Saturday, April 16, 2011

Art of the Steal

Located in Lower Merion Township, a suburb of Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation is one America’s great (if lesser known) collections of visual art. It was founded in 1922 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), a progressive albeit eccentric collector who raised himself from working-class origins through medical training and through his development and marketing of the antiseptic drug Argyrol. Housed in a distinctive building by French-American Beaux-Arts architect Paul Cret, the eclectic collection of fine and decorative artworks is best known for its Post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings. It has formidable holdings by the likes of Jean-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Matisse once called it “the only sane place to see art in America” while the philosopher John Dewey dedicated his classic 1934 book Art as Experience
to Barnes – his student and close friend. Wary of the spectacle and commercialism that he saw as defining art museums, Barnes conceived of his building and collection primarily as a school. He stipulated in his indenture for the Collection that it be kept intact inside the original building.

It is this wish – as well as the great artistic and historical integrity of the collection and its housing – that has been violated by its current and recent trustees in their plans to move the Collection to a new home in downtown Philadelphia’s Museum District. Legally authorized in 2004, the move is currently well underway. Construction for the new building began in the fall of 2009 and should be completed this next winter. The original Barnes is to close down this July and is to reopen at the new location next year. The move has the support of many local players in politics and business, many of them seemingly more concerned with their own interests than with the integrity of the Barnes. The move have not gone uncontested: The Friends of The Barnes Foundation, a “citizens’ group,” continues to engage in legal challenges. Many in the art world have spoken out as well, among them the prominent local architect Robert Venturi – who renovated the building back in the 90’s.

This Sunday, at 2pm, Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art will be offering a public screening of “The Art of the Steal,” director Don Argott’s acclaimed 2009 documentary about the controversy. As indicated by the title, the film is an unashamedly biased polemic against the move. In the words of LA Times art critic Christopher Knight (one of its many interviewees) it “is a riveting — and tragic — documentary film chronicling the gratuitous ruin of a school outside Philadelphia that houses an incomparable art collection. It's a classic story of destroying the village in order to save it.”

Following the showing, there will be a panel discussion featuring Cornell English professor Jeremy Braddock, grad student and preservationist Nathaniel Guest and Barnes curator Martha Lucy. It promises to complicate the perspective offered by what some have claimed is an overly one-sided film. Lucy will also be giving a lecture the following Monday with the tantalizing title “Why We Love to Hate Renoir.” It will be held at 5pm at the Ruth Woolsey Findley History of Art Gallery at Goldwin Smith Hall and will be followed by a reception. Both events are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


A review of the Ink Shop's "Decadia" in this week's Tompkins Weekly. (I'd post it here in full but I had a lousy time with Blogger's text formatting last time around and am not eager to repeat the experience.) Or download the whole paper here (PDF). Go see the show before it closes after Saturday.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Trees and Other Ramifications

Mike Starn and Doug Starn
Structure of Thought 15, 2001-05
Inkjet print and mixed media
Collection of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

In this week’s Tompkins Weekly (PDF):

Branching, both as natural phenomenon and as cultural metaphor, is the subject of a current Johnson Museum show. “Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture” comes from The Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas – where it was organized by curator Stephen Goddard – and has been supplemented with works from Cornell. Goddard specializes in works on paper and “Trees,” mostly in black and white, has the same bias.

Several images stand out for their raw beauty. Both Doug and Mike Starn’s large-scale inkjet photograph Structure of Thought 15 (2001-05) and Jacques Hnizdovsky’s modestly sized woodcut Copper Beech (1985) present flatly silhouetted monochromatic tree-forms. The elaborate material support of Structure is typical of the Starns’: a grid of waxed and varnished papers glued together and stretched over a frame. The warmly colored and translucent sheets make the tree(s) ghostly, free-floating. An intended analogy between branching and thinking is robustly embodied (other photographs in the series show neurons). In a related but distinct way, the detailed and impeccable line drawing in Beech conveys a sense of outward movement in tension with the static overall profile.

Arboreal metaphors for lineage have a long history. Among many examples here is a diagrammatic Tree of Life (1860, lithograph and letterpress) by none other than Charles Darwin. This elegant piece of information design, the only illustration from his groundbreaking Origin of Species, diversifies upward in splitting dashed lines. Similarly, Ad Reinhardt’s polemical cartoon How to Look at Modern Art in America (1946, offset lithography) parodies Alfred Barr’s schematic attempt to chart the roots and branches of visual modernism with a more literally drawn tree. (A print by Darwin’s evolutionist colleague Ernst Haeckel is similarly literalist – the stiff line drawing not among his more captivating images.)

