Exhibition Essay

by Dan Cameron

lthough a faculty exhibition cannot possibly sum up the ebbs and tides of opinion and philosophy that surround the art-making process today, it can offer a cross-section of existing modes based on actual career experience. At a minimum, one can say that all of the University at Albany Art Department faculty are exhibiting professionals, and that each is comfortable in his or her own way with the choices, both formal and theoretical, that every artist faces in today’s increasingly fragmented art community. Beyond that, it is really a matter of identifying a few of the main issues that emerge in each artist’s work, and permitting the accumulation of varying perspectives to take effect.

Although it is a fairly simple matter to identify sculptor Roger Bisbing’s work in terms of his overriding interest in architecture, this characterization does not credit the number of variations he has been able to achieve on the theme, nor does it account for the fact that he has never actually studied the history of buildings or their principles. What intrigues him about his subject is the idea of people inhabiting structures that become enclosures, with their implied reference to protection and confinement. Bisbing is interested in conveying these issues on a small scale, lending a sense of familiarity and accessibility to the form of a skyscraper or grain silo by transforming it into a chair, table, or some other intimately proportioned object. Many of Bisbing’s recent works are made from steel, giving them a sense of solidity and permanence, at the same time as the symmetrical patterning of windows across the surface points to a more decorative sensibility. In a way, his object-structures point to scale as a mechanism which is invariably based on the experience of our bodies in space, but also to the possibility that structures in our everyday life reflect the superstructures of cities and skyscrapers in ways that we do not often recognize.

David Carbone is a realist painter whose psychologically charged treatment of themes of alienation and estrangement take place in disguised tableaus whose vaguely circuslike references sometimes recall the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico. In Limbless Impasse, a female figure dressed as a circus acrobat gestures with a flourish of resignation towards an armless and legless male figure on a pedestal, who in turn leans away, his gaze lost in the middle distance. Separating the two figures is an arch that seems to lead precisely nowhere. In A Throng of Echoes, which is presented more as a sideshow scene, male powerlessness is depicted in the partially obscured “Lobster Boy” banner and in the form of the agonized central figure, who is surrounded by female freaks that all appear more reconciled to their fate than he. Without seeming overly burdened by the historical weight of his style, Carbone turns a humanist’s lens to timeless expressions of contemporary anxiety.

JoAnne Carson’s intricately layered painting-constructions invite the viewer to consider the relationship between the work’s surface as a skin which folds or is torn open, and the deeper recesses of the work which are constantly exposed in a kind of self-mutating blur. Demonstrating a particular interest in crisscrossing the distinctions between human beings and other forms of life, Carson’s recent sculpture-paintings – of which The Tree of Life is an excellent example – take on the macabre air of a fairy tale for adults in which more or less impossible juxtapositions occur, and where the combination of innumerable fragments lends the impression that the work can never be completely absorbed in a single viewing. In this last-mentioned case, it is unclear whether the tree has devoured a young woman, or whether the two entities are somehow in cahoots. Still, the contrast between the leering grin of the tree and the seemingly innocence of the drum majorette poses provides a charged dialogue that veers between humor, pathos and an acute sense of the uncanny.

Painter Robert Cartmell, who is also a renowned roller coaster enthusiast, works in a tradition that could be loosely connected to Philip Guston and other members of the so-called second generation New York School, who preferred a more lyrical variation on the blood-and-guts formula of abstract expressionism. Although he is a generation younger than these artists, and prefers figurative over abstract references in his thickly impastoed canvases, Cartmell’s distinctive touch comes through particularly in his drawings, which are often more explicit in their references to daily life. Many of Cartmell’s paintings actually depict the roller coasters that he has made one of the focal points of life, although he often deploys them as a metaphor for the risks and excitement that face all of us in the process of day-to-day living.

In Phyllis Galembo’s recent photographs taken during extended travels through the Caribbean, Brazil and Africa, a deep respect for religious ritual combines with current stylistic preference for highly formal and detailed observation of one’s subject. Her work differs from that of other contemporary photographers in that rather than duplicate the supposedly objective position of an anthropologist attempting to extract the meaning from the scenes and people she observes and records, Galembo seems to be completely taken by their personal vigor as individuals. The resulting images not only accomplish an underlying goal of establishing direct visual links between present-day Africa and African diasporan beliefs and practices, but they also personalize their subjects by giving them a sense of complete familiarity with the photographer (and us). Rather than exoticize the obvious passion with which spiritual belief is manifested in these societies, Galembo actually manages to make it seem both beautiful and curiously offhand, as if the lives captured in these photographs might be the same as those lived by the same people we pass every day in the street.

Although Mark Greenwold’s densely structured figurative paintings may first draw one’s attention due to the ingenuity with which the artist constructs and deploys pictorial space, the works’ meanings do not become clear until one has begun to delve into the implied narrative between characters within the canvas. Drawn irrevocably into the tangles of human intimacy, Greenwold is particularly involved in the interpersonal dynamics of family life: its needs, desires, fears, pitfalls and revelations. He is at his best when the insights he provides thrust his subjects’ (often including himself) primal fears into the foreground of a claustrophobic suburban existence, and he does not shirk at revealing the suddenness with which our obsessions can transform us into pathetic and/or violent creatures. In his most recent paintings, such as The Addiction of Innocence, Greenwold mixes the sources of his imagery in such a way that the intimate details of life overlap with other references that seem to be either more casual (incorporating portraits of friends) or else bordering on the fantastic (children depicted as angels), forming a potent and invariably compelling psychological brew.

