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Get surreal: Lance by Aaron Holz.

Brushes With Greatness
By Rebecca Shepard

Unplugged: Painting in the Age of Technology
Albany International Airport, through Jan. 4, 2004

Unplugged: Painting in the Age of Technology, Albany International Airport’s lively new exhibit curated by Sharon Bates, sets out to prove that the old-fashioned craft of painting remains vibrant in spite of our high-tech, low-touch age. Eighteen painters from the region are presented; few of them are new to regular gallery visitors, but the range of works is diverse and appealing. Indeed, it is entertaining to see the broad variation of style and imagery that falls under the heading of painting.

First, paintings that are about paint. By this I mean paintings that reveal a love of the unique properties of the medium—an engagement with color and, more particularly, texture—the sensual, animated properties of oil paint itself. Scott Brodie’s paintings of extension cords on bare floor have a deadpan humor. But while the subject is mundane, the painting is extraordinary. The brushstroke is thick and tactile, and the sinuous nests of cord bend against the edges of the canvas like a Brice Marden abstraction. They ride a line between the pragmatic and the purely aesthetic with the barely controlled momentum of a surfer riding a wave.

Also in the “love-of-paint” category are Deborah Zlotsky’s intriguing copies of noted painters’ self-portraits, as seen in book plates; John Hampshire’s impressionistic portraits that morph into psychedelic abstraction; and Carol Luce’s works, melding luscious paint with collaged floral pattern reminiscent of William Morris wallpaper.

A number of the Unplugged paintings are surreally narrative in subject, but still demonstrate a passion for paint. Notable among these are Laura Von Rosk’s curious landscapes. Symmetrical mounds rise from narrow valleys, and delicate trees form mysteriously regular patterns across the land. But it is the paintings’ surfaces that are most seductive: The scenes are glazed in a smooth varnish like specimens preserved in amber. There is a feeling of unearthly clarity, and of time rushing forward.

Other works with surreal overtones include Sara DiDonato’s portraits of friends caught in moments of reverie or perturbation, hummingbirds hovering in attendance; Christian Carson’s paintings of intertwined undergarments and foliage, with titles like A Future Together; and Aaron Holz’s stunningly painted hybrids of op art and portraiture.

Michael Oatman’s conceptual installation Slipcovers (The Death of a Painter) inspires thoughts about the long tradition of painting, the struggle to attain some measure of success, and the effective art of editing. At a garage sale Oatman bought 10 paintings by unknown amateur Henry Deneka, many of them copies of works by masters like Degas and DaVinci. Oatman covered each painting with a plain canvas slipcover, cutting openings to reveal isolated details that he considered well-painted, along with Deneka’s enthusiastic signature. Taken out of context, the details are tantalizing, creating a desire to see the whole. At the same time, the difference between Deneka’s paintings and those he earnestly copied is painfully obvious. Oatman’s piece is perhaps a bit patronizing, but at heart it is a tribute to one painter’s ambition and perseverance.

Also in a more conceptual vein are Richard Garrison’s precise mappings of the footprint of his house surrounded by a shaded area representing its cast shadow, as measured at specific times of day. Beside this is an equivalent mapping of a Toys R Us megastore with its shadow, frighteningly colossal beside the domestic home. These pieces merge rational inquiry with minimalist elegance and humor.

A number of works are based more in drawing. Gina Occhiogrosso’s Rejection Quilt #8 combines drawing, cutting and sewing to form a taut, delicately seamed skin. Calligraphic lines cross this surface like loosely woven strands, interrupting scribbled corrections and shadowy stains. The painting charts an anxious inner chatter, yet the results are austere and ephemeral.

Also more akin to drawing are Bruce Stiglich’s collaged assemblage of works on the theme of the rose, expressing a cerebral nostalgia, and John Hanson’s whimsical portraits of gems painted on wedding invitations. In Lillian Mulero’s “Stream Series,” four anecdotal, stream-of-consciousness pieces, cartoons and portraits are rendered with quick but skillful draftsmanship.

In a category more or less his own is Bob Moylan, whose gouache landscapes of upstate farmland are perhaps the most traditional works on view. But they are by no means routine; in the best Hudson River tradition, their luminous color makes even the air seem palpable, yet they have a clarity that is distinctly modern. Richard Callner also has three landscapes here, but they delight more in bold pattern and invention than representation. And the works of Peter Taylor and Steve Tyson exemplify a compulsive pursuit of pure pattern, created through application of multiple layers of tiny dots of color that bounce and refract against each other.

Painting is old-fashioned. Not because of its history, tradition, or craft, but because it is romantic, and it involves a leap of faith. On the part of the maker, it requires a sustained effort over time, a commitment. On the part of the viewer, it requires a willingness to engage in the fabricated reality the painter presents, and an attention span that supports extended viewing of a motionless image.

But as Unplugged demonstrates, painting is also a flexible medium. Its generous accommodation of many idiosyncrasies allows it to remain alive and well. And what this show really proves is that this region is home to an abundance of very strong painters, artists whose fresh interpretations of a traditional process engage the eye and challenge the mind.


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