Treescape as pastoral endures, despite being closely tied in Western art with the 18th and 19th centuries. Although as subject as any genre to cliché (think of images on posters and calendars), the best work in this vein is difficult to deny. Numerous pieces here attest to this. The dense accumulation of fine hatchings that make up Franz Von Stuck’s (1890) etching Forellenweiher (Trout Pond) make up a shadowy space pierced by light coming from between trunks. The receding perspective of these trees – reflected in the water – penetrates an otherwise flat image. A pair of recent drypoints by Donald Resnick – Shoreline (1997) and Woods/Morning (1998) is similarly atmospheric.

But some of the most exciting work here takes the viewer into less familiar territories. One of these “other ramifications” is a gelatin silver photograph by engineer-photographer Harold Edgerton, a close-up of the White of the Eye (taken 1979) showing a network of retinal arteries and veins. Camera blurring, particularly in the foreground, helps create a delightfully ambiguous space. (It also suggests a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of vision.) White has been provocatively paired with Tanaka Ryohei’s skillful and intricate etching Trees #3 (1974), an idiosyncratic orchard scene with exaggerated perspective. The dense overlapping of the knotted trunks and branches echoes Edgerton’s ocular vessels. (Augustus Knapp’s 19th century wood engraving of a medicinal rhizome is also worth comparing.)

Another pairing of “others” is similarly fascinating, if more opposed in its approaches. Both images show plants as botanical specimens. Karl Blossfeldt’s (early twentieth century) gelatin silver Erygnium Bourgatii shows a starkly silhouetted leaf. The spiky form has the look and feel of Gothic architecture filtered through the artist’s characteristic detachment. William Sharp’s (1854) color lithograph illustration Lily Leaf, by contrast, is drawn with great detail. Featuring an overall dull reddish tone, it shows the underside of the leaf with an admirable eye for the plant’s intricate structure of ridges and branches.

Elliott Erwitt’s gelatin silver Bearded Man with Tree, Venice, CA (taken 1979) makes a comical analogy between its two foreground “figures.” A scruffy fellow and an also-bearded palm seem oblivious to one another. In the background: a gable with a row of windows, antennas, wires.

It would have been interesting to see more three-dimensional work such as Cornell professor Jack Elliott and students’ sculptural VanRose benches. Named after pioneering Cornell Home Economics professors Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose and crafted from the stump of a sugar maple recently cleared in an expansion of that college (now Human Ecology), the symmetrically arranged pair both preserves and enriches the natural beauty of the roots and trunk.

Despite this eclecticism the overall sense conveyed by “Trees” is one of traditionalism. It would have been good to see more offbeat and aggressively contemporary work with the visual presence of the Starns’ or Edgerton. Still, this is an engaging show able to provoke hours of viewing and thought.

“Trees and Other Ramifications” remains on display at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art through January 2nd.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


For those who may not have seen it, I have a fairly lengthy review of a solo show by local artist Barbara Page published recently in the Ithaca Post. "The Dot and the Line," comprised mainly of collage-paintings, was up last month at Center Ithaca's CAP ArtSpace and is now down, unfortunately. The piece is worth reading nevertheless (or do I flatter myself?), as I extensively relate the work to broader artistic and intellectual movements and to other works of culture this in addition to my usual close reading. Among them: Katherine Harmon's recent anthology The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, popular science author Steven Johnsons "long zoom" as profiled in this NYT article and in many of his books, The Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten, Norton Juster's picture book The Dot and the Line (a film/video version), and Georges Perec's essay "Species of Spaces." And to top it off, some of the modernist/abstractionist art that I was raised on. And if that sounds excessive, let me just say that Page's work is the sort of thing that interests me particularly and that I have a deep intuitive sense of what it is about – or so I'd like to think. (Long term readers of this blog, on the off chance that there are any, might have some clue as to the sensibility I am vaguely pointing at.)

In other art review related news, look for an upcoming Tompkins Weekly review of the show "Trees and Other Ramifications," at the Johnson Museum. I'll post it here. The show itself is worth seeing as well.

Friday, July 30, 2010


I've been remiss in not mentioning here the art reviews that I've been writing for the Ithaca Post. The Post is a new online publication focusing on the local (Ithaca-area) scene. It publishes more or less daily articles on a variety of subjects; headings include Art, Culture, Film, Food, Literature, Music, and Stage.

