64th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition

Samothracae, Jack Elliott

Samothracae, Jack Elliott

It’s impossible to do justice in a single blog post to a show as excellent as the 64th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition at Memorial Art Gallery. Its effect is cumulative, as you wander past a hundred individual works. I learned recently that the heart rate of singers in a choir quickly synchronizes—so that every individual singer’s heart somehow times its pulse to the beat of every other heart in the choir. You get the sense of 81 unique hearts working in unison here as well, even though the artists live hundreds of miles apart, across the state of New York, pursuing a quiet, personal excellence. Each voice here is individual, operating in accord with its own unique set of stylistic principles, yet you feel the same passionate allegiance to private imperatives from one work to the next. You sense in this show a universal determination, across all the work, to focus on the slightest choices—how to render a line in a woodcut, how to stick to a certain kind of mark on canvas, how to check one’s ambitions into the confines of an unspectacular scale—as hard-won personal standards that result in mastery for that individual and no other in quite the same way. Jack Elliott’s Samothracea, the most powerful piece in the show, unapologetically reaches back many centuries for inspiration (it magically evokes its sculptural ancestor by pairing two enormous segments of willow trunks into a human torso that appears to be both in motion and standing still), while Donna Meadows Manier’s monoprint Luxury could be seen as sly up-to-the-minute commentary on our currently lopsided economy where a commodity can become an symbol of exclusive taste. In terms of diversity of style, purpose, and medium, you find yourself in a different world every time you take another step through the exhibition. But in each individual case, the craftsmanship is so uniformly subtle and understated, what’s happening in each work might slip right past you if you don’t dwell for a bit and give yourself time to see it. The spectacular nature of so much contemporary art has been shrugged off here in favor of values and dedication that don’t scream for attention but seductively invite it.

Since 1938, the Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition has served as a platform for western and central New York artists.

First of all, I’m happy to see one of Rick Harrington’s barns in the show. Over the past decade, I’ve watched him intensify and with color and form with this motif, building his images around the geometry of imaginary barns, getting more and more interesting results, achieving effects of light and color difficult to achieve with realistic representation. Though lately he’s branched out into what he considers more challenging work, based on his immersion in nature—at specific geographic locations—I love it when he returns to this humble subject that hovers in perfect balance between abstraction and representation. He renders barns in ways that echo Rothko and the aesthetics of painting back when America was emerging as the place to be a painter. It worked then, and it works now. He takes something you’ve seen too many times to count, and he makes it new, while refining his vision to the simplest elements of form, shape, color and light.

Rick isn’t my only homey, as it were, in this show. Nine other artists represented by James Hall, who represents my work as well, at Oxford Gallery, were selected by the juror, with two of them winning a third of the available prizes: Tom Insalaco and Phyllis Bryce Ely both won well-deserved awards. Others from Oxford are Jack Wolsky, Barbara Page, Bill Santelli, Kate Timm, Susan Huggins Leopard, and Bill Keyser. Thomas Insalaco’s award-winning painting of nude bathers, like Samothracae, echoes earlier art, in this case Thomas Eakins. He updates Eakins with the inclusion of at least one woman in the scene, maybe a couple more—it’s hard to tell since the bodies are camouflaged by the darkness and the way in which the figures face away from the viewer. It’s an outdoor scene rendered with shadows darker than the surrounding landscape giving the image an eerie psychological tension, a kind of darkness at noon. The simplified and stylized forms of Phyllis Bryce Ely’s painting of Rochester’s High Falls—involving both en plein air and studio work— reminds me faintly of Burchfield’s liquefied forms in Burchfield’s The Night Wind. Barbara Page’s digital photograph looks like American work from mid-20th century, and the bold, fearless truth of her commentary on it could be the greatest hidden pleasure of the whole show. Here’s a sample:

ArtForum has the heft and style of Vogue. Both magazines are short on substance and long on eye candy. A full page black and white advertisement in ArtForum costs over $5000. I appropriate the content of these art ads and arrange it in new combinations.

