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singular view: Richard Callner's Hudson River North of Catskill.

Gilding the Lilith
By Rebecca Shepard

Richard Callner: 50 Year Retrospective
Albany Institute of History and Art, through June 1

Imagine learning that your favorite, rather conventional uncle 1) lived a double life, maintaining a long affair with a mysterious and enchanting mistress named Lilith; and 2) was celebrated far beyond the intimate realm of family and friends.

This was my response to the Albany Institute of History and Art’s retrospective of Richard Callner, on view through June 1. In this comprehensive show, Callner comes across as a master of image-making—an artist who has gathered no moss, and one whose vitality is undiminished at age 76.

Callner’s résumé reveals a lifetime of accomplishment. His career—which culminated with a professorship at UAlbany from 1975 to 1991—includes a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright, and five years in Italy as the founding director of the Tyler School of Art, as well as extensive travels throughout eastern and western Europe. But it is the inner story, told through the evolution of his work, that is truly revealing.

The exhibit is chronologically organized, allowing one to follow Callner’s progress on a circuitous path through a dramatic range of imagery, beginning in 1957 with what he called his “dark period.” These thickly textured paintings of slightly menacing allegorical figures—“fat adults with weak hands and feet,” as Callner puts it—are grimly satirical. You get the sense of an earnest young man responding to his growing awareness of human frailty. The subject is later set aside, but one suspects that the moral consciousness underlying it remains a profound part of Callner’s nature.

The shift from Callner’s dark period to his “Lilith” period (1963 to 1975) is sudden and wholly transformational, brought on, he says, partly through experiencing the quality of light in southern France. In thinner paint and pale lilacs, blues and salmon pinks, Callner created a fantasy world based loosely upon the Hebrew mythical character Lilith, reportedly Adam’s first wife, who left the Garden of Eden upon being denied equal status with her husband.

Callner’s Lilith is a shape-shifting character with flowing hair and strings of pearls, sometimes portrayed with multiple breasts like Artemis, or an extra set of legs or feathered wings and a Janus profile. She crouches, runs, flies, gives birth to flower gardens, marries Satan, plies angel-birds with jewels, and eventually disappears into the woodwork. Callner describes her as “an amazing creature: beautiful, intelligent, strong, and open to change and adventure.” She seems created out of a genuine admiration for female power, rather than a predatory male gaze. Callner must have taken a risk with these paintings—the colors are soft and feminine, and the illustrative style is quite out-of-sync with the art world of his contemporaries. But clearly he was wholly captivated: Lilith functioned as a muse, an alter-ego, and a portal into a world where standard definitions of good and evil are confounded, where creative energy reigns supreme.

Callner paints Lilith’s exit from his imagery in Lilith Island. Four pale Lilith figures meld into an angled wall, one bowing a kiss to a profile of the artist. In his words, Lilith “transforms into the architecture, recedes into another world. . . . ”

A later ink drawing, Three Birds in Search of Lilith, makes a further transition. As three giant birds careen through empty rooms, their ornate feathers become patterned carpets and wallpaper. This piece inaugurates Callner’s gouache and watercolor interiors, rooms with complex, multiple perspectives, where space is distorted through a dizzying conflation of patterned rugs, striped vases, mirrors, and furrowed hills glimpsed through windows. Just as people take on traits of a loved one who has died, so traces of Lilith are everywhere—like the three birds, she has become the pattern that animates everything. Still, these rooms are claustrophobia-inducing. They are intensely busy, as if Lilith is overcompensating for an inability to settle into domestic life. The landscapes glimpsed through windows look increasingly vivid and enticing.

Indeed, that is where Callner goes next—out the window, to a long involvement with landscape. This may be the work for which he is best known, though not enough of them are represented here. Callner’s landscapes are like a cross between Grandma Moses and the fauves—an orderly arrangement of patterns depicting plowed fields and undulating hills dotted with trees, all rendered in bright saturated colors. They are ingenious, childlike in their simplicity, but sophisticated in their spatial organization; clearly, they are created by someone who has looked hard at fields, hills, water and sky the world over, and who maintains a visual lexicon based on that experience.

Around 1990, Callner stopped making preliminary sketches for his paintings. Subsequent works are looser and more abstract, though still organized with vivid color and boldly outlined patterns. More than half the works in this retrospective date from the past 10 years, especially impressive because the artist has lived with Parkinson’s Disease all that time. In works from the last two years, Callner uses a larger brush stroke, and the patterns have simplified and expanded. An untamed exuberance reigns, the artist losing himself in color and line. Lilith seems to have come home to stay, now thoroughly assimilated into the creative process.

My only complaint about this show is the location of Callner’s smaller works in the hallway between the main exhibit rooms; they seem ostracized simply by virtue of being small. These paintings, prints and drawings are brilliant—as inventive and compelling as anything else on view, and sometimes more fully resolved. Also, here we see some of Callner’s early etchings and lithographs, a reminder that he is a printmaker through and through. He depicts form through line rather than through modeling of light and shadow, and his work is defined by graphic impact. Tactile painterly surfaces and wet-into-wet blending of color are not his thing, qualities I miss in some of the larger paintings. But the smaller works are perfectly resolved without them, and the small scale often heightens the intensity of the image.

Callner’s work is both academically disciplined and sort of wild. He is solidly in touch with his feminine side. The progression from his creation of Lilith through her sublimation into other imagery to the utter freedom of his current work is thoroughly engaging. It seems that through the idea of Lilith, Callner trained himself to believe in the creative process, to believe in himself as an artist. In the end, the Callner retrospective proves the value of believing in some kind of magic—and of exploring what lies beneath the appearance of convention. Best of all, the works in this show provide moments of pure, unadulterated joy.

Also on view in the Rice Gallery is The Callner Challenge, an exhibit/tribute by 50 former students and colleagues of Callner. The gallery is lined with digital images of each artist’s work, attesting to the extent of his influence. Some works resemble Callner’s, others are not remotely akin. That in itself is the best tribute to a good teacher.

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