In William Jaeger’s black-and-white photographs, apparently mundane details of nature and the man-made world are converted into lush discoveries of surface and detail that tend to belie their unassuming identities. He seems interested in presenting us with something that is not immediately recognizable, but which becomes familiar in stages. Compositionally, these photographs maintain a taut, even dramatic, internal balance, but they are also surprisingly emotive in the way they disguise a hidden order behind depictions of a world that seems to have become less stable as man has exerted his will upon it. In Billows, Catskill Bridge, for example, an inexplicable sense of danger envelops the otherwise serene vista of a stereotypical meeting between man and nature. In Mummy Museum, the image of a single mummy has been shot from an angle that exaggerates the impression of agonized suffering which we typically attach to subjects that seem exotic or unfamiliar to us.

Ken Johnson’s highly intimate approach to abstraction suggests a thorough immersion in the dips and turns that modernist history has taken since Kandinsky first began to improvise color and shape at the beginning of the century. In works on paper, Johnson loosely applies a sense of order to shapes that emerge from a gradual filling-in of the surface. Varying patterns meet and overlap in a rhythmic interplay, at times suggesting film designs or commercial art as much as art-historical sources. In general, Johnson appears to be making the argument that abstraction should be seeking a different kind of vitality at the present moment, one that is based on a more or less free sense of play between popular visual culture and the more specialized realm of painting, sculpture and installation art. Granting equal weight to craft and theory, Johnson makes abstraction which is as approachable as folk art.

Whether it is a single unifying element or the foundation of an architectural structure, line plays a dynamic role in Edward Mayer’s wood-based sculptures. Built roughly to the scale of the human body, Mayer’s installation-based works often bring together disparate types of materials (wood lath pieces, fallen branches, hardware, found objects) and forms, using the continuous line created by their adjacent positions to effect a kind of three-dimensional drawing in space. When Mayer refers directly to architecture, as in the piece Baldacchino, he often invites the viewer to see evidence of a kind of cultural clash caused by the layering of incompatible historical data – in this case, through visual suggestions of a Roman temple topped by technological detritus and surrounded by a ring of barbed wire. The transient nature of the pieces emphasizes this underlying fragility of things, at the same time it calls into question the historical argument for the permanence of art.

At first appearance, Thom O’Connor’s quiet and subtly nuance relief prints seem to belong to the tradition of monochromatic abstraction; in fact their compositions recall nothing so much as the constructivist tradition of solitary lines stretching across stark planes of single colors. The overall title of his current series, however, is The Road North, which seems to indicate that he is interested in at least the possibility of representation. As our eye follows the movement of the white line, the introduction of a tributary branching off in a different direction suggests distance, direction and even topography. Once we have accustomed ourselves to seeing O’Connor’s work as residing midway between the openness of abstraction and the specificity of mapping, we also begin to explore the idea that many of our images of ‘reality’ are in turn based on the kinds of geometrical traditions that began the century, and that the separations between abstraction and representation are no longer as clear-cut as they seemed.

Lynn Talbot is a painter and sculptor who frequently employs objects or shaped forms as the structure on which her subjects are painted. Many of these objects possess an inherently intimate scale, and the way the paintings are created on them creates a near-conspiratorial bond with the viewer, who has the sensation of entering a distinctly private realm. Often this is expressed by limiting the painted area of a work to a very small area, but allowing that section to literally burst into imagery which in turn contrasts sharply with the surrounding surface. In some of her recent sculptures, Talbot has begun to employ modified furniture designs, which allow her to present the works themselves as pedestrian objects with their own secret areas of representation. These object-pieces are not usually painted, but they do reveal a use of other kinds of details (crystal doorknobs, elaborate pullchains) that carefully dissolve the boundaries between painterly detail and the cabinetmaker’s precise and utilitarian art.

In Marja Vallila’s metal sculptures, the formal energy of early modern abstraction is reinforced by a curious incorporation of objects and images of daily life. Proceeding through a sequence of carving and casting processes, Vallila works diligently at each detail of her frequently small-scale sculptures, lending them a sense of compacted energy which is in turn magnified by the stubborn, jutting shapes that she prefers. It is often possible to find multiple references in each of Vallila’s finished pieces, from the natural (coral reefs, shrubs, clouds) to the man-made (coffee cups, pyramids, chariots) to the art historical (Giacometti, cave paintings). Although this eclecticism does not exactly qualify Vallila as a post-modernist, it does enable her to move freely among a range of associations, and to invite the viewer to identify with the sources for her art on a purely subliminal level.

Dan Cameron is Senior Curator at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, and the juror for the 1997 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region Juried Exhibition.