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Lofty perception : Rosemary Williams’ Raab View, still from CEO Views, a four-channel video installation.

Mourning the Muse
By David Brickman

Space Invaders
The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Nov. 21

The death knell of art has been sounded many times before. From the invention of photography in 1838 (“From this day forward, painting is dead”) to the pronouncement of my professor Richard Fishman in 1978 (“We are the pallbearers of the coffin of culture”); from cubism to abstract expressionism to minimalism to ’80s commercialism; in one way or another, people have said, “It’s over, they’ve done it, they killed the muse.”

I am about to join their ranks.

Today’s bugaboo doesn’t have a name—I’m going to call it MFAism—but it has a thousand faces. Like a parody of Yeats’ great beast, it has the body of a conceptualist and the face of a dadaist. Born of a marriage between postmodern cynicism and 21st-century technology, nurtured by the ourobouros of the academy and urged on by the alienation of a confused generation, this monster has been foisted upon us full-blown. It eats theory and shits boredom and it will be a long time before we are rid of it. Dang!

A case-in-point is the current exhibition at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. Curated by Gretchen Wagner, an assistant at the Tang Teaching Museum, Space Invaders is quite possibly the coldest, least welcoming exhibition this region has ever seen. Based on the premise that “in recent years, the distinction between those realms considered public and those considered private has grown slight,” the show takes up the usual political and social issues that run through much of contemporary art.

While it is possible to successfully engage themes of corporate domination, the false security of modern warfare or urban sprawl in art, it needs to be done and presented in such a way that the audience is motivated to participate fully in the experience. No amount of thought or research or originality can compensate for a lack of aesthetic seduction, especially if you want to communicate an idea that may not be popular or immediately understood.

Too many of the pieces in this show (there are a total of 14 by nine artists) are daunting to the viewer; too few fulfill the basic artistic demand of making you want to spend some time. And several require a significant commitment of time, whether by incorporating long video/sound loops or by their very obtuseness. This is not the way for an art gallery to win new audiences.

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message,” and that prophesy holds true here: Apart from two quilts by Barbara Todd (dated 1988-89 and 1992) and an acrylic painting on a nearby street surface by Steed Taylor, everything included is either photo-, video- or DVD-based or is an installation. The human hand is most notably absent from these creations, most of which have the feel of educational television or, even worse, corporate or political propaganda. Who would voluntarily submit to the tedium of watching it all?

The best of the work includes Matthew Moore’s Final Rotation Project I, in which the artist has documented in digital photographs and a DVD his meticulous cutting into a field of barley the enlarged floor plan of tract houses soon to be built all over the very field (and those around it). At first, the aerial views seem impressive if rather impersonal—but then you learn that this land is Moore’s own family farm in Arizona, and you understand, and are moved by, his degree of emotional involvement (including having cultivated this last-ever field crop himself).

Equally well-conceived are two long, digital photo panels on facing walls by Rosemary Williams, each of which depicts the view across a New York City street of the wall, windows and, in some instances, interiors of a nearby building. Titled Neighbors, this piece effectively reproduces the loft-dwellers’ mutual experience of lack of privacy.

A related piece by Williams enters the world of CEOs and records their exclusive window views along with their individual discussions of them. Aside from the banality of the images and the soporific nature of the disembodied, droning, self-serving voices, there is the problem of the installation’s design. By facing four TV monitors inward toward each other and placing a big, blocky pedestal in the middle of them, the artist has virtually prevented the comfortable viewing of the piece. It may be that we are intended to sit on the pedestal—but we’ve been trained not to touch the equipment in a gallery, and there is no instruction to sit (where, admittedly, it would be possible but rather hard on your butt). A group of four padded chairs facing out from the center would have been far more user-friendly and effective.

In the case of a half-hour-long Vito Acconci video placed in a tight space behind a gallery wall, there is no seat provided at all. Acconci’s other contribution to the show, a photo-and-text panel describing his 1970 Proximity Piece, really illustrates the problem, as we see him purposely bothering people trying to view an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in New York as he documented a daily invasion of their personal space. Acconci must be respected for his innovation and the apparent honesty of his bizarre research, but it goes without saying that it is pretty annoying stuff.

If Wagner intended her exhibition to be as irritating as Acconci’s performance, she succeeded—but I doubt that’s the case. Rather, I suspect that her immersion in a world where this is all quite normal—indeed is heartily applauded—has made her forget that the audience is made up of real people who may expect to at least be met halfway. Otherwise, I’m afraid she and her colleagues will simply lose them all, one by one—and the only people left who bother to look at art will be those holding, or pursuing, an MFA.


PERIPHERAL VISION

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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