Thursday, December 29, 2011

Western Swing

Herzog & de Meuron
de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

San Francisco is a city with charm; it's a cultural oasis.  Our last time here,  we wanted to visit the de Young Museum but it was under construction.  Upon my return a few days ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the new building with its pointilist copper facade designed by the team of Herzog and de Meuron. About the only thing that remains of the previous incarnation of the de Young Museum are the old palm trees.  Now there is a large outdoor cafe with a giant bobby pin (pop sculpture) and indoors there was an opulent traveling exhibition of Venetian painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as well as a historical overview of Anatolian Kilims.

On top of the educational tower is a ninth floor observatory with panoramic views of the city.  A wonderful place to stop and take in the scene.  People reach for their cameras and snap away, and I did too. You can see up the coast to the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond, when it is sunny and clear - not always possible on a point of land frequently fog-bound.

The lower level is entered by a long gently sloping staircase.
At the entrance to the  show of Venetian painting the gallery visitor finds mural size images of San Marco as well as photos from the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  Among the first paintings we encountered was a portrait of St. Sebastian by Mantegna.  This iconic painting was amazing in detail, and moving by way of the passion and pain it portrays.  Mantegna and Giotto were pivotal figures bringing perspective to spatial arrangement in two dimensional art, and the St. Sebastian portrays this new found structure.

 Andrea Mantegna, 1470
 St. Sebastian

Around the corner in the next gallery we come upon a trove of paintings by Titian, which are so sumptuous and mysterious at the same time.  I try to fathom the personalities portrayed, as Titian paints  in such a way as to reveal his subject's very nature.  A great colorist, Titian follows in the footsteps of Giorgione who also has paintings on view in this exhibition.  Old favorites are here including Titian's
"Danae" and the shower of gold, and another one of Titian's last paintings which is much rougher in texture and darker in temperament.

Titian, circa 1575

We enjoyed Tintoretto, and Veronese also in this show.  Tintoretto's Susanna ( and the elders) presages Manet, and the arrangement of bodies in space still seems so odd and staged to me.  The impression left from visiting this show is one of grand opera and drama, an archaic  and poetic realm full of human foibles and longings.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In The Loop

painting by Jim Mott

Jim Mott is the itinerant painter traveling around the countryside bartering his talents and creating his life's work.  Years ago, when I first met the artist, he had just come back from painting outdoors and I looked over his small plein air panel paintings ( which I just couldn't resist).  Jim's project is to travel and paint what he sees.  He has been around the United States, and even ended up as a subject for a "Today Show" broadcast featuring him scouting out locations and doing what he does best: landscape painting.

The Center at High Falls is hosting a selection of his panel paintings made on Jim's most recent excursions around the Inner Loop here in Rochester, and out in the suburbs.  He and I share many interests including looking for birds, painting from nature, and making observations along the highways and byways if one has the time and the inclination.

Jim is not afraid to paint outside on the snowy days as well as the balmy afternoons, and his postcard sized paintings create mini-environments and containers of light that are very convincing, but not labored.  When the paintings are at their best, they have a guileless approach to matter-of-fact realism that reminds me of the late Fairfield Porter, and the panoramas of Rackstraw Downes.

In order to fulfill his vision, Jim reaches out to people who will let him spend a few days and nights at their home; he finds the challenge of painting in a new neighborhood that is fresh to his eye.  In return for room and board, Jim leaves his hosts a signed original painting, - and then it is back to the road for his next engagement with the land.  Is this a kind of Johnny Appleseed complex?

In a way,  this is a grassroots activist at work - returning to the landscape that has nourished us, and by calling our attention to the surrounding beauty ( and which we oftentimes fail to acknowledge ) we are nudged towards responsible stewardship of our country and countryside.

But Jim is not all birds and flowers;  in fact some of my favorite images in the present show are of Rochester's landmark factories, signs and symbols, including the Little Theatre marquee, and the Rochester Art Supply store.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Rush

Cy Twombly

Thanksgiving car traffic going into New York City is world class, and so it seems that all those people on the road were going to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) - just when we wanted to.  So we waited in line outside on a brisk day in Manhattan for the privilege of getting into the building to be able to wait in line to buy a ticket.  Then we waited in line to hang up our coats and before you knew it two hours had passed and the only art we glimpsed was a titanic sized Cy Twombly in the entry.  I felt a heavy dose of dread in the bus station that was the MOMA that day.  How did they ever spend so much money to get so little by way of public amenities for the museum-goer?  We look in vain for a place to sit after waiting in line so long.

I only glance at the Diego Rivera mural on the way up to the sixth floor to see the retrospective of Willem DeKooning.  The Rivera dovetails nicely with the social consciousness of the early DeKooning "portraits" of everyman, often dressed in ill-fitting clothes staring with distant looking eyes.  I like the cool declaration of Elaine DeKooning drawn to icy perfection in a near-Ingres like graphite drawing near the entrance of the show.  I went to see early DeKooning - before he commenced with his signature works.  I was curious to see what revelations could be found in the earliest paintings.  Could you really tell what he would become from the start?

The answer is yes, but you really must pay attention.  Even though DeKooning would try a variety of strategies to derail his natural dexterity ( he draws sometimes with his eyes closed, or while watching television ) his artwork is all about the hand and the marks it makes.  DeKooning's art has little in the way of narrative, unless you think of the story being told is an analysis of the artist's nervous system with all its characteristic ticks, jumps and jots.

In 1939 abstraction followed on the heels of the portraits, and the jump may have been precipitated by DeKooning's interaction with painters Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis, both of whom were working on organic or biomorphic forms in their influential art.

DeKooning spends part of the late 1940's teaching at the progressive Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina.  Tucked into the hill country of western North Carolina, Black Mountain would prove to be the spawning ground for a truly modern art movement that had far reaching effect in American cultural history.  Although DeKooning was there for only a short while, something happened to his paintings that brought all of his energy together with a deep gravitas that still looks terrific today.

Paintings on canvas in black and white enamel may have been my favorite things among the early work in the show.  For two or three years, DeKooning made the most of limited color, attached to severe shapes that knit together "Painting", and "Dark Pond", "Attic" from 1949, and "Excavation" from 1950. An instructive collage nearby was put together with cut out shapes and thumbtacks, and one can guess that this process helped hone the consummate draftsmanship that enables the artist to be so convincing.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fall Opens

The Johnson Museum
on the Cornell University campus
early November, 2011

I drive down along Lake Cayuga during the day in early November thinking that I have never seen the water look so blue!  So, like a tourist, I pull over to take a picture - this kind of marvel has been going on since I moved upstate from New York City.  Back in Manhattan there didn't seem to be any distinct seasons, you would just notice that it gets warmer in the summer.  For a few years in Brooklyn, I had a painting studio with no natural light, and I began to yearn for daylight.  I wanted to have those large picture windows that my neighbor Alex Grey had for his studio space.

