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Agent for change: George Stoney.

Process as Productz
B
y David Brickman

Arnold Bittleman: Drawings
Mandeville Gallery,
Union College, through Oct. 10

Every one of us has doodled—that mindless, automatic thing you do with a pen or pencil while you’re on hold—and we’ve all probably come up with something pretty good in the process, something worth keeping, even. Well, I don’t mean any harm in saying it, so please don’t take this the wrong way: Arnold Bittleman (1933-1985) was one hell of a doodler.

In the exhibition Arnold Bittleman: Draw-ings, we are treated to 30 or so examples of his
transcendentally elaborate and/or reductive meditations on consciousness via the pen (pencil, pastel, conté crayon and etching also make appearances). Along with the works on paper, text panels scattered throughout the gallery feature commentary from former colleagues and students; these testimonials make clear the profound impact that Bittleman the professor had on those around him. They also illuminate his motivations and working methods, which were much more about the process than the product.

This makes it easier to accept the fact that, as becomes increasingly apparent the more you look, the majority of the works in this show are unfinished. Great, gaping white spaces infiltrate and surround the densely packed hatchings and ethereal tracings that make up the meat of the images.

Obviously, other things mattered more to Bittleman than finishing a drawing. There are abundant clues as to what: Catalog notes by former Union professor Daniel J. Robbins for a 1982 exhibition say “Drawing is thought; for Bittleman, it is thinking itself.” (and thinking has neither start nor end); a recounted story points out that Bittleman would drop everything and drive a student to buy a certain pencil if that’s what he thought would unleash that person’s creativity (not the most productive attitude for a studio artist); Bittleman’s own notes in sketchbooks displayed in glass showcases refer to philosophical commitments far larger than anything so limited as making a work of art; and the biggest clue of all, Bittleman’s sudden and early death from an inoperable brain tumor at age 51. Naturally, from an unfinished life come unfinished drawings.

And yet, they are beautiful. More than beautiful, the drawings are riveting. With a master’s hand, Bittleman captured gestures and details, then animated them through imagination into dreamlike scenarios of unlikely juxtaposition and impossibly delicate texture. Most of the pieces are landscapes; of these, many feature vast expanses of clouds. But there are also figures, portraits, still-life elements and other bits of nature, such as a Da Vinci-esque study of a bird’s wing. Few of the works are titled, and many lack dates as well.

What we get instead of clear references is the opportunity to enter Bittleman’s stream of consciousness and be carried away, exactly as he was, to a land of marks and lines, swooping and dashing across the page with the energy and multiplicity of lush, tropical vegetation. For, while drawing may be tied to thinking, it is also a way of just being, of stopping the thinking and getting to a place of simply acting.

Bittleman’s ruminative nature may have held him back at times, but the drawings and, especially, the etchings, seem to transport him from the prison of the mind to the equally confounding but nevertheless boundless tangle of the forest. Bittleman’s powers of concentration must have been enormous, because in these pieces he finds order amid the chaos (how else, after all, can he have depicted it?); he somehow manages to dive in without getting completely lost.

The resulting images, all but entirely in black-and-white, have subtlety, delicacy, ethereal qualities; and thay have impact, darkness, storms, intense qualities. The dark mixing with and confronting the light—this describes Bittleman’s method as well as his meaning. A quote from the artist on the gallery wall says, “Drawing—the child of illumined mind.” I believe he was thinking about far more than drawing when he wrote that. After all, couldn’t it be a definition of humanity itself?

There will be a reception for Arnold Bittleman: Drawings from 1 PM to 3 PM on Sunday, Oct. 3.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Laura Moriarty: Compressionistic Paintings
Albany Center Galleries, Albany Public Library, through Oct. 16

Kingston artist Laura Moriarty takes the lowly material of wax and applies it to a variety of media including printmaking, painting, installation and sculpture in this intimate and intriguing exhibition, her first in the Capital Region. A far cry from your box of Crayolas, encaustic paint (as pigmented wax is known in art circles) has a richness of hue to rival any medium—even glass—and the flexibility to be employed in layers, waves, swirls or smudges, to soak into a paper substrate or be built up into a free-standing object.

Moriarty does all this and more with wax, while maintaining a certain egolessness that derives from her humble printmaker’s background. In terms of content, there is a vagueness in this collection of prints, paintings and objects that some may find disconcerting—but it’s there, waiting to be unlocked by following a few carefully placed clues and keys.

Above all, Moriarty is glorying in the process of search and discovery, both literally and metaphorically. Along the way, she blazes new trails with her chosen medium and leaves truly lovely traces. The show’s pièce de résistance, a tremendous 20-sheet monoprint, is not to be missed in its impact as well as its delicacy.

—David Brickman


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