The Post is the brainchild of the indefatigable Luke Fenchel, who might be responsible for a quarter (or more) of our local arts coverage. This is in addition to his many other contributions to local culture, popular music in particular.

I have also had the pleasure of working with the literary-minded Danielle Winterton as my editor. She has been very responsive and critical with my writing
something that has been a pleasure to have. Danielle is also co-edits the online literary journal Essays and Fictions, which is based both here and in New York City.

An archive of my work is posted on the right sidebar. Pieces I would like to emphasize here
though unfortunately no longer timely are a review of a two-person photography show featuring Steve Poleskie and J. Robert Lennon and one of the Ink Shop's recent 10 year anniversary show. More to come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Siena studio

I am writing reviews for the Times again:
Intricate, sometimes brilliantly colored geometrical abstractions, carefully rendered on small metal panels or sheets of paper, are the main attractions in a current show at the Cornell's Johnson Museum.

These lovably convoluted flatlands are the work of James Siena, a Cornell graduate (BFA, 1979), and the winner of this year's Eissner Artist of the Year Award. The prize is given annually to "an alumna/us who has achieved national or international success in the arts" something Siena has achieved over the course of three decades in New York City. "James Siena: From the Studio" will be on display at the Johnson through Sunday, April 18.

Siena's images belong to a genre of artworks (not just visual) incorporating preconceived formal constraints as a primary source of structure and shape. Sol LeWitt, to whom Siena is frequently compared, is a primary point of reference. LeWitt devised formulas for wall drawings to be executed by assistants e.g., iterations of straight-ruled horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines.

LeWitt is of great historical importance and undoubtedly an influence on the younger artist. Siena's work, however, develops these ideas in a different and arguably richer direction more aesthetically robust, more sensual and bodily. Plus his math is just more interesting. Though strictly non-figurative (with exceptions, see below), Siena's art might be closer to that of M.C. Escher, whose geometrical schemas are deployed in the service of more accessible image-making.

Siena is also frequently aligned with folk and decorative traditions. However, his art has a self-enclosed quality that seems to place it more directly in the modern art lineage.

The most elaborately formal work here is composed with sign-painter's enamel on aluminum panels, a signature medium. Enter the Faces and Base Three feature elaborate patterns of nested geometric forms. The former contains spiraling rectangular shapes while the latter's rounded forms feel dully static. The acridly colored Non-Slice is a strong example of Siena's more organic, freeform side. It can indeed be seen as a cross-section perhaps of some biological or geological structure.

V-Module is a dizzying maze-vortex in two colors: green and off-white. Hook-like striations converge towards the center of the panel, but the visual core is strangely indeterminate. Module is notably irregular in its manual execution you can see varying opacities of paint, as well as areas of unpainted metal.

Siena is a rather hit-or-miss colorist. Much of his best work is color restricted, often two-toned. For example, the branching, sponge-like growth of Ballou black ink on white paper is not too far removed from the simplicity of Matisse's cutout collages.

Recently, Siena has incorporated his intricate patterning into images of comics-influenced human grotesques. The profiled head of a Cursing Old Man (graphite on paper) is crisply outlined, while his interior forms suggesting muscles and brain are rendered in scratchily tonal lines. (The allover abstract graphite drawing Untitled (Fuzzy Line) has similar mark-making look closely and it's easy to see a face.) In Flatland, Flat Battered Girls, and Four Figures Connected feature disturbingly flattened and distended figures.

Flat Mole and Flat Mouse (both from his student days) are both done on outstretched animal hides covered with metal leaf. The former features tiny drawn hands. Also outliers in Siena's corpus are three small sculptures. Lattices of toothpick fragments have been constructed around grape stems. These minor efforts fit the show's intimate and exploratory theme.

Beyond Siena's own work, a collection of art and artifacts "from the studio" also forms an integral part of the show's concept. The bona-fide artworks are from friends and influences (many bear dedications). Although mostly so-so as art, they do help define a sensibility.

Alan Saret, a mentor of Siena's, has created one of the most impressive images here: Shroni Gorge Air. One of his "gang drawings," it was done with several colored pencils in hand, manipulated with characteristic grace and variety. It contains a sense of sweeping movement akin to the weather. In a similar vein, but less subtle and expressive, is a tiny ink drawing by the abstract surrealist Charles Seliger.

