Monday, January 21, 2008

afire, a fire

rural research

I went down to Elmira last Saturday to visit the Rural Research Laboratories for the first time. RRL has recently taken over a red-brick carriage house located behind the Arnot Art Museum (which I have yet to visit). The grassroots organization houses artists' studios and communal workspaces as well as three ground-floor exhibition spaces. They also seem to have an busy program of poetry readings and folk concerts. Tom Oberg is the founder.

The place was clean and well-lit, not the kind of bohemian filth-hole I half-expected of an "alternative" arts venue. A nice touch: they had an exit-style sign reading "KURT" in homage to a recently deceased comic-absurdist novelist who attended Cornell.

Saturday afternoon was a closing reception for three shows. These included a series of not-really-monochrome paintings by Ed Malina and one of Steve Salsburg's documentary photographs. (There was also a hallway video-projection by Chris Keck and Steven Kistler, of melting icebergs, which I got an insufficient look at -- sorry.) Both were impressive.

Malina's paintings are single-colored in front, with textures that are variously lumpy or smooth. The surfaces are fetishistic but the effect of looking at several dulls this appeal. (Although there was at least one I really liked: a dark purple-brown one with a grid of round lumps reminiscent of Eva Hesse's Schema.) The real action takes place along the edges, where you can see solidified dripping cascades of paint in different colors. These reveal the layering and the labor behind the perfect surfaces and call attention to the often frame-like supports. My feelings were mixed.

Salsburg's startling gelatin-silver prints come from a single roll of film shot in 1970, when he was a flight-surgeon in Vietnam
. They show the inmates of a leper colony, along with medical and military personnel there to help them. They betray a sharp eye and an urge to depict his often deformed subjects (many of them children) with both dignity and honesty. You can read more about them and him here (.pdf).

I got to meet RRL associate Jan Kather, who has a series of fine lenticular photographs up at the State of the Art (see my previous post for a review). She teaches photography and video art at Elmira College, and sometimes at Cornell as well. She was very kind and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Also, I rode down with Buzz Spector and had an interesting conversation with him, although I won't recount it here.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

states of the art

"States of Identity: Real or Imagined" is the State of the Art Gallery's contribution to the upcoming Light in Winter Festival. As usual, it features gallery members weighing in on a loosely-defined theme. This year's theme is "identity." Although this may have served as a jumping-off point for the artists, it doesn't work as much of a guidepost for the viewer.

"States" does have a mood distinct from most SOAG group shows. While carefully observed realism often acts as an anchor, the work here is more experimental. There are a few traditionally figurative paintings scattered about; however, they are not among the strongest works here. In keeping with the hybrid and high-tech character of LiW, mixed-media, collage, and digital imaging rule. The human figure portrayed literally or by analogy is common, as is the natural and built environment presented in unfamiliar and awe-inspiring ways.

Not surprisingly, LiW founder-director Barbara Mink is well-represented. Her three large mixed-media acrylic canvases are standout works, full of her rich geologically-inspired painterly textures. These pieces are new terrain for Mink, as they incorporate collage and portraiture into her signature style. The monochrome faces are printed via photo-transfer. There is some awkwardness in the way they are juxtaposed with the paint. The familiar, intimate forms don't always sit well with the awesome expanses of color.

Black Angels is the most resolved painting in this regard and the best overall. The center is dominated by a black-printed face shown in three-quarter view a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Another artist-head, frontal and less visible, hides in the lower right corner. The piece works so well because the blackness framing the angels is echoed throughout as contour-lines and shadowy patches. Portraiture dissolves into abstract landscape. The background is composed of patches of rich and varied color, particularly turquoise. Angels is named after a string quartet by avant-garde composer George Crumb and incorporates appropriate sheet music.

Grotto is of the same size and proportion and also features a pair of Mink's, this time blending in more. The dark, earthy colors are covered with patches of dark turquoise and thick golden powder. The square shaped Old Country places the face of a white bearded ancestor in a sunken, shrine-like enclosure.

Ethel Vrana is also working with an abstraction inspired by the natural world. The acrylic Event-Particles indeed evokes a microcosm. A loose, branching grid of yellow lines covers a green ground and is itself covered by a cloud of copper. The overall texture is dense and lively with layering, scratches, and air bubbles. A cluster of shiny black droplets hovers near the center. It resembles a living system.

Photographer Jan Kather shows a series of lenticular photographs (the surface is a grid of tiny lenses). Depending on where you stand, you can see either one of two images one astronomical and one earthly or some combination of both. The images are iridescent and mesmerizing. Ausable Eddy Galaxy is particularly compelling. A marble-like maelstrom in black and white is juxtaposed with a pink cloudburst in the darkness of outer space. Central Park Galaxy combines similar astronomy with a blurry nighttime skyline, the park a strip in the foreground.

