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Critic: David Brickman

2003 was a challenging year in visual art in the Capital Region, as nonprofit presenting organizations—many of them dependent on government grants—continued to feel the financial effects of 9/11, and sales at commercial galleries suffered from the sluggish and war-distracted economy.

Nevertheless, there was a lot of interest, from major museums to grassroots organizations, some good and some not so good at all.

In Albany, two longstanding and beloved galleries devoted to showcasing the work of regional artists lost their directors on the same June day and are facing uncertain futures. Many people are asking whether the Albany Institute of History and Art will try to retain some aspect of the mission of the Rice Gallery since the departure of Janis Dorgan; and Albany Center Galleries continues to limp along without a director or staff curator six months after Pam Barrett-Fender resigned.

In the meantime, a new initiative on Lark Street by the name of Firlefanz Gallery opened in March and has had a very promising pilot season (as of this writing, Firlefanz has closed for the winter and will reopen for business in the spring). The homeless denizens of Miss Mary’s Art Space enjoyed an energetic two-month residency at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and are again dormant as they seek a permanent home.

J.M.W. Turner’s Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight.

The peripatetic Photography Regional appeared in a new setting, Sage College of Albany’s sparkly new Opalka Gallery, and the other regional—Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region, hosted this year by the University Art Museum—raised a bit of controversy when juror Maura Heffner pared more than 1,000 works by 220 entrants down to just 35 pieces by 17 artists.

The museums had their blockbusters, most notably the Clark Art Institute, which hosted the international gem Turner: The Late Seascapes, and the Hyde Collection, where famed artist of the American West Frederic Remington got a nice retrospective. The New York State Museum also weighed in with two important shows brought up from New York: Strangely Familiar celebrated postmodernism from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition brought many masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society to our area for the first time.

Another museum show worth noting for its unusual bridging of many decades of modern art, from early Dada to current (even local) work, was the Tang Teaching Museum’s wildly ambitious Living With Duchamp. Equally ambitious, and a huge hit, was the Albany Institute of History and Art’s Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life (it began in 2002 and continued well into 2003). Even better, though, from my point of view, was the Institute’s 50-year retrospective of the art of Richard Callner, which not only demonstrated the stunning significance of this Albany-based painter’s international career, but also showed he remains at the height of his powers by including a major chunk of very recent work in the selection.

Smaller venues also made strides and added strong exhibitions to the region’s offerings. Gallery 100 in Saratoga Springs reopened after the winter in renovated, expanded digs, allowing it to offer a wider and deeper selection of fine artists. Martinez Gallery in Troy celebrated its two-year anniversary and mounted many intriguing shows, and also provided a terrific roundup of Latino art that showcased in two local venues (the NYSM in 2002 and the C+CC in 2003).

Notably absent from the list this year are outstanding shows of photography: Apart from a truly wonderful traveling show of Malian portraits at the Williams College Museum of Art, and Gregory Crewdson’s part of the Fantastic! exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the region’s photographic offerings failed to make many sparks. Other forms of realism ruled instead—especially William Morris’ astonishing glass creations in Myth, Object and the Animal at the Berkshire Museum and Ugo Mochi’s equally naturalistic paper cuts at the Opalka.

Additionally, there were quite a few shows I regret having missed; some of them, including a solo by painter Ed McCartan at Siena College’s Yates Gallery, sculptural survey shows at Chesterwood and the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, Yankee Remix at MASS MoCA (though there’s still time, as it continues through the spring) and a duo by Stephen Lack and Noah Savett at Aimie’s Lobby Gallery in Glens Falls, may even have made it onto this list had I caught them.

Alas, we’ll never know. Of the rest, the top 12 shows of 2003, six each for larger and smaller venues, were:

Best of 2003: Larger Venues

1. Turner: The Late Seascapes
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

2. William Morris: Myth, Object and the Animal
Berkshire Museum

3. Richard Callner: 50 Year Retrospective
Albany Institute of History and Art

4. Ugo Mochi
Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany

5. You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seyfou Keïta and Malick Sidibé
Williams College Museum of Art

6. The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition
New York State Museum

Best of 2003: Smaller Venues

1. Harry Orlyk: The Day’s Image
The Arts Center Gallery at the Saratoga County Arts Council and Gallery 100

2. Girl Printers: Talented Women Strut Their Stuff!
Mandeville Gallery, Union College

3. Tanja Softic: Works on Paper
The College of Saint Rose Art Gallery

4. Tim Clifford and Bill Mead
Lake George Arts Project

5. Dan Mehlman: Prints and Collages
Arts Atrium Gallery, Union College

6. Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational (featuring Louann Genet Getty and Deborah Zlotsky)
Albany Center Galleries

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