The non-art fares better. Two antique typewriters, aside from being beautiful, are closely linked to Siena's sensibility in at least two ways: in their implicitly anthropomorphic form and in the transparency of their mechanisms. Like them, Siena's work displays its inner workings actually more so because their resolute flatness leaves nothing occluded.

Three small photographs, anonymous aerial surveillance images from World War 1, show networks of trenches. Many of these form crenellation-like patterns, particularly Siena-esque.

This is flawed yet fascinating show, a glimpse into the work and sensibility of an intriguing and influential artist.


Siena will be giving a talk on his work at the museum 4:30 p.m. Friday, April 16. An award ceremony for the Eissner will be held in conjunction with the talk. Visit for more information.
The show was also reviewed for the Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


First String, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

From today's Ithaca Times:
Barbara Mink is one of Ithaca's most exciting and unpredictable painters. Her latest solo show "Event Horizons" is up this month at The State of The Art Gallery and features canvases from mostly this year. These rich, sometimes quirky abstractions combine pouring and dripping in the tradition of Jackson Pollock with brushy atmospherics that owe something to Romantic landscape painting.

Understanding the history of Mink's development as an artist can heighten a viewer's sensitivity to the different aspects of her style. For her development has been accretive; you can often find traces of her older approaches within her constantly evolving style. Mink started painting about a decade ago. Her work has evolved from still-life and botanical illustration to a looser, more atmospheric form of landscape with affinities to such masters as J.M.W Turner and James Whistler.

Then, as she likes to say, the horizon-line disappeared. (This is akin to moving your head up or down.) Her work over the past half-decade or so has become more and more abstract, gradually, never completely, shedding its allusions to landscape.

As indicated by her paintings' titles, Mink's recent work incorporates yet another influence: popular science. As the founder and artistic director of Ithaca's yearly art and science festival Light in Winter (the next one is upcoming January 21-24) this might seem natural. Knowing her work, however, the move is a bit surprising.

Her work is quintessentially lush and immediate, seemingly the polar opposite of science's remote concepts. At a recent informal talk (given as part of the LiW-sponsored monthly Science Cabaret series) she expressed some ambivalence about her attempts to bridge these "two cultures". It's best to regard her "concepts" as starting points for personal and unscientific association-making.

An unexpected presence unifies most of these paintings. One or several spheres, often red, have been brushed into these amorphous paint-scapes. They invite narrative associations, either microcosmic or macrocosmic
atoms or planets, for example. Too, they could be balls, giving these works a game-like quality. Most importantly, they provide stable reference points for the viewer trying to find a way into these paintings.

They're the descendants of the detailed botanical specimens that populated some of her earlier landscapes. For all their geometrical primitiveness, they act as stand-ins for the human body, always moving but stable.

A series of three large paintings take their names from those given to the three laws of thermodynamics by the scientist and cultural critic C.P. Snow: You Can't Win (a triptych), You Can't Break Even and You Can't Quit The Game. (Snow's poetic paraphrases are more apposite here that the actual science.) Nearly monochromatic, each features a murky curtain of black, gray, and muted color suspended over a flatly painted white background.

A big problem with these pieces arises from the fact that in areas the white has been brushed over the splattered areas creating a duller, less dynamic contour line and an awkwardly mannered sense of space.

Butterfly Catastrophe, another triptych featuring "empty" white background avoids this mistake. Here the spilled paint curtain
mostly coils and puddles of black with areas of intense but white-softened pinks and oranges sits more properly up front, its edges un-brushed-over. Catastrophe was painted in the last month or so. It suggests new directions.

First String and Second String are the strongest pieces. (Their titles allude to a theory addressing the composition of matter.) First suggests something like a traditional landscape: there is a thin strip of darker, solidly painted matter seemingly growing or accreting from the bottom edge: pink, red, gray. A black coil carries the eye into the air
all clouds of white, beige, pale pinks and oranges. The red balls, of which there are many, seem oddly neither here nor there.

Second, although similarly colored, is something else. Suspended over a flat black background, a Rorsharch-like cascade of paint bridges the upper left and lower right corners. Springs of white paint
smooth at times, staccato at others traverse the other two corners.

You Can't Get There From Here might be part satellite-view landscape and part billiards game. Intricate rivers and clouds of paint
creamy pinks and purples, white and cool gray have been laced once again with smooth black coils. A spread of red balls cast black shadows, making them feel particularly three-dimensional and making their backdrop feel flatter than it would otherwise. The effect is a mannered, impure and loopily engaging.

