ALBANY — Past and present intertwine in the latest exhibition to open at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
The 2020 “Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region” features more than 100 works of art in myriad mediums, touching on everything from the pandemic to the racial injustice that the nation has been grappling with recently.
That’s been part of the annual exhibition’s tradition for the past 84 years. Susan Cross, the exhibition’s juror and senior curator at MASS MoCA, found several different storylines and topics that artists were tackling while wading through submissions earlier this year.
One such storyline, perhaps the most obvious, is the coronavirus pandemic. The exhibition, which takes up much of the Institute’s second floor, opens with hand-woven linen portraits of nurses and doctors in a series called “Caregivers in the Pandemic” by Cyndy Barbone.
Nearby, there’s an Amy Silberkleit portrait of a woman whose face is mostly covered by a mask.
Of course, there are reminders beyond the artwork as well, such as the signs that remind visitors of the galleries’ reduced capacity.
Other works in the opening gallery of the sweeping exhibit delve into racial injustice and the more recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“That first room, for me, really speaks to this moment and the artists who are responding in a way directly to the pandemic, to the protests, and I wanted to set the stage that way,” Cross said.
In the next gallery, richly textured and colored photographs span one wall, one featuring a close-up shot of pages unfurling. Created by Victor Schrager, each echoes a piece of historical or literary writing, from authors such as Herman Melville. For Cross, the works link the present to moments of history.
Also in that gallery, Colin Chase offers a different reading of the American flag. In alternating colors or red, white and blue, the artist places lyrics from “None of Us Are Free” by The Blind Boys of Alabama to create the flag. The lyrics, “There are voices still calling across the years. And they’re all crying across the ocean, and they’re cryin’ across the land, and they will till we all come to understand. None of us are free,” are displayed in red ink.
Chase’s work stuck out for Cross.
“His text pieces were very direct and powerful, speaking about this moment and justices across time and space, linking people that way. Of course, the American flag is a loaded image, that to recreate it with the text from those lyrics, I thought, was giving back to the flag a whole other layer of meaning and what it should stand for,” Cross said.
Another gallery, just across the way, features works that focus on the climate crisis. In a large installation from Jamie Rodriguez, crumbling busts and patches of tile are juxtaposed with vines, two animal figures and a gun, bullets scattered on the ground next to it. The piece, called “The Agenda — Part 3 (The Left),” is centered by a bright landscape painting in the background.
Other works, such as Jane Bloodgood-Abrams’ “The Valley Luminous,” reflect upon the beauty of the natural landscape around us.
“A lot of the artists were engaging with the climate crisis with works that are both overtly about that but also works that are embracing the landscape, which is so important to this region,” Cross said. “You can’t even paint a landscape now without thinking about what’s happening to the environment, and I think because of the Hudson River School and that history, a lot of the artists are engaging with that history and the beautiful landscape that we have here.”
There’s also a swath of abstract works such as Susan Crowe’s “From the Garden,” a bright work made from cut and folded watercolor paper that gives the impression of an optical illusion.
Some works are from artists with whom many will be familiar, though there are several artists whose work has not been featured in the exhibition before.
“I think that’s what’s great about this exhibition, is that it’s a moment to see the work of artists that we do know and love seeing, and then a wonderful chance for all of us to get to know other artists in the region,” Cross said.
“Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region” captures the depth of artistic perspective in the area as well as the importance of the arts during this time.
“Sometimes it’s easy to lose our way struggling under the weight of the pandemic and the inequities that it has magnified and laid bare,” Cross said, “but this is a reminder that art is a place for contemplation, reflection and protest, and a place for people to convene in a way, individually and collectively, seeing the show and drawing something from it, whether that’s comfort or inspiration. … This is what art does, is try to sift through that morass.”
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Walking through “Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region,” it’s difficult to miss “Summerland: A Sound Installation by Matthew Ostrowski.”
The tapping sounds of well over a dozen telegraphs create a certain frenzied composition that echoes through the Institute’s second floor. With “Summerland,” Ostrowski creates imagined dialogues between the scientific and the spiritual worlds of the 1840s, during which the telegraph became commercially available.
During that era, two sisters living in Hydesville, New York, named Maggie and Kate Fox created a series of rapping sounds to make it seem like they could communicate with spirits. The hoax spurred an interest in spiritualism.
The sound installation acts as a sort of seance and dialogue between Kate Fox and Samuel F. B. Morse, with all the telegraphs tapping out binary code. The messages, for those who don’t know the code, are provided on the wall text. The exhibition is up through Jan. 3.