So what a joy it is to be on my way down to an opening at The Ink Shop, a cooperative printmaking space on State Street in downtown Ithaca, NY.  The show, opening on the first Friday in November is titled " In Tents" - and represents seven printmakers who show their art at outdoor art fairs around the country - they travel a circuit setting up a booth to sell their prints.

The artists, Ann Eldridge, Johanna Mueller, Christopher Plumber, Jenny Pope, Daryl Storrs, Marina Terauds and Heinrich Toh make a pleasant company and their work has a broad appeal.  Many of these names were new to me, and I found the monoprints of Heinrich Toh to be very intriguing - incorporating hand drawing, photo, and decorative digital elements along with lots of color and space.

Later, I went up the hill to the Johnson Museum on the Cornell University campus to view the new addition and I really enjoyed the visit.  The Johnson Museum collections have been moved around making a new open storage study gallery where you can view anything from a suit of armor, to pre-columbian pottery.  The opening of a new addition a few weeks ago adds levels underground, as well as a mini Japanese garden replete with moss and stones and gardeners at work.

Palampore, block printed and hand colored
early Chintz fabric from India

Inside the Johnson Museum I found a cross section of Indian Textile art in an exhibition called "Essence of Indian Textiles" from the Parpia Collection.  Here you find the origins of  Chintz fabrics in the marvelous Palampore which usually portrays a magical flowering plant that the Indian artisans made for export.  Indian textiles defined deluxe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Today, we look at the rich colors of their carpets, wall hangings, and even the common Banjara folk arts and we are moved by their sense of detail, high level of design and terrific craft.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How's That?

Extreme Materials 2
courtesy of The Memorial Art Gallery

Two new exhibitions will help start a discussion not likely to be resolved any time soon.  Let me address fans of traditional painting, drawing, and sculpture - Things Have Changed - so why not try something new?  Some may resist change because of the values that new media seem to encourage.  If you found deep resonance with traditional art forms, can you find that in the video and installation art so often encountered in contemporary museums and gallery space?  Are the artists featured at Rochester Contemporary Art Center and the Memorial Art Gallery just reflecting our own culture back to us?

I don't think you can easily dismiss a whole category of fine art - say video - if it doesn't fall into your comfort zone.  Video artists are working within a tradition that goes back over half a century. The fact that fine art video has to compete with other time based media like movies or television is part of the underdog equation, and part of the gallery and art investment complex.

The equation will change when the average person can dial up your experimental video ( or other art ) and have it in front of them on their iPad or wall screen to contemplate, savor and either accept or trash.  The internet is a great equalizer.  The internet can present a common - if very crowded - forum for a population of would-be fans.

However, problems abound with a proposed business model that now seems to turn away from the purchase and ownership of an art object.  On the side of the collector or fan - they have the experience or own a reproduction - this is the truth behind the notion of the simulacrum for the non-practitioner.  For a working artist - how will you support yourself?  Are you only there for the entertainment?

Into the breach of this curious transition are two exhibitions which focus our attention on what  artists want us to see:  Rochester Contemporary Art Center presents "Scapes" and the Memorial Art Gallery has 'Extreme Materials 2".  At the Art Center we have video presentations from Debora Bernagozzi, Jason Bernagozzi, and Sterz - all of whom live and work in Rochester, and Jamie Hahn from Spokane, WA - all in a provocative show about human-landscape interactions.

Sterz' projections are centered on textured aluminum panels which influences our perception of what looks like rain falling on a window pane - all in subtle shades of grey in his work titled "Redress".
Beyond that four talking heads on monitors in a work called "Dataspeak" chatter away at each other, decompose digitally and then start all over again after a long pause.  In "Form,Data,Form " of 2011 Jason Bernagozzi translates waves of information into patterns that look like a 3D oscilloscope.  In the back we have nine monitors showing aspects of a quiet stream with a soundtrack of filtered natural sounds that becomes an odd kind of surveillance film loop.

Contrast this with the new show "Extreme Materials 2" at the Memorial Art Gallery and that will give you something to think about.. So the artwork is not made with paints and brushes or clay - does it really matter?  Going through this show I couldn't help but think of the tradition of Hobo, or Tramp Art ( which was actually made by skilled crafts-people ) examples of which can be seen in the Memorial Art Gallery collection.  This is especially true for Jennifer Maestre's piece titled "Kraken", 2008 made up of pointy color pencils cut into a spiky cactus-like form, and also for the carefully painted screw head portrait by Andrew Meyers.

A sense of humor pervades the "Extreme Materials 2" exhibit - maybe it is the mocking tone of Sally Curcio's "Garden of Earthly Delights" or the fashionable dress made out of latex condoms by Adriana Bertini in 2006.  A wavy wall of translucent Neutrogena soaps creates a corridor that reminds me of Richard Serra, and did I really have to spend so much time looking at breakfast cereal on display as a copy of a Ravenna wall mosaic?

"Extreme Materials 2"  turns the art gallery into an amusement park, and what will be next?  Maybe a wax-museum, or pin-ball machines.. a real Coney Island of the mind and sensibility.  The artworld is fractured and fragmented, and the most we can hope for are threads of sensitivity that we can follow through the woods.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Heating Up The Cool Down

design by
Bruno Monguzzi
for the Musee d'Orsay
Paris, France

Fall is the season and the leaves begin to turn colors and mount up on my lawn, but I put away my rake to join a social swirl at art gallery openings...and there was so much to see!

You had to be there!   Must see exhibitions around Rochester this month include a sterling poster collection by the Swiss-Italian graphic designer Bruno Monguzzi.  I had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Monguzzi whose work I have known for many years, and I thoroughly enjoyed an illustrated talk he gave to an audience at R.I.T.

Years ago, I taught graphic design and Bruno Monguzzi's signage - particularly for art museums- has stood out at the pinnacle in a world of fast paced visual communications.  Those of you who are lucky enough to be in Paris, France would know his graphics for the Musee d'Orsay.  (see above )  The unlikely inclusion of J. Henri Lartigue's photo of a manned glider plane getting off the ground is an integral part of the poster for the grand opening, and creates a wonderful parallel in the renewed life of the museum.  You will find this all over Bruno Monguzzi's design work - a deep level of communication and pleasure reaching to achieve a harmony with a viewer.  These big posters are at the Bevier Gallery, and in the Vignelli Design Center and they can be seen this month at R.I.T.

