Wednesday, May 30, 2007

bill b.

From today's Times—my first feature-length feature:
A Meeting of Two Ithaca Institutions

This year's representative Ithaca Festival image comes with a split personality. Reproducing an oil painting of a local landscape, the graphic is split into two long horizontal colored bars, broken by a much narrower white strip running left to right across the center (There are white margins along the top, bottom and sides as well). I like to think of them as being like consecutive panels in a comicseparate scenes that coalesce into one narrative. Near the bottom of the top panel, lettered white in striking, modernistic type: "I T H A C A F E S T I V A L." Close to the top of the bottom one, in matching lettering: " 3 0th A N N I V E R S A R Y". The event's anniversary dates2007 and 1977appear in the top and bottom right-hand corners respectively. It is an intricate and clever image, teasing the viewer by deviating from its apparent symmetry.

The panorama above is an unassuming but beautifully painted scene. In the foreground is a wavering row of treetops, arcing down in the middle to reveal more of the background. The trees are rendered impressionistically but have an unexpectedly three-dimensional feel. Their highlights are small patches of yellow-green and yellow-ochre, with shadows in cooler dark greens and rusty reddish browns. Behind the trees, far away (judging from the use of atmospheric perspective) is a hillside sketched out in pale, bluish greens and grays. Further still is narrow blue-gray strip showing the opposite side of Cayuga Lake. Near the top edge is a strip of sky painted with subtler brushstrokes. The scene is broadly naturalistic in style with the exception of several mysterious arc segmentsred, blue and violetpiercing the foreground trees. Both literally and in style, they point toward the bottom panel.

There are things are markedly different, plunging into abstraction. The arcs continue, multiplying. Loosely suggesting a pond or river the tree line appears there upside down. The sky is reflected as well; disconcertingly, it is more vivid below than above. Also strange is that the same opaque sky-blue also appears in a series of broken horizontal stripes. The rest of the panel is painted with energetic, slashing, cascading brushstrokesmuch of it quite thinly. Lines of paint scratched away form highlights. Bubbles appear in the paint surface. Other dominant colors: violet, purple, blue, red, and greens both warm and cool. There is no shoreline, the water appears as a flat, unbroken plane, not unlike in Monet's late painting.

Symmetry (bilateral, to be technical) is not perfect or straightforward. In the lower panel, there is no trace of the background behind the treesthis much is realistic. More strangely, while the tree line is mirrored with some accuracy, it pushed further down than one would expect. Which is to say that central dividing axis should be pushed down as well; which is to say that the white bar in the middle is above where the shoreline should be. The arcs only fit the overall symmetry in one place (and again, not perfectly): a half-circle crossing both panels, coming out of the middle of the right edge. The brushwork in the two panels is different too, as I mentioned. And one last detail: The bottom panel is not quite as wide as the top, leaving a wider white margin along the bottom half of the right edge (And although I realize that last paragraph was dry reading, it helps explain what makes the piece so compelling).

The image calls to mind any number of dualities or oppositions: traditional art versus modernism, observation vs. improvisation, the outer world vs. the inner, control vs impulse and so on. And, although these divisions can seem a little too simplistic, a little too pat, it's hard to deny the intelligence and skill with which they are represented here.

The painting reproduced is the work of William Benson, a longtime presence on the local art scene. Based upon this years Festival theme of "Reflection," it also is representative of his recent efforts to fuse realism with abstraction. As he writes in an artist's statement:
I grew up drawing . . . everything - people, figures, landscapes, monsters and flowers. My sensibilities in painting have been defined by a continuing respect and admiration for those before me who have wielded the great representational brush. Believing also that there is as much power and emotion in abstraction I am attempting to reconcile the two in my work, whether in landscapes or with the figure or still life.
Like no small number of local artists, Benson first discovered Ithaca as a Cornell student. He arrived here as a freshman in 1968 and graduated four years later with the standard Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He found the town and its surroundings to be "one of the most beautiful places on the planet." But he found his schooling to be less than fully satisfactory. With a hint of disdain, he tells me that his "education was more concerned with contemporary art theory than the practical methods of applying paint to canvas." Benson is by most appearances a practical manwhich isn't to say he doesn't have some loftier goals.

As with many young aspiring artists, he went off to New York City upon leaving school. There, he found work doing silkscreen prints for well-known artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Romare Bearden. But soon he found such jobs tiring, and so he returned to Ithaca after a couple years. He quickly got married and started both a family and an artistic career.