The title of Random Walk alludes to attempts to mathematically formalize certain random processes. (According to the artist it resembles, if by accident, a graph of such dynamics.) The painting is distinctive for its richly encrusted texture and its gold on black. It's the most compelling of several smaller paintings here. The twin-sized Hubbles and Bubbles are more suggestive of the confectionary than the astronomical. Square and using smooth black backgrounds, they feature particularly cartoonish cascades of pink, white and gray alongside a crowd of blue balls
an overuse of this somewhat precious icon.

The work within "Event Horizons" is uneven. (I always say this yes, but it's particularly true here.) But the best work in the gallery, though not flawless, is so compelling that it almost seems not to matter. Spend some time exploring these evocative environments and don't be afraid to follow your eyes where they lead you.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mink teaser

From the opening for "Event Horizons" at the State of the Art Gallery on the evening of Friday 11/06/09. Artist in black with necklace. Other important local artworld people out and about. Footage by Jan Kather, an artist in digital photgraphy and video installation. My review coming on Wednesday. UPDATE (11/12/09): Wednesday of next week, which is when it looks like the paper is printing it apologies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Just found out about this promising looking show, up this week and this week only at Cornell's Hartell Gallery:
Mark Gibian’s (B.F.A. ’80) sculpture is multimedia: abstract and evocative of natural forms. He constructs both large public commissions and private works, fabricating the work himself in order to control the entire creative process. Since leaving Ithaca and Cornell he has been living and working in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The show features both monoprints and small (non site-specific) sculptures. It comes down after tomorrow.

Sarah Carpenter has an intelligent review in this past Tuesday's Cornell Daily Sun (the student-run daily paper). The article goes into some depth about the relationship between his work in two and three dimensions:
Gibian’s work is about the juxtaposition and symbiotic structural relationship between the delicate and the sound, the spindly and the solid. Its forms imply skeletons, archaeology, rollercoasters and architectural interiors. The monoprints describe three-dimensional space, as promised, as well as motion and speed. Furthermore, they establish an ongoing conversation with Gibian’s sculptures, some of which are included in the show.
I'll have to get up the hill today or tomorrow. It'll be good opportunity as well to see the latest crop of offerings at the Johnson. I would not be surprised, though, if Gibian's work is more compelling that any of the contemporary offerings that they have up there. (And it's a contemporary fixated season, except for "Carved on Copper: Renaissance Engravers and Collectors in the Low Countries."
) Alas. And do go see this if you can.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Sad news for local art:

For Immediate Release

The Upstairs Gallery, a longtime Ithaca art gallery, is closing, another victim of the slow economy.

Board members of the nonprofit Upstairs Gallery in the DeWitt Mall said they will close on Sat. December 26, 2009. The gallery opened 46 years ago, the first commercial art gallery in the Ithaca area. After a year and a half, the original owners were unable to continue in business, so the gallery was kept open by a group of volunteers dedicated to the ideals of supporting local artists, showing high-quality art, and reaching as many people as possible.

“The board was ready to close their doors in Oct. 2008, when they invited me to join and see if new energy could keep the organization alive,” said Laurel Guy, president of the board. “We recruited new board members James Spitznagel, Rob Costello, Werner Sun, Laura Kirsner, Lori Moseman and Margaret Strother. We created a strong slate of shows for 2009, became a mainstay of Gallery Night and gained a wonderful year of remission for the gallery.”

Unfortunately, the current recession made it fiscally impossible for the gallery to continue. The Upstairs Gallery is supported by donations and sales of art. “Art is a very discretionary sort of purchase, and we are in the worst recession arguably in the postwar era,” said Guy.

The board wishes to give sincere thanks to the artists, donors, volunteers and community; and encourages all to attend the current and final shows.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Event horizons

Of possible interest:
Event Horizons: Science in Art

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 20th, 7:00pm

Barbara Mink and Frank Moon will show examples of their work, talk about the way science comes into their art and art into science, and invite the audience to share their thoughts on exploring both sides of the brain.


Barbara Mink teaches Management Communication at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management and is the Artistic Director of the Light in Winter Festival; Frank Moon is a sculptor, science writer and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Cornell.

Host: Science Cabaret & Light in Winter

Cost: FREE

Where: WildFire Lounge – 106 S Cayuga St.

Mink will be showing work from her science-inspired "Event Horizons" series next month at the State of the Art.
I got a glimpse of these the weekend before last at Ithaca's yearly Art Trail open studios. More to come about these, but I will say that the new work is eclectic, often weird, and occasionally perhaps over-mannered. Her landscape allusions are still mostly there, but they've been twisted into something less familiar, less predictable.