Brand new gallery space in Rochester is hard to come by but this season there are several major openings, and I found marvelous new art by the New York City mixed media artist Mark Fox at the redesigned Culver Armory.  The building is being completely overhauled for offices and retail space and for this month alone go see this exhibition presented by Deborah Ronnen Fine Art.  The physical gallery space reminds me of Chelsea where open bays harbor shimmering cut paper works that on first appearance look like scrims of pale vegetation, and on closer inspection become a mesh of written words cut out of paper and suspended over armatures, or hung from metal pins.

Hiding in an entry hallway are grids of silver color in an "Elegy for Jane Jacobs", from 2010, which I saw first, quickly followed by a ingeniously hallucinogenic "Wraith", which is made of large sheets of cut paper suspended in front of mylar sheets that wavered in a slight breeze that made the whole room quiver.  The "Elegy", was especially apt as the grids call to mind Jane Jacobs writing about cities and neighborhoods, and the silver grids certainly attain a symbolic reckoning.

Mark Fox was the star of his own movie being projected on one wall, and we can learn a lot more from this interview with the artist.  Many of his pieces call to mind the tough wire works of Alan Saret, and also the artist Richard Tuttle.  Mark Fox settles somewhere in between - the art is literate, conceptual and not particularly colorful.  Mostly, the colors are turned away from the viewer, and they begin to represent (for me) a psychological state of introversion or introspection.

Frances Paley, this month
at the Spectrum Gallery

On a block past the Memorial Art Gallery, around the corner from the Arts & Cultural Council on College Avenue is a nondescript building housing new gallery spaces for R.I.T. 's Gallery r set to pop open in a few weeks, and Lumiere's Spectrum Gallery now open in its new location.  On the walls are large pigment on paper prints by Frances Paley, with a emphasis on fashions and reflections.  The albino peacock is a key image here, as are the numerous costumes and storefront images which remind me of window shopping on Madison Avenue in NYC, and they are a little disorienting.  Here is an art that is quite baroque, with feverish color that blurs the boundary between layers of reflections, so it is hard to pin down just where you are when you look them over.

In another gallery that was new to me, at the Skalny Welcome Center- on the campus of St. John Fisher College  I found a quiet reminder of the private vision of smaller scale artwork that has an intimate pull on the eye and mind.

Most of the art in "Interpretation of Site" revolves around landscape traditions that go back a few hundred years to the moors and sky of Constable and Turner.  The three featured artists: Constance Mauro, G.A. Sheller, and Elizabeth King Durand have enjoyed travels in Europe, and come home with sketches and reflections on those voyages.  Inventive use of printmaking and painting techniques abound in this art as does a light touch with color and atmosphere which encourages gentle contemplation.

A final note to commemorate the passing of yet another artist, friend and teacher - Julie Furlong Williams.  Recently, she has had shows of her work both at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, and The Memorial Art Gallery, and her wit and wisdom will be missed.

G.A.Sheller in the Ross Gallery, Skalny Welcome Center, St. John Fisher College

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Graffiti With Punctuation

Some wag said blogs were "graffiti with punctuation".  While this might initially get a laugh - blogs do what print journalism seemed to miss, especially when it comes to the visual arts in our community, and that is to get around to see more of what is going on and to address a response that was more than regurgitating a press release.

When traditional newspapers fail to cover openings of shows, or give spotty coverage at best - they cut the links to everyone except the most dedicated gallery goers.  If you were an artist who worked on materials for a show for a couple of years, you would want to be recognized.  Today, it is all-out competition for your attention, and at the moment the sports-entertainment industry seems to be winning, so why take pot shots at bloggers?

Years ago, I was paid to write about the visual arts, but now I do it on my own - for free- with the help of the First Fridays site as a sounding board.  Content providers in the arts are often working on their own- nobody commissions this work, and I hasten to add artists of all stripes say they do it for love, and because they cannot not do it.  When questions are raised about how long one can keep this up, I say as long as I am able..

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Of Lasting Value

Waterfall,  2011
by Stephanie Kirschen Cole

The NTID Dyer Arts Center is one of the most beautiful places to show art, and no doubt that
Stephanie Kirschen Cole was looking forward to the way her solo exhibition would look when the exhibition opened.

Stephanie had been planning this show for some time and it does look fabulous, but she did not get the chance to see it finally, as she passed before the work was transported to the gallery.  Stephanie had been ill for a while; she was a colleague of mine, and it was only a few months ago that we talked about her artwork, especially in regard to an upcoming exhibition coming to the Memorial Art Gallery in honor of John Ashbery's prize-winning poem "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" which I wrote about earlier this year.  Stephanie was represented by the Tibor DeNagy Gallery in New York City, and she had made a few artworks that reflected her interest in this particular poem.

So, it shouldn't surprise a visitor to the show at the Dyer Arts Center, now through August 12, 2011, that Stephanie had a literary bent to her work, which frequently honors philosophers, thinkers like Copernicus and all manner of maps and prints - almost like visiting an antiquarian book dealer - except she is a visual artist who had strong attachments to cultural and scientific artefacts.  Stephanie also was a crafter of hand made papers, and I would consider collage as her metier.

My favorite work in this large scale show is above, the Waterfall which when I visited was mildly blowing in a slight breeze in the room - animating everything and looking very Asian.  In fact, some of Stephanie's art seems to borrow from Japanese kimono/textile traditions in the sense of patterning and muted colors.  I think this work which is made of strips of hand printed ribbon positively dances, and I found it to be extremely sophisticated in its simplicity.

There are certain repetitive concerns in Stephanie's artwork- images are often presented on handmade paper treated with colorfield splashes of transparent color that often frame a geometric shape - which in turn might frame another more detailed object, mask, or tree.  One of her most striking images was a tribute to Acupuncture - a form of therapy for pain employing fine needles, it can be seen on the postcard advertising the show.

In this Tribute to Stephanie Cole's Life and Art a special student recognition award is being announced through R.I.T. and The Foundations Department where Stephanie taught for many years.  If you would like to contribute please send a check made payable to R.I.T. and mail your check to the Foundations Department, R.I. T., 73 Lomb Memorial Drive, Rochester, NY 14623

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Look! & See! Norman Rockwell at Work!

Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train, Norman Rockwell, 1944.
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 12, 1944.
©1944 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collections; the original painting is now in
the collection of The Memorial Art Gallery.

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera
at the George Eastman House

When I was in college, students at my art school would make snide comments about anyone's artwork that looked like Norman Rockwell's.  Of course, this was at the height of an American romance with abstraction, in the wake of Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning.

Then along came Andy Warhol and the whole argument was upset.  Pop Art was a kind of insider's joke about American culture, except that it was seen by the public as a catalyst towards becoming a celebrity artist - taking mass marketing as a subject to capitalize, in Andy Warhol's case. 

