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Going Up? Patricia Loonan Testo’s Ascension.

What Lies Hidden
By David Brickman

Beneath the Surface
Albany Heritage Area Visitors Center, through May 26

There’s a venue in the Capital Region that’s known to people all over the country and abroad but that the average area resident, even museumgoers, would be hard-pressed to name. Which makes the Albany Heritage Area Visitors Center one of my nominees for best-kept local secret.

With expertly designed permanent exhibits on local history, a planetarium and a lovely interior courtyard, the visitors center need not be just for tourists and school groups. And the current exhibition by teaching artists Dorothy Englander and Patricia Loonan Testo is as good a reason as any to check it out.

Presented on neatly prepared and placed freestanding panels, Beneath the Surface could be viewed as a simple two-person show by professional artists with solid bodies of work, but it’s also a concept show that puts its theme on the line in contrasting interpretations.

In their artist statements, Englander and Testo address the theme of the show in different ways. Testo emphasizes the physical, striving to break through the surface of the painting itself to get the viewer to experience it three-dimensionally (she names the Viewmaster toy as an inspiration). Englander instead attempts to evoke the hidden meaning of her subject, citing the Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven as a work that “exemplifies the intricacies that often lie just beneath the surface of the superficialities of life.”

Do these two artists get beneath the surface of their subjects or media in these works? My answer would have to be yes and no.

Testo has set the less-difficult task, and she tries several experiments to solve it. Her 13 pieces, all dated 2003, include nine oil paintings, a watercolor, and three black-and-white works. One of the devices she employs with the paintings is to build up a three-dimensional surface, either by adding found objects, layering the painting surface with multiple foam boards, or affixing wooden mouldings to the canvas.

These “sculptural paintings,” as she calls them, succeed to varying degrees in convincing the eye as to the depth of the subject. But whether they convince or not, there is a disingenuousness and a playfulness to the works that gives them a winning quality. They also use color well, mostly primaries, to depict repeated archetypes—flowered wallpaper, a stylized house, a sunny landscape with zigzag cuts in it, a bed—that become Testo’s personal visual vocabulary.

Perhaps the best of these, titled See Through, is also the most convincing in creating the illusion of three dimensions. Featuring a miniature wrought-iron bedframe delineating its overall composition, the painting shows a sensual landscape as seen from the point of view of someone in the bed. This visual pun is more effective than another bed painting that views into the bedroom and thereby limits our senses too much.

Many of Testo’s other works use sequencing to transcend the confines of the picture plane. This is an appealing and effective method, and it combines well with her almost cartoonlike style. One of these pieces, Ascension, is a vertical stack of six square compositions that work their way up from earthy sensuality to flying-apart freedom. Another, titled Wedged, is a detailed ink study on three panels framed together that describe but do not demystify some of Testo’s archetypes.

Englander possesses greater ambition, but in the process gives an equal measure of increased frustration. A voracious acquirer of styles and techniques, she has yet to settle on one that feels just right, a restless habit that for many years has given me trouble as a viewer. It has never been clear to me where Englander is going, though her urgency in working like a demon to get there is apparent enough.

In the 12 pieces presented here, all dated 2002, there is considerable experimentation across media and imagery, but the core of the work is made up of six watercolor collages with dresses as their subject. Englander aims to use the article of clothing as a symbol of “female vulnerability and stereotype” but also celebrates and explores its function as a mask or enhancement of the real woman or girl inside it.

One senses in this work Englander’s nostalgia, self-consciousness (particularly her concern for the aging process), and a desire for storytelling. By using a variety of handmade papers to create the dress shapes, she evokes a delicate rendition of playing with paper dolls while reveling in the joy of creation and memory.

The pieces are lovely—but I don’t feel they live up to the challenge of breaking through stereotypes or redefining femininity that Englander’s statement implies. Instead, like the dresses they depict, these creations remain relatively superficial—they seem to be about how things look and feel.

So, what’s wrong with that? If a work of art captures color, texture, feeling in a way that’s new or unique or deeply sensed, it succeeds in ways that art is meant to succeed. Sometimes, describing the surface, in all its nuance and complexity, is all you need to do.

Englander is a skilled observer and explorer. Her works are sensitive and subtle, favoring a pastel and earth-tone palette that speaks of nature and, with a little silver and neon pink thrown in, of human nature. But they’re sweet—not cloying—so one misses the expected irony.

A taste of this bitterness can be found, however, in some of her other works shown here, mainly watercolors with ink, in which Englander reveals her knack for social satire. Cellnet Dress and Rube Goldberg Variation I evoke the style of the great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg; Body Language leans, wickedly, more toward William Steig. Bodice I and Bodice II get a bit kinky, then reappear, transformed, in an inkjet montage that features a portrait of Frida Kahlo.

And here, in the tiniest piece, in the most nonspecific medium of all, is the clearest representation of Englander’s objective: to amalgamate, transform, modify, connect. I think I’m beginning to get it!

Please take note—if you’re planning to see this show, there isn’t much time, as it ends on Monday (May 26).

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