Her informal lecture tomorrow promises to be a candid discussion on some of the ideas behind her new work
particularly on the promises and perils of trying to derive artistic ideas from the natural sciences.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Books to print to books

More Mains, along with other Ink Shop associated artists:
The Tompkins County Public Library will host an opening reception for its newest exhibit, "Books to Print — Prints to Books," Thursday, October 15 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM in the Borg Warner Community Room and the Avenue of the Friends.
Full details here.

I saw the show over this past weekend and it looked pretty decent. The selection and display, not surprisingly, looked a bit haphazard compared to shows the Shop holds in its own space. The caliber of the work, for the most part, is an improvement over the library's usual fare
definitely an improvement over "A Senior Summer."

The opening looks as well worth attending as the show, as
several of the artists will be on hand to manipulate their work.


Hedgerow on Fire, 2008, monotype

Cessna, Cloud, and Mountain Range (detail), 2005, monotype triptych

Filter, 2008, monotype
Storm Surge and Oil Rig, 2008, monotype

U-Assemble Burning Trailer, 2007, inkjet print and mixed media
A small airplane seems posed to make an emergency landing in the mountains. A hedgerow sports cartoon-like bouquets of fire as do a trailer and a submarine. Houses and oil rigs tumble into the water. Ships leak oil and a bridge twists itself.

Such morbid occurrences characterize "Mishaps: Monotypes and U-Assemble Disasters," the current show at Cayuga Heights' Corners Gallery highlighting the work of printmaker Craig Mains. He gives us a compelling teleology for his story-world; in an accompanying statement he imagines "large man-made objects and proscribed attractors of natural malaise." So it goes, and with a logic that is both otherworldly and convincing.

Mains' style and technique are as distinctive as his subject matter. Working primarily in monotype (one-of-a-kind prints) he manipulates hand-painted acetate cutouts in a collage-like manner on a hard plate. After printing these, Mains will often change their arrangement and run the plate through the press again, resulting in color-faded "ghost" images. This combination of toy-like hard-edged shapes, repetition with variation, and painterly rendering is rich and well suited to his narrative imagination.

Although "Mishaps" presents a range of experiments and novelties, it is the relatively traditional work that stands out.

His large-scale triptych Cessna, Cloud, and Mountain Range is the most impressive of these by far. It consists of three framed square-ish sheets and can be read as a narrative sequence, from left to right, in the manner of a comic strip.

The first frame is ghost-ly, the silhouette of the plane merging into that of a cloud, both faint blue-green. It suggests the just-occurred; the second offers up the here-and-now with a solid dark brown aircraft aimed rightward (echoing its shadowy predecessor) towards an imposing peak, darker blue-green. Looking ahead, the final frame shows nothing but landscape: blue-green, green, a patch of black and white
all swirled together in a manner suggesting both Chinese ink landscape and Abstract Expressionism. Where is that plane headed?

Filter is another fine example of Mains in his most familiar mode. Colored in a range of ochres, pinks, reddish and orangish browns and watery yellows, it gives a characteristically surreal take on the depredations of flooding.

In front, perched on dark cliff, stands a lone house with indications of a chimney, windows and doors, and a front staircase. Behind it is a large expanse of river, coming in from the left edge of the sheet and winding its way into the far background, towards the upper right corner. Spanning it diagonally is an arch bridge, its feet progressively twisted toward the viewer as it moves closer to her. To its left, many partially drowned dwellings, houses scattered like tumbled dice. Comically, the bridge appears to block the houses from flowing further downstream
hence the title.

Recently, the artist has been experimenting a group of ideas that are idiosyncratic, at least in a fine-art context. Although animation and paper sculpture are not unexpected directions, his simultaneous use of do-it-yourself hobbyist formats certainly is.

Mains' prints imply a world in violent motion. It's unsurprising, therefore, to see his recent turn to animation. He has built a zoetrope, a nineteenth-century animation device. A strip printed with a sequence of images
here an inkjet copy of hand-printed work is attached to the inside of a wheel. Through holes we can see a moment in time. Turn the crank and we can see motion. This is a good idea with rich potential. Here the image he has chosen, Storm Surge and Oil Rig the title tells the story seems a bit random in its moment-to-moment transitions (compare it with Cessna).

Images from his Oil Rig series are also presented behind frames. They vary both in color and in precise arrangement. Again the action seems arbitrary, more explicitly so since we can see everything at once.

