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Goin’ to Verciano in my mind: one of Callner’s Lucca paintings.

Tuscan Summer
By David Brickman

Richard Callner

Firlefanz Gallery through May 28

He is the unofficial painter-laureate of the Capital Region and, at 78, Richard Callner is still going strong. A 50-year retrospective of his work two years ago at the Albany Institute of History and Art showed the remarkable depth and breadth of Callner’s career; in the current exhibition at Firlefanz Gallery, traces of the retrospective are joined by a powerful new group of paintings, and are extended in other recent works in gouache, acrylic and watercolor on paper.

Inspired by a two-week stay in the Tuscan village of Verciano, outside Lucca, the new series dates from 2003 to 2005. Most of it was painted from memory in Callner’s Latham studio after he had absorbed the light, color and spirit of the places he evokes in these pictures. They are more archetypal than specific, and they rely as much on Callner’s own personal language of color and shape as they do on any literal depiction or meaning.

Each “Lucca painting” pays homage to an architectural structure, whether a modest, stucco village house or a massive medieval monastery. Ranging in size from about 7 by 10 inches to about 20 by 30 inches, the works use Callner’s intuitional approach to form and color to create worlds within themselves—among the black-outlined shapes and pleasing or bizarre colors, there is a particular harmony that must work within the painting for it to be considered finished.

One unifying factor of the Lucca series is the use of a strong yellow-orange contrasted with indigo; this literally depicts the colors of walls and sky but also presents a contrast that the painter then restates in shades of green and purple and black, much like a composer varies themes in music. This is Callner’s method in all the work he shows—lay down a note, then respond to it, then respond again to the new relationship and keep going until it all works, painting over colors with other colors as you go.

Whether the paintings relate to each other, or work together to create a collective impact is secondary, though it is virtually guaranteed by Callner’s well-honed consistency. His job is to stay fresh as he paints, to see the relationships anew, to always be challenged and surprised by each color as it goes down on the paper. While this process is made more clear by an interview video the gallery produced with art critic Timothy Cahill, to the careful observer it is readily apparent in the work itself.

Also apparent is the joy Callner brings to his work, and which he clearly felt in the Tuscan summer. More difficult to suss out is the place where joyful naiveté gives way to intelligent picturemaking—a less experienced painter could easily fall short, and leave us with nothing but sweet silliness where the master must evince something deeper. Callner has plenty of company in this type of challenge—think of Picasso with his lovers or Matisse in the south of France—and he rises to it handily.

As clearly expressed in the other work in the show, most of which is almost totally abstract, what it boils down to is the painter and his medium, rather than the subject. A good enough painter, regardless of the subject or image, will be able to satisfy a viewer’s desire for pleasure as well as the greater need for something deeper and longer-lasting, just by virtue of the way the painting is made; Callner is that good a painter.

In the more abstract works, a few of which date to 2000-2002 or earlier, the rest of which are contemporary with the Lucca series (2003-5), Callner flexes his muscles using bold black outlines, aggressive shapes and colors, and complex compositions. Though a great part of his life’s work involved landscapes, the evidence of that here is less than obvious; equally, shadows of the feminine figure are present, but not overwhelming.

I suppose one could make the argument that this is not truly abstract work, because it is possible to recognize such shapes. Still, it operates much more on the interior relationships than on any metaphoric ones—in Callner’s work, it is the language of paint that speaks loudest to the viewer.

Note: Close readers of my reviews may wonder why I’ve chosen to write so often about this gallery (and I will again soon) when there are so many regional venues to choose from and so little space in which to cover them. The answer is simple: Like almost no other for-profit venture in the region’s history, Firlefanz just keeps mounting shows that are too important to ignore.

While the practical gallery dealer offers what sells, leaving the job of meeting critical criteria to the museums, colleges and arts council galleries, this gallery’s directors have chosen to present what they feel is most important, and hope that the collectors will come. It may not be the best business plan, but it has provided the area’s art audience with an unusually high quality space at a crucial juncture in what has always been a very difficult market. We should be careful not to take it for granted.

There will be a reception from 5 to 8 PM Friday (May 20) at Firlefanz Gallery for a new exhibition of ceramic sculptures by Audrie Sturman in the gallery’s sculpture garden; the Sturman show will continue through July 2.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Due to a transmission error, last week’s Peripheral Vision review of Lee Boroson’s show at the Tang was incomplete. Here is the full text of the review as it was originally written.

Lee Boroson: outer limit

The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through June 5

Few artists are as ambitious as Lee Boroson, whose large, complex, inflatable pieces require a museum-scale space—not to mention a lot of time and help—to be displayed. Fortunately, he has a friend in Ian Berry, curator of Skidmore’s Tang, who commissioned a Boroson piece for the museum last year. That has been joined by seven others, some of which are site-specific, all of which work very well with the space.

Boroson is inspired by natural elements at great scalar opposites: Integument enlarges a strip of human skin to giant proportions (and very likable materials) while Star Swarm compresses a vast swath of interstellar space, with all its solid bodies crammed together, into a wall-mounted photographic panel.

The largest piece in the show, Lucky Storm (2), represents a sunny cloudburst, where the shimmering objects projected on the ground are all good-luck charms, like a horseshoe, the numeral 7 and so on. Another piece made just for the space is a wall of fabric angled out from a large window panel that backlights it; visitors are encouraged to walk behind it, where a tight space grows wider as you go along, so you breathe a sigh of relief at the end. Viewed from in front, Trim reveals a network of embroidered, cutout leaf shapes that fold back, letting in the light.

It’s happy stuff—but there’s no reason to try to resist unpretentious yet impressive works of art like these, especially when the materials used are listed as “nylon, blowers, hardware, air.” Boroson works a sort of magic with these seemingly modest means.

—David Brickman


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