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Laugh out loud: Sara DiDonato’s Burst.

The Surreal Life
By Pam Barrett-Fender

Extended Realities
Arts Center Gallery at the Saratoga County Arts Council, through Feb. 28

At first glance, Extended Realities seemed like an overly generic and sweeping title for the current exhibit at the Arts Center Gallery in Saratoga. But after due consideration, the commonality of three disparate voices began to crystalize, and it began to seem as apt a title as any. The painters represented in this exhibit, each in her/his own way, have portrayed a physical manipulation of form, figure and images, a personalized expression of the complexity of human drama. Sara DiDonato, Andrea Hersch and Michael Fenton, in their respective work, aim not to alter a unified reality, but to extend the notion of various intricate coexisting realities.

Sara DiDonato’s nine paintings and drawings each portray a single figure (all girls and women,) involved in what seems to be a moment of unself-conscious personal discovery. The composition varies between pieces, ranging from closely cropped head shots to drawings of the entire body, surrounded by ample but undefined space. The scale of the work also covers a broad range, including intimate panels less than 12 inches, as well as those over four feet.

Roughly half of her subjects are depicted in various states of contortion—twisted, bent, folded into extreme and precarious positions. (DiDonato attributes this aspect of her visual vocabulary to her mother’s career as a contortionist in an Italian circus.) While the powerful effect of this imagery cannot be overlooked, the narrative in her work actually takes place in the subtle and complex facial expressions. This is where the artist captures the simultaneous contrasting emotions that define her characters’ experience. This is where the viewer glimpses the internal life of the figures (and the artist) as they explore places that exist between categories, places not necessarily mapped by their intellect.

DiDonato’s figures are rendered relatively tightly, but not without gesture in her marks.

Her palette is a saturated local color, leaning toward rich blues. They read like intimate portraits, focusing on character over description, experience over definition.

The 12 variously scaled paintings and drawings by Andrea Hersch suggest, in her own language, an essentially uncertain human condition. While not strictly figurative, these forms (including long liquid drops, fleshy split or nippled lobes, viscous globules, rubbery cloudlike formations, and ornamental ruffles reminiscent of clothing) generate very close associations with the human body. Her surreal anthropomorphic forms are presented in various situations that imply danger, impending destruction. Her crisply designed and smoothly painted organlike structures are precariously balanced, pulled, stretched, wrapped, poked, and otherwise acted upon by a whole host of forces. The human stand-ins react to these forces by bulging, dripping, falling, and threatening to tear apart, explode, or snap.

The fear and the pain in the images are palpable, and yet there is a levity to them that makes them bearable, even fun, to look at. Her rich, playfully funky palette (pink, pumpkin, ochre, and jade in one painting, for example) and her clean, bubbly definition lend to the whimsy that draws you into the inevitable peril.

Michael Fenton is the painter of the three whose images are most complex and detailed, and whose narratives are most literal. Fenton presents seven mid-sized paintings, each hanging with the weight of a story. All but two pieces relate specifically to religious parables from the Pentateuch, serving as a moral critique of contemporary culture. His images are compiled digitally, and then painted by hand. This lends itself to multiple image overlays and fractious surfaces, appropriately illustrating the inevitably tragic tales of avarice, idolatry, betrayal and condemnation.

The strongest of Fenton’s painting, however, is also the most lyrical and impulsive of the images. It is a scene from a balcony in New York, looking out toward a neat vertical row of other balconies, each containing its own tiny separate drama. Pigeons fly between the buildings, partially blocking the view, and claiming sole omniscience.

Unfortunately, this piece is hung not in the main gallery space, but in a hallway outside the gallery, inches above a case of jewelry, its only light a glaring red exit sign. Otherwise, the exhibit was thoughtfully curated and presented, with a title that makes sense after all.

Peripheral Vision

Dia: Beacon
Riggio Galleries

Created by the Dia Art Foun- dation last May, this almost unbelievably large permanent installation of major art from the ’60s to the present is 90 miles south of Albany and truly worth a trip from anywhere. Washed in the natural Hudson River light that spills in from 34,000 square-feet of original factory skylights, the art represents some of the most impressive work by names we all know, from Beuys and Bourgeois to Serra and Smithson (24 artists in all).

Housed in a carefully renovated former Nabisco factory, Dia:Beacon has provided a place for extensive series and very large-scale minimalist and abstract art, as well as several particularly huge and costly site-specific pieces. Best known among those are the Torqued Ellipses by Richard Serra, and they do live up to the hype, particularly on a sunny day when the interplay of rectangular light and shadow from the side windows adds drama to the curved masses of Serra’s forms. Another breathtaking installation is by Michael Heizer, consisting of four tremendous geometric voids in the concrete floor; the meticulous construction provides as convincing an experience of monumental earthworks as one could hope to find indoors.

While there are too many cool things in this collection for me to describe here—including a large group of Louise Bourgeois’ wonderfully creepy sculptures, an extensive series of Dan Flavin’s light works and a wealth of beautiful pieces by both John Chamberlain and Donald Judd—I had one revelation worth detailing: That was the discovery of Fred Sandback, a German artist who magically redefines space with nothing more than colored yarn strung into very large, rectangular configurations along walls and in open space.

Though one knows intellectually that these string-defined planes have no mass, it is nearly impossible not to become unconsciously convinced of their physical presence. Standing near one of them and daring to break the plane by stepping through—or merely observing others doing the same—has the deliciously irresistible sensation of committing a transgression, though one touches only air. It is just this transformative experience, like we had daily as children, that we seek from art and that is so rarely fulfilled. My deepest respect goes out to Mr. Sandback, and to the people who made his work and all of Dia:Beacon possible.

—David Brickman

Dia: Beacon is open Fri-Mon from 11 AM to 4 PM; admission is $10, $7 for students and seniors;(845) 440-0100;

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