More interesting is a U-Assemble Burning Trailer, a diorama made up of folded paper
again inkjet replicas framed behind wood and glass. The trailer is placed at a diagonal. It is monochrome save for its green striped awnings. It sports an ear-like pair of red-orange flames; another flame occupies the foreground like shrubbery. In the background is a red-orange-brown volcano. Mountain, smoke, and fire merge into a single blurry mass.

Burning Sub, a small screenprint, distills Mains' oddball logic into uncommonly compact form. A solid black submarine, in profile, is submerged in cool gray water; crowning it is a bright, spongy yellow-green flame.

Mains shows his prints around town only sporadically, so a visit to this slightly offbeat venue
The Corners is a suburban frame-shop is highly worthwhile. This is the work of an ambitious and idiosyncratic sensibility. That said, not everything here works well, particularly amongst the outliers and experiments.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Romeyn de Hooghe

Shows of European printmaking are characteristically strong at Cornell's Johnson Museum. Recent years have featured superb exhibitions on such print-masters as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Honoré Daumier.

A compatriot and later-day contemporary of Rembrandt's is the subject of a compact but dense show currently at the museum. "Romeyn de Hooghe: Virtuoso Etcher" features an eclectic array of black and white intaglio prints by this little-known Dutch Baroque artist.

De Hooghe (1645-1708) isn't on the exalted artistic level of the above artists. His line-work is never less than immensely skillful and meticulous; still, the impression is often predominantly one of workaday laboriousness. His oft-repeated trick of juxtaposing dark, shadowy foregrounds against light middle-to-backgrounds is dramatic but sometimes over-mannered.

Like that of many printmakers, De Hooghe's oeuvre spans popular culture as well as more rarefied aesthetic territory. He made both stand-alone prints and illustrations for books (some of which he wrote himself) spanning everything from maps and mnemonic charts to political and military reportage.

De Hooghe's lifetime was marked by a series of wars, most prominently struggles between the Dutch and a coalition of foreign powers — particularly the English and the French — that took place between 1672 and 1678. Commemorations of some of these are concentrated in the show's first gallery. He was a Dutch patriot; consequently, an often vicious anti-French and anti-Catholic politics is marked.

Six framed plates taken from the artist's own text The Theatre of Changes in the Netherlands (1674) — a bound copy of the book is on display, too — show a visually intricate and heavily idealized narrative. Six progressive stages show a Dutch utopia threatened by barbarian Frenchmen only to be eventually recovered. Characteristically, they combine real current events with mythological and allegorical figures.

A rudimentarily hand-colored sea chart (attributed to the artist) incorporates a scene of the Dutch naval hero De Ruyter as Neptune being lead on a seaborne chariot by horses and merfolk.

Other prints emphasize more straightforward military scenery. In the best of these, the rhythmic dynamics of the struggling troops creates a palpable energy. A Dike Bursting Toward Coevorden shows the aftermath of a fortuitous (for the Dutch) event: leaking dikes washing away enemy troops, as well as flooding the farms surrounding the city.

The subjects and formats of the second room are more far-flung. Politics, propaganda and caricature serve as something of an anchor.

Scenes of events in the life of William of Orange are numerous. He was an important figure in both Dutch and English history (stadtholder in the Netherlands, later king of England).

Queen Mary's lying-in-state, a 1695 print commemorating the ceremony following the death of William's wife and English co-ruler, is dazzlingly baroque in its command of interior space. The overall symmetry of the architecture is masterfully countered by the directedness of the crowd towards the seated king at left. Mary herself lies in an elaborate bed in the middle, both a centerpiece and overlooked.

The same gallery gives us a sampling of the diverse subjects to which De Hooghe lent his talent. Particularly interesting are three illustrations included in Nicolaes Petter's 1674 treatise on the use of wrestling as self-defense. These illustrations feature two recurring combatants. The dynamism and unusual sparseness of the subject-matter affords the printmaker opportunity for some of his best work with the human body.

The intersection of landscape art and cartography is one of the show's most compelling themes. You can see it in the removed perspective and topographical focus of many of his battle scenes. An exciting 1672 image of The Siege of Groeningen combines a panoramic landscape (city in background, mayhem in front), a bird's-eye view and schematic regional map.

More naturalistic and more profound, however, is the second gallery's astonishing aerial view of The citadel and town of Mont Melian in Savoy. We see, from a foreground hill (moving forward) a sparsely wooded valley, a bridge-path traversing a river towards a partially fortified settlement, in its center is a steep hillside supporting an angular fortress. The rendering overall is perhaps the liveliest in show and the sense of deep space is vertiginous.

