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Present intense: Williams’ Out of My Mouth.

Three Roads Less Traveled
By David Brickman

Beyond Confines: Works by Serdar Arat, Wendy Ide Williams and Sandra Wimer
University Art Museum, UAlbany, through March 2

In her foreword to the catalog for the exhibition Beyond Confines, outgoing University Art Museum director Marijo Dougherty cites the three included artists’ “determination to follow where their own perceptions lead them, without relying on others’ ideas of acceptable or traditional limits.” This statement brings up many questions for me simultaneously.

For example, isn’t that determination exactly what makes someone choose to be an artist in the first place? And, if artists don’t follow their own perceptions, can they possibly be any good? So, why these three interesting, but not extraordinarily groundbreaking artists in particular? And so on.

Now I don’t have any answers to these, or other questions. But I can at least tell you two things that are true: Serdar Arat, Wendy Ide Williams and Sandra Wimer are alumni of the UAlbany art program who have all gone on to enjoy a certain amount of success in their chosen field; and this is a very fine show that allows Dougherty to display her eclectic taste and her abiding respect for strong art that does not follow the prevailing (i.e. postmodernist) conventions of today.

Arat, who earned his MFA in 1984 and now shows often in New York and internationally, was unfamiliar to me before seeing this sampling of his last 10 years’ output. A Turkish native who came to the United States more than 20 years ago, he creates large-scale shaped canvases with a limited palette and imagery that is all but entirely abstract. His part of the show fills the upstairs section of the two-story gallery.

To make a truly valid assessment of his work based on the 11 pieces shown would be difficult, though they are quite consistent, and presumably they adequately represent the total body. Repeated shapes and motifs in the work suggest scientific interests, outer space, optics and mathematics.

Arcs and planes intersect, flying-saucer shapes hover and light glints off surfaces in these highly textured acrylics on linen (and one charcoal on paper). Some of the titles are suggestive of landscape, though only one piece, Footprints in the Snow, actually looks like one.

The rest of the paintings rely mainly on texture and composition for their strength. Sometimes this is expressed in the eccentric shape of the canvas itself. But it is more effectively accomplished within the internal geometry of pieces such as Before the Rain, where Arat grapples with layerings of shape and color to achieve a satisfying complexity that fully engages the viewer’s attention, and rewards it.

Of the more simple pieces featuring a lozenge shape that is repeated often in this selection, Perpetual Sunset III stands out by virtue of its masterful application of a texture reminiscent of tree bark. It is a rare example of a very large painting that actually looks better the closer you get.

Wimer occupies a separate room off the upstairs gallery, where 16 of her delicate prints convene under warm lighting to welcome the visitor inside. One enters the room and falls into the sky. Some of the pieces on view here were in a group show at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in the fall, but there are many more Wimers—most of them new—in this grouping, and the effect is salutary.

Applying an almost-lost printmaking technique to contemporary images and ideas, Wimer retains the understated tone of 19th-century graphic art, adding a very subtle edginess through floating handwritten or typed text and the inclusion of a bull’s eye, recognizable as the centering device in a 35mm camera’s viewfinder.

Though the color gray appears to dominate, upon close inspection the prints reveal a lot of color variation and, in some cases, quite a lot of ink on the surface. They are distinctly not photographs, despite having started as camera images. One small pair dispenses with the bull’s eye, instead adding a layer of thin paper in the chine collé process. This is a nice touch, if a bit precious.

Another variation comes in the form of a trio, titled Printemps I, II and III, that includes big chunks of the Louvre Museum under moody cloud scenes. These prints are very small and seem to emphasize the nostalgic potential in the techniques Wimer favors—but seeing the Louvre’s late-20th-century glass pyramid in one of the compositions plants them firmly in the present age.

The gallery’s spacious first floor is devoted to the work of Williams, and there is so much of it that one comes away thinking this show is really all hers. Not only is that notion supported by the unabashed intensity and exuberance in Williams’s 60-plus mixed-media paintings on paper and ceramic sculptures, it is appropriate in that she hasn’t had a major exhibition in almost a decade.

Despite the quantity, this selection is drawn mostly from the past couple of years, an impressive degree of output by any standard. In fact, it seems it was one of those impossible-to-edit barrages of work—even sketchbooks and a few loose drawings are included, laid out on a table and free to handle.

Equally, it is almost impossible to take in or assess this flood all at once. While Williams has a very distinct style and a recognizable visual vocabulary, she employs all sorts of imagery, much of it greatly abstract, but also including landscape, fantasy, figures, objects and narrative (both visual and actually written). So the effect is that of a consistent voice singing from a very broad repertoire.

If you like the voice (and I do), you’ll revel in this show until they close the gallery and kick you out (as I did). Not that every piece is a tour de force—in fact, one of Williams’s irresistible charms is that her paintings are rarely fully resolved—but that the maelstrom of her vivid colors and shapes sweeps you up and carries you along, just as it does the artist.

And don’t get me wrong: This is not all happy, fun stuff. Williams is an artist who puts her deepest self into the work—perhaps a little bit as therapy, but more significantly as expression—and there is really no end to what a viewer can take away from it.

One example is the 2000 painting Out of My Mouth. It shows how Williams moves over the paper’s surface, combining the clarity of pure black-and-white with the richness of pure color, putting a stylized head in one corner, a wedge of cake in another, and biomorphic shapes and patterns all over, in pastel, pencil, watercolor or whatever.

I don’t profess to know what this painting means, but there is an undeniable urgency to the work that I can’t imagine anyone would not find compelling. From peaceful reveries to biological worries to neoclassical nightmares, Williams will take you on a wild ride. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, she reaches into her bag of tricks and out comes something else altogether.

Now that’s going beyond confines.

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