

Stalker 2012
Werner's colorful, daring work unfortunately falls squarely into the realm of (stifling a huge yawn here) gender and identity politics. Her approach seems to be to start with a fashion photograph, then recast the "ideal" woman in the picture as a monster. Werner's figures tend to be elongated even for supermodels, with undersize heads, awkward bodies and random parts - hands, nose, breasts - that go huge.

Girlfriend 2014
The scale of her paintings is sometimes played to great advantage, such as in the inexplicably titled Stalker, which, at nine feet tall, still lets a vast swath of grey paint crowds its office-worker subject into the bottom of the frame. Another strong vertical, titled The Glove, presents a red-haired debutante type on a hot pink background. Her haughty gaze is rendered with deft, layered strokes - but the titular magenta garment is slapped out crude and flat, with a cartoon daisy drooping from its grasp.

Moriah 2015
The work in the show covers a fairly long slice of time (2009 to 2015), affording the viewer a general sense of Werner's progress - from smaller to bigger, from playful to grotesque, from believable to bizarre. Among the latest pieces, Moriah shows the most promise by splitting the figure down the middle, obscuring its face not with simple defilement as in many of the others but with destructive transformation.

With 50 years of American feminism under our belts, it's easy to see what Werner is trying to say - but does it all bear repeating? Maybe it's important, after deKooning's take on scary women, for a woman painter to have her say. But I wonder - what does it add?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Seeing Double: The Anaglyphs of Eric Egas at Albany Institute of History & Art

Eric Egas - Fippery, archival pigment on canvas
Stereoscopy has been with us since the birth of photography in 1839, but outside of 3D movies, few of us give it much consideration. Eric Egas is an exception.

More than 30 years of efforts to capture three dimensions in flat images are presented in Seeing Double: The Anaglyphs of Eric Egas, which opened at the Albany Institute of History & Art on Aug. 15 and runs through Oct. 25 (an anaglyph is a blue-red stereo photograph). The exhibition, in Egas's words, provides "portals for viewers to enter into a state of ambiguity" through gazing at these images both with and without the red/blue glasses provided (they also work with the images shown here - just be sure to put the red lens over your right eye).

But stereo is only part of the Egas effect. He makes variations on the classic red/blue separation, and then pushes those colors so that the overlapping images become as fascinating in themselves as they are when viewed in 3D. Egas has, over the years, increased the scale of these prints, and adopted a lush layering of pigment on canvas - in the end, they are sometimes more painting than photograph, featuring rich areas of reed, blue, green, and purple. A few images even flirt with full color rendition (while still being anaglyphs).

This turns the exhibition, with more than 50 prints, most of which are at least four feet wide, into a multi-level experience: One is encouraged to spend time viewing the images without the glasses, then with them and so on back and forth, providing transformational changes that often surprise the senses.

Smith-Dallas 1983-2008
Beyond these innate visual  effects, Egas loves to play with space, often combining, reversing, and inverting images to further disorient the viewer (but in a good way). Among the earlier, less complex examples, mirrors often appear, which in themselves take on spectacular depth in the stereo format; some of the later pieces render more elaborate subjects into labyrinthine forms, complex textures, and symbolic or surreal meanings.

Egas features a broad range of favorite subjects, including animals (alive and stuffed), people in social situations (as well as portraits and self-portraits), architectural spaces, gardens of many kinds, and a variety of tchotchkes from lawn art to flea market wares to baroque ornamentation. His sense of humor is sharp and off-beat - this is a show to be enjoyed as well as studied.

Some of the most arresting images for me are the ones with tropical subject matter - this is perhaps influenced by my personal experience  of visiting Eric at his home in Puerto Rico in 1997 (we met around 1985, when he had a show of his early anaglyphs, including some of the ones in this exhibition, at my former gallery in Albany). There's something special about seeing an overall leafy texture in the flat image, and then getting lost in the complexity of layers of foliage once you put the glasses on. It's magic.

Some of Egas's attempts end up reaching a bit too far, to where you may not even be able to see the 3D effect, but the reach is worth a try, as the entire body of work is experimental - and experiential - in nature and intent. Overall, with this very ambitious installation that nicely stretches the boundaries of the Institute's usual emphases, Egas has successfully involved us in his unique and engaging vision.

Note: Eric Egas will have an exhibition of new work at Brill Gallery in North Adams, Mass., from Nov. 7 through the end of December, with a public reception and artist's talk from 6 pm to 8 pm on Saturday, Nov. 7.

