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Street scene: Donna Fitzgerald’s Paintings, Hanoi, Vietnam (2005).

Without Leaving Home

By Nadine Wasserman

Far Sighted

Albany International Airport Gallery, through March 30

One of the funniest travel essays I’ve ever read is called “Trying Really Hard to Like India.” The author, Seth Stevenson, goes on for several pages about what he likes and does not like about traveling in a country where the heat, the poverty, and the stomach viruses will probably get the best of you. He ends his love/hate treatise as follows: “In the final reckoning, am I glad I came here? Oh, absolutely. It’s been humbling. It’s been edifying. It’s been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It’s even been fun, when it hasn’t been miserable. That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.”

Traveling, no doubt, takes you out of your comfort zone, but it is exactly that feeling of disorientation that heightens the experience. While there is nothing that can replace the “true” experience of travel, there is something to be said for armchair travel, where one can peruse the images and descriptions of exotic locales from the comforts of home.

If you prefer the “staycation,” you can fulfill your travel fantasies right now by visiting the exhibition FarSighted at the Airport Gallery. The artists included in this exhibition use the experience of travel to create images that explore their own personal impressions of place. The most conceptual of the artists is Kate Menconeri, who in her Atlantis Series, photographs books about places rather than the actual place itself. In doing so she examines “destination” as a conflation of the place as we imagine it and our actual experience of it. Her Calcutta is very different from Carlos Loret de Mola’s images of India. But he too investigates the “truth” of a place by filtering out the chaos that is India so that he can focus on the individual. By placing the figures centrally and framing them with enough information to define a location, he attempts to bridge the gap between himself as outsider and the subjects as insiders. The foreign and the familiar are compounded into one shared moment.

Martin Benjamin and Donna Fitzgerald use more of a street photographer’s approach to capturing the essence of the places they visit. In his photographs of Vietnam, Benjamin, like Loret De Mola, filters out the frenetic surroundings in order to focus on choice moments and individuals. Benjamin’s images of Vietnam capture a country in transition. His diptych Bat Trang/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam shows two scooters, one piled high with boxes and the other transporting a rider talking on his cell phone. While his images of Vietnam show a country in the process of globalization, his photographs of Cuba, along with Fitzgerald’s, capture a culture in its own particular time warp.

Many of the photographers in the exhibition depict fleeting moments of a journey to an unfamiliar place. But others look at a locale from a more intimate perspective. Marie Triller’s Secrets of Belize is an ongoing personal project to record what the artist describes as a “visually seductive” place. And Kristina Kwacz’s black-and-white photographs capture scenes from her mother’s return at age 84 to the tiny village in eastern Europe that she left in 1939. Phyllis Galembo’s images of pilgrims bathing in a sacred waterfall in Haiti are spontaneous and exhibit a rhythm that her staged photographs lack. These images, taken with a smaller camera over several years, capture her subjects candidly as they experience the beatitude of religious cleansing. The photographs are a haunting and intimate account of a sacred event.

Whereas Galembo’s work focuses on people, Graig Barber prefers to record the buildings and vistas of Prague, a place he has visited often. Barber uses a pinhole camera to take haunting images of this medieval city and tries to emulate Josef Sudek’s photographs. The soft focus of the pinhole camera makes the images appear like dreams or memories. Similarly, Kevin Bubriski’s images of Morocco resemble surreal dreams in which only a few dark figures inhabit otherwise empty streets. The images, in subdued colors, seem like back-lot movie sets suspended in time. Bubriski’s images of Syria are completely unpeopled, and resemble Aaron Siskind’s abstract studies of architectural forms and details. Bubriski focuses on the ruins of a number of early Christian cities that once existed along the trade and pilgrimage routes between Europe and the Holy Land. To the artist, these now-defunct cities represent both transition and impermanence.

Sarite Sanders also records ruins and antiquities. Her unpeopled photographs of Egypt, where she has traveled for more than 30 years, required special permission from the Antiquities Council to capture the monuments without the usual throngs of tourists. What results is a series of powerful and ethereal images. Using infrared photography, Sanders illustrates the majesty and mystery of these archeological sites. Michael Marston’s photographs of Iceland are quite different in style from the above artists, but they capture the same type of surreal and monumental feel. More like typical landscape photographs, Marston’s images show the otherworldly qualities of this mythic island. He captures the green moss, the black earth, and the blue-tinted icebergs in vivid colors. His vistas show the vastness and emptiness of a harsh yet beautiful landscape.

Overall, the exhibition makes clear that travel inspires and sustains. Each new locale is a revelation and each new experience expands our understanding of the world around us and of ourselves. Travel can be a bittersweet experience, but without it we can lose perspective. As Mark Twain explained in Innocents Abroad: “Charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Expressions in Blue

New York State Museum, through March 16

Blue is an evocative color, but it’s not like red. Instead it is cool, and sad, and full of pathos. The blues is a mood and a style that has inspired artists of all kinds. The exhibition Expressions in Blue is an attempt by Black Dimensions in Art, Inc. to tackle a vast topic. However, while the show does have some highlights, the overall results are uneven. The mixture of styles makes the show look haphazard and crowded, and the installation at times makes the weaker works seem all the more out of place.

The strongest part of the installation is at the back of the gallery, where there are a number of abstract pieces that stand out. There are several expressive and emotive works by Al Loving tucked away back there, and around the corner some expressionist works by Frank Wimberley. Another artist in the back, who is new to me, is Gregory Coates. He has two fantastic pieces, both in a striking blue pigment that resembles Yves Klein blue. His Permission is made of blue pigment on rubber over wood and his Blue Smoke is made of the same blue- powder pigment with acrylic on cigar boxes. Coates explains that his work explores both formal properties and cultural references. Like most abstracts these works could definitely use more negative space surrounding them.

There are some other highlights in the show. Betty Blayton’s unique vision is always a joy to rediscover. George W. Simmons has small collage works that are interesting and complex. Herbert Gentry’s jazzy and pseudo-art brut works were a treat to see first-hand. And Otto Neals’ I, too, Sing the Blues is a perfect fit for this show.

Black Dimensions in Art, Inc. does admirable work in a region that often seems culturally homogenous. But to pull off a show with such a broad topic in so many mediums requires a strong curatorial hand. While this show is not as tight as it could be, it is nevertheless worth a trip.

—Nadine Wasserman

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