beauty: Patricia Johanson’s Vernal Pools (Catagramma
Mionina): Park/Amphibian Breeding Grounds/Edible Landscaping.
Johanson: Art for the Living World
College of Saint Rose Gallery, through Dec. 5
Patricia Johanson is an artist on a mission. Having established
an international reputation early in her career as a minimalist
painter and sculptor, the Rensselaer County-based Bennington
College graduate then embarked on a completely different quest
as an earth artist with a decidedly environmental bent. And,
in a manner of speaking, it is her goal to use this pursuit
to save the world.
fact, the term “artist” cannot encompass Johanson—environmentalist,
architect, author and activist would also apply—nor does the
term “art” accurately describe her work. Her exhibition at
the College of Saint Rose Gallery titled Art for the Living
World looks as much didactic as aesthetic, despite consisting
largely of framed drawings. This is intentional.
Johanson’s artist statement, placed on a wall not far from
the gallery’s entrance, is a key to understanding and appreciating
the presentation. A gifted writer, hers is a rare case of
a statement I wholeheartedly recommend you read—not that you
can’t enjoy the exhibition without reading it, but that you
will gain plenty of insight at little cost if you do. Her
words make clear that for Johanson the point of her work is
not just “to change the way we ‘see’,” but also “to change
the way we ‘act’.” The objects are not the end, but a means
to the greater end of communication and transformation.
Hence, Johanson’s drawings, which range from little pencil
sketches of ideas to official site plans to elaborately detailed
projections of her large-scale projects, always incorporate
text. For, although action is her purpose, she obviously places
great stock in words to propel that action. Then again, if
aesthetics can be a draw, a way of seducing the audience into
her world view, no problem: The aesthetics are there as well.
As ably curated by longtime gallery director Jeanne Flanagan,
Art for the Living World is a compendium of drawings,
photographic documentation and models. The flush-mounted color
photographs represent completed projects in Korea, Texas and
California, enabling the viewer to better visualize the scale,
color and physical presence of Johanson’s finished pieces,
which strike a curious balance between public-works project
and outdoor sculpture.
Arguably the most beautiful objects in the room are two bronze
castings of a sewer project in San Francisco; they were created
out of a need for approval by an arts panel that couldn’t
understand the engineering drawings, so Johanson had the models
cast from clay. Another model on view has a very different
appeal—like a train layout or kids’ science-fair display,
it provides a detailed, scaled-down perspective of an elaborate
system of elevated walkways in a Brazilian rainforest. I for
one would love to be able to explore that scene and better
understand the complexity of life at the top of the leafy
Johanson’s forms are invariably inspired by living, natural
ones. The drawings recall millipedes, snakes, butterflies,
lilies and other flowers, spiders and octopi. Often representing
very large swaths of developed land, their details include
rendered and labeled stands of various plantings as well as
elaborate constructs of waterways designed to cleanse polluted
runoff. It is an unusual combination of form (natural beauty)
following function (restoring the land to health) that goes
beyond aesthetics, or even ideas, into the realm of concrete
Yet the heart of Johanson’s process, and of the show, is drawing—that
most fundamental of artistic activities, and the method by
which she explores her ideas. Much the same way a physicist
thinks and sketches in mathematical formulae, Johanson thinks
through drawing. By showing the drawings, she invites us into
her thought process—she challenges us to join her in her quest
In a way far different from the art of conceptualism, or that
of the minimalism out of which she emerged, Johanson’s art
is one of ideas. Whereas those other forms seek a purity of
idea, removed from ordinary experiences, Johanson’s parks,
playgrounds and water treatment projects (often all three
at once) are about the concrete accomplishment of her stated
goal. She is operating in the realm of ideas, or appears to
be, but she is committed to changing physical realities and,
ultimately, human behaviors.
On paper, that seems as ridiculously ambitious as it is idealistic.
And yet, if seeing is believing, Johanson has succeeded. In
her own words, she has “been dogged and persistent, unwilling
to be relegated to the world of art history.” Instead, she
is an active player on the world stage—part of human history.
We are lucky to have such a visionary in our midst.
And we’re lucky to have this opportunity to examine her work,
as it is not normally seen in these parts. Though the Saint
Rose gallery is small, the exhibition includes nearly 40 pieces—enough
to satisfy any beginner’s curiosity about this world-class
Face of Alzheimer’s: Photographs by Mark McCarty
Amtrak Station, through Nov. 30
Supported by a small NYSCA-sponsored grant administered
through the Arts Center of the Capital Region
for community-oriented art, Rensselaer County
photographer Mark McCarty has begun a long-term
project involving portraits of elderly residents
of two Northeast Health Foundation facilities,
specifically those suffering with Alzheimer’s
The work recalls similarly sensitive portraits
done some time ago by Boston-area photographer
Nicholas Nixon, who focused his lens on the extremely
old in nursing homes. But, whereas Nixon’s work
emphasized the fragility of his subjects, McCarty
finds and brings out his subjects’ strengths.
These medium- and large-format black-and-white
images, greatly enlarged or grouped to gain purchase
in the noisy and utilitarian space of the train
station, have the clients’ first names and short
quotes from friends and loved ones printed right
on their borders using digital technology. This
social work-y step in the direction of education
doesn’t take away from the artistic integrity
of the images; rather, it makes their message
more accessible to the masses who make up the
audience in this very public setting.
McCarty, who earns his living as a commercial
photographer, has always had a very compassionate
personal vision, and consummate technical control—here,
both have reached new heights.
Hampshire: 96 to Now
Street Gallery, through Dec. 11
If you’ve yet to see the intriguing work of Troy
painter John Hampshire, this nine-year retrospective
will be the perfect introduction to his unique
labyrinthine style of portraiture. For those of
us who know his work, the numerous drawings and
paintings on view do contain a few surprises.
Most noticeable due to scale is an enormous, monochromatic
piece in Sharpie on canvas depicting Hampshire’s
wife and favorite subject, MB. Nearby is the much
smaller drawing on which it is based—one can decide
whether the enlarged version is an improvement.
Another 2004 portrait of MB in his usual scale
(about 18 by 24 inches) features lush layerings
of colorful hash marks in a new technique with
acrylic that adds depth and softness to Hampshire’s
chaotic, somewhat psychedelic vision.
Also a treat is a small group of small paintings
not of people—these depict industrial subject
matter and represent a very promising road not
quite taken. It will be fun to see whether Hampshire
pursues this variation further in the future.