Mohawk-Hudson Regional illuminates the human experience

When one of the 20th century’s most prominent American sculptors comes to town to jury an art show,
Leila Novakowski’s sculpture "Vortex"
Leila Novakowski’s sculpture "Vortex"

Art shows come and go. And some of them stay with us, burned onto the brain. So it is with the 2008 Mohawk-Hudson Regional, which will be long remembered simply as “The Joel Shapiro Regional.”

When one of the 20th century’s most prominent American sculptors comes to town to jury an art show, there is a record-breaking tsunami of submissions, the biggest in 72 years. This year, the Albany Institute of History & Art received 1,062 digital images from 244 artists. Shapiro, who also designed the exhibit, then invited 41 of the artists to bring in 158 original works, and in the final show there are 71 works by 34 artists.

It is also rare and probably unprecedented that Regional visitors see an artwork by the juror on their way in the door. Shapiro’s “Seven Elements,” a 24-foot-tall bronze sculpture of balanced rectangles, has enriched the front lawn of the Institute since 2005, when it was given to the museum in memory of David Andrew Weir, former president of Pepsi-Cola Allied Bottlers in Menands.

Award winners

Fifteen artists have been honored with awards at this year’s Mohawk-Hudson Regional. They are:

— The University at Albany Art Museum Purchase Award: Matthew Peebles of Albany for the mixed-media piece “Stagnant.”

— The Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase Award: Mary Gaylord Loy of Clinton for the painting “Grandparent’s House.”

— Juror’s awards: Leila Novakowski of Albany, “Vortex”; Mark McCarty of Cropseyville, “Bob R.”; Joshua Brehse of Germantown, “Swoon”; David Brickman of Albany, “Blue Frieze”; Michael McKay of Canaan, “Bunker”; Leslie Peck of Greenwich, “Charolaise Bull”; Trina Greene of New Paltz, “Estrus Moon”; Paul Chapman of Hudson Falls, “Fear Yourself”; Allen Bryan of Saugerties, “Tea Party”; Connie Frisbee Houde of Albany,” “View As I Walk to Work #2, SHOE”; James Van Duyne of Albany, “Portal”; Barbara Todd of Troy, “Stone House; Breathing A/P; Moonstone A/P; Floating Stones A/P”; and Christopher Sandford of Cohoes, “Nitework.”

Before we proceed, it must also be noted that in 2005, when the Regional was last at the Institute, there was another big-name juror, Ivan Karp, legendary father of Pop Art and owner of OK Harris gallery. While Shapiro and Karp are from New York City, both have regional connections. The gallery owner has a home in Schoharie County, and the sculptor has a second home in the Lake Champlain area of the Adirondacks.

Shapiro was apparently extremely attentive to the Regional, even to the writing of an essay in which he dispenses with the notion of “regional art.” Instead, he asserts that when looking at such a show, “our life, our basic human experience, is a far greater common bond than our specific context.” He also contends that serious artists look to those who came before them, so that art “occurs in a continuum.”

Albany photographer Jamie Rodriguez taps into the human experience of disaster and loss.

His color image of biscuitlike yellow objects floating in a dark liquid is mesmerizing enough. But, a glance at the title, “Flooded, School Buses (After Katrina),” slams the mind in another direction as we realize that these objects are ruined buses that conveyed children, innocents whose lives were fouled by the ugly water.

Photo entries

Allen Bryan’s photo collages, triptychs that seamlessly blend conflicting human environments, suggest that we seek security or define ourselves in our surroundings, as a sumptuous tea table shares a frame with cold metal pay phones and outdoor urban blight.

This Regional has a dozen photographers, a robust turnout and true reversal of the old days of the Regional, when photography was not allowed. Four of the photographers — Stephen Honicki, Michael Marston, Mark McCarty and Rob O’Neill — appeared in the Photography Regional that closed May 31 at Albany Center Gallery.

