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Upstate Smorgasbord

by Meisha Rosenberg on August 10, 2011 · 2 comments

2011 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region
Albany Institute of History and Art, through Sept. 4

Susan Stuart’s ESCAPE (2010)


These days, artists eligible for the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, who must live within a 100 mile radius of Albany, are as likely to have grown up in Albuquerque as to be from here. So what makes a regional—well, regional?

A vital commitment to art characterizes this regional more than anything. The Mohawk-Hudson, one of the longest-running regionals in the country, this year celebrates its 75th anniversary, handing out more than $5,000 in awards and displaying works by 85 artists. An impressive exhibition with many highlights, it does still suffer from what is perhaps the inevitable unevenness of such efforts.

Since 2010, the Albany Institute, the University Art Museum at UAlbany, and the Hyde Collection have been taking turns organizing the affair, and a different juror is selected each year. This keeps it from becoming too formulaic; although the same artists do have a tendency to come back (John Hampshire has won a purchase prize two years in a row for work from the same series).  This year, Holly Hughes, an artist and professor in the painting department at the Rhode Island School of Design, made the selections, and she did so in a matter of days.

Given this short time frame, it’s impressive how clearly themes emerge. Many works explore the altered photographic image; there is also a plethora of abstract, color-field paintings; and surrealism appears in painting and in the wildly imaginative stop-motion film, The Painted Princess by Pooh Kaye. There is another video work, quite different, by Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, Meeting with Strangers, a documentary-style two-screen work about assimilation.

The main hallway served as a great introduction to the talent ahead and even to some regional flavor. The superior sculpture Homage to White-Nosed Bats by Phyllis Kulmatiski, a large-scale, primitive clay sculpture of a woman and child, pays tribute to the endangerment of bats by the so-called white-nose syndrome, first documented not far from Albany; naïf street scene paintings by Ivan Koota draw attention to New York City; and there was a charming, naïf painting Welcome to Lake George by Sandie Keyser, among other works.

After this, modernist abstraction takes over; the first large side room was dominated by abstract paintings, and overall felt dated. There was much to be appreciated, though: Susan Stuart’s paintings (Escape, Can You Breathe? and Notice What It Feels Like), comprised of layers of bars of muted colors, have architectural presence, and Richard Garrison’s series, Circular Color Scheme, watercolor color wheels extracted from advertising circulars from stores like Target. Sharing the wheel motif was Sebastien Barre’s Ferris Wheel, a sophisticated color photo montage of spinning Ferris wheels in a patterned grid; at first look, you might think it’s a sleek art deco poster, but looking closer reveals photographic effects like glare that add depth.

The large middle room had better variety, with many sculptures, which throughout the show stood out as excellent. Charles Steckler’s Condensed Space series, small mixed media sculptures of a suitcase and cramped shelving, and Paul Mauren’s WC #6, and WC #9, complex wall-mounted mazes of wood and aluminum, made the space feel alive. Renata Memole’s sculptures Unceremonial Staff and Crook and Cocoon and Renee Iacone’s Spikes resonated with suggestions of voodoo and with each other. Tribalism then morphs into post colonialism with Lynn Schwarzer’s quietly troubling take on naturalist’s notebook entries in the white-on-black prints Field Notes Excerpt #1 and #3. And drafting goes symbolist with William Coeur de Ville’s riddle-like paintings Pythagoras 4 and Archimedes 3. The theme of surrealism continues in paintings by Ken Vallario (The Neurotic and Picasso’s Widow) and in the delightful, Magritte-like, French Carousel over Mass Pike by Robert Morgan.

The last room, dominated by photography, might well be titled “forsaken American landscapes.” But instead of highlighting resonances, this theme wore thin. James Burnett’s washed-out, delicate watercolors of trailers get lost near Ray Felix’s photograph Lady America of a truck trailer and Chris DeMarco’s color photographs of worn out Atlantic Beach locales. Nonetheless, works such as George Gruel’s color photos Schaghticoke Fair and Driver Wanted, which tell stories about a fallen America, and Kenneth Ragsdale’s haunting camping trip images and The Accident, a paper-light truck and trailer hung from the ceiling, made the trope seem new again.

In spite of some redundancies, there is plenty to admire—I don’t have the space to name everything I liked. And encountering art in a less mediated and more personal way reminds us of how important community support can be to artists. We are all lucky to live in a region that recognizes this.