Carol Ast, long respected for her carefully rendered pastel landscapes, has been trying out new directions recently. Here, she has collages featuring diverse and unexpected combinations of media. Inunnguaq: In the Likeness of a Human: Inuit is on paper. It shows a dark stone monolith rendered in what looks like thick paint, set against a desolate pink pastel expanse. Remarkably enough, the pile is actually made of clay. Ast used regular clay as a top layer with paper clay in the middle acting as a kind of glue (containing as it does both materials). I assume this is a viable technique but the result appears somewhat unwieldy. Still, it is a striking image. Autobiography combines torn paper scraps including fragments of her landscape pastels and bits in silver with dried plant material and energetic pastel strokes.

This Ole House, a digital photograph by David Watkins Jr., shows a decrepit wooden house. The building is at a moderate distance, near the top of the page. Sloping upwards towards it is a swampy landscape filled with barren trees and branches. The dull, wintery colors are punctuated by the green of grass and the red of a brick chimney. The piece hangs in the middle of a row of five prints; each of the others shows an exterior detail of the ruin. Many show corners. It is up to the viewer to construct a whole from the evocative fragments. The borders of the images are uneven which gives them a weathered feel similar to their subject.
A correction: the central image in Black Angels is not Barbara Mink but her daughter (the corner image is Barbara). In Grotto, the top image is the artist.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


I am saddened to learn (via the internet) that the Ink Shop was one of several victims in a fire that took place downtown at the 102-104 West State Street building during the final hours of Tuesday night. The cause is apparently unclear. According to Thursday's Ithaca Journal, the blaze began in the the third (top) floor studio belonging to the Ithaca Academy of Dance. The Shop is right below but luckily did not face flames. Reportedly, "the second floor suffered moderate water damage, and the third floor and roof suffered major damage". I shudder to think about what "moderate" means, given the high-profile EPI show that was hanging, as well as whatever was in storage. We'll see.

According to this second Journal article:
The Ithaca community was quick to offer help to the businesses affected by the fire. The Ink Shop Printmaking Center, on the second floor of the damaged building, has experienced an outpouring of community support. The shop's current exhibition, which displayed a group of prints from Lafayette College, was the most expensive one ever to be in the space.

“We think it's amazing how the downtown area has immediately offered support,” said Christa Wolf, president of the Ink Shop board of directors.

The Ink Shop was granted several spaces that will allow it to continue operating. The State Theatre provided an apartment above its box office to put the damaged prints, the Community Arts Partnership offered the shop a space in the Clinton House to display the coming “Light in Winter” show as scheduled Jan. 18, and Dryden High School promised the use of its ink shop as a place to hold workshops.

“We thought we would be renting a truck and renting a spot to put everything, but (the response) has just been great,” Wolf said.

The rest of it goes into the impact of the disaster on the dance studio and on the street-level Handwork, a cooperative crafts store.

Needless to say, this is a major loss for the local arts community, and in particular to the numerous talented artists who have made the Shop their home. I would like to offer my condolences. I'll take a look there myself in the morning.

The Journal also has a picture gallery of the firefighters in action.

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From the Times, looking back on 2007:
Following tradition, I've put together a year-end list of notable shows, artists, and venues from 2007. The list is not comprehensive and is in no particular order. My focus is mostly on shows that I've reviewed for these pages and, consequently, mostly on shows in the Ithaca area. In addition, this was my first full year as a regularly published newspaper critic.

1) Syau-Cheng Lai: Lai, a local artist, had a pair of excellent Ithaca shows. "Visualizing for Bunita Marcus" accompanied her performance of Morton Feldman's solo piano "For Bunita Marcus". Held in Cornell's Tjaden Gallery, the exhibit featured four long sheets of paper pinned directly to the walls. Using a wide range of wet and dry media, Lai created a sequence, beginning sparsely before developing dense strata of varied marks in rich colors (including gold and electric pink), finally petering back out into paper white. The piece is notable for its repetition and layering of different motifs. Letter-like forms and scribbles are prevalent, as are horizontal strokes and bands of color. On display for just five days in early February (2/5-9) and located in a obscure space, "Visualizing" was easy to miss. [See also my pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4.]

"Transformations," her two-woman show at the Upstairs Gallery (5/1-6/2) was just slightly less exhilarating. The show was a valuable complement to "Visualizing," as well as being powerful in its own right. Consisting as it did of work reaching back to the early part of the decade, it was more eclectic. The images are even denser, most with little or none of the white space that carries through "Visualizing." Although predominantly abstract, some of the pieces have more or less explicit references to landscape, often to the nautical.

2) Kumi Korf at The Main Street Gallery: Korf (also local) is best known as a printmaker and book artist. In 2007, she had substantial shows of her print-work in San Francisco and in her native Japan. "Paintings by Kumi Korf" (9/7-10/21) gave the local community a rare chance to see another side of her practice. Characteristically, the show combined abstraction with a sensibility rooted in nature.

The show was dominated by a pair of enormous acrylic paintings done on unprimed canvas. Each is of roughly human height and two to three times that in length. Together, they filled the gallery's oddly-angled front gallery. Korf treats the paint in a way analogous to watercolor, staining the fabric rather than covering it. While An Amphora and a Fish features graceful, rounded calligraphic shapes, A Clear Day has coarse, drippy blocks of (less diluted) color.

