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More and Less Successful
By David Brickman

Steps—Works by Sherell Jacobson and Grzegorz Kepinski
Albany Center Galleries, through Dec. 19

Fragmented thoughts: Grzegorz Kepinski’s Traces of Looks.

Remember the old feminist saying, “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”? Well, it’s not true when it comes to galleries and curators.

The inspired pairing of socially conscious installation/combine artists Sherell Jacobson and Grzegorz Kepinski at Albany Center Galleries is a case in point. When the two were chosen and scheduled, the gallery had a director-curator. Now it doesn’t, and the lack of professional guidance is readily apparent in the overstuffed exhibit.

Now, I like clutter as much as the next person—my office is ample proof of that—and so do a lot of really terrific artists. However, it rarely succeeds as a motif for an exhibition. Editing is necessary, but a rigorous selection process is usually not the artist-of-excess’ forte.

That’s where a competent curator comes in, culling not just the best work, but that which works best together. Left to their own devices, most artists will be unable to leave out many of their precious creations, resulting in the kind of overkill that dulls the senses—and that’s exactly what happened here in the form of nearly 60 works (a number of them pretty big in scale) squeezed into about 1,500 square-feet of exhibit space.

Kepinski, a Polish-born post-Dadaist now living in Claverack, is the unwitting culprit. His 49 pieces ring the space, many of them hung scarce inches apart on the walls, others set on the floor or on decorative pedestals.

They compete mightily for attention with the eight three-dimensional pieces presented by Jacobsen, which were mostly arrayed in the open floor space around the room’s central column. Jacobsen, a third-age artist based in Catskill and Hudson, creates sculptural works that are generally more soft-spoken—less brash—than Kepinski’s, while engaging some of the same issues, including creation, destruction and the passage of time.

Fortunately, the two artists’ styles are compatible enough that this tête-à-tête doesn’t get ugly—in fact, were Kepinski’s offerings reduced to the most eloquent 15 or 20 pieces, it could be a lovely dialogue. A taste of what that would be like is visible in the gallery’s glass display case one floor below, where sufficient restraint was exercised in presenting a nice group of strong two- and three-dimensional works by both artists. It is ironic that this small addendum to the show becomes its best aspect.

That said, there is much to like about the work on view in the gallery. Kepinski’s attachment to the magical possibilities of juxtaposition provides numerous witty and/or mystifying objects. A graphic artist by training, he often bisects and rearranges antique photographs, more often than not with a deft, cynical touch.

Among the 3-D objects he presents, Battle Games is perhaps the most touching. At least 6 feet long, it combines a toy tank, an exhaust pipe and a big wooden screw (the kind used in a press), to somehow capture the horror and absurdity of war. Its listed price—“one day of peace”—is heartbreaking.

Also successful in their understated simplicity are Kepinski’s Standard Patent 2003, Wind Stick, and Parade—1944 US Navy, the last of which transforms a panoramic photo-portrait into a terse geometric object.

A large number of Kepinski’s constructions involve distorting prisms, crystals, lenses and the like—and quite a few of these seem insufficiently thought through. A group involving washboards and round objects—strainers, reflectors and car parts—frequently do less with more than his better pieces, and might better have been left out. In this way, the best work would have had more room in which to shine.

Jacobsen works largely with wood and paper pulp, though her charcoals in the glass case show a strong penchant for drawing as well. By combining ordinary, used wooden objects—like ladders, boxes and chairs—with formed wads of pulp, she confounds the original purposes of things.

So a ladder is rendered unclimbable by bladder-like protrusions on the steps; two chairs are forever wedded by a large embracing ball of pulp; and an array of tangerine crates metamorphoses into so many beds—or coffins—with alternating pink-and-gray fillings.

Jacobsen also uses poetry and a quote from Anaïs Nin in two of her installations. Her love of words is present in titles that connect—Hidden Steps, The First Step, Two Steps, Step Backwards—but the artworks seem to be struggling a bit to live up to the challenge of continuity.

The show’s centerpiece, a row of fragile-looking saplings with plastic tags and roots bound up in a dirt ball (in fact they are constructions of paper and branches, not living trees), is sweetly sad. Jacobsen, nearing the last phase of life, is celebrating its tenuousness as well as its tenacity. The quote from Nin describes the moment of creation—when the risk of blooming wins out over the risk of staying closed-up tight.

That’s like the risk one takes in transposing work from the safety of the studio into the harsh glare of the gallery lights (not to mention the harsh gaze of the public, and possibly harsh words of critics). It’s always a risk worth taking, but a kind and clever curator, like a caring gardener, helps to smooth the process of flowering.

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