Island 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Scott Brodie Retrospective at Albany Center Gallery

Scott Brodie - Waputki 2, oil on canvas 2015
There's one thing nearly all painters have in common: They love to push paint around. A power-packed retrospective of nearly 40 years of work by Scott Brodie at Albany Center Gallery (on view through Oct. 3) amply illustrates this fact, and equally demonstrates that it is true whether the image is photo-realistic, totally abstract or anything in between.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
And, if you think it's not possible for a painter to work in such (apparently) divergent styles while maintaining a singular voice, think again. We all evolve over time, but even in a long-term retrospective an artist should show consistency - if they don't, it's a sign of inadequate commitment to a vision. Yet Brodie's show, despite its diversity, makes clear that his vision has remained quite clear over the long haul and, in my opinion, has grown stronger of late.

The consistency comes in the way Brodie engages with color and (secondarily) form in all his paintings. The earliest example in the show is a somewhat academic but somehow still playful study of cardboard boxes from 1977. In it, one can recognize the handling of paint that remains characteristic in his latest works, such as the lush, juicy Waputki 2 (shown at the top of this post) and numerous other recent near-abstractions in the show.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
More closely related to the box painting are a couple of examples from the late '90s that depict colorful books. Here, as with the boxes, it is apparent Brodie is more interested in how the subject looks - or, more important, how it looks when he paints it - than he is in what it means. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the essence of abstraction. Jump ahead, again, to the most recent work in the show, and you see landscapes rendered as pure form and color. No, it goes further - you see richly brushed paint exploring the forms and colors that were once part of a landscape.

Brodie's images of books are joined in the show by a couple of (literally) sweet studies in pink and grey, depicting a scatter of Sweet-n-Low packets. These, from '07, form another across-the-decades link to the boxes, but also fit right in with the new landscapes, which favor similar color schemes. Wait, did I call the new paintings landscapes? Well, there you are, then - I guess they're not really abstract after all.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
One finds in these landscapes an affinity with bright, hot light, whether taken from the American Southwest or the Italian peninsula, and their titles evoke their geographical and cultural sources. Elsewhere, the show provides six small acrylic studies on paper as a window onto the artist's process of abstraction. Two of the studies are clearly the basis for two larger finished oils, while the others show how rocks and bushes can become lines and colors before being presented as final, more formal compositions. Notably, this whole group is identified by compass locations, rather than place names, in the titles.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas
Other work in the show comprises a middle period in which Brodie applied his rendering skill and affinity for dimensionally plastic paint dabs to a range of subjects that he pointedly treats equally. These include shoes, vegetables, bushes, figurines, and a hat - all lovingly portrayed, all blandly unembellished by commentary. Brodie's very dry sense of humor is most apparent in this period, and the paintings are very good - but I like it better when he gets a little more passionate.

This is a rare opportunity to see a beautifully installed collection of a lifetime of work by one of our region's foremost painters. Try to catch it while you can.

Scott Brodie, oil on canvas

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Feibes and Schmitt collection going to Hyde

By now many of you know that Werner Feibes has donated about a third of the extraordinary modern and contemporary art collection he amassed with his partner Jim Schmitt to The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, as the news has been splashed all over local media (such as here by Paul Grondahl in the Times Union). The rest of the collection is promised to the Hyde as well, and Director Erin Coe rightly declares it "a transformational gift."

I'm excited for the Hyde, proud of my friend Werner, and sad for the recent loss of Jim ... but not surprised by this bequest, as I predicted it in a 2003 Metroland review, which I wrote when the Hyde mounted a superb exhibition called Form(ation) that was drawn from the Feibes and Schmitt collection. The news also brings to mind a story:

It was my good fortune sometime around 1985 to accompany Werner Feibes on a buying trip to a New York City gallery. At the time, I was a young gallery owner myself (in Albany), struggling to find customers for works by regional artists in the $300-to-$500 range. With Werner, I was exposed to quite another art world.

I don't recall the name of the gallery, but it was on the upper East Side of Manhattan and very elegant. Werner was there to see a Jean Arp relief constructed of painted wood, about 16 by 20 inches as I recall, in black and white (of course). The gallery presented it on a velvet-draped easel in a private room, where we murmured our approval and greedily eyed this vintage gem. The asking price was $15,000. Of course, Werner negotiated a discount, then coolly wrote a check for $13,500 - and, in a flash, we were on our way back up I-87 in Werner and Jim's boxy Volvo wagon (the Arp would be shipped).

I was totally speechless (think about that, you who know me personally!). I had just seen how art dealers really operated, and how sharp collectors did, too. The money that changed hands so easily was almost equal to my entire annual income (and I worked a lot of hours to earn it), but I didn't doubt that the Arp was well worth it. Neither do I doubt that it is now worth at least 15 times as much. It was a beautiful work of art and I hope to see it again some day at the Hyde.

Werner's generosity in inviting me on that trip was genuine, but this donation is beyond generous. The collection has been appraised for several million dollars; yet Werner's comment to  Grondahl was "What the hell would I do with all that money?" Good point - the true collector thinks about value in a different way than most of us. In the meantime, Werner still gets to live with the rest of the artwork, then it all goes to the Hyde upon his death. I wish him a very long life.