Kate Timm’s 8 Glasses 2 Roosters (love the deadpan title) is one of her best, drenched with light and color, both flattening her image into abstract pattern while, at the same time, tricking the eye with an illusion of depth. (She’ll be one of the speakers in the artist lecture series.) Bill Santelli’s drawing, like all of his work in this mode, uses amazingly assured and unwavering curved lines to trap a spectrum of hues that comes together in serene patterns despite the intensity of his color. Jack Wolsky’s painting, which echoes Mark Tobey, and Paul Klee, as well as color field painters, all but abandons a distinction between figure and ground, giving the sense of a humming field of energy in its all-over quality of marks. In his audio clip, he describes how he is trying to visualize the sort of emptiness which figures as a fundamental ontological principle in Jewish and Buddhist philosophy—as well as in the writings of mystics in other traditions. In a way, something similar is happening in William Keyser’s acrylic on a panel —cut into a shape that’s both semi-circle and unfinished rectangle—offers a glowing suggestion of peripheral vision. The painting surrounds its own absence, as it were, reminding me of the Taoist adage that the whole point of a bowl or a wagon wheel rests in its core of emptiness. And Fran Noonan, who shows his work often at Oxford, contributed a haunting moonlit scene, reduced to the simplest possible elements in a Tonalist depiction of a wooded night: dark, swaying trees, tiny bulb of a full moon, and illuminated blue clouds.

Other exceptional painters contributed work that, at times, held my attention longer than almost any other work in the show. Amanda Oglesbee’s surreal painting, Whence, turns an image of a bare tree into a serpentine dream. Her commentary on the work describes a sophisticated use of complementary color to create depth and compensate for the lack of a natural light source in the image. The forms seem to glow from within. And Timothy Rodrigo’s painting of water swirling over rocks caught my attention at the last instant as I passed by and yet I stayed with it for quite a while after I’d begun to pay attention to the tension between the regularity of its marks and the image they were representing. It seems to be operating in adherence to regular rules for applying paint which I couldn’t quite figure out, and so I kept studying it—it worked but I couldn’t understand why, and that made it fascinating. It’s built almost entirely from a regular pattern of elongated dashes—they remind me of the marks Van Gogh used in all of his work, but especially in a particular ink drawing he did of the fountain at the hospital where he stayed in St. Remy. (Incidentally, a photograph here entitled Warden’s Corridor, of a hallway at Eastern State Penitentiary, by Eric Kunsman, also looks like an homage to Van Gogh’s drawing for Corridor at the Asylum.

Perhaps my favorite painting in the show, though, Green Barn, is one that might not catch your attention at first. It appears to be fairly conventional, something that could be executed quickly with rigidly consistent techniques—in other words a commercial work you might see reproduced and hanging almost anywhere—but the more you look, the more you see how Scott Reagan has intensified the entire world of an autumn day into an image that burns with life. It offers you an intensity of apprehension, almost an altered state of consciousness, by simplifying and slightly intensifying areas of color, to the point where you can almost smell the fallen leaves and feel the warmth of the October sun, as well as a slight breeze carrying the smells of the field. And yet it’s an image rigorously organized into areas of color and value, with just as much concern for the abstract pattern it makes. The way the values work is the key to the sense of depth and uncanny synesthetic impression it makes. Color is used to bring your eye back again and again to four black areas at the base of the birch trees and the subtle green rectangle of the barn.