I can see it now from a new perspective.  Teaching art in college as I do, one can see what people's aptitudes allow, among a cohort ( of art students ). For example, students who are learning illustration still respect the ability to draw from life, and they practice that skill.  Almost all art students respect the use of the camera, enabling them to build a composition with the requisite amount of "information".

Just as Norman Rockwell achieved widespread appeal as the artist who painted covers for The Saturday Evening Post - he lost the respect of the fine art world as he was catering to his clients and in the process appearing mawkishly sentimental.  Fine artists would call this "selling out" or even "buckeye" (keeping your eyes on the bucks $$$).

Maybe today we are all grown up and don't make the fine distinctions which were so divisive about the holiness of fine arts versus illustration.  This argument would be lost on the general public, and eventually dismissed - just look at the elevation of an artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish for example.  Norman Rockwell has a lot in common with Parrish, especially on a formal level.  This brings me to another point - can you really tell the difference between Norman Rockwell's illustration and, say the paintings of regional artists like Grant Wood?

When Norman Rockwell's paintings begin to sell for a million at auction, people begin to notice, and to collect rather than criticize.  I look at the exhibition of Rockwell's art at The George Eastman House from a different angle.  When I was younger I spent years as an illustrator and designer;  I didn't mind working on commission, and I never missed a deadline.  Of course there are differences between illustration and fine art - the first being the intent of the artist.  When I look at Norman Rockwell's art on view in the show, I see an artist who goes out of his way to create a pleasing picture suitable for a mass market that tells a succinct story.  Rockwell really is a visual journalist who hits his stride in the late 1940's.

Reference photo for Norman Rockwell’s Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train, 1944.
Photo by Gene Pelham. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.
Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

The George Eastman House presents Rockwell paintings alongside the photos he orchestrated.  The focus is on characters, and the gallery visitor can see how closely Rockwell followed his reference photos.  His best models were his neighbors - whether it was in Arlington, Vermont, or later in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Rockwell played the role of the director - getting the character's face just right to express the emotion of the story, fixing the lights just so, all with the right props and attitude.  And the funny thing was that Rockwell hired photographers to do the camera work, as he said - he had enough other work arranging the shoot and making the paintings.

The interesting thing in this exhibit is comparing the photos to the original art when it is available.  I think there are too many reproductions in this show for me, but it goes to underscore the point that this art was created precisely to be reproduced in the hundreds and thousands and millions of copies.
My art students would say that Rockwell was corny, but he was also able to deal with tricky social issues during the civil rights era of the late 1950's and early 1960's.

At the entry to the show, in the short documentary film narrated by Norman Rockwell's son Peter,  he mentions the paintings depicting the four freedoms annunciated by F.D.R. ( which I consider to be among Rockwell's finest work) and it is a shame they are not included in the present exhibition.  With that exception, we can learn a lot about Americana through the lens and the art of this illustrator.

A couple of funny things hit me as I was leaving the show.  I made a connection between Norman Rockwell's use of stencil lettering to sign his name on a painting and the use of that same technique by Jasper Johns.  And thinking about Jasper Johns - his flat and frontal approach does have something in common with Rockwell.  Then I saw "Merry Christmas Grandma.. We Came In Our New Plymouth"
an advertisement made in 1951 with an accompanying photo of a little boy who looks as if he was straight out of a Diane Arbus photo.  With a heightened sense of irony, I left the show and thought about that for a while.  It is all about the artist's intent.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
  by:  Francesco Parmagianino ( circa 1523 )

Was this really the first self portrait by an artist gazing into a mirror?

That is the impression one has when reading John Ashbery's amazing poem about the portrait above. The 16th century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino is the creative mind ( and hand ) behind this famous painting found in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Austria. Ashbery's poem is a reflection on a painting which is in itself a painting about reflection with all the subtle and major distortions that one might find in convexity.

Reading Ashbery's poem "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" one finds that the subject is a whole little world full of surface and substance.  This past Thursday I had the chance to shake the hand of the poet, and sit among a crowd listening to him read in the Memorial Art Gallery auditorium.  Ashbery resembles an old Ted Kennedy ambling onstage after his introduction as one of the world's most honored living poets.

Not only did we have the fortune to hear Ashbery read selections  from his anthology but we also came to learn that he is originally from Rochester, and that when he was young he had taken art classes at the Memorial Art Gallery.  Ashbery made a remark about the poet William Carlos Williams who also wanted to be a painter but found it much easier to carry around manuscripts than a bunch of wet canvases.

It was no coincidence that Ashbery came to Rochester this week:  in the Lockhart Gallery there is a show dedicated to his poem "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" which features eight artists who were asked to contribute images to a portfolio all dressed up for presentation in black circular frames.  Marjorie Searl had a dream of putting this show together, and she made a terrific effort to present a stimulating dialog between the literary and visual art worlds.

So here we have a poem about a painting, and painters who made prints around the themes in the poem. Naturally, there are many portraits among the eight prints, though none of them are the masterpiece that Francesco created that inspired this whole affair.  The portrait by Elaine DeKooning was interesting ( someone said that the younger Ashbery looked like the actor Stacey Keach), also the Richard Avedon photo was terrific, and the painter Larry Rivers created a work that somehow conveyed the proper literary context showing Ashbery at his portable typewriter.

I should also note that Ashbery operated for years as an art critic, and one should buy a copy of his book published first in the late 1980's titled "Reported Sightings" - it makes a great read if you are especially interested in digging into the New York City art milieu that he covered between 1957-1987.

John Ashbery is also associated with many artists who exhibited at the Tibor DeNagy Gallery in Manhattan.  The gallery had refreshing shows of a new kind of representational art at a time when the heights of abstract expressionism were upon us.  I made many visits to shows and openings at that gallery during the years that Ashbery was art critic for New York Magazine, so I could say that I have been directly influenced by this corner of the artworld.

I should also note with sadness the passing of a local artist who was associated with the Tibor DeNagy Gallery, and that was my friend and colleague at R.I.T. - Stephanie Kirschen Cole.  I was so impressed one day in Washington D.C. to come across her large artwork in the Hirschorn Museum on the mall.
Stephanie will be missed and her art will be remembered.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Every Fiber of My Being

by Betty Vera
photo courtesy of The Memorial Art Gallery

In the auditorium at The Memorial Art Gallery, Jeanne Raffer Beck ended her evening lecture on May 12th with a quote from the choreographer Martha Graham.  "Keep the channel open", wrote Graham, and it is appropriate to mention that when you visit exhibitions like the Fiber Art International now on view at The Memorial Art Gallery your idea of what fiber art actually is will be seriously updated.  Jeanne Beck commented that she was "trying to not make her work look too pretty", but this does not stress the aesthetic sense she brings to her art which is driven by texture and mark making with thread.

