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Looking back: Leigh Tarentino’s Central Avenue (Span).

Drawing Nostalgic
By David Brickman

First Happiness
Selected Works from the Pierogi Flatfiles
University Art Museum, University at Albany, through Nov. 14

I once saw a cartoon drawing that depicted a grizzled old man under the headline, “Former child says, ‘It was hell.’ ” In First Happiness, University Art Museum curator Corinna Ripps Schaming taps into a more positive view of growing up by bringing together nine artists whose work “is directly inspired by events and experiences from childhood and adolescence.”

The title also refers obliquely to the fact that every piece in the show is a drawing—most likely the first medium each artist used while learning, hence representative of another aspect of their first happiness as an artist. Though it’s become increasingly common to find shows made up of just drawings, it’s still refreshing to encounter the medium of the preparatory sketch when presented as the final product; and, in the case of this show, the variety of materials included under the drawing medium is refreshing indeed.

A number of other observations also come to mind when viewing the show as a whole: For one thing, the curator’s eye is distinct—one can gather quite a sense of her personal taste in this selection—as represented by the fact that many of the works use a lot of white space and dispense for the most part with the convention of the rectangle in favor of oddly shaped edges, randomly shaped edges, or no edges at all; the frequent presence of transparency and layering, especially in the choice of such translucent materials as Mylar and Duralene; and the general lack of outright narrative in favor of more internal systems of meaning.

Another aspect of the show is the great disparity in number of works by various artists. A couple have only two pieces each, while two others have 11 each; the rest fall somewhere in between. Is this a matter of Schaming playing favorites? It’s hard to say, but it does seem that way. And, following her lead, I am inclined to agree—that is, the slighted artists came across as less convincing, while those with greater exposure appeared more deserving of it.

So, the show clearly works as a whole. Now, to look at the parts.

Leigh Tarentino is a Brooklyn artist who happens to have grown up in Albany. Her five mirror-image drawings in ink on paper present city streetscapes both crowded and airy. Like Rorschach-test ink blots, they are bifurcated and symmetrical; through sophisticated form and composition as well as very deft handling of the medium, they work an odd territory that is almost equal parts realism and abstraction. Several of the images depict our own Central Avenue, which is a fun surprise. I really liked these drawings.

Jon Rubin is from San Francisco, where he creates visual, psychological puzzles out of intricately drawn suburban interiors. Several of his pieces are in one color—red—and the rest employ varying degrees of coloration in a pop vein. They evoke feelings of adolescent sexual awakening mingled with the shallow yearning for an idealized “good life.” Fans of colored pencil illustration will be impressed by his contour technique.

Another artist in the show with highly refined illustrative technique is Roger Andersson, a Swede who works in blue watercolor. His four small squares each depict a capital letter festooned with various textures and standing within a scene representing remembered experiences. Together, they spell out the word “drug,” though it gets more complex than that. Careful study reveals a range of activities, some more obvious than others, including lust, heavy-metal music, fire and other youthful passions.

Inspired by antique lace family table linens, Susan Friedemann makes meticulous, oversized ink drawings on Mylar that imitate the intricacy of the fabric’s pattern without exactly reproducing it. Weaving all that detail with lines and marks is clearly a meditative act; equally, her cryptic titles—She Muttered Again, for example—are suggestive of a rich inner life behind the object depicted. Friedemann’s work is very impressive.

Perhaps the quirkiest artist in the show is David X. Levine, whose arrangements of circles resemble rhythmic diagrams, seeming to come out of a personal code for color organization that marks him as a sort of folk artist. His penchant for shades of orange and the labored quality of his colored-pencil technique are at first a bit off-putting. But after spending a while with the large selection of his work included in the show, I was gradually taken in—just going along for the ride proved very enjoyable.

Then again, it probably doesn’t get much quirkier than Scott Teplin, who depicts disembodied rows of misshapen teeth, slimy tongues and other gross stuff, along with items of furniture, in carefully made line drawings reminiscent of advertising art of the ’60s. Work of this sort can only be produced by the deeply obsessed, and that’s OK if you like it. I’m sorry to report it made me sort of queasy, but I will credit Teplin with excellent technique and great originality.

Ati Maier must have immersed herself in comic books as a child, as her colorful ink-and-woodstain drawings evoke the sense of adventure and narrative inherent in illustrated serials (as well as the delicacy and intimacy of Japanese woodblock prints). The complexity of her private world, however, makes it a rather difficult one to enter without some sort of guide. Still, they look like they’re worth the time it would take to decode them.

The other two artists in the show, Su-en Wong and Shaun O’Dell, had just two pieces each on view. Whether more work would have been more convincing is impossible to say, but it does end up seeming that neither was deemed worthy of greater exposure, as the work carries less authority than that of the other artists included.

Overall, First Happiness is a strong show with a clear point of view, plenty of personality and a nice consistency.

In Selected Works from the Pierogi Flatfiles, a salon-style display on the wall of the museum’s West Gallery, nearly 70 individual works on paper are put into play, with the tacit invitation to explore more of the same (or hundreds of others) stashed in several banks of file drawers placed along the other walls. This is the brainchild of Joe Amrhein, who runs Pierogi, a Brooklyn gallery; in the Flatfiles, he has collected a whole lot of work and packaged it to travel, which it has been doing (with regular updates and expansion of the art included) since 1996. Amrhein makes and hangs the particular selection himself, taking care to give it local relevance; hence, this selection includes a number of UAlbany alumni.

White gloves are provided, along with a numerical listing to help you find a particular artist. Anyone so inclined (such as dealers, critics, curators, collectors or just the curious) could easily pass a couple of happy hours hunting for treasure and surprises in this wonderfully barrier-free installation.

When arriving at the university, be forewarned that there is an upfront $7 fee at the visitor’s parking lot, though museum officials are negotiating with administrators for some kind of alternative. For now, considering that many museums charge that much or more for an individual entry, you might bring a friend or two and consider it a bargain.


Jeff Clemens
The Teaching Gallery at Hudson Valley Community College, through Oct. 28

Brooklyn-based painter Jeff Clemens presents three drawings and 19 paintings in this very likable display in a nice space on the ground floor of the college’s library. In effect, the topic is portraiture, though the subjects are either found toys or people drawn from the artist’s imagination—so it’s not clear exactly who they’d be a portrait of.

Dated from 1999 to 2004, the works are compatible but run a gamut from realism to expressionism; Clemens is a very good painter (with an MFA in ceramics from Alfred) who appears to take inspiration as much from fables as from what’s before his eyes. There is a haunted sense that pervades the work, especially in the particularly creepy Toy Maker, and this charged atmosphere carries through strongly. One of the best paintings, Toy Soldier, deviates from the style of the rest by providing a deep landscape in the background, wherein a fiery battle is being fought.

His oil-on-wood titled Coney Island Monkey is also outstanding. It’s nice how Clemens evokes the playfulness of
childhood without sugarcoating it: He sees the dark underbelly as well, and gives that equal billing.

—David Brickman


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