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Statement in chocolate: Jenny McShan’s The Twelve Realms of Purity.

Only Connect
By Rebecca Shepard

2003 Mohawk Hudson Regional
University Art Museum, through Nov. 1

There are many strong pieces in the 2003 Mohawk Hudson Regional, juried by Maura Heffner, director of exhibitions and programs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. But, while individual works are compelling, the show as a whole is not. This rather contradictory situation provides food for thought in considering what makes an exhibit work.

But first, some of the singular successes. Michael Oatman’s The Birds is a giant collage using illustrations from old- fashioned avian guidebooks, whose graphic style and pastel hues evoke a pleasant nostalgia. But times have changed. Here, birds of every sort, from sparrows to falcons and ducks to vultures, are seen wearing helmets and packing weapons of all kinds: rifles, bazookas, howitzers, grenades, spears. A large central panel presents a battlefield under a vivid blue sky, with birds camouflaged in dense thickets, weapons bristling from under each wing, and gun-slinging ostriches running in pairs. Twenty-eight smaller panels surround the central one, each presenting a wry or enigmatic vignette of its own: Gun-toting parent birds hover over their helmeted babies; an armed turkey vulture stands guard over a drab wintry farm; a fishing boat bears a giant egg on its stern, with a seagull flying in attendance. One panel contains images of avian-themed badges, like the heroic eagle in profile; all of the panels are connected by a heavy welded-steel frame whose shape, from a distance, resembles a military emblem.

Clearly, The Birds is a statement about militaristic culture, and birds are a particularly apt metaphor for this subject. The diversity of bird species suggests the diversity of human cultures, while their clannish tendencies and sometimes foolish appearance—small head, large body—

extends the comparison, suggesting that human development is also rather primitive and foolish. But with its over-the-top sensibility and its teenage-boy exuberance in the profusion and variety of weaponry, The Birds is as much about the deep- seated passion and fascination for militarism as it is a judgment against it.

Among the other pieces to delight in is Christopher Cassidy’s From Albany to the Adirondacks. Cassidy transforms a file cabinet into a terrarium, with living flora samples from each of 15 stops between his studio on Railroad Avenue and Snowy Mountain in the central Adirondacks. Topographic maps, snapshots, and extensive plumbing support the endeavor. The piece seems a meditation on how to reconcile two different realities, the urban and the wild, and on the extreme contortions necessary in order to “file” the experience of nature.

There are a number of interesting photographs. Kenneth Ragsdale’s Farmyard Series are images of rustic but methodically precise paper sculptures, including a pickup truck, a pole barn, and a couple junked cars, arranged into stark dioramas. The pieces have an odd, once-removed feeling, as you consider whether the “art” lies more in the intriguing sculptures or the tasteful, softly lit photographs. The animals in Allison Hunter’s striking Zoo Animals series, photographed at the Catskill Game Farm, are spot-lit in enveloping blackness, giving them a vulnerable, isolated quality. And David Brickman’s Albany street scenes achieve a tense balance between poetic arrangement of color and the rough subjects of poverty and entropy.

Highlights of work in other media include Harold Lohner’s Long Sleep, a 21-foot-long monotype of sleeping male figures drawn in varying color saturations, from transparent grays to the deepest velvety blue. The piece evokes fluid states of consciousness and the sensual oblivion of sleep. Justin Baker’s Untitled, a fragile woodcut spiraling out of a handmade book, lies flat on a low table, looking like a seismographic record or a relic of the Dead Sea scrolls. And Jenny Mc-Shan’s The Twelve Realms of Purity parodies conventional ideas of racial and sexual purity with 12 bride-and-groom figurines in Victorian garb, carved out of chocolate. They are identical but for their coloring—the series is a “brown-scale,” with shades moving in even gradations from ivory white to darkest brown.

Now, some of the problems. A number of pieces in all media are a little too familiar, too reminiscent of styles that have recently been in vogue in the contemporary art world, and this gives the show a slightly perfunctory feeling. Some of the paintings lack real painterly expertise and enthusiasm. But most important, the works feel isolated from each other, not in communication. The number of works selected for the show is smaller than usual, and the gallery walls are sparsely populated. This can work well with some exhibits, but here it seems to exacerbate a feeling of randomness and disjunction. The indefinable connection that can happen between disparate artworks, a connection that can be subtly emphasized through insightful exhibit installation, rarely occurs here. The exhibit does not manage to become more than the sum of its parts.

This said, there are some very worthy parts, and the 2003 Mohawk-Hudson Regional is definitely worth a visit.

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