Fiber art is more than just weaving of course, but weaving itself is given a major boost in the art of Betty Vera.  Weaving is an ancient form of digital art:  it works on a grid ( the warp and weft ) and it can be layered.  Betty Vera was trained as a painter, but now employs a digital loom to weave images that appear like textured photographs - her art is all about light.  At the MAG, Betty Vera won an award for "Gesture" ( see above ) which is a racy blue mixture of cotton and rayon and the complex patterning is an achievement in Jacquard damask.  This was the same technique that appeared in two similar works on view recently at The Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Computer guided looms manage intricate patterns, and we have seen the influx of this in some of the clothes we wear.  Once patterns were strictly geometric ( to go along with the warp and weft ), but now a pattern could be anything.  I enjoyed "Funny Face" a digital inkjet print on silk satin hanging as a pair in the gallery by artist Hitoshi Ujiie.  "5 Generations of Virtue" by Lisa Lee Peterson, also has this photographic look in her woven panels whose focus is on Asian women and their costumes.

Alighiero Boetti, a member of the Arte Povera movement in Italy created many woven works before his death in 1994.  Often these woven "paintings" included maps and letters of the alphabet, and this might have been the inspiration for a large colorful creation called "Reconstruction" by the Japanese artist Mami Idei.  The visual legacy of ideas and how they travel could be the subtext of the Fiber Art International exhibition.  Another example of this would be the delicate batik created for "Kimono Windy" by the German artist Maria Schade.  Are those goldfish or fallen leaves in a pond?

Given the events in the world, it is not surprising that the human condition is evoked by award winning art such as Erin Endicott's "Healing Sutra" ( Best in Show ).  This delicate work of embroidery looks like a diagram of a heart attack, and it finds correlations to other human forms in the exhibit - most notably the use of x-rays in the "Humanoids" which hang in the main gallery by French artist Brigitte Amarger.

When fiber art becomes truly three dimensional and begins to occupy our space the sculptural impact can be very powerful as with Stephanie Metz's felt work "Muscle Heifer".  I also found myself mesmerized by the knotting in Joh Ricci's "Indian Summer" which looks like peas in a pod - and also Rebecca Siemering's suit of clothes "American Made".

Jeanne Beck opened her talk at the Memorial Art Gallery by reciting the parable of the blind men in India describing what they thought an elephant must be like.  One blind man hugged the animal's leg and said that an elephant must be like a cylinder, another had the tail and said no - the elephant was like a rope, finally another put his hands on the elephants belly - and said it was like a wall.  "Trying to describe art is like that", said Jeanne Beck, it all depends on your perspective.  The trick is to keep the channels open.

"Seeds of Compassion" 2008
Jeanne Raffer Beck
photo courtesy of The Memorial Art Gallery

Sunday, May 1, 2011

360/365 and 50

Oh, the associations one can bring to the viewing of art does lead down some unique paths.  At the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival we saw Julie Taymor receive her Susan B. Anthony Award and we heard the gracious comments from Garth Fagan about Ms. Taymor's vision and work ethic.  Then we get to see Helen Mirren star as Prospera in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".  As the film opens, Mirren raises her staff - and on a distant stormy sea great waves hit a foundering boat, thus setting the scene for marvelous storytelling and poetic alchemy.  I couldn't help thinking that Taymor has the eyes of a painter like Joseph Mallord William Turner (think of his "SlaveShip" of 1840, oil on canvas), and in fact the sprite Ariel, in this film version of "The Tempest", is a change agent - who has powers not unlike that of a great artist.

The following day we look in on the introduction of C.Scott's documentary film "The Woodmans"; and stay for the presentation of Francesca Woodman's photos, the testament of her parents - Betty and George, and the episodes that follow leading up to a tragic ending.  The epilogue for this family of artists highlights how vulnerable we are, and how we struggle to deal with mental distress.  George's artwork changed as a result, from pattern painting to a photographic art that has eerie similarities to his deceased daughter's ouevre. Betty's ceramics get bigger and bolder, and yet she appears not willing to address on camera issues of guilt and regret about her daughter's illness.

Betty Woodman goes on to have major exhibitions at MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then off to Beijing to add her art to the new American Embassy being built there.  But the art of their daughter seems to transcend this all - and hold in it some core of enigma, and elusive personality.

Demuth "The Figure 5 in Gold"
courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bill Santelli " 5-0 in Gold"
courtesy Oxford Gallery, Inc.

We are left in a retrospective mood bolstered by the fact that this is the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Oxford Gallery in Rochester, celebrated by the opening of a spring exhibition honoring many of the participants past and present.

I was aware of the reputation of the Oxford Gallery way before I ever set foot there.  Artists who I knew in New York City like Morton Kaish were represented by the Oxford Gallery, and an artist and printmaker - Zevi Blum (I was his graduate assistant at Cornell in the 1970's) had many shows at Oxford.  What is the Oxford Gallery known for, and why has it had such endurance over the years?  First, over all there is enlightened management, a passion for the art it shows with remarkable consistency, and a deep respect for the traditional craft of image making.  The Oxford Gallery offers mainly representational art for the wall and some noteworthy sculpture featuring artists from central and western New York.

When you walk downstairs and visit the Oxford Gallery you are immediately ushered into the gallery space by Jim Hall, the present owner.  At a distance one sees what looks like Charles Demuth's "The Figure 5 in Gold", now updated by Bill Santelli to commemorate 50 years in business; the painting is clever and eye catching.  Demuth made the original in 1928 in response to his friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, in a momentary observation of a ruckus caused by a passing fire truck.

Observation is crucial to the artists at the Oxford Gallery show, so many of the works succeed ( or fail ) at holding your attention - by either presenting you with something commonplace that is beautifully rendered such as the tree in Phil Bornarth's "Wadsworth Oak", or the still life by David Dorsey "Flowers From Another Year", or else giving you something entirely new like Jacquie Germanow's sculpture "Lacuna" .

History was written on the walls and this 50th birthday for the gallery includes a recent find "The Centennial" -by Lilly Martin Spencer, an American painter ( 1822-1902) of genre scenes known primarily here in Rochester for her work "Peeling Onions" usually on view at the MAG.  "The Centennial" is a large unfinished canvas depicting age and youth at a party; it was found on the artist's easel at the time of her death.

On the elegiac note one must acknowledge the passing of Nancy Buckett also a former owner and director of the Oxford Gallery who died earlier this month, and the aforementioned Zevi Blum whose print hangs in the entry vestibule.  Both were friends and a part of the fabric of the visual arts scene and they will be missed.

