Up? Patricia Loonan Testos Ascension.
By David Brickman
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
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
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
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
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
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).