The latest exhibitions to open at the Albany Institute of History and Art are both gems; one figuratively and the other literally.
First, there’s a retrospective of Larry Kagan’s sculptural works, though to call them that doesn’t entirely capture their nature. The Troy-based artist uses not only physical materials but light and shadow to bring his pieces to life, creating images and scenes by manipulating metals, acrylics and salvaged steel.
In the exhibition, called “Shape and Shadow,” Kagan goes back and forth with his mediums and materials; from found steel to Plexiglas and Lucite to steel rods.
According to the exhibition’s label copy, Kagan’s son once described him as “an engineer masquerading as an artist,” which seems like an utterly perfect description of his work. There’s a certain scientific playfulness about his pieces that makes one instantly wonder how they were created.
Kagan studied art at the State University of New York at Albany and was inspired by Dennis Byng, an instructor who was one of the first artists to sculpture with Plexiglas and Lucite.
Byng’s influence can be seen throughout his career, though Kagan focused on light’s relationship with his sculpture. This is especially obvious in his piece “Tunnel,” where light is shined on a mostly opaque acrylic sculpture so that it looks as if there’s a light shining through a transparent section in the center, creating a literal tunnel. Another piece, “Spike,” plays with geometry between the transparent and opaque layers, creating different shapes depending on the precise angle one views it from.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling part of the exhibition, however, is his work with shadow and steel rods. When one first walks into the room featuring these, the pieces might seem like abstract sculptures mounted on the walls, with randomly bent, twisted and distorted rods.
But stand in front of one and suddenly a shadow appears, revealing a very objective scene or figure that makes sense of the abstract structure physically hanging on the wall.
It’s only in the shadows that one sees something recognizable and familiar, like an Apache helicopter or a stiletto or a box.
In these works, it’s not the shadows that seem distorted and unbelievable, it’s the physical structure, unlike just about any other physical object. Try as one might, it’s difficult to understand just how every manipulated rod can create each part of its accompanying shadow. When viewing the exhibit, this reporter watched several people attempt to understand, by blocking the carefully placed lights with their hands. But for many, that didn’t seem to satisfy them, probably because the sense is in the shadows, the precisely created shadows.
Just a room away from Kagan’s work is an exhibition with pieces that play with light in a different way.
“Adorn: Bejeweled and Bedazzled” brings together over 100 pieces of jewelry, from the Albany Institute’s collection and others. From real tortoise shell jewelry to whimsical fruit buttons to incredibly intricate micromosaics, there’s a lot to ooh and ahh.
There are also a few pieces to puzzle over, especially the jewelry made of human hair. During the nineteenth century, it was considered fashionable to wear hair not just on one’s head, but around the neck and wrist. For many middle-class women, the crafty thing to do was make intricately braided hair jewelry. Some bracelets and necklaces included in the exhibition were created in remembrance of loved ones. Others were simply do-it-yourself pieces done in styles that seem incredibly modern, sometimes given to friends and loves ones.
Jewelry wasn’t only used as adornment in the nineteenth century. It was also used to hold silverware and maybe a pin cushion or two. In a section featuring more “utilitarian bling,” bulky pins with long metal strands hang on the walls of the exhibition. Some of those strands hold a pair of scissors or a knife and fork; whatever the wearer might need. These pieces mostly functioned mostly as a purse does today, except it was clipped to a woman’s dress, usually on the side.
Viewers can also dive deep into the exhibition’s collection of jewelry from under the sea, from coral pieces that look like they’re still alive to intricately carved coral pins and bracelets. A few pieces made of pearl and shells also standout.
While some pieces shimmer, like the hair combs that look more like tiaras or the David Yurman bracelet inspired by chain mail, others have a more understated beauty, like the micromosaics from Rome.
One bracelet is made up of six panels featuring mosaics of Roman ruins and St. Peter’s Square. Look closely to see the tiny colored pieces of enamel that make up the images. They seem so precise, they’re almost photographic. Many of these pieces were owned by Capital Region residents who traveled abroad during the nineteenth century, bringing back souvenirs like the micromosaics and sometimes carved lava jewelry.
The exhibit also highlights two local jewelry designers. The one who stands out the most perhaps is Marion Weeber, known for her whimsical buttons, costume jewelry, pins, and later on, home goods. She was born in Albany in 1905 and later moved to New York City to found and run her own jewelry company and she also designed for Coro, an American jewelry company. Her designs were worn by Hollywood stars and were featured in magazines like Vogue and Mademoiselle.
Some of Weeber’s designs seem to push the envelope, even by today’s standards. Her buttons have featured everything from brightly colored fruit to flowers to painting palettes. One of her pins features a parachuting soldier falling from a biplane, which is a replica of a defense model, complete with a twirling propeller.
Whether viewers are looking for the whimsical or the wondrous, they’ll find something in this exhibition.
“Bejeweled and Bedazzled” will be on exhibit until July 28. “Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagan” will run until June 9. For more information visit albanyinstitute.org.