On Exhibit: ‘Landmarks’ looks at environment and us

At airport, Thomas Cole works brought into modern context
Darren Waterston, "Inversion Landscape #1," oil on wood panel
Darren Waterston, "Inversion Landscape #1," oil on wood panel

“Landmark” is a fitting exhibition, not only because it’s informed and inspired by Thomas Cole but also because it’s at the Albany International Airport, the lift-off point to sweeping aerial views of the Capital Region. 

“It’s the year of Cole and I’m so glad the Airport can be a part of that,” said Kathy Greenwood, the program director for the Art & Culture Program and co-curator of “Landmark.” 

Presented in partnership with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, “Landmark” combines written works and visual arts to pay homage to Cole and bring his ideas into a modern context. 

In a spiral-bound booklet is Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery,” which the artist wrote in 1836. “American Scenery . . . It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for whether he beholds the Hudson mingling its waters with the Atlantic, explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Pacific, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity, all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!” Cole wrote. 

The visual artists and writers in “Landmark,” suffer from neither of those ailments. Instead, they examine our environment and our relationship to it. One of the first installations in the exhibition, “Course of Empire,” by Kenneth Ragsdale, gets at our destructive relationship with the environment. With logs, a truck, trees, and a crane made from laser-cut paper suspended from a mesh sky, the installation cuts into our human habit of overusing the earth’s resources. 

Following that, artist Susan Wides, questions the place of humans in nature with her works “Kaaterskill Falls,” and “Bastion Falls.” Both are landscapes which Cole depicted in his own works, with similar titles.

In “Bastion Falls,” Wides blurs the brilliant yellow leaves in the foreground and instead brings to focus the zig-zagging waterfalls in the middle and backgrounds. One feels as though they’re getting to sneak a glance at their dancing waters. Then in “Kaaterskill Falls,” a sweeping and nearly overwhelming waterfall pours down from a mountain ledge, with two tiny figures standing atop the mouth. It leaves the viewer wondering not only what the figures are doing there but what place a human really has in a landscape such as this. 

Not too far away from Wides’ works, an immersive mural draws in viewers with whispering thickets, trees and woodland creatures. “Forest” by Valerie Hammond is speckled with silhouettes of various animals; a rabbit, an owl, a bat and other creatures. They seem to look right at the viewer, as if in question: “Should I run?” There’s a sense of dark wildness in the work that makes the viewer feel like maybe they should be the one running.  

It’s a work that’s captivated many visitors, said Greenwood. 

Though it’s hardly the only one in the exhibition. Another is Darren Waterston’s “Inversion Landscape No. 1” a dreamy and chilling three by six-foot landscape painting. “It’s a place that you imagine yourself in and that you feel like you dreamed,” Greenwood said. 

Then there are works like Portia Munson’s installations; where bright monochromatic trinkets and tchotchkes abound; from the Frankenstein Pez toys to plastic grapes. It speaks to the idea that these odd plastic pieces that we might find in a dollar store, things that mean very little to us, will in all likelihood outlast us all. That those pieces of plastic might one day be this generation’s legacy. Despite its weighty message, it’s a fun piece to spend time with. Greenwood said she often overhears visitors playing a game of eye spy with it.  

Beyond the visual works, there are plenty of essays, short stories, and poems that read like a modernized version of Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery.”

Some, like William Jaeger’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Landscape,” looks at our image-filled society and what it means for the idea of the modern landscape: “What is a landscape anymore? What real value can a paltry landscape photograph have in an age where we are inundated by—drowning in— images of everywhere?” 

These written works are from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s Essay on American Scenery contest and were the starting point for the partnership between the Art & Culture Program at the Albany International Airport and the Historic Site. Cole’s essay remains timely, as does his artistic tradition, which both Greenwood and Kate Menconeri, curator at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and co-curator of the exhibition, have proved at the Airport.

“Landmark,” coincides with two important anniversaries; the 200th anniversary of Cole emigrating to the United States and the 20th anniversary of the Art & Culture Program at the Albany International Airport. Greenwood has worked with the Program since 2002 and has seen it grow both qualitatively and quantitatively under the direction of founder Sharon Bates, as well as her own.

In the past two decades, they’ve added an exhibit space beyond the security checkpoint, as well as a gift shop, and other exhibition spaces, and have an installation program that is continuing to evolve. They’ve also been able to exhibit regional artists and organizations in spaces with an incredibly high level of visibility, even to people who wouldn’t necessarily seek art out. Greenwood said it’s been a privilege to watch the local art scene grow and to be able to exhibit work from around the area.  

“Landmark” is the latest in this creative legacy. It features the following regional artists: Ellen Driscoll, Valerie Hammond, William Lamson, Portia Munson, Kenneth Ragsdale, Anne Roecklein, Lisa Sanditz, Kiki Smith, Darren Waterston and Susan Wides. The exhibition will be up until March 25. For more information visit albanyairport.com/art

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