Wishing the Oxford Gallery well for all the support that has been given to the artists whose vision is celebrated with this and what one hopes will be many exhibitions to come.  Go and enjoy the show.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Made it in New York

by Milton Glaser

Something to be proud of - a deep commitment to the arts and the systems that keep it alive and well.  The inventor of the I LOVE NY bumper sticker, artist and designer Milton Glaser is profiled in a new film titled: "To Inform and Delight" presented last week at R.I.T.  Glaser and partners formed Push Pin Graphics and they were recognized with shows at The Museum of Modern Art, and in Paris at the Centre Pompidou in the early 1970's.  Glaser was a Fulbright Scholar studying with Giorgio Morandi in Italy, and soaking up the traditions of color and drawing in Europe before setting his course on "commercial art".
Along the way he founded New York Magazine, co-authored the "Underground Gourmet" with Jerome Snyder, and designed and illustrated his way across a sea of of posters, typography, and books to lasting effect.  At the end of the film, Milton said that many factors contribute to success but he could not have accomplished all that he has - without the relationships and the context of New York, New York.

 At the Schweinfurth
Memorial Art Center
photo provided by the artist
H.T. Coogan:  "Litle Educational Turntable of Misdirections and Ever Shifting Points of Attraction"

If You are an artist in New York, it goes without saying that there is a lot of competition to get your artwork out there to be seen.  Each year a gallery show is selected for the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center, in Auburn, New York.  Part of this series is the current exhibition: "Made in NY 2011" which features 52 artists showing a total of 77 artworks in a wide variety of sizes and media.  This is a juried show with awards bestowed by two jurors who had a lot to choose from ( 684 works were submitted).
The resulting exhibition makes for a compelling museum visit which I recommend.

I did not intend this to be a bit of shameless self-promotion (that comes later), but in a measure of full disclosure, my work was selected this year for the show and I am in great company!   When you walk into the Schweinfurth Art Center there is a smaller exhibit of paintings by Noma and James Bliss on the right and the main galleries are dedicated to New York artists selected for "Made in NY 2011".  As you walk in a fine and funny collection of almost a thousand "handpainted rulers" sit in groups sorted by size in measuring beakers by the artist H.T. Coogan.  While this work wasn't given an award, it should at least be recognized for its sense of humor, which also characterizes the other art in the show by Coogan.
"Little Educational Turntable of Misdirections and Ever Shifting Points of Attraction"  is a perpetual motion machine of compasses and magnets on top of an old record going round on an old record player- it's a hoot!

Motion seemed to be the salient feature of many of the favorite things seen at the Schweinfurth.  Awarded "Best of Show" was another kind of motion machine - beautifully articulated, motorized, multi-winged "flying" gizmo by Bob Potts of Trumansburg, New York.  This is kinetic sculpture - in the mode of the early Leonardo da Vinci drawings - inventing a way to fly by studying the shape of bird's wings.  Press a button on a pedestal and an electric motor engages and the aluminum wings "flap" in place for a few minutes.

Video installations were given their own rooms.  One is a bit of animated anarchy from John Knecht featuring "Mr. Baxter's Trip to a Parallel Universe" which reminds me a little of Keith Haring crossed with "The Yellow Submarine".  Another video in the show was a blitz of stills and snippets of live action shot in a "Portrait of Mumbai" by Neal Chowdhury.  How can an artist working in traditional sculpture or painting (that just sits still) compete with this eye candy?  Mumbai is so rich in texture, with music and people in action, that it is really worth the time to see all eight minutes and 55 seconds of this collage/documentary.

Before we leave Auburn, I could mention a few other favorites in the show including colorful abstractions by Kathleen Thum, Bill Santelli, and sculptural pieces of Abraham Ferraro.  So you don't have to go down to Manhattan to see first class art, it is right here.

Now, before I go- a little plug for a new show at Windsor Whip Works near Binghamton, New York.  It is no secret that I grew up in a family of practicing artists, and at various times we have had the opportunity to share an exhibition space.  In Windsor, New York you will find the Whip Works Art Center, now hosting a show with art by my father Arthur Singer, my brother- Paul Singer, myself, and another guest artist, the sculptor Donna Dodson.  It is also no secret that I learned a lot from watching my father paint and when I was at an impressionable age - my brother's artwork spurred me on to lead the creative life.  Like Milton Glaser say's " We LOVE New York".

Alan and Paul Singer
at The Windsor Whip Works
photo credit:
© Roberta Grobel Intrater 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Artist and the Astrophysicist

photo by
Sue Weisler   
R.I.T. photographer
at an illustrated talk by Steve Carpenter
on the left and Adam Frank on the right

With artwork, an interesting question arises about collaborations - who gets to sign the work?
There are historical precedents to consider, and the business of giving credit where credit is due has to be addressed.  How do you determine whose contributions you are looking at?

Sometimes more than one artist signs the work, and in contemporary art we are seeing many more collaborations.  In the past we had the products of the atelier system, master artists then had the services of students and assistants who brought the art to life.  In this system we only knew who these assistants were if they went on to make a name for themselves later for their own artwork.

In the 1970's and1980's I worked as an artist with my father, Arthur Singer, on images that often found their way into publications - either books, collectibles, and even postage stamps.  Whenever possible, we both signed the actual artwork.

Controversy surrounds some collaborations - witness a court case mentioned in a recent New York Review of Books over the validity of an Andy Warhol silkscreen work.  Determining what is an authentic print can involve a lot of detective work, - but is a collaborative work somehow less original?  Does it matter that the Warhol Factory made the print and the artist signed the image?  Hasn't that process been part of the artworld for decades?

Our understanding of what the practice of fine art really is - changes and expands like the universe that astrophysicist Adam Frank talked so passionately about.  He came to R.I.T. to give an illustrated talk with painter, Steve Carpenter late in March.  When they speak about deep space and star formation, they talk about a creative process, full of light, violence, and extreme beauty.  This was a collaborative venture between the artist and the scientist - to try to find and touch the reality of these grand events and see some reflection of humanity and how we are a part of this astonishing array.  Paintings start as printing on canvas,  employing yet another artist - Tony Dungan - to make digital files that develop a foundation that will accept  thick paint.  Equations try to give  mathematical explanations for the phenomena of star formation.  The equations are etched like hieroglyphs in the paintings and only hint at the intellect at work trying to decipher distant hot spots in the universe.

Collaboration in the visual arts was unusual, if it fought with expectations of the solitary figure at work - alone in a studio creating work of value.  I think we are beginning to see a greater emphasis and resonance with ideas that are brought about by collective spirit, and aggregate talents.