The foreground is weirder. Arrayed center to right is a crowd of figures (in typically shadowed style, here not too heavy-handed), among them several cartographers gathered around a picture-within-a-picture — an upturned document showing a schematic rendering of the distant fortress. The image breaks with the illusionism of the whole, as if collaged on.

"Virtuoso Etcher" is a rare opportunity to see work by this distinguished but lesser-known printmaker. Although his characteristically Baroque visual and narrative density can be off-putting to the modern eye, the work does reward the careful scrutiny it demands

Saturday, April 04, 2009


James Spitznagel, The City #28, inkjet print, 17" x 22"

Sorry, lateness:
James Spitznagel brings something distinctive and strange to the Upstairs Gallery and to Ithaca's often over-familiar art scene with his latest show of manipulated worldviews: "Metamorphoses: An Exhibition of Digital Fine Art Photography". Spitznagel is also an electronic musician and his sensibility here is similarly experimental. He compares the improvisational and unexpected nature of his image-making to Abstract Expressionism, an analogy based more on process than on overt style.

In addition to more straightforward means of digital manipulation, the pictures involve re-photographing imagery off of screens, typically at an off-angle. Perspective is oddly twisted as a result. We see the subtle overall grids of the screens, but rarely quite perpendicular with the edges of the paper.

Spitznagel is not forthcoming about the real-world sources for his otherworldly abstractions. Nevertheless, most of his prints allude to
while ultimately eluding our sense of the familiar. Many of his photos (a sampling hangs in the gallery's back room) suggest still-life.

His front room pictures are more diffuse, lacking a center or an un-ambiguous perspective. Indeed, they suggest an abstract urban cartography
the modern city and modern art filtered through a science fiction aesthetic. Each of these printed sheets here is 17" x 22" and stands upright.

The City # 1, 2, and 4 are busy, patchwork-like grids of Cubist forms in overall gray tones. Square and rectangular shapes appear flat, like the roofs of a crowded futuristic metropolis seem from the sky. Occasional diagonals suggest a contradiction, breaking the flatness.

The City #28 vividly resembles the man-made canyons of some big city streets. The tall building flanking to the left and right evoke Manhattan
although they appear as a dense abstract tapestry of white, black, and gray rectangular patches. Below center are faint light-ish letters, reminiscent of Cubism and collage.

Perhaps the most compelling pieces here are a series incorporating more amorphous, less obviously rectilinear textures. (The ever-present grid is still here in the form of the overall screen texture.) These pieces are evocative of circuit boards and Gothic architecture alike. Their shimmer of light is sometimes reminiscent of Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral.

The City #19, with its sparsely printed dark green-brown seemingly making the white of the paper glow, is a standout in this vein.

The City #10 is distinctive for its suggestion of interior space, along with a (more or less) human scale. Toward the lower right there is what looks like a half-open door, half blocking a patch of bright white glare. The piece is vaguely, oddly reminiscent of Velázquez's seventeenth century masterpiece Las Meninas, a meditation of self-reference, looking, and picturing. While there is little of that here
certainly there are no figures there is a strongly narrative, cinematic ambience: one thinks of the futuristic film noir of Blade Runner.

The City #15 is the most radical plunge into abstraction, a thoroughly perspective-less composition with only the most tenuous reference to its erstwhile subject. (Piet Mondrian's classic abstract painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, influenced by the NYC street grid and by jazz, is a conceptual and stylistic ancestor.) We see a lumpy island of square blocks, printed in black and gray against an expanse of white. The black blocks are solid in tone within; otherwise we see a fine mesh-grid texture.

Finally, there is a standout City in Red series, a triptych. Each of the three panels, hung in a row, is roughly continuous with the others
but with discontinuities as well. 1 and 2 suggest a city skyline seen from a considerable distance. There is an allover smear of red. Above the jagged horizon is a cloud of magenta and white; below are architecture-like arrays of black. There are spots of yellow too. These color layers continue into 3 but the perspective seems to shift to aerial and we are no longer perpendicular to the city grid. We are thus twisted out of what otherwise might be a postcard view.

Not everything here works well. In particular, some prints are overly reminiscent of surveillance imagery - an interesting narrative association perhaps, but less than lovely to look at. Still, the best of these images maintains the Upstairs Gallery's usual high standards while tweaking familiar expectations of gallery art.