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Constructing the image: Rob O’Neil’s Projection (water).

Judging the Jury
By John Caputo

Mohawk Hudson Regional
Schenectady Museum, through Sept. 3

You can get a courteous and buoyant review of the 50 or so works on display in this year’s Mohawk-Hudson Regional by heading to the exhibition, picking up the free catalog, and reading the juror essay authored by Pablo Helguera printed inside. Here you will be assured by this polished but predictable exercise in professionally approved “art speak” that everything on exhibit is meritorious and worthy of your extended consideration. Indeed, perusing this amply illustrated publication, one could easily imagine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s Dodo once more intoning his famous line: “Everyone has won, and all must have prizes.”

I counted no fewer than 18 awards doled out among the 36 exhibitors, a ratio which I find more than a little troublesome. Mr. Helguera has Guggenheim Museum credentials, a fact that will probably cause most to defer to his judgment. But personally, this reviewer would be disingenuous to give this particular version of the regional high marks. Having not been privy to the pieces or artists that were rejected, I choose to optimistically conjecture that a number of talented regional artists chose not to submit entries this year. Certainly the 2002 regional provided a greater depth of quality participants, and respected them in a way that this year’s venue could not possibly hope to (it is installed in the former Carl Co. building next to Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady). Beyond that, anyone who has paid attention to the local scene knows that serious and accomplished artists do indeed live and work in the Capital Region.

And fortunately, some of them are represented in the exhibition; however, I take exception to the distribution of prizes, which largely and inexplicably leaves them out. Consider: Four paintings win awards, but not Terrance Tiernan’s Coltrane #1? Banished like an ungainly relative at a wedding to the right rear of the exhibition space (in what looks to be the semi-apologetic “gestural” wing), it might be easy for viewers to miss. This painterly painting’s title clearly hints at an aesthetic that was triumphant at an earlier time, but it is still the best painting in the show. The traits of ambition, presence, and the possibility of failure, once deemed necessary elements in the mere attempt to make art, are all in evidence here. Peter Taylor, an important area painter I have long admired, is ill-represented here. He had a piece at the airport show that was a knockout, but this seems visually flat and far more derivative than we’ve come to expect. As for those award winners and other works on canvas, I saw far too much of the type of tentative painting skills and half-formed ideas that characterize a typical BFA thesis exhibit at any mediocre college.

The realm of photography fares far better, but again, the best in this medium went without an award and was also pushed to the rear. I am speaking of Martin Benjamin’s Market, Sapa, Vietnam, 2003. This piece has been exhibited and published before in the area, but it is still a masterful work that manages to be simultaneously immediate and hard-hitting, yet touched with the type of cultural and philosophical intricacies that cause one to think about it long past its actual viewing. An honest piece of documentary photography, it is gorgeously printed in warm tones that celebrate the best that the monochromatic silver gelatin/fiber printed medium has to offer.

Post-modernist photographic constructs dominate the works of both Rob O’Neil and Jessica Monsour. These are well-designed, visually striking pieces, and it is obvious that the artists have learned their lessons well. Artifice trumps reality. Ambiguity trumps clarity. Multiple photographic elements in a single image reveal that photographic truth is a lie. Parody mocks authenticity. This is professional quality work that has—and will continue to—find its audience. It’s just that, decades after the major shift in photographic theory that brought us to works such as these, one would hope to find something less familiar.

I had a somewhat similar response to Michael Oatman’s A Lifetime of Service and a Mile of Thread. This piece stands proudly within the current wave of neo-dada/neo-conceptual work that dominates such establishments as MASS MoCA (where, in fact, I first saw this young artist’s work several years ago). What’s not to like in this engaging piece? It’s got appropriated objects, social significance, a bow to local history, videos on a continuous loop, and—for those die-hard romantics out there—even a hand-carved, wooden snake! One could have predicted that this piece would get the juror’s blessings, and, truth be told, I too would have given it an award. But I would have accompanied it with this gentle admonition: Might not your ample intelligence and gifts be challenged more than with this predictably clever piece?

The balance of the sculptural offerings is less satisfying. William Bergman’s Portrait in Flight is a nifty-looking work, but I still don’t know if it is actually kinetic or only meant to lead you on that it might be. Dorene Quinn’s Collection of Related Objects, which greets you upon your arrival, is a slick but ultimately unsatisfying menagerie that borders on the visually obvious. Any three-dimensional design instructor would applaud Aimee Tarasek’s Expansion of Self, but that comment reveals more its weakness than its strength. Chris De Marco’s installation 12 rooms left is printed in the catalogue, but nowhere to be found in the exhibition space. The eager-to-please but equally baffled museum attendant couldn’t find it either.

Finally, the weakest link in this exhibition is the work that falls under the rubric of mixed media. At its best, this realm can be both exciting to the viewer and liberating for the artist; however, no amount of experimentation with untraditional material combinations can hide the lack of drawing skills, odd color choices, and desperate attempt to actually find an authoritative visual concept along the way that characterizes far too many of the exhibitors represented here.

Being selected for one’s first regional is an exciting moment, and can potentially serve a career for years to come. At the very least, congratulations are in order for those for whom this is true. Consummate pros, such as some I have mentioned, have less to gain but much to contribute. To them, the regional art community owes a debt of thanks, for they add strength and substance to this important right of passage.


Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha
Whitney Museum of American Art, through Sept. 26

Actually, this is two shows, as there is a terrific small exhibition of Ruscha’s photographs and photo-books in the Whitney’s first-floor alcove gallery in addition to the exhaustively large full-floor show of drawings upstairs. Can you tell already which one I preferred?

What’s wonderful about Ruscha is that he is truly a giant in both photography and painting, like few others before him (Man Ray and Charles Sheeler come to mind), and his art is presented with such easy passion as to belie the significance of his achievement. Everywhere in these exhibitions is evidence of his far-reaching influence, especially on pop art and landscape photography, both of which helped form the basis of American art’s continued dominance in the ’60s and ’70s after abstract expressionism grabbed the spotlight from Europe in the ’50s.

Ruscha’s drawings are mostly of words, odd words like “pee pee” and “quit,” that float meaninglessly on the page in lush, almost erotic tones of mainly gray. There are the requisite names of places in the zeitgeist (his hometown, L.A., and Hollywood among them) and then there are nonsense phrases that recall surrealist poetry. If Ruscha couldn’t draw so well, he’d never get away with it. Fortunately, he draws really, really well.

The best of the photographs comprise a group of about 40 small, square prints from a trip to Europe in 1961, in which the young Ruscha appears interested in just about everything; his designer’s eye for composition and ad-man’s eye for symbol combine to create images as lovely and ripe with meaning as any you could want. This collection alone is worth the price of admission (as well as the trip to New York).

—David Brickman

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