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A digital marvel: Jim Flosdorf’s Grassy Inlet.

Don’t Call It a Comeback
By John Caputo

2005 Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region
Albany Institute of History and Art

With a venue worthy of the professionalism that is an avowed goal of the more ambitious and serious area artists, and a juror with the type of impeccable credentials that cause one to take immediate notice, there was much to be hopeful for as the 2005 edition of the Mohawk-Hudson Regional loomed. Thankfully, this pairing of the venerable Albany Institute of History and Art with the curatorial vision of Ivan C. Karp, director and owner of the OK Harris Gallery in New York City, delivers an exhibition that should not only appeal to the Capital Region’s viewing public, but also help the art intelligentsia banish last year’s unfortunate misstep from its collective memory.

It is in the realm of photography that the level of quality is most apparent and prevalent (hopefully the fact that this writer is a painter by both trade and inclination prevents such observation from being viewed with suspicion). For an outstanding work created with traditional methods, one need go no further than David Brickman’s award-winning African Man Outside Dorton’s—North Lake Avenue. This artist (and Metroland freelancer) is so consistent in creating outstanding images that one might be tempted to overlook the power of his sensitive vision in this offering. Clean and crisp in its graphic nature, one senses even more strongly the undercurrent of an insistent life that finds itself expressed subliminally in the distressed urbanscape. Delicious details like the carefully graffitied letter “C” and the medley of three-dimensional wedge shapes that jolt viewers out of their two-dimensional comfort provide apt demonstrations of the multi-layered complexity of this artist’s active, aware and ever-playful mind.

In Grassy Inlet, Jim Flosdorf utilizes the digital stitching technique to create a cinematic effect. Photographers working in the digital realm (and there are many such represented here) can be tempted to explore the ever-expanding panorama of tools it provides for their own sake, and neglect the integrity of the vision created. But here, Flosdorf is right on target. The widescreen format stretches two key elements in the compositional story, a large boat on the left and a nativity grouping lost among rusted lawn mowers on the right. The overall detritus that fills the frame now becomes metaphorical, this religious grouping once central to Western civilization now reduced to nothing more than another castoff in a culture more digestive than constructive in its processing

An example of a more aggressive use of digital manipulation is Ken Ragsdale’s Night. This dreamlike landscape is made all the more surreal by the apparent ordinariness of its components and the documentary authenticity that manages to carry over even to a photograph of this type. When combined with the eerie light of dusk and influenced by the arbitrary color selections, once gets the uneasy sense of stumbling upon a secret that best be kept hidden.

Similarly, Carrie Will’s Self Portrait, Troy, NY, confronts the viewer with an arresting presence. The fogged and scarred mirror physically transforms the idiosyncratic objects from physical environment to psychological experience. But it is the singular intensity of the artist’s gaze, made more intriguing by the disconnect between the adolescent male face on a distinctly womanly figure, which makes this a memorable experience.

For a photographically derived work that can take painting on directly in scale, manipulation, and impact and still come out victorious, there is Nancy Engel’s Four More Uncompromising Years. Here is a striking piece that immediately captivates from a distance, and only offers continually expanded richness as one approaches and explores it in detail.

On the subject of painting, I must say that there are stronger painters in the region than this exhibition might lead one to believe. To see what I mean, spend some time at the Anything but Realism exhibition (curated by an excellent painter in his own right, David Miller) presently on view at the Schick Gallery in Skidmore College. Granted, one of those artists, Deborah Zlotsky, has work in each, but her Regional offering (too cutely titled TV (Everyone Loves Raymond) disappoints by comparison. Its 21st-century romanticized paint “skin” is at odds with the banality and temporality of the subject. If that’s the point, it doesn’t have the legs to satisfy for long. Far more intriguing was the painter’s work from 2000, confident, inventive, and dazzling in its originality and depth, represented at the Schick in a powerful tryptych.

But there are paintings I would urge viewers to spend some time with here. Jane Bloodgood-Abrams’ Meditation is comfortable in its anachronistic romanticism, managing to evoke a time when human beings met the world with a sense of awe. Sharon Bates’ Untitled manages a visual appeal despite its obvious references to the Pop/Op movements of long ago. It is well paired with Harry Wirtz’s inkjet on rag paper Valve Wrench, whose straightforward reserve allows the simply photographed object to attain its own surprising dignity.

Now back to those paintings: Wayne Montecalvo commands attention with his encaustic Free Parking, which appears to owe much of its stylization to the posterization of value shapes. Yet, there is a disconnect between the easy facility of its physical handling with the inherent challenge of its questionable subject matter. I’m hardly a puritan, but in this day and age, the presence of a nude pre-adolescent female prominently displayed in a daytime parking lot seems more insensitive to the reality of sexual violence than a triumphant flaunting of sexual mores, a la Manet.

A more successful and upbeat presentation of a female nude can be glimpsed in Laura Frare’s delightful 2.7, 8.04 (Parachutes). Here the artist pairs a series of cone shapes cryptically incised into a field of neon green with a single human figure of potent strength. Perched somewhere between Neolithic abstraction and Roman illusionism, Frare’s female figure retains her dignity and sense of human potential.

Brooke Pickett’s Homeland hearkens back to the potent muscularity of the artists of L’Art Informel. This too little known European variant of abstract expressionism often combined an aggressively ugly paint surface with forms that suggested the doodles of children. The result was (and is with Pickett as well) a simultaneously primitive yet sophisticated rendering of iconic presence.

It is in the area of the three-dimensional works that I find myself most at odds with the juror’s choices, as well as curious as to why so many of these works found their way into being reproduced in the Exhibition Catalogue (which is still a bargain at $3, if for nothing else but the sensitive and erudite interview between Roberta Berstein and Ivan Karp printed therein). Too much contemporary “sculpture” (the word no longer seems apt) falls into easy categories, each of which is all too well represented here. Whether it is the absurdist constructions that still come from the now ancient Dadaist ‘Machine Aesthetic’, the all too currant fashion of “Neo Science”, the all too prevalent influence of college 3-D foundation courses, or the corporate smugness of well-crafted but intellectually thin abstraction, I became dizzy from repeatedly shaking my head in dissatisfaction. I leave it to the readers to locate the various examples of each category displayed throughout the Museum’s galleries. One could even make a game of it.

The only solace I found in the sculptural terrain was Charles Steckler’s Grotto with Snowman. This often brilliant and mischievously obsessive artist had a knockout show (paired with Ginger Ertz, also represented in this regional) recently at Emma Willard, and if you missed it, that was a major mistake. Steckler, a graduate of Yale University, is an outstanding theatrical designer, and has wowed the Capital District for many years with his work at Union College, where he is a faculty member. While one definitely sees the undercurrents of his stage training in the dramatic framing that marks many of his artworks, what stands out more is the wonderful play between craftsmanship and anti-craftsmanship (how many of you would dare match concrete and tin foil with an elegant engraving infused onto a perfect little box?), teamed with a quirky and disruptive worldview which will keep giving back to you as long as you stay with him.

With 71 pieces by 70 artists, one can see that there is much more than the space of this review can suggest, much less explore. Whatever you may have heard about last year’s regional that might cause you to stay away from this one, please change your mind. Even the most demanding should still find enough to challenge and engage; and all should enjoy the opportunity to disagree and argue with the juror, this critic, or the person standing next to you in the gallery.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week


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