The line between curator and creator blur in the latest show to open at the Opalka Gallery.
“Exhibit B,” brings the work of artist and curator Sharon Bates to the center stage, in Bates’ largest solo exhibition since 1986.
Walking in, the show feels like a cross between an anthropologist’s study and a home that begs to be wandered through, not merely in one afternoon, but possibly over a nice long weekend.
Found objects, familiar yet strange, are stacked on top of one another; a desk here with assorted wire pieces above and below, a Victorian metal dressmaker’s form beside it.
At first glance, it seems as though we should know these objects, like maybe we once had them in our own homes. But a closer look suggests that we don’t know these objects at all; whether because of their placement or their physical transformation.
Bates has been transforming things throughout her career. In early adulthood, while she was living in Los Angeles, she collected vintage clothes and time-worn objects and reworked them.
“I’ve always been interested in objects that have a history,” Bates said.
While she was developing her own work, she also worked in galleries in California. Eventually, New York called her back and she became the gallery director of The Arts Center of the Capital Region.
“That was a great introduction for me to the community of artists and creative people. I did that for three years and felt like I had connected [with the community] and like it was a vibrant place,” Bates said.
Judie Gilmore, the director of the Opalka Gallery, calls Bates a “connector,” someone who knows exactly who would fit together with who and at what gallery.
It’s a talent she called on when, a few years later, she was asked to direct and foster the Art & Culture Program at the Albany International Airport, a position she held for 18 years. Over those years, the nationally renowned program expanded into not just one exhibition space but several, along with a museum gift shop.
“It was something that I didn’t even know that I was capable of doing,” Bates said. “It was a great challenge and I think because of their support, we really established a very comprehensive program that went on to become a national model program for public art. So it was thrilling.”
Leaving that position in 2016 to pursue her own work was strange. It was difficult to leave the job that had become so much a part of her identity, Bates said.
“I felt such a strong sense of ownership of that program. But once I got into a studio it was equally thrilling, a little terrifying too. Anything you do that has great potential can also be very scary in a way,” Bates said.
The works hanging in the Opalka Gallery are a manifestation of that great potential. There are of course, her sculptural pieces with found objects that she’s collected over the years, but there’s also many of her works on paper, from drawings to gouache on vintage flashcards.
While she’s spent the last two years focuses on creating, her creative process is informed by her curatorial process and vice versa.
“For me the curating exhibitions became part of my creative practice,” Bates said, “I considered the physical characteristics of the Opalka Gallery and also challenged myself to utilize as many of the objects as I could that I’ve found and collected over the last several decades to make new work for the show.”
In an expansive glass case, seen at the show’s entrance, there’s a smattering of carefully collected objects. Each has a story, from the wing-shaped piece of wood to the glove-hangers. Yet, they haven’t quite been transformed into one work, they feel more like an introduction to a new culture, a new world that’s further explored in the show.
With the “Flashcard Series,” Bates takes these domestic scenes or objects, like a zipper or a hoe, but colors them in such a way as to make them seem foreign, something we must reconsider or re-familiarize ourselves with.
True to Bates’ style, the series was created with vintage flashcards from the 1950s, which Bates found in an antique shop.
“The cards were something from my childhood — illustrations reflect a time past but not forgotten. Their shapes speak to me. The images evoke memories, but also relate to the forms I conjure up in my sketchbooks,” Bates said.
Those familiar with Bates’ work will see a few familiar pieces in “Wink,” which plays off the space with these targets that Bates once used in an outdoor exhibition at Chesterwood.
Then there’s the vivid wire installation (“Alignment”), which was first conceived for the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, but which Bates has transformed for the space and exhibition.
Perhaps the most familiar installations, however, is this series of sitting or living room scenes. Atop these cleverly patterned backdrops, Bates has piled on all sorts of kooky-shaped objects on small coffee tables. In one, there’s a circular rug made of turf, which rests beneath a table. Topping off the stack of assorted objects (including a Chinese paper hat) is a bright pink golf tee.
Bates is interested in creating things that are at the crossroads between primitive and futuristic and installations like “Turf” and “Game,” perfectly hit that mark.
It’s been said that an anthropologists job is to make the familiar strange. “Exhibit B” goes one step further; making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. It also gives a glimpse into an artist who has had a tremendous impact on the local creative community.
“For many years at the airport, Sharon has shown us one side of her creative self. It is time we take a look at another side, to turn our attention away from her artful arrangement of others’ work to the artful arrangement of her own,” Gilmore said.
There will be an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Fri. Sep. 7. There will also be an artist tour at 5:30 p.m. on Tue. Sep. 25. The exhibition will be up until Oct. 13. For more information visit sage.edu/opalka.