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And through the wire: Larry Kagan’s We Were Talking, detail.

Open Your Eyes
By David Brickman

Albany Institute of History and Art, through Nov. 17

Some works of art have a “wow” factor. This can be due to technical brilliance (such as with John Singer Sargent) or conceptual innovation (think Picasso), or it can come as a “Why didn’t I think of that?” response (like with Christo).

In the current show at the Albany Institute of History and Art’s Rice Gallery, there are three artists who wow the viewer—one each for the categories named above. Titled Look/See, the tidy little exhibition features Norman Brosterman, Larry Kagan and William Wilson, all of them in masterful late-career stride. Brosterman is from New York City; Kagan and Wilson are more local, with long teaching affiliations at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute and the University at Albany, respectively. All are working in three dimensions, and all three play back into the two-dimensional aspect of imagery with the works shown, supporting the double take implied by the title.

Brosterman is an author and architect who carves large mahogany panels into subtle, beautifully crafted relief. Of his four pieces on view here, one incorporates black paint over the entire surface of the carving, while the others leave the wood to shine in its natural color and grain, a very pleasing look.

The pieces are oversize, but not massive; still, being made of hardwood slabs about 4 inches thick, they have a presence that approaches the monumental. This effect is enhanced by Brosterman’s quirky choice of subject matter and the way he plays with scale.

In one piece, an empty suit, shirt and tie ensemble stands mute, slightly larger than life. Its soft contours are contrasted with the roughed-up carving of the remaining slab around it, making it seem a bit puffed up—artifice portraying artifice.

The same technique is employed to present an out-of-proportion suitcase in perfect perspective, its handle and clasps also perfectly rendered to make the relief seem much deeper than its inch and a half, and almost more than three-dimensional. It is oddly disorienting to stand before this peculiar object—which may very well have been the artist’s intention.

Another piece, titled Four Hats, exaggerates scale even further, so that a stack of wide-brim felts crowds the edges of the roughly 4-foot-by-5-foot composition. Lovingly rendered, smoothed and shaped from the heavy wood, the huge, saucerlike hats beckon the viewer to defy the gallery injunction not to touch the art. Split directly down the middle of the hatband, this two-panel piece is Brosterman’s most successful in the exhibition.

His black-painted Goodbye True World, though fascinatingly mysterious in its Polynesian and Northwest Indian motifs, seems like an add-on to the exhibition, as does a piece by Kagan from the institute’s permanent collection that hangs near it. We Are Losing Our Ozone, an undated though oft-seen steel wall relief collage, is a strong piece, but it is overshadowed (pun intended) by Kagans’ other offerings.

These consist of three sculptures in a series titled We Were Talking, in which wall-mounted constructions of thick wire cast remarkable shadow images of gesticulating figures on the white wall. Kagan’s happy discovery of the opportunity to “draw” with both the steel wire and its shadows has resulted in a powerful new art form.

Like most good art, these pieces raise more questions than they answer. Which is the real work of art—the seemingly abstract wire construction or the realistic picture it casts? Why do these mute, ethereal beings hold my attention so well? And how the heck does he do that?

Though I can’t answer the latter question, it is prompted by the fact that the thickets of wire that hover well above eye level in this installation look nothing at all like the carefully drawn cartoonlike shadows they make. A single spotlight aimed at each sculpture performs this seemingly impossible transformation of one creation into another right before our eyes. It is a trick, yes, but one so utterly sublime as to be irresistible.

And Kagan, consciously I would wager, adds wittily to the discourse by turning the old game of hand-shadow puppetry on its head, as the focal point of each of We Were Talking’s cast-shadow images is a pair of gesturing hands.

Wilson, a painter who has been known to carve a stick or two, completes the show’s trio with a trompe l’oeil of his own, in which he turns everyday garden implements into medieval warriors. It all started, Wilson writes, when “one day while digging I saw my shovel as a helmet.” He then “filled in the blank.”

The 10 shovels presented here each bear the painted likeness of a fantasy figure, a man from somewhere in the distant past with a struggle to face. The shovels themselves have seen a lot of work: They are rusted and pitted by neglect, split and smoothed and polished by much digging.

And then they are turned around and painted with a face—one African, one Mongolian, one red-bearded, one apparently dead, and so on. Embellishments are few, though a certain kingly face has had his shovel/helmet adorned with a crown of triangular teeth from some farm implement. His pensive expression belies the weight of that crown.

While Wilson seems to be having fun, there is a certain gravity to his work—after all, these fellows are not necessarily having the times of their lives. One has lost an eye, another’s eyes are terribly red-rimmed, a few grimace or show their teeth. But they remain comical, too.

Part of the fun is that, again, we have an example of two-dimensions becoming three, as the painter’s canvas of curved metal stands before us as an object quite unlike most paintings. The groups formed by the shovels play together well; a single one is placed outside the gallery space, drawing the viewer onto a sort of mezzanine.

This detail brings up a problem. Since the reopening last year of the institute after extensive renovations, the Rice Gallery’s space has seemed more open, but smaller. Its odd-shaped interior and surprising new exterior spaces offer an opportunity to play with the architectural dimension in show installations. An opportunity which, unfortunately, was not exploited enough in this instance. Instead, we have a tantalizing but somewhat frustrating exercise in too little of a good thing.

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