through the wire: Larry Kagans We Were Talking,
By David Brickman
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
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
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
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.