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Altered states: Maureen Cummins’ Flag Project.

Personal Politics
By Pam Barrett-Fender

Maureen Cummins: The Flag Project
Hudson Opera House, through June 12

The story of the Hudson Opera House is a heartening one—a triumph for art, architecture, culture, and community. The now-restored 1855 building on the lower end of Warren Street is one of the oldest surviving theaters in America. For a hundred years it housed Hudson’s first City Hall. And then for 30 years it was nothing but a forgotten investment, a property left fallow and decaying by its out-of-town owner. When faced, in the early ’90s, with the building’s imminent demolition, the community took action. Local citizens stood together against the apathy and reckless development that threatened their community. And they won.

Now the Hudson Opera House stands as a testament to the value of material history as a foundation for living culture. The nonprofit organization is not only steward of the historical structure, but also serves as a cultural center, offering regular programming of classes, lectures, readings, workshops, performances and most recently, art exhibits.

The gallery inhabits the spacious center hall on the ground floor, making good use of the large wall spaces between the seven doors that break up the long walls. The space offers a crisp, roomy presentation of artwork. It is well-lit and accessible. In a town replete with commercial galleries who must sell art to survive, the Hudson Opera House has the opportunity to show work that is bold, personal, experimental, or even work in progress without the same imperative. It is the bounty of the nonprofit, after all, to not simply appeal to the public, but also to inform, challenge, expand or deepen our understanding of art.

The walls of the center-hall gallery are currently host to a series of relief prints by Maureen Cummins, a printmaker and book artist who lives in High Falls. The Flag Project, as presented, consists of 18 bold, graphic images lined up like soldiers on the wall. They are sketches, of a sort, for a larger project to explore the intersection of personal and national identity, which the artist plans to develop and edition. The flags are unframed and tacked to the wall, emphasizing the graphic quality of the images, the vulnerability of the overlaying handwritten text, and the intimate incompleteness of the project.

The images, composed of altered national flags and other well-known, strongly symbolic patterns, are each exactly the same size, about 2-by-3 feet. This consistency, along with the linear presentation of the prints, generates a feeling of democracy and strict order. When you engage the work more closely, you come to understand the artist’s urgency for such structure, her longing for the safety of order.

The overlaying text is a memoir of her interior life, as it is informed and enflamed by major life events (traveling, new motherhood, Sept. 11, moving to the country from New York City, etc.) The narratives reveal the artist’s most deep-rooted identities, searching for their political context in a time of rising fear and nationalism.

The text, which is really the core of the work, falls reverently within the boundaries of the flag images, where unruly human emotion might supercede order in places. It floats on the surface, wanting to intermingle more completely with the other layers of the work; it asks, perhaps as the artist asks, for integration of the personal and the political.

Cummins, whose work typically addresses issues from a political and historical perspective, is taking a brave step into the full, rich, dangerous realm of human experience. She is asking questions she doesn’t have the answers to, and she is asking with her heart.

Peripheral Vision

Summer Show ’04
Firlefanz Gallery through June 19

Though, by rights, it should be called Spring Show, as it ends before summer technically begins, Summer Show ’04 at Firlefanz Gallery is more than the fluffy commercial selection one might expect from a for-profit gallery under such a breezy banner. Featuring a broad selection of ceramics, jewelry and two-dimensional art by area creators, as well as more than 20 retablos (prayer offerings in paint) by Mexican folk artist Gerardo, there is truly something here for everybody—including the picky ones (like me).

Many of the ceramics hew more toward pure sculpture than toward mundane function, thanks to the challenging curating of gallery owner (and represented ceramist and jeweler) Cathy Frank; my favorites range from the delicate Asian-deco look of Walford Williams’ vases to the super-chunk forms of Brian Spengelmeyer. For the purely visual, Charlene Shortsleeve’s quirky confections and Monica Miller’s suite of four diamond-shaped watercolors with gold leaf are very appealing, while Greg Haymes’ outdoor installation and Yunjung Kim’s indoor one both succeed in pushing the envelope.

A bit chaotic and incoherent (as is clearly intended), Summer Show ’04 is both serious and fun in the fine tradition of summer shows at great galleries everywhere.

—David Brickman

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