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Natural beauty: Patricia Johanson’s Vernal Pools (Catagramma Mionina): Park/Amphibian Breeding Grounds/Edible Landscaping.

Art to Action
By David Brickman

Patricia Johanson: Art for the Living World
The 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.

In 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 canopy.

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 experiences.

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 for balance.

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 creator.


The Face of Alzheimer’s: Photographs by Mark McCarty
Albany-Rensselaer 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 disease.

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.

John Hampshire: 96 to Now
Fulton 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.

—David Brickman

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