Big and Bold in Albany
by Patrick Neal on January 20, 2014

ALBANY, New York — The Albany Institute of History and Art is one of the oldest museums in the United States, and holds one of the best collections of fine art, furniture, photos, and ephemera significant to the Hudson Valley and Albany region dating from the seventeenth century to the present.

The museum just renovated its largest gallery and is marking the occasion with Big and Bold, a showcase of large-scale contemporary works from its permanent collection that “are large in size, bold in color … have commanding presence … and captivate with visual bravado.” Many of the paintings and sculptures on display were created by artists who teach at nearby colleges — SUNY Albany, Skidmore, The College of Saint Rose, RPI — and most were purchase prizes bought by the museum during one of the annual Mohawk-Hudson Regionals. (Founded in 1936, the annual Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition is a sort of Whitney Biennial for the Upper Hudson Valley, showcasing some of the best work being done by artists working within a hundred-mile radius of Glens Falls or Albany.)

Some of the artists in Big and Bold are alumni of the same nearby art programs, their pieces bought by the museum after studio visits; a few of the older artists are beloved in the area and have had local retrospectives in the recent past. The coming together of some of the best and brightest from the area, on view for a relatively long run, in an ideal setting, intimates the abundance of talent outside of New York City.

The Albany Institute of History and Art is known for its large collection of Hudson River School paintings and it is easy to see connections, both sincere and self conscious, as many of the contemporary artists rub up against that more romantic landscape tradition. A unique sense of place is reflected in recurrent images of indigenous animals, plants, and natural settings — particularly water in the form of lakes and falls — as well as a sensitivity to the elements and seasons. I found myself observing how these artists consider and negotiate their environments as artist/teachers in the Hudson Valley. They are aware of the particularities of the geographic region while remaining in easy dialogue with New York City’s multi-boroughed art world only two and a half hours away on Amtrak.

Paintings on the entire far right wall of the gallery in one way or another repurpose the genres of landscape and interior. Having absorbed the developments of the 1950’s onward and seen through contemporary eyes, these works consider a multitude of stylistic possibilities. Looking at the architectural clarity and human presence in Chester Rose’s realist interior, “Untited (Trophy),” I couldn’t help but think of the Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibition Rooms With a View, a compendium of intimate interiors from the early 1800’s with which this artist would be in good company. William Wilson’s “Waterfall” is a mash-up of painting styles that is convincing as a unique place and idyllic at the same time, while Bill Sullivan, a contemporary of Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, captures in equal parts abstraction and figuration the irradiated neon glow of light hitting Niagara Falls in his “American Falls Illuminated.”

Stephen Hancock’s luminously idealized oil painting “Nocturne for the River Keeper, Green Light” reveals a ghostly mist rising off the Hudson River south of Garrison, NY. Looking closer, the mist actually materializes as cursive notations derived from the diary entries of Tom Whyatt, the first Hudson River Keeper. A wall text explains “Whyatt’s job was to patrol the 154 mile-long river for illegal dumping and chemical spills, securing the health of the flora and fauna through the seasons.” The painting, with its eco-friendly theme accentuated in an old-fashioned wooden frame, reminds one of the work of the activist painter Frank Moore, who passed away in 2002 (Hancock has paid tribute to Moore in other works). One sees a kindred tradition of socially aware work, realized through word and image, possibly carried forward by the likes of the younger artist Michael Waugh.

Like Hancock’s, the water depicted in Leigh Li-Yun Wen’s ”Untitled VI” is stylized, choppy waves resembling in two-dimensions the same undulating and fractal formations seen three-dimensionally in Tara Donovan’s sculptures and Maya Lin’s systematic landscapes. From afar this cooly precise painting looks to be done by way of some digital mapping technology, but the artist actually works with a subtractive method from darkness to light — a dark layer of paint is applied over a lighter ground, a stylus used to etch into the paint revealing the rippling wave formations. The scale is vastly horizontal, the viewer’s body immersed in the timeless ebb and flow.

Some of the artists in Big and Bold consider institutionalized versions of natural history — for example the disjointed information troves and photo documentation of animals as divergent as birds, bison, and deer. They address the antiseptic formalities of taxonomy rather than the knowledge gleaned from an up-close-and-personal experience. Don Nice and Michael Oatman structure their paintings and collage by way of a predella panel format; small images related to the central image that give us snippets of several narratives all at once, both pop and precise.