Adam Frank
at R.I.T.
Photo by
Sue Weisler

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Skyline from Pier 92
by Anna Sears

For artists, a shakeout is underway.  This screening process determines whether you have a network that will sustain you - or sidetracks you if you've set unreasonable goals that can't be maintained.  A recession tests your mettle.  Most of the artwork from artists that we know comes from a broad middle class (raised with ambitions and aspirations) - but will that demographic cohort be able to ride out the slow times ahead? We worry that the visual artworld has become complacent, and conservative.  A case could be made that the Armory Show which we visited this week fell flat even though many of the old stalwarts lined the miles of booths along Pier 92  and Pier 94 in Manhattan.

We really paid attention to everything - looking for some rewards in and among the newcomers from
Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.  One goes to the Armory Show to catch up to what is happening around the globe, and this year a lot of minor art failed to grab me or make an impression.

Maybe the dealers were playing it safe, or maybe it was the cold pristine weather outside, but the crowd was thin on the Modern side of the Armory Show.  Small paintings from a 35 year old Brit named William Daniels caught my eye. The two on view vibrated with delicious color and buoyancy.  John Walker had a large collection of small paintings from the "Harrington Road Series" - a real temptation to buy #52-54 but I couldn't scrounge up the $28K.

Tony Cragg

There seemed to be many Tony Cragg amalgamations which come in many materials ( the one above in a rustyish color had some appeal ) but even here, this art seems to be repeating itself.  Hybrid artforms like the constructions by Zach Harris at the Meulensteen booth holds some promise for the future.

Zach Harris

As in past years, you might have stopped to look at the metallic wall hangings from El Anatsui, a sculptor born in Ghana - who now has an international following.  His work, made from pieces of tin cans and bottle caps is seductive and flows like satin curtains of red and gold.  The handiwork is obsessive and unusual and makes a case for recycling!

At the end of a long row, in a quiet space, the work from Egyptian born Susan Hefuna glowed.  Her simple geometries were moving, as were her methods of using translucent tracing paper.  This work which is very architectural exists in the same spaces that Julie Mehretu seems to inhabit- manifest layers of linearity conjure up mental structures; and suitable spaces for art.

There was a lot less photography of any consequence this year.  I was amused by James Casebere's upscale model homes, and there was a dynamic large leaf from the Starn Twins, but I found a gallery of real flowering trees more attractive.  And what was that neon fence about?  As with the show last year, Pierogi of Brookyln featured a Patrick Jacobs mini diorama made with unworldly skill and amazing patience.

But we had to move on, and get up to New England.  Foster + Partners designed and built a new world for the MFA in Boston, and this is a much needed revitalization for a grand old museum.  You can still seek out your favorite Winslow Homer painting, or troll for beauties among the Hudson River School, but my favorite works in Boston came from the Near and Far East.  Japanese prints make up part of my personal collection, so I like to see what is on view in the special exhibition titled " Flowers and Festivals".  I was knocked out by a Kuniyoshi diptych showing a tree grafted with 100 varieties of chrysanthemums -all in bloom - from 1843.  This is a form of horticultural prowess that is truly spectacular!

Also on view were Japanese baskets - the likes of which you have never seen - to delight the eye.  From Turkey I was pleased to see the Iznik tiles and bowls and my curiosity was piqued by Qajar metalwork from 19th century Iran.

Many parts of Boston's Museum of Fine Art were still under construction, so we didn't get the full impact of what they had to offer.  Stopping for a cup of tea on the main level, we relax in a spacious, comfortable meeting area under skylights that let in afternoon rays which we soak up before we hit the road.

Weather vanes at MFA
photo by Anna Sears

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Transformation and Transcendence

The Freedom Place Collection and the Frederick Douglas Resource Center Gallery

Alma W. Thomas
"Snoopy Sees A Day Break on Earth, 1970, oil on canvas

I grew up in a household with a deep respect for African American art, and also art of indigenous peoples from around the world.  My father was a collector, my parents both working artists.  The music we heard at home: spirituals, blues, jazz or soul had a transformative aspect for us.  The music and lyrics took common local occurrence and cast it as universal experience, and the best art does this seemingly without effort.

African American art had the power to deal with years of oppression and turn it into something expressive, positive, and motivational - looking for a way to become an agent for change; seeking a better life.  The aspirations of a people can be seen and felt in artwork collected by Stuart and Julia Bloch in their exhibition: The Freedom Place Collection" now on view at The Mercer Gallery located on the campus of Monroe Community College.

Five artists contribute paintings, drawings, and collage that fill the modest gallery space with light, life, and surprising detail.  The majority of this traveling collection however remains unseen in the present venue because of space restrictions, but we are still very lucky to have the opportunity to see this art that prior to this show remained in a vault.

These artists, all people of color, faced rejection - and the effects marginalized them in the art market which skews all cultural output.  Nevertheless, artists put their heart in their work, and that makes a difference.  When you walk into the gallery you might expect overt political statement, but what you get is often the solitary, poetic side of human nature, and personal observation.  At the door, the art of Benny Andrews conveys this light touch even if the subject is an elegy to a life lost ("Hero's Ascension") or a portrait of the artist's mother ( "Viola Study").  Andrews favors collage and quirky pen and ink as in the drawing of fellow artist Raphael Soyer, and in the big book cover for "The Ribbon Dance".

Robert Freeman recounts in a television interview the frustration he felt at trying to find gallery representation; the effects of lingering racism clouding the future for the visual artist.  Freeman paints big and bold expressive strokes of color on larger size paintings that remind me of David Park and Emil Nolde.  Freeman's concerns are figurative, with perhaps biblical reference in "Eve and the Serpent", and a party in "Garden Encounters ll" painted in 1988, while he was a teacher at Harvard in Boston.

Richard Yarde's "Front #2/ Back #2 works on a grand scale for watercolor on paper.  There is a signature style in evidence that looks like patches of cloth on a quilt, and an imposing figure built this way confronts the viewer.  Watercolor portraiture is not easy to achieve, but I especially liked Yarde's distorted pointilist painting of the Erskine Hawkins big band painted in 1983.

Years ago, I had the chance to shake Romare Bearden's hand in congratulations at his opening at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery (in Manhattan) and I remember a soft spoken big man who wasn't looking past you when he spoke (an especially annoying habit in the New York City artworld).  Bearden often cut collage materials from things that arrived in the mail, and I found one of my illustrations glued to part of a composition he made.  So we shared something in common as he related his interest in birds, especially in the tropics where he spent part of the year.

