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By the book: Deborah Zlotsky’s Self Portrait Series: Odd Nerdrum (Drawing).

By David Brickman

The Mohawk Hudson Regional Invitational
Albany Center Galleries, through Feb. 14

Only a few decades ago, some conservative wags reacted to certain kinds of avant-garde art with the statement “If it needs to be plugged in, then it isn’t art.” Nowadays, electricity pretty much rules; meanwhile, art that relies on too much text is starting to get a bad reputation.

In the current two-person show at Albany Center Galleries, installation artist Louanne Genet Getty fires up her pieces with just enough electricity to illuminate, and just enough words to intrigue—or confound. Her counterpart, Deborah Zlotsky, presents traditional paintings that depict books but have no words at all. Still, she keeps up with the times by turning art history on its head.

These two artists were among the prizewinners at last year’s 66th Annual Exhibition by Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, but have little else in common aside from gender and generation. Their works do not play off each other—neither does one detract from the other. In effect, we have two small solo shows by first-rate, mid-career artists coexisting happily in the same space.

Getty won top honors at the regional with a series of Duchampian peephole scenarios. Just one of those is in this exhibition—the rest of her works are brand-new. (So new, in fact, that a couple were still unfinished at press time, and therefore will go uncommented-upon.)

One of the exciting aspects of installation art—perhaps its greatest strength—is that a piece takes on a new life in every venue. Here, Getty has formed the thin wires that lead to each piece into a sort of geometric pathway through the exhibition.

Some may be distracted by the angles the colored wires describe, but I feel they add something to the presentation—especially where two pieces (Nurse Button’s baby shoe and Nurse Button’s blue porcelain doorknob lash) share a corner that the wires run toward. Each is a Dada-style object presented under a bell jar for our inspection.

In the same reliquary vein is Nurse Button’s boar-bristle nail and body brush. This piece presents the titular brush on a long, narrow, shelflike mantle where it has been attached to a textured metal stand. It is lit from above by a tiny bulb that emerges from a sheltering iron wall sconce. The words “lessons in survival for traveling in the wilderness: how to thrive” appear on the mantle in tiny letters, providing a clue as to its meaning.

All three come from a series titled Prelude to Nurse Buttons Series (An Internist), which the artist says is a response to having had a close friend die unexpectedly. In this context, one might interpret the objects as representing the friend’s possessions, and the pieces as both honoring and showing the futility of going on with daily tasks and vanities in the face of permanent loss.

Interpretation is crucial to Getty’s work; its intimacy and excruciating attention to detail invite scrutiny and contemplation. Another series in the show, titled Breathing Rooms, requires the viewer to strain and squint in order to see everything inside the three tiny rooms. Patience in this case does lead to rewards, though not necessarily to enlightenment.

Zlotsky is a painter and professor (at the College of Saint Rose), and her work does have an academic air about it. Mimicking 17th-century Dutch painting technique, she creates mostly small images in oil on wood panel.

It is significant that Zlotsky took her undergraduate degree in art history; these paintings examine a slice of the history of painting by recreating artists’ self-portraits as seen in books or other reproductions. The subjects of the 10 paintings on view span several centuries and include very famous, as well as lesser-known painters.

In addition to being postmodern in their peculiar stance of reexamining reproduced images, these are also painterly paintings that embody an old-fashioned coming to grips with the basic problem of composition. Ranging from less than 5 inches by 9 inches to 24 inches by 30 inches, no two of these pieces have the same size or shape—each is a newly explored geometric arrangement.

Like still lifes, Zlotsky’s “portraits” portray the objects that carry the reproductions—books, cards or catalog pages—and they celebrate the forms of these objects as much as the artists they depict. In one remarkable piece, three-quarters of the squarish composition is occupied by the blank page opposite a self-portrait by Edward Hopper. All that remains of Hopper is the upside-down top of his head, cropped below the eyes.

Other pieces play similar tricks, including one of Kathe Kollwitz, who scowls out at us from a lovingly reproduced charcoal drawing, and Lucian Freud, whose busy, loose brushstrokes are captured by Zlotsky’s own brushes. One of Susanna Coffey (who recently showed at Saint Rose) is rendered from a reproduction laid flat on a table and distorted through perspective in such a way that the page appears to have just been spit out by a laser printer.

In fact, the only right-side-up image in which the subject also faces the viewer is very oddly serene in this more topsy-turvy world of Zlotsky’s Self Portrait Series. That one, of Odd Nerdrum, is also the one that most affectionately renders the book itself, with two pages held lightly aloft by their turning and the book’s hard cover carefully drawn.

Zlotsky has made many of these paintings while on sabbatical from her teaching job, and she still has a semester to go. That bodes well for the artist—and for those of us who enjoy looking at art in reproduction, but like it even better up close and personal.

There will be a public reception for the artists in the Mohawk Hudson Invitational at Albany Center Galleries from 5:30 to 8 PM tonight (Thursday). An interiew with the artists, moderated by Times Union art critic Timothy Cahill, will be held in the gallery on Jan. 21 at 7 PM.


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