Colin Boyd’s mixed media sculpture “American Bison” contemplates the sad demise of the last American Bison by way of a kaleidoscope of sources: Eadweard Muybridge’s running buffalo sequences and Theodore R. Davis’ engravings “Shooting Buffalo from the Trains of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.” The piece is as fascinating to see frontally through an illuminated scrim, where it resembles a skeletal ghost, as it is from behind, where it is revealed as a large wooden motorized puppet dangling from ropes. It had me thinking of my visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Denver where tragic and heroic story threads (and farce and fact) converge to piece together bits of American history.

Scott Brodie’s painting “Eagle’s Nest” is lushly painted with a juicy varnish. The palette consists of only shades of grey, lemon and lime representing the dappled, shadowy nooks and crannies of jagged rocks atop which sits an eagle’s nest. The composition is nicely cropped to a nature photographer’s satisfaction, the nest high at top, a vast ravine/valley in the distance. There is a bit of staged drama, at a remove from the experience of actually having painted the nest on-site that makes you wonder if anything can be seen innocently anymore. But the painting has a muscular, no-nonsense assuredness that belies the photographic source in terms of sheer overt physicality, and reclaims the painting as painting.

Both Tom Sarrantonio and Paul Sattler’s paintings have interesting narrative qualities told by way of a heap of visual clues. But whereas Sarrantonio is economical and orderly, Sattler is lush and rhythmic. In Sarrantonio’s “Wake,” the artist reins in his subject matter with a limited tonal range of ochres and umbers; a Goldenrod plant centered in a winter field surrounded by a bird’s nest, a bone, rabbit droppings, and a variety of weeds. Stopping to notice the extraordinary collection of nature’s remnants, one examines the detailed bits with a dawning of a season’s passing. Sarrantonio stitches together these modest spoils of nature’s past with a tapestry of furrowed out strokes relishing the depiction of reeds and grasses.

Paul Sattler’s “Still life for 2000″ is a surreal amalgamation of interior, figure, and still life arrangements, wonderfully painted and ambitious, combining the abstract and representational, the concrete and evanescent. We witness a still life strung up in the middle of a room, a couple swaying in a see-saw pas de deux and a center portal that opens up on a dark cosmos. The interplay of shadows and solid forms and commingling of different scenarios and settings feels both domestic and deranged. The painting shares the same kind of more-is-more rigor favored by artists Joe Santore and Scott Schnepf.

Sitting aloof on the left side of the gallery floor, the netted metal and figurative assemblage that comprises Sharon Bate’s ”Cluster” reminded me of Louise Bourgeois‘ surrealist cells. Bates has cleverly tied, welded, and strung found detritus into a neatly arranged collection; the vessels stand erect with dainty flourishes, like wiry mannequins in a milliner’s shop. In a beautifully stated wall text, the artist describes the conception for the piece: “Cluster is a gathering of forms that allude to creatures of the winter forest both seen and imagined. Rejoicing, as I do, in their resolve to withstand the forces of nature, they take refuge in the solitude that this darkest season brings.” Reading this brought to mind David Smith’s motley gathering of black steel plate and line sculptures set against the snow — the sculptor’s famous photographs of his own works outside in a winter field near his studio in upstate Bolton Landing.

In fact, the entire exhibition has a wintry feel; the room has been darkened in order to view the illuminated sculptures and the paintings are lit by spotlights. In the dark, the teal-colored walls appear midnight blue, adding an air of drama as you enter the gallery.

There are some works in Big and Bold that come out of post-painterly abstraction and wouldn’t look out of place in the Empire State Plaza Art Collection a stone’s throw from the Albany Institute. Other works are indebted to the figuration that emerged concurrent to abstract expressionism. As I went through the show, some of the same artist influences kept popping up: Frederic Church, Caspar David Friedrich, Neil Welliver, even the poet John Ashbery (I learned of his personal relationships with some of the participants). With 19 artists in the show, the wall texts give an introductory extract to each piece and visitors may find, as I did, these excerpts are a useful springboard to learn more about the rich histories of the individual artists.

Big and Bold: Contemporary Paintings, Collage, and Sculpture from the Albany Institute’s Collection is on view through March 2 at the Albany Institute of History and Art (125 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY).

Big and Bold in Albany