While there are echoes of that exhibit, the only image that re-appears is McCarty’s compelling “Bob R,” the portrait of a bearded man with the hairy chest and crusty expression. Now we meet “Ruth” and “Kathryn,” raw, real portraits of female strength and beauty; images “redolent of humanity,” according to Shapiro.

Shapiro transformed the hallway that separates the gallery rooms into a hallowed space for 13 images by six photographers.

David Brickman is here, with “Blue Frieze” and “After H.F.,” abstract images that draw us deeply into shades of color he discovered in scraps of urban landscape. Connie Frisbee Houde’s “As I Walk to Work,” images of a single shoe and a roll of wrapping paper discarded on the sidewalk, stir imaginings of people who lost these items.

Dozen sculptors

Shattering the serious tone of those two-dimensional works is “Stagnant,” a small mixed-media sculpture by Matthew Peebles. His self-deprecatory artist’s hand, mired in mushrooms and moss, makes us laugh at our own procrastinations and creative paralysis.

Among the dozen sculptors, Leila Novakowski of Albany, who graduated in May with a bachelor of arts degree from The College of Saint Rose and a newcomer to the Regional, is a remarkable standout.

“Vortex,” her 5-foot-tall tangle of wood, appears accidental or random. Move in closer and it comes alive, the pieces arcing and bending, throwing shadows on the wall. Her second piece, “Green Guys,” a cactus-like, wall-crawling creation made of green floral foam and toothpicks, is a fun and fascinating use of materials.

Abraham Ferraro amuses us with performance art, shown on a video screen in the tiny alcove where the Institute lets you peek into its storage room. Clad in climbing gear, he crawls up a big, vertical wooden treadmill, and his efforts cause a stylus to move ink on paper, creating a design. In another jarring performance, the artist violently punches holes into a gallery wall as he makes toe and hand holds for his ascent. If you haven’t guessed, Ferraro’s work is a sarcastic commentary on the artist’s condition, the toil of making and exhibiting, though nonartists might relate it to their “daily grind” as well.

Creating with the brush

Shapiro picked 14 painters, including some that are new to Regional watchers and Anne Diggory, one of the area’s best-known artists, who hasn’t been in the show since 1999 when it was at the old Harmanus Bleecker Library.

Joshua Brehse’s three large encaustic paintings sweep across an entire wall, with brushstrokes that pulse and swirl, suggesting the action in their titles: “Incursion,” “Swoon” and “Gestalt.”

Mary Gaylord Loy, from the Utica area, the outer rim of the Regional’s 100 miles, gives us “Grandparent’s House,” an inner landscape with hints of Alfred Hitchcock in red and black oil and conte crayon rendered in a graphic style.

Diggory’s two 36-by-60 paintings are Adirondack-inspired landscapes of light-struck rocks and fast-moving water. While “From the Center” is straightforward acrylic in her inimitable nature-in-the-moment style, in “Labyrinths (Change of Course #9), she combines paint, digital printing and photography in a multistage process.

Brian Cirmo’s “No Man’s Land” is bloody and violent, but because the painting is not realistic, it’s far more intriguing than upsetting. In Cirmo’s inventive surreal landscape, giant human heads explode both at close range and in the distance, as if on a battlefield. Whatever they are, these “land minds” are thought-provoking.

Art at other venues

Because the pool of applicants was so large, some artists who make regular appearances in the Regional didn’t make it into the show. While this does not detract from the exhibit, be assured that there are other places where you can see your favorite “regional artist.”

In the Institute, next to the gift shop, the Rice Gallery is showing “Focus on Five,” with works by Michael Oatman, Allen Grindle, Sharon Bates, Phyllis Kulmatiski and Harold Lohner through Aug. 3. At the Albany International Airport Gallery, there’s “Locally Grown,” through Sept. 7. Or check out “2008 Fence Show Select” at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. That exhibit opens July 25 and runs through Sept. 12.

Categories: Life and Arts

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