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Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region

Daniel Brody - Game On/Game Over, still from digital video
Every year, the annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region offers a good opportunity to take the pulse of the local art scene in one time and place, and this year's edition at the University at Albany Art Museum is a prime example of how that works.

Though the vagaries of who submits work each year and especially the taste of the juror will have a distinct impact on what's seen, there's usually a broad enough coverage to be reasonably representative of what artists in the orbit of Albany are doing.  And because these artists are also in the orbit of New York City, one can also get a sense of what's current there and, by extension, in the art world as a whole. This year's juror, Rachel Uffner, owns a New York City gallery, so the sensibility of the show is most likely that much more imbued with the bigger art world point of view.

Fern T. Apfel - Skyline, collage and acrylic 
If so, then the current art world, whether regional or global, is still very much about painting, especially painterly abstraction, with a strong side interest in the figurative and the decoratively patterned, and flirting a bit with representation on the Pop side of things. There are 44 artists included (out of a daunting 367 who entered the competition), which is a good number - neither too many to get a grip on in one viewing, nor too few to hold the space - and about three-quarters are represented by multiple works, which is always desirable in large group shows.

Ian Myers - Fish, oil on canvas
Noticeably in short supply in this selection is photography which, in the 25 or so years since the medium was first allowed in the Regional, usually has a strong role. Instead, the few photographs chosen are relegated to subsidiary locations in the gallery and, except for Jess Ayotte and Han Dogan, both of whom present slyly low-key black-and-white prints, and Katria Foster, whose works read almost as abstract paintings, the offerings are weak.

Then again, video has two strong entries, including Daniel Brody's digital animation Game On/Game Over, which won the top prize and is well worthy of the honor, and a concrete-poetry piece by Kyra Garrigue. It's intriguing that Garrigue's Poem: Untold Story has company in another concrete poetry work, this one formed in Morse code that was drilled into three smooth panels of birch by Colin Chase.

Monica Bill Hughes - Boob Bouquet
acrylic, ink, spray paint, and glitter on canvas
Other sculptural works are among the more compelling pieces here, including two slightly chilling scale models by Roger Bisbing and a very impressive series of five works in ceramic and wood, buffalo horn, or mammoth ivory by Robert Augstell; both Bisbing and Augstell won awards. Top awards were also taken by outstanding painters, including Monica Bill Hughes's naughty, lush still lifes; Stephen Niccolls's wonderful retro-Modernist compositions; two tongue-in-cheek works by Ian Myers; and two cleverly titled mixed media paintings by Kelsey Renko (artists who have the courage to title their works creatively get extra points from me).

Also outstanding: Charles Geiger's technically brilliant tropical arabesques; Mona Mark's scrupulously pared down exercises in monochrome; Jenny Hutchinson's meticulous, playfully layered paper-cuts; and Susan Spencer Crowe's boldly colored and formed wall reliefs.

Overall, this Regional suffers a bit from being on the wan side, color-wise, and from a lack of scale (only a handful of pieces exceed 5 feet in size). It is therefore overwhelmed by the cavernous white space of the UAlbany Museum. On the other hand, the two-story gallery's large, open central staircase allows a view of half the show all at once, which is a terrific advantage in getting the big-picture sense. And that sense is that the scene is plenty vibrant enough to survive another year. We'll get to reassess again at the next Regional, set for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls.

By the way, this exhibition ends on Sept. 5, so if you want to catch it, you must act now.

Roger Bisbing - Lunch 1961, brass, cast bronze, and aluminum

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark

Vincent Van Gogh - A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889 oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
Here's what's obvious: You must not miss Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which ends its exclusive run there on Sept. 13. Simply put, you will never get another chance to see such a breathtaking collection of this artist's work - gathered from all over the world - together again. Ever.

Here's what may be less obvious: The title of the show, and its claim to being “the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s abiding exploration of nature in all its forms” are off the mark. Take, for example, the brilliant painting reproduced above. The sky and mountains are not wrought by human intervention, however personally interpreted by the painter, and the wind ruffling the many plants below that sky is all natural. But what about those plants, and that landscape they inhabit? This is not by any means a natural place. It is dominated by a cultivated wheatfield, cypresses, and olive trees that were, I'm fairly certain, planted by people, in a place that was most likely clear cut centuries before Vincent laid eyes on it. Is this nature?

Giant Peacock Moth, 1889
Chalk with pen and brush and ink on paper
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Elsewhere in the exhibition, text and images do support the intriguing and meaningful notion that Van Gogh was keenly interested in and moved by natural phenomena, particularly plants and insects. It could be argued that his deeply felt and vividly expressed responses to the world around him, including forces of weather and geology, are the wellspring of his genius and his popularity. But much of what Van Gogh observed so sensitively and depicted so richly (even in this selection) was culture - agriculture most particularly, as well as architecture, industry, religion, and other human inventions.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
oil on canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
And the power of his work, the legacy that keeps the crowds coming to blockbusters such as this one, is as much about human nature - in the form of the psychology of the sensitive, spiritual, suffering artist - as it is about anything else. Frequently overheard throughout my visit to the exhibition were comments related to Van Gogh's psychological states: his anger, his ecstacy, his mental illness, his tragic suicide at 37. Many of the finest paintings in this show were made while Van Gogh was living in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, where he had placed himself voluntarily; in one late letter, referring to a painting that depicts a landscape in the rain (shown at the bottom of this review), he wrote, “before such nature I feel powerless.” Not to belabor a point, but the painting also depicts a dense little village across its middle.