They were complemented by a generous selection of small pieces on paper hanging in the small back room. Included were a series of pieces in pastel and another in thick, greasy oil-stick.

3) The Ink Shop: The downtown printmaking cooperative's shows have been both diverse and almost uniformly strong. In addition, they have put on an impressive array of public talks and classes. With that said, no one show sticks out as the winner.

The current show (through 1/14) features work by nationally known artists such as Sam Gilliam and David Driskell. All prints are the work of Lafayette College's Experimental Printmaking Institute; EPI director Curlee Raven Holton (who has art in the show) gave an enthusiastic and well-received talk about his work there. Jenny Pope's "Kiwi Egg Soup" showed-off her playful, high-contrast color woodcuts of animals, both familiar and exotic. Stretching back into 2006, IC professor Susan Weisend's "Garden: Delights and Detritus" mixed mediums, styles, and formats in an almost reckless manner. Her best work enlivens or disrupts her pastoral flora and fauna through formal experimentation.

4) Out of Town Shows: Lane Twitchell and Alan Singer: I travelled for two Times reviews - to Auburn's Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center for Twitchell's "Revelation" (9/1-10/27) and to Syracuse's Redhouse Arts Center for Singer's "Cosmology" (9/20-11/08). Twitchell's jewel-like cut paper on panel collage-paintings were more impressive. His ornate compositions are packed with imagery relating to the Brooklyn artist's Utah Mormon upbringing as well as to American urbanism and to art history. They are typically large and are notable for their often off-kilter symmetry.

Singer is from Rochester. "Cosmology" was made up primarily of digital prints with hand-painting. This mixture of technique and texture gives the work a latter-day Surrealist feel as does Singer's taste for abstract, three-dimensional geometric forms and spaces placed alongside suggestions of human or otherwise organic form. Although some of the pieces feel over the top, his best work has a vibrant and meticulously crafted theatricality.

5) "Stop. Look. Listen: An Exhibition of Video Works" at the Johnson Museum: This ostentatious and highly uneven show (10/13-12/23) filled nearly all of the museum's temporary exhibition space and incorporated a night-time projection (of Janine Antoni's Touch) on the building's facade. It represents a culmination of several years of focused video collecting. Nancy Geyer reviewed it ably for this paper.

Works were divided into "feedback" and "immersion" modes, the former treating the camera as simply as a "electronic mirror" and the latter taking a more high-production, cinema-like approach. Works in the latter category were generally stronger. Among these were such standouts as Mircea Cantor's Deeparture - in which the camera gracefully tracks a wolf and a deer around a silent, white-walled space - and Amy Jenkins' macabre but subtle Ebb - in which the image of a bathing woman is projected on to a miniature ceramic tub. Gradually she purifies the at first bloody water.

6) "Looking Homeward: A Century of American Art" at the Johnson Museum: (7/7-9/23) This historical survey ran from turn-of-the-century Impressionism to the present. It was a more consistent effort than Stop., although its historical focus wavered for the postwar years. The show was particularly strong in its representation of the early 20th-century Ashcan school, a group known for their gritty portrayals of contemporary urban life. Group leader Robert Henri's Patience (1915) - a brushy portrait of a dark haired young boy reminiscent of Manet - was a standout. The show was also strong in early to mid-century modernist figuration, with pieces like Milton Avery's 1941 The Brown Hat (a young girl painted in flattened forms, mostly black, white, brown and tan) and a characteristic small female portrait by Willem de Kooning (1947). Other highlights included Reginald Marsh's satirical watercolor of wealthy folks atop the Grand Tier at the Met (1939) and a shadowy, enigmatic gelatin-silver photo by Imogen Cunningham, Eiko's Hands (1971).

While Ithaca has more than its share of good artists, many are unable (or unwilling) to show locally on a regular basis, or at least not in venues where their work will be fully recognized. While it is legitimate to show work in a café or restaurant, it can be difficult for aficionados, collectors, and critics to trace such efforts. A great deal of work is shown at Cornell, much of it by students or faculty. Aside from exhibits at the high-profile Johnson Museum, these are often invisible to the community at-large. The State of the Art Gallery is members-only, excepting its annual juried and invitational shows. Finally, several of the more established artists living in the area choose to show their work elsewhere.

I have tried to highlight some of these lesser-known artists and art spaces. For example, I reviewed Jay Hart's satellite graphics at Cornell's Mann Library (up through Jan. 10). While Lai is relatively well-known, the Tjaden and its programming is not.

As strong as it is, Ithaca's art world suffers in comparison to the talent and eclecticism of the music scene. I believe that some of the reasons for this are systematic - not that that's any reason for complacency. Music is more socially fluid in our culture; the prevalence of recording as a medium of creativity and exchange contrasts with art's focus on unique objects and limited multiples. While this is a good thing in many ways, it also constrains the dissemination of artworks and artistic ideas, and musicians travel extensively while artists tend to stay put. The result of all this is that it is impossible to see all the art you need to in a small town. Although cultural isolation can have its advantages, I believe that on balance, it is not a good thing for Ithaca.

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