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Ah, the good old days: Constance Dodge’s Sand Lake Summers.

Before the Flood
By David Brickman

Constance Dodge: Now and Then
Oakroom Artists Gallery, First Unitarian Society, through June 2

In a world of fancy museums, knockout auction prices and stylish dealers and collectors exploiting superstar artists (while the rest starve), artist cooperatives offer an alternative that is neither desperately low-rent nor intimidatingly exclusive. Typically providing one or all of the following—cheap studio space, regular drawing sessions with professional models, respectable exhibition space and networking, often in the form of regular meetings and critique sessions—co-ops are a time-honored tradition that many artists rely on throughout their careers.

As an example of just how time-honored, take Schenectady’s Oakroom Artists, a group that was established in 1956 and, since 1991, has sponsored monthly exhibitions in its own dedicated space in the impressive Edward Durrell Stone-designed First Unitarian Society building (think “whisperdome”). Membership in this group is kept to a maximum of 24 so that each artist can count on having a solo show every two years; regular group shows are also presented by the collective at area museums and university galleries, providing a built-in annual outlet for anyone who joins.

The current show at the Oakroom Artists Gallery is a self-described mini-retrospective by Edinburg painter Constance Dodge. A regular presence on the local art scene since at least the early ’80s, including a number of appearances in the annual Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibitions, Dodge has also availed herself of the benefits of membership in a New York City co-op gallery, Amos Eno, where she has had a number of solo shows.

In Now and Then, Dodge presents 26 works dating from 1973 to 2004; about half the work was made in the last couple of years, while the rest is mainly drawn from the years around 1988, making for a pointed contrast in styles from two intensely productive periods in the artist’s history. There are several media on view, including charcoal drawings, monoprints and collage/constructions, but the core of the show consists of oil paintings on canvas or linen, and the heart of that is a group of three medium-sized paintings from this year titled Roger’s Dream, Rosean’s World and Sand Lake Summers.

In these paintings, as in much of the other work in the show, Dodge is plumbing the depths of her own family’s past in the southern Adirondacks. Edinburg is a town with a rich history marked by its semi-destruction in 1930, when the valley it sits in was flooded to create the Sacandaga Reservoir, a lake about the size of Lake George, which is managed for the purpose of controlling seasonal flooding along the Hudson River.

Dodge draws from family snapshots and other memorabilia to build collage-like images (and, less successfully, actual collages) that are imbued with ennui. While many would argue that nostalgia is the death knell of any art form, in Dodge’s case it is more the lifeblood. Here we have remnants of a bygone era, presented in an interpretive style that uses contemporary color, imagination and (timeless) landscapes to evoke a mysterious feeling. This atmosphere of intrigue, rather than one of sentiment, makes the paintings work in a way that the collages (and work of that sort made by artists everywhere for the last several decades) don’t.

Dodge’s quirky color sense and liquid brushwork combine well in these paintings that flirt with narrative but remain opaque in their meanings. Each pairs a present-day landscape image with a long-ago snapshot, gaining strength of purpose from the simplicity of the juxtaposition. A related piece, titled Home, from 2003, has three found images overlaid on the landscape and is less effective, while the 2002 Sacandaga Story III, Historic Edinburg and Batchellerville, which features a long row of culled images across the whole breadth of the canvas, suffers a lot from its excessive ambition.

In other words, with the three 2004 paintings as evidence, it appears that Dodge has hit on the right formula and is now making her best work yet. It’s intriguing to also compare them with some of the 1980s work, where similar paste-up schemes are tried, but where the use of color isn’t nearly as evolved, and recognize how Dodge has progressed steadily over time. Other paintings from the earlier phase are entirely different—bright and brash, providing more social commentary than personal feeling, as was true of much of the dominant painting of that era (Sue Coe and Leon Golub, for example).

Dodge has really found herself in the current work, and in doing so has created some lovely pieces—neither too slick, nor too quickly dashed off, they evoke a dreamy place in the overlapping territory between memory and imagination, lore and history, now and then; and also between the personal and the universal, as so many of us can look at these images and project ourselves and our own family histories into their softly seen scenarios.

The 2004 drawings and monoprints are also based on old photographs and augment the paintings but probably wouldn’t stand so strongly on their own. The best of them, Feeding Chickens, has winning charm and more color than the rest, which are all monochromatic (gray or dark blue) and do less to transcend the source material.

Peripheral Vision

Remembering Rwanda, 10th Anniversary of Genocide in Rwanda
Working Gallery, through May 21

Though it is tough to reach through all the construction, Catherine Minnery’s storefront gallery-studio a few doors from Proctor’s Theatre is worth the trouble. The current installation of her own drawings and paintings derived from a church-sponsored trip to beautiful, devastated Rwanda makes as good an introduction to the space, and to Minnery’s style, as any. Though the work has been shown before (in New York City and at Albany’s Visions Gallery) and will be again (at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer), this presentation comes with a huge bonus: Minnery herself, who presides over the space brightly and graciously.

Additionally, the gut-wrenching window installation of oversized drawings consisting of tens of thousands of hash marks (in a futile attempt to come to grips with the enormity of the murder over a few months of 800,000 to 1,000,000 people) is unlikely to be reproduced elsewhere. Minnery’s more traditional framed work is excellent, whether in color or black-and-white; she has captured the exquisite beauty of the Rwandan landscape, along with the almost unbelievable spiritual dilemma of its people in this heartfelt—but not sentimental—body of work.

—David Brickman

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