Motivated by the difficulty of making a living as an artist, Benson's career has taken on many aspects. Not all of them neatly fit stereotypes of the "fine" artist. He has long been one of the Ithaca area's most established and respected portraitists, working in both drawing and oil paint. Since the late 80s, he has made a concerted effort to expand on this line of work, eventually gaining representation at the three largest "portrait houses" in the country: Portraits Inc., Portraits South, and Portrait Brokers (These are located in New York City, Raleigh, and Birmingham respectively). These large commercial organizations provide their numerous members with a variety of commissionslocal or national, humble people and famous. While many artists might look down upon such a big-business-like working method, Benson finds it rewarding. And, although portraiture itself may not have the cache today that it did in the past, the artist sees it as a potential route to greatness and renown.

He also has done assorted design and illustration work, including covers for a number of local publications - among them the paper you are reading now. He has painted murals for two prominent local restaurants: Madeline's and ZaZa's Cucina. And, he has taught, including a stint at the Community School of Music and Arts (I once took a figure-drawing class with him there myself, almost a decade ago). Among his more distinguished local students was Barbara Mink, whose fluid abstract oils have some affinity with Benson's less realist images.

Although Benson always has done more personal work alongside the money-makers, his recent landscape-abstractions are an important departure. He describes himself as being most deeply rooted in representational art - in masters "from Vermeer to Van Gogh." And although he says he has come to have more appreciation for contemporary and abstract art, his newfound irrealism has another source as well. In his own words:
One aspect of traditional art [I] found intriguing were paintings in progresswhere one could see the underlying ground and then some of the sketched in composition and then some parts that were complete and finished and I liked that imagery - sort of like the aspect of time during the painting process. As I was working on my own, using the same process I began seeing parts of the process itself as an abstract expression of where I wanted the painting to go and began trying to incorporate those loose movements into the finished painting. This is key - the abstract movements in my work are painted FIRST.
This ideaabstraction as improvisation or sketch is a key to understanding these paintings. And, the combination of highly finished areas with rougher ones hasn't always been limited to actually incomplete paintings. One precedent that springs to mind is the nineteenth-century American portraitist John Singer Sargent, who often combined tightly rendered faces with sketchy-looking backdrops.

The tradition of selecting an annual Ithaca Festival artist goes back to 1994. Past artists (most of whom I'm unfortunately not familiar with despite growing up in Ithaca during the nineties): David Finn, Ellie Jones, Tim Merrick, Peter Kahn, Mary Shelley, Jane Dennis, Susan Bull Riley, Carol Terrizzi, Dede Hatch, Laurel Guy, George Rhoads, and Alice Muhlback. Benson says he has admiration for all these men and women and that he is "standing on the shoulders of giants." He has respect as well for many other local artists, among them: Vicky Romanoff, Parker Brody Burroughs, Carlton Monzano and Camile Doucet.

Benson's own involvement with the Festival goes back to the inaugural event in 1977. As he tells me, local artists were at the time allowed to submit designs for T-shirts - among the printed entries were ones by him and his (then) young son. This year, his image appears not only on a tee, but on the Festival Button (the sales of both will help support the Festival). A limited edition print is available as well.

His long-standing respect for the celebration is clear:
It seems the Ithaca Festival has grown in stature with every passing year and it really is the dedicated long hours and hard work of all those behind the scenes that pulls it off so that this entire town and surrounding villages can have such a fun and celebratory weekend. I am simply honored that I was asked to be the Festival Artist for this year and hope my contribution is helping to keep this fabulous tradtion alive.
As part of the Festival, Benson will be showing work at the Clinton House's ArtSpace through the month of June. The exhibit opens on May 30th, with a reception that evening from 6 to 8 pm. In addition, he will be performing at 6 pm on June 3rd with the band GoGone - according to the Festival program "a fusion of original roots, rock, and blues."

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


From this week's IT:
The Ink Shop is currently showing work by two talented printmakers. Occupying the Shop's long exhibition room—recently renovated and formerly holding their office—is a small but well-focused selection of Neil Berger's black and white monoprints. On the other side of the second floor space, Jenny Pope's numerous color woodcuts show a variety of animals engaged in often comical dramas.

