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Every doodle tells a story: Tai Ling Chiang’s Girl Walking.

Process Served
By David Brickman

Preliminary Sketches
The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through May 25

Ask any artist what is most important to them in their chosen pursuit, and chances are you’ll get a response about the process. Yet museums and galleries normally show only the end result of that process, leaving most of the audience in the dark as to how the works of art they view came into being.

But a new show at the Arts Center of the Capital Region cracks open the studio door of eight intriguing artists and sheds a little light on those mysteries. Co-curated by Williams College Museum of Art staffer Lisa Dorin and
Center Gallery director Gina Occhiogrosso, Preliminary Sketches itself was created through a long process involving studio visits to determine who and what would be included.

The result is an ambitious gathering of very diverse styles and media into a handsome (if somewhat messy) installation in the center’s main gallery. For the viewer, it is a challenging onslaught of words and sketches, collections and scraps and ruminations, industrial elements and, yes, beautiful finished works. There are paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs and media you never thought could be used to make art (chewing gum, for example, delicately imprinted with Chinese philosophical statements), and it’s all quite a bit to absorb at one go.

But, hey, we know it’s not easy to make art (or be an artist), so it makes sense that it should demand a little effort of us if we want to better understand some of what goes into the struggle. And, for the most part, this show amply rewards the effort.

Though there does not appear to be an overarching theme to the artists and works chosen, there are a number of commonalities to be found among them. Of the eight, four have created some form of book, and a fifth’s series of collages suggest an illustrated story.

This last, Martin Bromirsky, is one of the more interesting creators in this group and one whose work benefits greatly from the contextual revelations available in the display. His large, nearly abstract works on canvas are much easier to interpret in the presence of several examples of source material, including art books with reproductions of religious imagery both Western and Eastern.

An accompanying text panel (there’s one for each artist, and they’re well-written if a bit imperfectly edited) explains that Bromirsky has taught in Japan for several years, where space is extremely dear—hence his work from there is small-scale—and that he usually manages to secure larger studio space on his visits to the United States, where the larger paintings get made.

So, one understands the illustrated story as Japanese and the abstracts as American, while seeing influence from both spheres incorporated through scrap/sketchbooks (one of which has been reproduced in its entirety to allow handling), photocopied images and drawings on acetate. It’s an unpeeling of layers that the artist’s busy curiosity and mobile lifestyle have built up.

Far more simple on the face of it is the display devoted to Karin Stack, who has made a mosaic of 48 similar soft grayish-brown photos of a shaved head slowly returning to silky lushness. A tiny flipbook assembles the photos for entertaining viewing—but the back sides of these pages have biographical text (titled Hair Stories) that delves into the reason for the hair loss (cancer treatment) and the difficult process the artist faced in acknowledging this physical manifestation of her disease.

An accompanying video monitor plays an interview with Stack (who is model-
pretty) discussing the making of the photographic mosaic and the struggle she went through in connecting to and sharing her inner and outer experiences of illness and transformation.

The other video in the show, by Tai Ling Chiang, also approaches issues of identity through a haircut—but her story is less specifically personal and more cultural than Stack’s. Watermelon Skin describes the universal girl’s haircut that Chiang’s generation wore while she was growing up in Taiwan, and presents an array of questions about individuality, Taiwanese identity, politics and rebellion.

Chiang’s video is a sort of stop-action animation made up of many drawings, paintings and evocative sounds with narration. Some of the drawings and paintings hang on a wall outside the viewing room, revealing both a steady creative hand and a great degree of exploration. It’s only a hint, but one gets that privileged sense of seeing what ended up “on the cutting-room floor” during the making of the short film.

Some of the displays show more of the process while others are—ahem—sketchier. Angela Lorenz has crafted elaborate book pieces that marry the conceptual and the beautiful by using die-cut forms and materials from yarn to soap. Several vitrines feature her books along with some of the evidence of the extensive series of steps that went into making them.

Her works are so labor-intensive that they come with instructions for the end user to follow, as Lorenz makes process an integral part of the finished art.

Right next to Lorenz, Victoria Palermo’s exuberantly colorful rubber sculptures are accompanied by explanatory text and works in progress pulled right out of the studio, yet I still ended up scratching my head trying to figure out how she makes them.

I know balloons are involved, and pouring, and suspension with string but . . . well, maybe I’m just dense. The pieces are so much fun to look at, it’s hard to believe it isn’t fun to make them, too. But, in fact, it looks incredibly painstaking.

Perhaps the greatest quantity of preparatory material on display is Tona Wilson’s. Wilson works as a courtroom Spanish-language interpreter and in 1995 began obsessively making notes and sketches from the cases she was working on. These are then incorporated into her prints and paintings through a lengthy process of translation and transformation.

A large display case containing countless sketchbooks, notes and studies attests to the laborious nature of Wilson’s working process. Many finished pieces are also shown; they are deeply affecting portraits of a segment of American society rarely dealt with in such a sensitive and empathetic way.

John McQueen and Joanne Carson round out the exhibition. Both create three-dimensional interpretations of nature with wit, innovative technical solutions and careful attention to detail. Carson’s drawings glow with an otherworldly energy; McQueen weaves bits of sticks and string into delicate and muscular poetry.

A gallery talk by Preliminary Sketches curators and artists will be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 16, at the Arts Center.


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