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Precious metal: a brooch by Sandra Dovberg.

In Their Element
By David Brickman

Silver
Albany Center Galleries, through Oct. 18

Albany Center Galleries marks its 25th anniversary with a smartly curated show titled Silver, referring to the metal that is traditionally used to celebrate such occasions and to its presence in all the work on display.

Curator and executive director Pam Barrett-Fender has selected eight artists whose media incorporate the 47th element in the periodic table; adhering to the gallery’s mission, all artists are based within a 75-mile radius of Albany. But all are also new to the gallery, no small feat considering that pretty much every artist worth seeing around here has shown there repeatedly over the years.

Hence, the direction of the show is forward- rather than backward-looking, a new beginning of sorts for an organization that has struggled of late and is now getting back into the thick of things. A nicely designed and printed color flyer accompanying the exhibition features a thoughtful essay by Barrett-Fender and an example of each artist’s work, setting a professional tone for the anniversary event.

The geography of the participants stretches from southern Vermont to Ulster County; there are three metalsmiths, two photographers, two who work in silverpoint and (believe it or not) a performance artist.

The latter, Suzanne Stokes, is represented by a sort of tableau that, according to Barrett-Fender’s essay, was the midway point in the creation of a performance that began as a drawing. Sustenance is itself a mixed-media piece made up of black paper silhouettes, a small sheaf of wheat and a silver spoon laid out on a lace-decorated cloth. Without seeing other work by Stokes, or the performance itself, it is difficult to judge, but Sustenance has enough panache and mystery to tickle the desire to see more.

James Fossett, who, like Stokes, hails from Bloomington, N.Y., offers two black-and-white photographs of a naked white baby with a different silver spoon laid upon it in each. Here, silver is both the subject (the spoons) and the medium (silver halides form the active ingredient in photographic emulsions).

The other photographer in the show, Eric Slayton, lives and works in the Brattleboro, Vt., area. He is an ecologist who collects bird specimens and freezes them, then makes elegant, quiet pictures of them (or their nests) with a square-format camera. His photographs are masterfully made, some as bleach-toned traditional silver prints, some as coffee-stained hand-coated prints on vellum.

The prints on vellum, wrinkled from the wet process of making the paper light-sensitive, showcase the nests as delicate woven creations, almost abstract in their formality and structural emphasis, yet still poetic, evocative.

The bird prints present the dead birds as objects of fascination, even sympathy, held in gathering or gripping fingers. One, Larus delawarensis (a seagull), is proffered by a nude woman whose shoulders repeat the shape of the bird’s wings, underscoring the artist’s intention that the series, titled Dreams of Flight, represent people’s aspirations as much as birds’.

An unusual affinity exists between photography and silver sculpture or jewelry, and that is evident here as the work of Sandra Dovberg, Myra Mimlitsch Gray and Rachel Seligman surrounds and interacts with that of Slayton and Fossett.

Dovberg, perhaps the most adventurous of the three, includes several wearable brooches, three meticulously crafted spinning tops that open to reveal fantasy interiors, and three freestanding objects.

Two of the objects could be described as fantastic creatures, the products of imagination and experimentation. Spiritus Mundi looks like a little jellyfish on a tripod, or a jaunty, helmeted figure. The teasingly playful What Rough Beast, with its long, curving snout, could be an elephant or an insect.

Dovberg’s interest in nature is repeated in the Creation Series of brooches, each of which incorporates a slice of fossilized ammonite.

Seligman, an art historian and the director of Union College’s Mandeville Gallery, also takes inspiration from nature. Her quasi-wearable rings play with forms of bark, vine and leaf; a bracelet depicts various poses by an amoeba; and two small objects ply the theme of life emerging from eggs.

While Seligman mostly employs casting, Mimlitsh Gray often raises, forms and fabricates. Her Round Planish Server is, to my eye, the star of the show, helped by a supporting cast of three cups. All four exploit deceptively simple but devilishly difficult techniques to create three-dimensional vessels of the utmost elegance. Mimlitsh Gray’s subtle plays on geometry and her perfect execution brought me back again and again to examine these beautiful, not-quite-utilitarian objects.

Mimlitsh Gray also creates fetishistic manipulations of spoons by splitting, twisting and oh-so-carefully presenting these everyday utensils as though they were religious relics. Oddly fascinating stuff.

The silverpoint artists, Nancy Lawton of Albany and John Lees of Leeds, N.Y., employ a nearly lost art medium to very different ends. Silverpoint is a drawing tool consisting of a piece of silver wire in a holder; it works just like a pencil, leaving gray trails of silver rather than graphite. Unlike pencil, it requires that the paper ground be prepared or no mark will be left.

Lawton must have the patience of a dozen normal people. Her tiny, exquisitely subtly detailed self-portraits take weeks to produce but are merely studies for life-size graphite drawings she spends years to produce. Apparently, when she wants to hurry up and play, she makes botanical drawings, five of which are on display.

From a distance, the plant studies appear as tight as one would expect from the subject, medium and presentation, but upon closer inspection one finds that Lawton is very loose, scribbling freely and gesturally to describe a lupine or Wellfleet oyster. Her Poppy is strikingly modern, bristling with plant sexuality. It is also the only plant study Lawton shows that has no written notations, which helps it seem less fussy.

Lees would be best described as a painter, though he employs little color in his silverpoint drawings on thickly built-up gesso and gouache grounds. The drawings exploit a contrarian position: Silverpoint is supposed to be impossible to erase, but Lees has found a way to rework and smudge his lines, resulting in a greater sense of depth. Inspired by classical music and literature, his pale, ethereal images hark back to the late 19th century, when poets invoked spirits and the Symbolists reigned supreme.

The two drawings that I think work best are Ripples, which shows the effect of six stones tossed into a pool of water—or perhaps it’s an image of black holes somewhere in deep space—and a sweet Cassatt-like portrait called Vivien.

This last, by the way, is seen not in the second-floor gallery, but in a display case on the building’s first floor, where several of the other artists’ works from Silver are also on view.


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