The exhibition is also about history - Vincent's personal history, tidily summed up in wall texts that guide visitors through sections devoted to key locations and periods in the artist's career (Holland 1881-85; Paris 1886-88; Provence 1888-90; and Auvers 1890), and the history of his influences, with excellent examples of other artists' work, including a lovely Monet from the Clark's collection, works by Millet, and woodblock prints by Hiroshige (all considered major influences on Van Gogh).

Undergrowth, 1887 oil on canvas Centraal Museum, Utrecht
What many people will learn for the first time here is the stunning fact that Van Gogh's entire career as an artist spanned barely 10 years, only five of which were spent painting. He is (rightly) revered as a towering figure of modern art (Impressionism was the first modern movement), yet he was very young, and still rapidly developing, when he died. The chief benefit of the "nature" thesis presented at The Clark is that it caused a good number of minor works to be included - drawings, sketches, early paintings, and experiments - which demonstrate how incompletely formed this artist was even a year or two before the final burst of creative intensity that cemented his importance.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Who knew that Van Gogh tried pointillism, or made bumbling botanical illustrations, or was, early on, apparently rather intimidated by color? That he struggled for years before finding his own mode of expression puts him on equal footing with all unsuccessful artists - that he actually found his mode and then realized it fully enough in the brief time before his death to leave a lasting legacy is an astounding achievement. Nature caused Vincent to do this, and its overwhelming forces cost him both his sanity and his life. What he accomplished along the way is one of the most valuable slices of human culture to be found anywhere. The Clark show offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to soak up a huge chunk of it. Go and revel.

Rain–Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Whistler's Mother

The Clark is also showcasing one of the most famous American paintings of all time, through Sept. 27. Popularly known as "Whistler's Mother," James McNeill Whistler's monumental  Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) normally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but it is here on loan as part of a reciprocal arrangement from a recent European tour of some of The Clark's French masterpieces.

We recognize Whistler's own masterpiece from the countless reproductions, parodies, and ads that have borrowed the dour central figure, which experts have said is only incidentally part of this modern composition. The Clark has provided well thought-out accompaniment in the form of numerous fine lithos and etchings, as well as several examples of the painting's many pop-cultural takeoffs. Grab the trolley or take a stroll up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to enjoy the view and peruse the painting's "musical notions of harmony and balance."

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1
(Portrait of the Artist's Mother) 
1871 oil on canvas Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lit at Albany International Airport Gallery

Scott Nelson Foster, Real and Imaginary Houses 12 - oil on panel
The sky was performing spectacularly at the end of a stormy day, which provided the ideal preparation for Lit, a theme show about phenomena of light at Albany International Airport Gallery that runs through Sept. 13. As with all the shows presented at this generous venue, Lit is intelligent and friendly, and features outstanding artists from the greater Capital Region as both a showcase of regional talent and an oasis of uplifting culture for weary travelers.

But you don't have to be traveling to enjoy these exhibitions - the gallery area is open to the public, parking is free for the first half-hour, and the hours (7 am to 11 pm daily) make it the most accessible high-quality art space anywhere. I was drawn to this show particularly by the inclusion of a few of my favorite artists from around these parts, but also by the theme. After all, without light, we wouldn't exist.

Lit features six artists and a collaborative: a spare number, yet enough to cover a lot of bases here, including sculpture, industrial design, two extremely different approaches to photography, drawing, painting, and projection. The work in the show is approximately evenly divided between color and monochrome, with most of the color coming from the palettes of sculptor Victoria Palermo and painter Scott Nelson Foster.

Victoria Palermo, Up and Down
Palermo alone contributes a nearly eclectic collection, including wall-hung combines of paint and colored plastic, totemic towers of rubber, and small architectural constructions that appear to be made out of jelly (actually, they are also rubber). In addition, her site-specific installation of wood, plexi and dichroic film in the staircase leading up to the gallery (shown at right) is both part of this show and an independent, longer-term project. All these works play with transparency and the fleeting effects of changing light and color; they also are exquisitely crafted, clever, and fun.

Foster contributes a number of related painting from his series on real or imagined suburban houses, including a group of six that examine a modest trailer home in different light, almost like a postmodern Monet (as with haystacks and Chartres cathedral). His color sense is as profound as his irony is subtle; he also includes five very small black-and-white watercolors of similar subject matter that are equally adept.

Kenneth Ragsdale
Lewis and Clark Go Car Camping/Arlington, digital print
Other familiar names in this show are Larry Kagan and Kenneth Ragsdale. Kagan shows three wall relief metal sculptures that astonishingly translate tangles of metal into perfectly articulated shadow portraits of iconic political figures (George Washington, Mao, and Che Guevara). Ragsdale features color photographs made from his own meticulously crafted (yet still playfully rough) dioramas of '60s-era campsites, which he ingeniously lights to create cinematic tones. One diorama is included, complete with its nifty tiny lights and color gels in place, with a wall switch you can flip to see the effect.

The revelation of the show is Yael Erel, an RPI architect whose light projections reflected off metal surfaces produce sharp, stunningly organic motifs that rotate hypnotically. Her collaborative, lightexture, which includes Avner Ben Natan and Sharan Elran, has contributed several metal and ceramic lighting fixtures to this exhibition; they are designed to cast sculpted light patterns through manipulable apertures, and may be the first example of industrial designer products to be part of an exhibition here.

In almost direct opposition to the technical approach of Erel and lightexture, yet aesthetically quite similar, Jared Handelsman presents several delicate gelatine-silver photograms, which he makes by exposing light-sensitive paper to ethereal sources such as moonlight and passing headlights. The resulting shadow pictures of natural plants evoke the quiet of a summer night.

Yael Erel, Moon Record, aluminum LED source, aluminum reflector, rotating mechanism, audio recording

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. Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs runs through Oct. 26.

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?