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Strange world: Robert Gullie’s 1969.01.18.

Out of the Past
By David Brickman


The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 12

Periodically, curator Gina Occhiogrosso of the Arts Center of the Capital Region organizes pairings of artists and organizations to form the basis of an exhibition: Factory Direct was one such show (actually, two shows) a few years back, where artists were matched with local factories to produce ambitious works beyond their normal capacities, and it was a great success.

Similarly effective is the current model, [Re]collections, in which seven artists and a poet have connected with eight regional historical societies and mined their collections for artifacts and inspiration. For many, this will undoubtedly bring to mind the work of Fred Wilson, who rose from museum guard to international art superstar by reinterpreting collections in witty, ironic and challenging ways. But while Wilson tends strongly toward the sociopolitical, these artists are for the most part looking inward to make more personal kinds of statements.

In a couple of cases, I have had the luck to have visited the given historical society in the recent past, which adds to my feeling of understanding how and why the artist has chosen a particular artifact and just what transformation has taken place. But such comparative experience is by no means necessary to involve oneself fully in appreciating the creative process as presented here. And, make no mistake, creative process is the true subject matter of the project.

Among the artists whose work drew me in, and whose relationship to the source seemed clear, is Red Hook’s Joy Taylor, who worked with material from the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook. A meticulous maker of drawings, collages and assemblages, Taylor responded to equally meticulous embroidered christening gowns; in pure white-on-white, two of them are presented in glass wall cases next to Taylor’s six works.

Without taking literal meaning from the dresses, Taylor has created sublime layerings of gouache, found images, leaves and manufactured objects that imitate the symmetrical patternings of fabric and evoke the sense of time passed and familial intimacy that is embodied in the dresses. With or without these juxtapositions, her pieces strike a lovely balance between complexity and subtlety, while also retaining a hint of playfulness, or even kitsch.

Similarly evocative are the frankly nostalgic prints of Sandra Wimer, who exhumed artifacts of the lost industry of ice harvesting from the Bethlehem Historical Association near her home in Delmar. These simple but exotic tools—an ice auger, a big-toothed saw and some sort of plowlike sled—are depicted in the prints and displayed with them, much as they might be at their home site. But, in the prints, which combine grids and lines of text with old photos of ice harvesters at work, the tools take on a ghostly aura.

Such ghostliness is vividly captured in the installation by Margo Mensing of Saratoga Springs, who found five business correspondence ledgers at the Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls. The current museum staff didn’t know about these books, which contain hundreds of pages of tracing-paper carbons of mundane letters, but still bring to life the mysterious presence of their proper, turn-of-the-century creator, a supervisor at the International Paper Corporation.

Mensing has taken the fragile ledger books, which must be displayed in low light and draped with protective dark fabric—making the viewer feel as though they are furtively peeling back the layers of time to view them—and combined them with a video projected on a scrim that, like the dark fabric, is traced with lettering. The video’s images appear to be mundane footage of contemporary life in Glens Falls (I’m guessing, here), making a temporal link to the past life. It’s intriguing, but a bit hard to pull together as a whole.

In another installation, Laura Christensen has drawn from the North Adams Historical Society to render an interpretation of a 1927 flood through photographs and other objects lovingly framed and/or altered and presented on or above a series of white pedestals. The pedestals, which descend and ascend in height (like the floodwaters) trace the shape of the tight bend in the Hoosick River that caused all the trouble.

I appreciate Christensen’s light touch, but the wistfulness of her vision leaves something to be desired. I was reminded of Michael Lesy’s groundbreaking and forceful 1973 photographic book Wisconsin Death Trip, but found myself wishing for more of the visceral intensity of that great work.

Cohoes photographer Ro bert Gullie flirts with intensity but stays neatly on the humorous side of things with his series inspired by oddities from the Saratoga County Historical Society at Brookside Museum. In his now familiar process of dressing, staging, photographing and hand-coloring, he has given new, wickedly bizarre meaning to things as mundane as an old alarm clock and a ceramic teapot, along with things pretty strange to begin with, such as a disembodied hand (glove display) and a chunky leather stirrup.

Together with many other props, and great settings, Gullie creates a surreal world of Barbie meets Monty Python. It’s pretty funny to see his whacked-out visions all along one wall of the gallery and then peruse the sadly hard-to-like artifacts in their glass case nearby—rarely does one get such an opportunity to witness firsthand the power of creative photography to completely transform a subject.

Also in the show are the poems of Jessica Hornik, inspired by the Schenectady County Historical Society, which are presented in white transfer type all over the glass of a large, empty display case; an infernal machine by William Bergman, together with the Waterford Historical Museum’s unassumingly elegant pharmaceutical scale it satirizes; and sweetly subversive drawings by Sara Di Donato that play havoc with a Victorian teenage girl’s dry musings in a diary from the Albany County Historical Association at Ten Broeck Mansion.

While the exhibition works well as a whole, I do have one complaint: Except for the wall where Gullie’s work is hung, which is painted a dun brown, the all-white gallery and what turns out to be a lot of mostly pale-toned artwork blend into an ill-defined blur across much of the space. It was a great idea to paint the one wall—the show would be much more appealing had this idea been extended further.


Rob O’Neil: Projections

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 12

These 10 gelatin silver prints by Rob O’Neil from a body of work titled Projections make a nice addition to the [Re]collections show, as they also use historical artifacts in interesting and transformative configurations.

O’Neil, who teaches at the College of Saint Rose, has strong technique and an idea that transcends being a gimmick. By projecting the images from antique educational lantern slides, then staging scenes in front of them and photographing the set-ups, he creates layered, storylike representations of his thoughts. Some are more literal, others more surreal, but all of them have interesting attitudes.

In this series, the slides show industrial subjects: a dam, a mine, a harbor, a grain elevator, etc. O’Neil adds related objects and interjects an arm or a profile (in one case, half a figure) as a sort of everyman researcher on the job. This hand often holds glass lab equipment or a lit match, like a scientist might.

My favorite is called Ice. In it, a view of a boat in arctic waters is augmented by block and tackle much like the boat’s rigging, creating a nice illusion of continuity. In all the prints, which are large for photographs, O’Neil’s excellent black-and-white printing adds to the effect. The display offers a nice opportunity to see a substantial body of work by one of the area’s better photographers.

—David Brickman

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