Berger's technique gives his work a spontaneous, painterly feel appropriate to its mostly everyday themes. He works directly on an acrylic glass plate, applying ink with a roller and using various implements (e.g. cloth, roller, fingers) to shape his images. The plate is then pressed onto a sheet of paper, creating a one of a kind print. According to the artist, most of his work here was done from imagination or memory without a previous sketch (the exception being a small portrait of a girl). Most of his work here is landscape.

His strongest work here is a pair of matching cityscapes. They temper his signature looseness with impressive eye for architectural detail. Both place the viewer in the middle of a road, its edges converging towards a distant vanishing point but being blocked off by strong background horizontals. Multi-storey buildings line the sides. The contrast between the similarity of composition and the difference of subject matter is notable. Manhattan shows a downtown scene with one of the Brooklyn Bridge's towers in the far background, center-left (shown three-quarters view). Cars line the central road, which is pierced by a perpendicular cross-street and split down the middle by a broken strip of tree plantings. Church shows a small-town scene; the road is dirt and a rustic church's tower takes the (compositional) place of the bridge's.

Several other Berger landscapes are particularly impressive. Harbor might be an ordinary view —storm clouds, boats, brushy waves, skyline on the distant horizon—if not for the diagonal railing appearing in the lower left corner. Graveyard is the sole piece not printed on white paper; its background is a slightly silvery blue. Dark silhouetted gravestones are echoed by a pair of larger black evergreens behind them. While some of the softer, less angular pieces can seem too hazy or impressionistic, Creekbed works well. Tree roots wind down from the upper edge over stones - larger and flatter towards the bottom.

Blake and Whitman both pair figural images with lines of handwritten poetry by their namesakes. The text is paper-white against a darker ground. The latter is the simpler and the more effective of the two. A dark smudgy silhouette sitting by a tree illustrates the three stanzas: "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love...".

Pope's printed menageries, by contrast, feature solid blocks of color with black or dark colored outlines. (A handful of her pictures combine woodcut with collagraphy, which gives them areas of chalkier texture.) Forms are flat and overlap, forming a shallow perspective reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e. She tends towards earth-tones and faded blues, pinks and purples, with the occasional use of louder colors. Her style and narrative conceits can be cute, although not overbearingly so. Work comes from three series, which in her words feature "domestic animals and their interactions with humans, invasive species from around the world and the extinct megafauna of Australia."

Dogs and cats are her domestic subjects of choice. Among these pieces are three large pieces with an unusual emphasis on their backgrounds. The weird, sensual, anthropomorphic Anemone Cat is the most accomplished. A black, white and dark-purple feline lounges on a lavender couch, its body covered with sea anemones. The background is a wall of baby blue with baroque designs in yellow ochre. The loosely similar Fleur de Felis (feline flower, an pun on heraldic fleur-de-lis) is less successful, perhaps due to the cat's deliberately awkward anatomy and the unusual angular partitioning of the background. A pair of Rain Dogs stand in front of a green flagstone-like backdrop.

The most engaging of the "invasive species" prints are Great Lakes Powder Room and Great Lakes Basin, both underwater scenes. Black and white striped zebra mussels cluster and cascade while dark yellow-green gobies swim. Best of all are the adorable cartoon-eyed light-grey lampreys sucking on both to the fish and to each other. The busy compositions are handled gracefully.

Megafauna (literally "large animals") include marsupial lions, a diprotodon (also marsupial) and an archaeopteryx - the Jurassic ancestor of today's birds.
Berger will be giving a free "Talk Print" lecture at the Shop on June 14th from 7 to 8:30 p.m..

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Friday, May 11, 2007

ten questions

I have a guest questionnaire up today at simpleposie ("functional, sincere and from Toronto"). The subject matter is the role of verbal description in understanding visual art. Go and participate.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

times' times

Also in this week's Times: Nancy Geyer (back from the land of the dead, but alas, probably for a one-time appearance only) reviews the new Victoria Romanoff solo show.

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Spring Pavillion
, 2004, Acrylic, ink, pastel, graphite, on silk-applied paper

My review of the two-woman show "Transformations," more or less as it appears in this week's Ithaca Times.

Local abstract artist Syau-Cheng Lai is having a good year. For a week back in early February, her mixed-media on paper installation Visualizing for Bunita Marcus spanned the walls of Cornell's Olive Tjaden gallery. Executed on four long sheets with a bewildering array of drawing and painting media, it was pinned directly to the wall. It effectively interwove moments of sparseness with those of almost dizzying density. It was a definite highlight for local art. Lai is also a noted pianist. Accompanying the installation was her performance of modernist composer Morton Feldman's solo piano piece For Bunita Marcus.

