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Comfort art: Photograph Jimmy’s Lunch, Troy, by Mark Lunt, is part of At This Place, in This Space: A Look at Our Changing Cultural Landscape, a component of Home.

Home Is Where the Art Is
By David Brickman

Summer 2004 Exhibits: Home
The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Aug. 29

The real curse of homelessness is not the lack of shelter—it’s the lack of a self-affirming sense of place. The current group of otherwise unrelated exhibitions at the Arts Center of the Capital Region is woven together by threads of the concept of a home place and its importance in our culture.

First up is Fence Select 2004, an annual juried members-only exhibition now in its 39th year as the “home” show of the Arts Center, which is on view in the center’s main gallery. This year’s version was chosen by Janet Riker, the new director of the University Art Museum at the University at Albany, and it is appropriately understated, tasteful and relatively high-quality.

Featuring 40 pieces by 31 artists, the first thing you may notice about Fence Select is its eclecticism. While all juried shows of this sort are likely to show a range of media and styles, this one is distinct in being especially diverse in media while holding together in terms of style. Apart from photography, which is represented in several forms, including several each of traditional black-and-white and color prints, virtually every piece in the show is in its own category of material.

Top prize went to Michael Oatman for two collages on a theme of trains, one small and subtle, the other larger and more flamboyant. Newcomer James Dustin won second prize for a sensitive pencil rendering of an architectural interior titled Pavilion #3, while John Hampshire’s labyrinthine ink portraits earned him third prize. A members’ choice award went to Kathleen Segall for a mixed-media wall-and-floor sculpture that, apparently, was part of the original salon exhibition but was not chosen by the juror—hence, it is placed in a space outside the gallery (where it may actually be seen by a lot more people).

Numerous other pieces stand out in this nicely spare installation, including two ethereal color photographs by Chris De Marco; Won Suk Jeong’s group of stoneware wave forms titled Sound of Desert; Diana Delp’s oddly bowlegged pewter Watch Tower; and a somewhat confounding, Spirograph-generated drawing in ballpoint by Richard Garrison.

Upstairs in the Knisely-Ayers Gallery, where folk curator Mary Zwolinsky exercises her sharp eye for significant material often found flying below high-art’s radar, large-scale photographs by Mark Lunt document Troy’s “third places.” Defined as “the core settings of an informal public life,” these sites take various forms in the show (titled at this place in this space: our changing cultural landscape).

From neon-haloed ice cream stand to Odd Fellows hall to farmer’s market, the public spaces presented in these vivid digital prints convey the feeling of another era, when people had time for things we rarely consider anymore: to talk politics, take the kids out to lick a cone and watch the sunset, get a haircut and shoot the breeze, or order a sandwich at the counter of a place that closes every day after lunch.

Though not intended as art in this context, Lunt’s photographs reflect an artist’s eye for detail and design; about a third of them are in black-and-white, the rest in saturated color (23 in all), and they are accompanied by snippets of commentary by or about Trojans that shed light on the vibrant, nostalgic, sometimes sad scenes presented. For example, Steve Peinard on the Congress Street eatery Famous Lunch: “It is a world unto itself. When you walk in you feel like you’ve been transported to some small luncheonette in New York City, albeit with a Troy accent. Great characters who are friendly. . . . The hot dogs they serve are literally world-famous. They’ll be happy to give you the history.”

Exhibits such as at this place in this space do more than document a passing phenomenon—they can also raise awareness and inspire preservation efforts before it is too late to avoid losing a way of life forever. And it really helps when the photographs are of such a level of quality as Lunt’s.

A second photography-text project is installed in the center’s President’s Gallery (as well as the hallway beyond), and it, too, is very well conceived and executed. Benjamin Swett is a New York City-based documentary photographer who became enamored of a little- known state highway that he believes begins in downtown Manhattan. Route 22 continues to the Canadian border (and beyond, as a Canadian route), and Swett has traveled its length to conjure a very extended portrait of the road and the life along it.

Route 22: Autobiography of a Road is an exhibition that hopes to become a book. With projects of this nature, there is always the chance that the idea works but the pictures fail to live up to it. Swett, however, does not disappoint. His pure visual sense is highly developed, as is his instinct for content, striking a perfect balance between form and meaning in very richly seen and felt images.

There are 45 prints on view, about half of those that Swett would include in the book (a mockup of which is also shown). An omnivorous photographer, Swett presents an almost ridiculous range of subjects in these deftly made black-and-white prints, from tack-sharp expansive city-scapes to blurry glimpses grabbed out the window of a moving car, grubby interiors to delicately emotional portraits, minimalist industrial forms to the audience at a regional theatre.

Diversity in this degree is more a weakness than a strength, however, despite Swett’s genuine skill at working in so many different ways. For my money, the best work in the show is that which relies more on form than on content for its power—those pictures that deal with the city skyline, bridges and ferries, as well as those that celebrate a falling-down barn or ivy-covered dirt mound. Of these, many are presented in square format, a difficult medium that Swett seems to have gotten down.

Unfortunately, the publishing industry is such that Autobiography of a Road is really a long shot for wide release—but it’s got plenty of life as a very engaging exhibition.

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