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Yesterday: Pillow Fight by Beatles photographer Harry Benson.

Playing With Us
By David Brickman

Try to See It My Way: Wendy Lehman, Willie Marlowe and Janet Sorensen
The Rice Gallery, Albany Institute of History and Art, through March 2

The Beatles: Now and Then, Photographs by Harry Benson
Albany Institute of History and Art, through March 2

Line, color, shape, mystery, playfulness—these are some of the characteristics that tie together work by the three artists in Try to See It My Way, now on view at the Albany Institute of History and Art’s Rice Gallery.

Director Janis Keane Dorgan brought back sculptor Wendy Lehman and painters Willie Marlowe and Janet Sorensen, all of whom have shown at the Rice in past years, for a visual carnival that enlivens the space within and beyond the gallery.

Lehman, a New Yorker, presents four sculptures in smooth, curved wood, three of which stand about 8 feet tall. Though three-dimensional, the pieces read almost as freestanding, shaped canvases due to their flat fronts and backs, upon which the artist has painted in vivid color.

Though very playfully shaped and hued, the sculptures are also carefully made to have a particular presence and resonance. They are witty, gestural and full of fun. Priced as high as $18,000, they are also for serious collectors only.

A Lehman piece titled Between the Lines stands at the second-floor entrance to the gallery/museum shop level, like a cartoonish escaped convict in black and white stripes with primary accents. In the museum’s lower lobby, the equally jaunty Detour flashes its yellow and black motif at passersby, arms outstretched in cactus fashion.

Both works have round cutouts that suggest anything from a porthole to an entrance for birds. Somewhat different, but on the same scale, is Lehman’s sole sculpture inside the gallery, titled Mad Hatter. This piece relies more on the wavy painted lines and sweeping shapes on its surfaces than on the gestures of the sculpture itself for its serene yet kooky presence.

My favorite of Lehman’s pieces is by far the smallest. About three feet tall, Single Minded sits on a pedestal in the mezzanine alcove. With its spirals, stairsteps and dashes of red, yellow and purple to offset moodier gray and black, it comes across like a 3-D Saul Steinberg drawing—smashingly.

Marlowe, an Albany artist who has taught at the Sage College of Albany for 25 years, stretches her wings in this show with variations beyond her usual framed miniature acrylics. Though a couple of those are also included, and they’re still what she does best, Marlowe adds two large, shaped canvases, a group of seven rectangular canvases forming a single piece, and three small acrylics mounted on wooden boxes rather than framed.

All categories succeed, largely through Marlowe’s remarkable sense of vivid color and her increasing affinity for spatial design. Dorgan also deserves credit for achieving a successful installation of this diversity of offerings from a single artist.

Highlights include Implied Squares (the set of grouped canvases), which combines Crayola colors with the white spaces between rectangles for a fractured composition that amounts to a delectable visual game (and contains no true squares).

Marlowe’s two shaped canvases, each of which is an isosceles triangle presented point-down, read like shields and evoke the work of Op-art luminary Kenneth Noland. Titled Magenta Triangle and Blue Origami, both celebrate texture, strict geometry and esoteric color relationships. A third piece in this series currently hangs at the faculty show in the Opalka Gallery on the Sage campus—suggesting that Marlowe intends to mine this vein further.

Sorensen, a Skidmore professor, is the more traditional painter in this trio. Her pieces all feature 16-inch-square panels grouped in threes (and one pair of two), encouraging the viewer to contemplate the seemingly random juxtapositions she creates. All of the paintings feature anonymous hands performing tasks mundane and mysterious.

In Red Song #6 and Fumbling With Fortune, the colors red and gray dominate. In the first, the action involves holding a cloth, pouring berries into a colander and cutting paper with scissors. The second shows a pair of hands fooling with a bag that holds Chinese divining stones. The hands’ gestures may imply larger meaning, or perhaps futility and the lack of meaning—it is entirely beyond me to say which.

The triptych Hold Your Breath is equally confounding. Here, the color scheme includes shades of blue, green and mustard-yellow. The hands hold a glass ornament, build a house of cards and wind a length of yarn. There’s a pastiness in the rendering of flesh tones in this triptych that makes it feel rather cool, even more so than the others, which are distant as it is. One begins to wonder if the pieces might have worked as well (or better?) if they were photographs rather than paintings.

What is Sorensen’s message? The paintings are too vague for me to be able to say. Instead, I can’t help suspecting that the work is a shallow attempt to create mystery and meaning where far greater passion and deeper devotion would be required in order to evoke it.

Former news photographer (and now renowned celebrity photographer) Harry Benson lucked onto the assignment of a lifetime when he was pulled off a hard-news story to cover the Beatles in 1964, and he never looked back.

This show chronicles a long collaboration, but focuses on the Fab Four’s 1964 and 1966 North American tours, telling the story from a virtual insider’s point of view in expertly shot black-and-white. The pictures, a healthy mix of the spontaneous and the set-up, are very well-composed and printed; they are accompanied by plenty of entertaining and revealing text panels.

A soundtrack of Beatles recordings echoes throughout the exhibit. I suppose it’s a necessary contrivance, but I found the music annoying, and I imagine the museum’s guards must really hate it by now.

The exhibit also includes later photos, many of them in color, of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr and their families post-Beatles. These photos feel more commercial than the earlier, more innocent work, but still have visual and historical impact.

The last room in the show is crammed with an impressive array of Beatles paraphernalia and memorabilia, with a soundtrack that includes Capital Region radio spots from the ’60s.

Looking at the books, collectible dolls, movie posters, games, tea towels, fan club goodies and so on, one recognizes the unbelievable impact these musicians had on all areas of commerce in their heyday. A printed timeline also on hand adds to the installation’s historical perspective; free copies can be taken home.

And, speaking of art and commerce, it is worth noting that each of these exhibitions has received special support: GE Power Systems and a number of other corporate sponsors have contributed to the Beatles/Benson show; and private collector C. Wayne Williams and his wife have provided sole sponsorship of the Rice Gallery exhibit. My hat’s off to art angels big and small—they’re far more rare than the celestial kind, and just as greatly needed.

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