Painting is only one, among many, mediums here. Printmaking is especially strong in this show, with an emphasis on the earliest of all printmaking techniques: woodcuts and the variation on them using linoleum. Woodcuts arose during the Renaissance at the time that printing itself emerged, and it’s still clearly a vital way to make art. Three artists used this printmaking technique—cutting into the flat surface of wood or linoleum—to create light areas against a black ground. In all three instances, the print makers depict what appear to be glimpses into subconscious, almost archetypal conflicts, tensions and dreams. Dennis Revitsky’s Trunk, yet another rendering of a tree, shows what seems to be a floating stump sprouting limbs that look like eerie, embryonic arms and legs—emphasizing. His Trunk, like Samothracae, shows us both a tree trunk and a torso. Paolo Marino’s stark vision of a battle with knives, in a sunlight declivity, evokes good and evil in a mix that makes it impossible to take sides:in this primitive scene of naked, bald combatants that seems to reach back to the nightmares of Bosch, Bruegel and Goya.  My favorite of all the prints here is Kelly Clancy’s Trapped is a wonderful reworking of the Laocoon, though she doesn’t draw this connection in her recorded commentary on the work. The original ancient sculpture, in the Vatican, shows a Trojan priest and his sons strangled by sea serpents. Clancy’s reworks this image from a woman’s perspective, depicting a female form caught in the coils of her own internal anxieties and nightmares. Clancy’s lines do double-duty, both depicting this death struggle, while making it hard to distinguish between the snakes and their prey. The victim’s body seems merely a middle passage of the contorted lines she used to render both the woman and her inner predators.

The art of drawing has a strong showing here in Santelli’s work, as well as Allen Smith’s and Donalee Peden’s. Smith’s lines of colorful faux-script are hypnotic and though they create a uniform pattern, a stacked series of waves, almost, fine lines themselves they are intricate and laboriously woven together: the work hums with the intensity of attention that went into it. Donalee Peden’s striking, large drawing of figures wearing bird masks that at first look like gas masks is one of the most dramatic and stunning of all the work in the show. At first glance you’re taken aback by this strange image that evokes the First World War, and yet you realize these are three human figures wearing gloves for handling hazardous materials but have donned bird masks instead of gas masks. It’s a clever convergence of safety and unwitting danger from an element in the scene—the masks—that links humanity with the natural world while evoking the dangers of the way we meddle with it. We are the endangered species here.

There’s almost too much good photography here to praise it without neglecting some outstanding examples. Dewey Fladd’s Faces of Men, a grid of faces, young and old, presented with virtually no personal stylistic intrusion on his part, is in some ways the work that seems to yield more and more the longer you study it. You can’t lose with the human face. Each one is itself a work of art—fashioned from all the choices of twenty or seventy years—so a simple, honest set of straight-on portraits has inexhaustible depth. The faces are of men ages 18 to 86, a high school and college student, ship captain, umpire, financial advisor, stone mason, sign painter, and bartender. I love it.

With the photography, as is true of the show as a whole, much of the work operates within the tension between abstraction and representation. Kunsman’s vision of prison life, John Griebsch’s aerial photography, Walter Jakubowski’s color-drenched shots of aged architecture all work at both levels equally well. John Kosbuth’s vision of emotional and psychological rupture reminds me of some of Bill Santelli’s abstractions where geometric form seems to erupt in organic movement. In this case orderly patterns of inner life seem to split apart and become, as Bob Dylan once put it, tangled up in blue. Jane Hopkins takes a single photograph, of a lush garden or bare branches, and reverses it vertically and horizontally to create what is essentially an intricate and beautiful mandala. David Ridley somehow gets a photograph to look like the scumbled surface of an oil painting with his tactile shots of an old plaster or stucco wall stained by repeated draining of water down the surface. Meanwhile, Jonathan Merritt has contributed photographs of stark and dim interior architectural spaces, walls of cinder block that open into a hallway of brightly lit cinder block—scenes that might be the site of punishment or simply meditation and much needed sensory deprivation. His vision is both Kafkaesque and somehow hopeful: the doorway doesn’t lead into the Light, but it is more brightly lit. Finally, there’s a heartfelt but equally austere black-and-white shot of a bridge behind a screen of trees in Buffalo by Joseph Porreca. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived for so many years in the lake-effect gray of this town—indistinguishable from Buffalo’s weather in the winter—that this image moves me with its frozen river bright with snow while the sky’s light seems to be failing.


1 Response to “64th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition”

  1. Paul Brandwein

    Thanks for your thoughtful assessment of the show. I too, think its a great show and am proud to have my work included. Its a pleasure to read something intelligent and thoughtful as opposed to the insipid blather that is usually published in the print media. In addition to the work itself, I like the layout of the show, the choices of which pieces to share the space with.