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Judging the Juried
By David Brickman

An outdoor museum: Allison Hunter’s Port of
Rensselaer #1.

The 2004 Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational
Albany Center Galleries, through Feb. 21

There was considerable controversy last year when the juror for the Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition at the University Art Museum cut more than 1,000 submissions by 220 artists down to just 35 works by 17 artists, and there will likely be more talk regarding the 2004 Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational at Albany Center Galleries, where works by Jane Bloodgood-Abrams, Chris Cassidy and Allison Hunter are now on view.

The tradition of selecting artists from the region’s most prestigious juried show for focused exhibitions at smaller galleries goes way back and now includes three venues (Firlefanz, Artforms and ACG); this is the second of the three to go up and occupies the most prominent and most generous space—a good thing, as it turns out, because these are very disparate visions. Each artist’s contribution is also completely different from that which was in the Regional exhibition.

Beginning with the selection last summer by outgoing ACG director Pam Barrett-Fender of two artists (Bloodgood-Abrams and Hunter), then augmented at the 11th hour through the efforts of interim director Linda Macaione with the addition of Chris Cassidy, it is, in effect, a completely fresh start. Hunter, who showed animal photographs at the Regional, presents 20 industrial landscapes, most of them taken at the ports of Albany and Rensselaer; Bloodgood-Abrams had conceptually oriented paintings from her Micro/Macro series in the Regional—her eight paintings in this exhibition are purely romantic, with no intellectual edge; and Cassidy has a two-dimensional, Web-based work-in-progress on display quite different from the water-fed cabinet full of growing plants with map-and-photo array that won him the top prize at the Regional.

So, what is going on here? A show that is worthy of attention, that will make people think and that, with the original pair, would have been a direct juxtaposition of two contrasting interpretations of landscape, but has instead become a far more complicated conversation among three strong artists.

Many people will adore the neo-Hudson River School landscapes that Bloodgood-Abrams lovingly paints and presents in expensive gold-leaf frames. They have atmosphere, color, composition and traditional painterly effects well within that grand tradition, and would look terrific on the walls of any of the countless remaining 19th-century townhouses in cities up and down the river (Bloodgood-Abrams herself hails from Kingston).

But an equal number of gallery-goers will likely find the paintings shallow, out of date, even gaudy in their presentation, with too-yellow evening glows infusing all but a couple of them, and a general fuzziness that mirrors Thomas Cole et al., but also hews dangerously close to the kitschy Robert Kincaid painter-of-light school of art marketing.

For me, there is only one painting here to spend time with, and that is the smallest, a 23-inch-square cloud study in a wide black frame. Titled Cloud Icon, it is romantic, realistic and abstract all at once. Appropriately, it is placed side-by-side with a same-size framed digital color photograph by Hunter of a storage tank in the Port of Rensselaer, a soft, light-filled image that could easily be interpreted in a similar way by the viewer.

Hunter, however, wouldn’t have that. Her artist statement invokes her conceptual, performance and installation artist heroes as she describes the Port of Albany as a “ready-made outdoor museum . . . rich with possibilities when framed through the lens of documentary-style photography.” In other words, Hunter is not a documentary photographer, she is a postmodern artist deconstructing the landscape by using photography and theory as tools.

But to me, it is sufficient to understand and appreciate Hunter’s contribution as a neo-Romantic, thrilled at the strange and elemental beauty of the industrial landscape as an experience—one from which compellingly formal, textural and atmospheric images can be made, in the older tradition of earlier modernists like Sheeler and Hopper.

In fact, Hunter’s color pictures (the majority of those on view) are suffused with light and warmth not unlike that of the luminist paintings created by Bloodgood-Abrams, while the black-and-whites of the ports are for the most part more harshly seen, as well as being much more crudely digital-looking (intentionally so, I’m certain). To support her thesis, she should stick to the black-and-whites—but the more recent color work is far more beautiful and, therefore, seems more heartfelt, too.

Cassidy, meanwhile, has no need for sentimentality, though his 100-plus images in a long scroll-like format have great esthetic appeal on the gallery wall. Cassidy has taken the images from live Web-cams around the United States’ perimeter, downloading as many views across borders as he can locate on the Internet.

The resulting piece, titled Looking Out 1, is like a snapshot of the nation—but a far different one in spirit than you’ll see in those Day in the Life books. It doesn’t look like much—mostly water, mountains and the occasional highway, all with a visible horizon that becomes the piece’s organizing element as Cassidy lines the various-sized images up along that edge. But, though it is somewhat randomly selected, this 360-degree panorama is still a landscape, and it gives the viewer a traditional art experience in that way.

However, Cassidy’s long-range goal for the project is to hook up the streaming broadcast of imagery in a viewable whole—the nation’s entire edge held by the viewer’s gaze in minute-by-minute surveillance. The lovely picture on view here is merely a moment’s frozen image from that remote, conceptual place.

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