Currently on view at the Upstairs Gallery is a selection of smaller, framed work by Lai. It's an impressive body of work, although nothing quite matches up to her Tjaden installation. In particular, I miss the interplay between its epic length and the close-up intimacy of her mark-making. Nevertheless, their combination of exoticism, playfullness, and rigor is exemplary. Characteristically, most feature a dense layering of eclectic textures—drawn, painted and even carved. A few are more minimal. She is joined by out of town ceramicist Ann Johnston Miller. Although not as diverse or quite as compelling, Miller's work betrays a compatible fascination with her materials.

Evocative of Visualizing—albeit on a much more compact scale—are a series of thin, scroll-like pieces. Due in part perhaps to this compactness, their quality is somewhat uneven. Hung either in an upright, vertical manner or horizontally, they are matted so as to expose the rough edges of the paper sheets. Like the Tjaden piece, looking at these pieces can be akin to reading or listening to music, with a definite if not overpowering feeling of linear sequence.

An upright Shattering Sky features a mottled background of gold and dark brown. Hanging from the upper-right corner are wavy strands suggesting knotted rope or hair. These have been forcefully carved into the paper, revealing white below. In the lower right corner sits a jumble of hard-edged shapes reminiscent of the Louise Nevelson's wood-scrap assemblages - although not for its wide range of hues. Standing beside Sky is Before Sunset. Divided into an intricate arrangement of wavery Klee-like horizontal and vertical bands, the predominantly red, yellow and blue piece has a textile-like quality. Pieces like Upload, Ski Jump and Watermill combine paper-white backgrounds with tighter, more rigidly geometric lines and shapes. These seem overly fussy, as if the artist was trying to make too much happen.

Lai's smaller, more conventionally proportioned pieces have a more immediate impact. They compensate for their lack of breadth with their intensive layering. Her backgrounds are predominantly white, black, gray, red, pink, or gold over-painted with dark brown (the latter are scratched into revealing the color beneath). She often uses vertical and/or horizontal bands—hard edged or soft, thick or thin, visibly layered or opaque—to break up her compositions. Recurring motifs include illegible cursive script (running up and down in columns), Cy Twombly-like scribbles and erasures, dots and dashes, and suggestions of landscape elements such as horizon lines, waves, boats and crescent moons.

Deep Spring
is particularly successful. Its horizontal bands of white, greenish yellow, warm brown and red have been extensively worked over with drawn and carved scrawls and loops, small impasto dashes and a blue arrow pointing offstage to the left.

Most of Johnston Miller's pieces combine ceramic vessels with attached nest-like enclosures of grapevine (or in the case of Goddess Eye 3, copper wire). In Transformation, a smooth shiny orb glazed light green is placed inside the opening of a larger matte black blob. The small sphere is insulated with cattail seeds. Drawing - In and Open - Out are simpler: They are light green spheres in their vine enclosures. The long ceramic piece in Natural Dilemma resembles a rounded loaf of bread, right down to its toasted-looking brown color and rough texture.

Also by Miller are two parent and child pieces: the wide, plateau-like Cantilevered Form and the smaller squarish Cantilevered Bud Vase. Similar to Dilemma in color and texture, each has a outline echoing hole in the center. Bud Vase is so named for the smooth light green vessel nested smugly inside.

The Upstairs Gallery is located on 215 N. Cayuga St. "Transformations" will be on view through June 2.
Other Lai pieces in the show include: Red Matrix, White Matrix, and Nuur Resides.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

anna hepler

Gego's work also shares affinities with that of Anna Hepler. Hepler has some new drawings and woodcuts up on her website, along with a particularly Gego-esque sculpture (sorry) of two spheroids copulating. Her work on paper has a juicier, more organic feel than that of her predecessor. They feel fungus-like.

Also on display there is her tape flag installation Fall, Scatter Float and her Homage to Uccello series, both of which were in last years DeCordova Annual. The latter is a series of eight pieces, each a stack of plexiglass sheets onto which she has carved lines and dots forming wobbly round shapes. The reference, of course, is to early Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello's famous lancers.

It might also be worth noting that her site uses blogware to build something resembling a traditional artist's homepage
inevitable, I suppose, given the ubiquity of such material.

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