Bearden's imagery has a classic balance, even when he is recalling "Memories of High Cotton - Picking Cotton" a collage from 1977.  This intensely felt work of art focuses as much on the green hills, as it does on the folks ( almost abstractions) with patterned bags picking cotton under bare trees.  During his working life, Bearden was a social worker, and jazz aficionado, who painted and made prints with
Robert Blackburn in New York City.  Bearden was among a very few African American artists who had achieved national visibility, and this year there will be a set of stamps honoring his life and art.

Even though there is an element of abstraction in Bearden's art (see his radiant watercolors "Highway" and "Indigo Night"), he doesn't strip his art of recognizable imagery as occurs in the paintings of Alma Woodsey Thomas.  My cousin, Michael Rosenfeld has featured Alma Thomas' paintings at his gallery in New York City for many years, and I was happy to re-acquaint myself with the three works on display in the Mercer Gallery.  "Snoopy Sees a Day Break on Earth" an oil painting from 1970 is a most striking example, with each tangible stroke of color applied without a second guess.

Alma Thomas lived most of her life in Washington, D.C. and I would like to think that her presence there was a model for younger artists to follow.  She was the first African American woman to be given a solo exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art, and also the first to earn her MFA from Columbia University.  The paintings on view in the "Freedom Place" exhibition suggest that she should take her rightful place among the other Washington Color Field painters like Morris Louis and Ken Noland.

Across town, at 36 King Street, a modern art gallery snuggles up to quaint homes along the park near the Susan B. Anthony House.  What a find!  The Frederick Douglass Resource Center and Gallery offers a wide-open space to view Pepsy Kettavong's show "Lynching in America".  Not squeamish, Pepsy Kettavong takes on the most difficult subjects, this being the first of three exhibitions dealing with murder, starvation and sex trafficking.  Not shy of the controversial images, Pepsy rivets your attention to a larger than life size noose which hangs ominously in the middle of this cavernous space.  Accompanying the noose, are tableaux with a picnic table full of goodies, above which hangs a photo of a dead African American.  Imagine the grotesque notion of having a meal in the midst of such a horror.

Pepsy Kettavong has been the author of public sculpture honoring Rochester and in his new series he promises to open a dialog and address issues that other artists can't or won't deal with.  Art in this case offers a path to transcendence by dealing squarely with issues that are an attack on all of humanity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Representations from Six Nations

The Haudenosaunee territory is comprised of almost two million acres of central and western New York, established with the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794.  From this area, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy emerge to include Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga and the Tuscarora.Among their number are many skilled craftspeople, and gifted fine artists.  Now long overdue, an effort is being made to introduce the contemporary visual arts of the Haudenosaunee people in a gallery setting.

Until now, with a few exceptions, these artists of central and western New York have been overshadowed by more popular arts from tribal regions in the southwestern U.S.  Think of the distinctive pottery of Nampeyo or Maria Martinez.  Perhaps, because there is a history of trade goods made for sale in the southwest (that was lacking in the east) there was a public perception that not much was going on in the eastern part of the country.  From the west, traditional crafts, primarily weaving and ceramics were elevated in the minds of collectors.  Then one must factor in the past relationship of "ethnographic" arts from Native American peoples and the place they were usually given (if at all) in museums and galleries.  Here in 2011, there is a growing awareness and acknowledgement of the contributions, both past and present, of indigenous peoples - and what better place to start looking at this issue than here and now.

                                          G. Peter Jemison "Albino Crow", 2011

A good primer on the state of these affairs was found in Victor, New York last week in the Town Hall when G. Peter Jemison gave an illustrated lecture for the Friends of Ganondagan.  Jemison is not only a preserver of traditions, but also an active contemporary artist who has long been instrumental as a curator of exhibitions featuring Native Americans.   Jemison is a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation, and he is a manger of the Ganondagan Historic Site near Victor, NY.

When you appreciate art, you bring your experience and culture along with other baggage.  So, it is refreshing to see things from a different angle, and it can also be challenging (art does that directly and sometimes obliquely).  Jemison highlighted the artwork of living artists and guided the listener with stories and anecdotes that helped profile the present state of Native American art in this region.

Last year, at Nazareth College, and more recently at The Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY, G. Peter Jemison helped organize exhibitions with many of the same artists that he featured with his Power Point demonstration in Victor.   Coming from outside the Native American culture however, this viewer needs to have a guide to better understand the creation stories, and layers of cultural tradition that is part of the fabric of the Haudenosaunee arts.  There is a history to deal with and a current situation that presents itself.

A history lesson is summoned forth through the power of the "documentary" video by Shelley Niro.  Titled "The Shirt", this short video runs about six minutes but captures your attention with acerbic humor, and truth telling - spelling out a position as clear as day.  Intercut with scenes from the Niagara River and Falls, an Indian woman stands her ground, wearing her white shirt and an American flag bandana.

She hardly moves and the camera slowly pans, the only things that change are the slogans you see on her shirt.  The shirt then narrates a history of deceit and murder, and after all these calamities have happened, all she is left with is her shirt, and in the last frames of the video - even that is taken away.  The pain and humiliation is compounded with injustice; the feelings are palpable.

The Native North Americans who invented the game of Lacrosse might never have imagined how popular their sport has become.  Recently, in July 2010, an Iroquois team of athletes were invited but were unable to compete in an international tournament because they were denied an opportunity to travel on their own nation's passports.  This is commemorated in two works at The Everson Museum, in the exhibition "Haudenosaunee: Elements".  There, the artists Tracy Thomas, and Frank Buffalo Hyde fashion graphic statements that dramatize this incident.

Co-curators Deborah Ryan of The Everson, and artist Tom Huff received some assistance from Aweeneyoh Powless, an intern and student currently getting her master's degree in studio art at R.I.T.
Aweeneyoh is also an award winning dancer, and her performance paintings are documented in another video, as well as on the walls of this compact exhibition.  Ms. Powless's art bridges the realms of culture crossing over boundaries between European painting traditions and North American rituals and celebratory dance modes.  Like the painter, Yves Klein, Aweenyoh Powless makes expressive use of her body; her footprints make a mark for each movement as she carries herself across the canvas.

There are some powerful statements in the exhibition, some that are three dimensional, some two dimensional paintings, and other hybrids created for the show using video and casts of figures in encaustic (a pigmented wax), or a work like Jolene Rickard's corn pounder with music, printmaking and wood sculpture.

Tom Huff has a suite of carvings on the ground floor, and other sculptures placed amongst his fellow artists above on the second floor.  These are more traditional carvings which embody a mythology that reaches back in history, but projects a vision forward of strength, protection, and unity.  Haudenosaunee:
Elements, an exhibition featuring 21 artists, representing Six Nations continues at The Everson Museum in Syracuse for the month of January.