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Scrooge McDuck conquers the world: Herbert’s Holiday (2009)

Explorers

By Nadine Wasserman

Uncharted

University Art Museum, University at Albany, through Dec. 13

The exhibition Uncharted is less about geographical conquest than about metaphysical exploration. As part of a larger schedule of events called Hudson 400, the exhibition presents the disparate work of 10 artists who “propose an imagined world of discovery and adventure that often parallels the artistic process itself.” Despite the overarching theme, the show is more a loose affiliation of works that at times relate to one another, but overall don’t have a whole lot in common.

There is, however, an interesting relationship between Olaf Breuning’s Home 2 and Adam Frelin’s Diviner. While on different floors, the two pieces have some similarities and incidentally, though clearly not intentionally, the audio from one often bleeds into the other. Both works involve narratives that revolve around an individual character who affects and responds to his immediate environment. Both narratives blur fact and fiction, and in both the main character is mentally challenged, one by disability and the other by cluelessness and indifference.

In Breuning’s video, which seemed far more amusing in the context of the Whitney biennial, an annoying dolt wanders the globe acting out the role of an obnoxious tourist. On second viewing, it is the polite, perplexed, bemused, and occasionally belligerent behavior of those around him that proves more interesting than watching his antics. This character is even less compelling when compared with Frelin’s protagonist, Joe York. Frelin builds a story around York using props, photographs, and video. By considering each of the elements of the installation, the viewer can piece together a drama about faith, obsession, and extreme weather. Breuning and Frelin both use a faux documentary style that blurs truth, fiction, and happenstance.

In Overseas (Fireplace with Harpoons), Valerie Hegarty also uses props to construct a narrative. But here it is less a story than a statement. A seascape painting, which has been pierced by a harpoon, appears to bleed seawater and grime onto the fireplace and mantel below. The violent history of the maritime experience has infiltrated this domestic interior. Radcliffe Bailey and David Herbert also make reference to the ocean and its bloody history. Bailey’s Door of No Return II references the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Gorée Island, while Garvey’s Ghost is a steamship that alludes to the back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s. Herbert’s modified replica of the U.S.S. Constitution, built specifically for this exhibition, is crewed by a team of Uncle Scrooge ducks. Scrooge McDuck is a perfect symbol of American capitalism and imperialism and here embodies the pursuit of wealth that fueled many a seafaring venture.

The violent and turbulent undertones of much of the above-mentioned work is also apparent in other pieces in the exhibition. Although Matt Leines’ abstract figures are bright and cartoony, they are no less foreboding. They line the wall like so many portraits of generals, with their medals and pins suggestive of invasion and conquest. Mark Essen’s piece Flywrench is a video game that actually places the viewer at the controls of a failed mission. The work is both frustrating and mesmerizing as players repeatedly try to advance from one quixotic level to another. Like Essen’s piece, Cameron Martin’s alluring yet unnerving images of mountains and outcroppings evoke the drive to pursue a dangerous quest despite the odds.

Whereas Martin’s paintings are unpeopled, Anna Conway’s often contain human figures that are diminutive and menaced by their surroundings. In one, a man sweeps a high-walled courtyard while looking nervously overhead as a giant deflated hot air balloon bears down on him. In Somebody Call Someone, a torrent of water rages through an arena as workmen attempt to control or manipulate it. Conway’s elusive and surreal narratives speak to the anxiety of dreams. They are not unlike the vignettes in Emre Hüner’s Panoptikon. This short animated film contains images that are vaguely reminiscent. They flicker across the screen as if somewhere between Eden and the End Times. There is violence, death, and war but also beauty and science and enlightenment.

In the spirit of discovery, this exhibition considers the topic from a variety of perspectives. Just as every great explorer has a different style and approach, so too do each of these artists. They observe, evoke, embellish, and enlighten so that we can learn something new about ourselves and our environment.


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