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Alone Together
By David Brickman

Sculpturesque: Jeanne Flanagan and Paul Mauren
Firlefanz Gallery, through Nov. 1

This husband-and-wife duo have everything in common and, yet, remain totally independent as artists. Both work at the College of Saint Rose, hence are seen there together in faculty shows on a yearly basis, and both are often included in regional shows of sculpture, including one now on view on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College.

Still, Jeanne Flanagan and Paul Mauren do not collaborate, and this two-person exhibition could as easily be by an unrelated pair of artists. To be clear, this is a strength. Another great strength of the work shown here is that it demonstrates the rare innovation that each artist has accomplished.

If you think it’s no longer possible to create new forms in art (without being sensationalistic), think again: Both Flanagan and Mauren have done this, in perfectly unlike ways.

Flanagan works mainly in large outdoor installations of slate, so some of her pieces are represented in the gallery by large color photographs. The prints effectively convey the undulating, chameleonlike nature of her forms—how, from different points of view, they change tremendously. Poised on grassy slopes, they are also destined to be transformed by changes in the weather and seasons.

Flanagan also shows a great number of small, delicate watercolors, nearly all of which are in shades of purple, and which appear to greater and lesser degrees to be studies for her slate sculptures. Either way, they explore form in an unusual and satisfying manner that, though hand-done, somehow resembles scientific computer modeling. The images are abstract but feel animated, often replicating in a symmetrical arrangement suggestive of cell division or other organic growth.
Mauren has created a large series of wall relief sculptures that incorporate extremely modest materials, framed in wood, which nevertheless transform in appearance as the viewer moves around and by them. Using layers of yellow nylon mesh and little lead spinners (intended for fishing), Mauren creates odd sensations of depth and transparency, and evokes concepts as diverse as data filing and carpet bombing.

While his compositions are mostly based on a strict geometry of vertical columns in square formation, the free-floating feeling of the suspended spinners, whether sparse, densely packed, organized or more dispersed, gives surprising variety to the pieces. Some are quite small (maybe 7 inches square) while others are quite a bit larger (about 3 feet), yet all the pieces have a similar gravity.
Both Mauren and Flanagan seem to be artists of the highest level of seriousness;
the result is that their obsessions have given us work of great power and subtlety.

Small Wonders
By David Brickman

Paintings and Drawings by Stevan Jennis
The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Oct. 26
Chris DeMarco: Remembrances
The ACCR, through Nov. 2
The ACCR, through Nov. 23

Collected under the overall title Tales, these three shows are otherwise entirely separate.

In Paintings and Drawings by Stevan Jennis, a trained artist is taking on the conventions of untrained (or folk) artists, and he’s doing it in several nearly unconnected ways. Most prominently displayed are several gridded reconstructions of found paint-by-number pictures; Jennis has sawed them into 2-inch squares and reassembled unrelated images into larger, more complicated ones.

While this is entertaining, it is by now a somewhat tired variation on any number of camp conventions and postmodernist concepts. Curator’s notes commenting on the meaning of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy juxtaposed with pink flamingoes and such only serve to overstate the obvious.

Jennis’ drawings, however, seem more heartfelt. In them he compulsively renders numbers and circles into large, semichaotic compositions, in what feels like a desperate struggle to order the universe of his relentlessly churning mind. The results are definitely worth a lingering look.

Yet another group of pictures depicts in colorful, magical layers odd scenarios out of classrooms or laboratories (an electric eel in a wired tank illuminates a row of light bulbs; a rabbit is variously experimented upon)—or maybe they’re out of nightmarish dreams.

One is left wishing that a fellow as ingenious as Jennis would find and present a better unity in his work.

Chris DeMarco: Remembrances is a set of 20 color photographs taken in cemeteries, mostly in the South, where people connected to the departed have acquired the habit of festooning their gravesites with all manner of decorations and gewgaws. From the expected flags and flowers to pinwheels,
holiday-themed displays and garish creations such as a blue-and-white floral guitar, these mementos express the ongoing relationship between people living and dead; equally, they have taken on the presence of a form of folk art.
DeMarco’s photographs perfectly capture the tension between kitsch and reverence that these scenes embody. She is neither too fawning nor too ironic in her approach—while clearly being enamored of what she’s finding at these places of death, she is also something of a sociologist, keeping a documentarian’s distance from the subject.

The best of the pictures contain both DeMarco’s personal response to the displays and the sentimental-yet-serious nature of the displays’ creators. Subtle qualities of light and seasonal effects (such as snow) are used to fine advantage. One can look forward to more of the same as DeMarco pursues this ongoing project.

Wonderland occupies the main gallery of the Arts Center, as well as some of the foyer area, but it has just nine pieces by six artists (five of them sculptors), allowing the viewer plenty of space in which to contemplate them. All but one of the artists lives a significant distance away, though the curator, Lucy Bowditch, is an associate professor at Albany’s College of Saint Rose.

It seems the concept of fantasy in contemporary art is all the rage these days, as evidenced by the yearlong Fantastic! show now on view at MASS MoCA and last spring’s Whitney Museum-sponsored exhibition at the New York State Museum titled Once Upon a Time. I went to see Wonderland fully expecting to be bored by ridiculous offerings.

Instead, on the whole, I found the show delightful. Except for the overly maudlin, loudly weeping installation by Joonhyun Kim, the work is sophisticated, imaginative and—well, fun.

Clever contraptions dominate, including Randy Polumbo’s autoerotic machines, Bill Bergman’s exquisitely crafted useless devices, and Brian McCutcheon’s irresistible turbocharged backyard barbecue. A geyser of countless plastic fast-food giveaway toys organized by Patrick Miceli commands the center of the room with its rainbow of unfulfillable expectations.

Most directly connected to the Alice reference of the title is a video projection by Anita Thacher that plays loosely with time and space in a white interior corner. At 10 minutes, it is tolerably paced, unlike much similarly styled work in this medium.

Bowditch has done a good job of assembling a challenging and diverse set of artists with related concerns—but her writing is a touch overwrought. An example: “Narrative, banished by Greenbergian modernists and still held at bay by many postminimalists, is prevalent in the exhibition.” This sort of explanation I could have done without.

Height of civilization: Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire at the New York State Museum.

Rise and Fall
By David Brickman

The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition
New York State Museum, through
Nov. 30

So much has been written over the last 150 years about the Hudson River School that I see no reason to add to the pile. Suffice it to say that The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition is not to be missed.

Built around a five-painting allegorical cycle depicting the rise and fall of a great civilization that Cole painted on commission from 1833 to 1836, and incorporating outstanding examples of work by Cole’s followers and friends (most notably Asher Durand, Frederick Church, Jasper Cropsey, John Kensett and Martin Heade), all of it from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see all this seminal work without a trip downstate.

Needless to say, Cole’s allegory of primitivity-become-culture-become-excess-become-ruin retains its relevance in the 21st century. And the other artists’ lovingly detailed, glowing paintings of such sites as Lake George and the Catskills are as gorgeous and soothing as they were when they were first made.

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