Tiny show, powerful impact: Final VACI exhibition in conjunction with Albright-Knox is a stunner

Anthony Bannon | Guest reviewer

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Thomas Nozkowski “Untitled (N-30),” 2010

Just a tiny show — 20 pictures by 13 artists — and all on paper, small to medium size, no overstatement, no heroics, no shouting. Simply pencil, ink, watercolor on some, pastel, spray paint.

A common touch.

But, o, such elegant results.

This is the elegance of the fundamental idea  — line, for instance, like a lyre; a swatch of color, like the sun saying goodnight. Such a pleasure, if we allow it — the delight in seeing, step by step, line by line, the unfolding of ideas.

These are notions without practical purpose — unless one counts as practical the cultivation of soul.  But they are consequential, these designs of art, carrying gratification for mind and spirit — and the bonus of an emotional timbre. Somehow, the rudiments of expression, whether in word or gesture or note or mark on paper, provide a compass that shows the way to fulfillment.

Scholars have things to say about the experience of art — in this case contemporary abstract images:

—“its aesthetic wavering between sleek and utilitarian …”

—“attempting to deconstruct painterly identity and taking on a complexity …”

—“merging gesture with the unpredictability of materials …”

—“intricate layering of process, materials and narrative …”

These are helpful notions put forth by Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator Holly Hughes, who shared works from the Buffalo museum’s collection in the third and final edition of a survey of abstraction, decade by decade since the 1940s, which we have enjoyed in the Strohl Art Center on Wythe Avenue over the past three years.

But there are simple pleasures that secure and open the mind spring for Ms. Hughes more erudite notions.

Line and hue, recognition of the darkness and its variegated possibilities, the brilliance of light, and a thread leading out of two dimensions to occupy the third: these are put forth here for our discernment.

It is easy to overlook the gift that Judy Barie, director of the gallery, and Don Kimes, the artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua, present through a subtly effective installation, the rhetoric of which they set forth in the selection of the first piece in the show — which also is the cover image of the pamphlet produced for free distribution in the second floor gallery.

Softly spoken, this anchor image is only 8 by 10 inches. By Thomas Nozkowski, the little untitled drawing of pencil and marker and gouache establishes the proposition of line against mass that is fundamental to picture-making. It also is a fundament for thinking.

I imagine that Nozkowski, a veteran New York artist,  considered a blank piece of paper one day in 2010 and set down a red squiggly line vertically through the center of the paper: Put the line down; interrupted the emptiness; began someplace and discovered where the thought process of a practiced hand-eye-brain-spirit would lead. And here it led through a rhetoric of comparison (more red) and contrast (straight lines that mass into a surrounding architecture, accented by a halo of simple pencil-rendered rectangles).

In this midst, the squiggle declares itself as a bolt of lightning, a sui generis, the axis mundi, a spark of origins, a road map for thinking — not only about art, but also about notions as big as the way we structure ideas.

From Nozkowski, the proposition of the exhibition unfolds through the work of  well-regarded veterans, mid-career aspirants and regional leaders — a wonderful congeries of familiar and brand new friends.  The VACI team makes it fun to read the progression — like moving through mathematics, proposition by proposition, to the eureka at the end: problem solved, proof achieved.

Richmond Burton, veteran on the national art scene, living on Long Island, keeps the game in red, and makes a tangle of lines and shapes before handing off to Warren Isensee, another New York veteran, who shifts the terms into adjacent hues and organizes his picture plane  into the building blocks of rectangles inside of rectangles, rendered with the most delicate utterly liquid pencil strokes.

Jeff Morris, in his mid-career, and the old prom Mia Westerlund Roosen next work a simplified grey scale, line upon line, all across the scale, a huge chorus of linear voices … a marvelous duet, as if to end the exhibitions’s first movement.

In its way, the show is an exercise in discernment, asking us to slow down for the slight things that offer the promise of great reward.  In more arrogant times, we might have called this moment in the Gallo Family Gallery an invitation to cultivate good taste. Today we might suggest it is an opportunity for judgment, even a chance at the ultimate prize of wisdom.

Another veteran, once an enfant terrible of the 1970s, standing tall for opportunity for women, Lynda Benglis, quieted in the late 1990s for a deep meditation on the complexity of impulsive gestures, rendering the strength and tonality of line and just what such a tangle might yield after one considers its deep structure. Likewise Orly Genger, almost 30 years younger, working on Benglis’s shoulders to make an intricacy of line that shows, upon inspection, one fist layered upon another, fist upon fist, “When It All Comes Down To,” she calls it.

What a pleasure within this context to discover the work of regional artists Tam Van Tran from Los Angeles, who takes the discussion into the third dimension with a stapled construction; and Heather McGill, a design magician, like a shaman, from Detroit; and Ani Hoover, a thoughtful colorist, and Alberto Rey, a philosopher of the picture plane, both from western New York state, and both with a history at Chautauqua. Hoover was a VACI student, and Rey was the gallery director a decade ago.

Against the likes of well regarded artists Tony Feher and Sean Scully, also in the exhibition, Hoover and Rey stand on equal footing, a heartening reminder that the resolve of expression is not based on any priority of place.

Hoover, in fact, has become an iconic force in Buffalo. So many in the region now make watercolors like hers, imitating her floating orbs in strong though scumbled colors. But Hoover retains the edge, working with the ever difficult circle shape to make of it an ebullience in one moment, a spectral auger in the next, a fulfillment in the next, always speaking from a podium located at the ramparts.

Rey is the teacher — in fact the respected veteran art professor at SUNY Fredonia —  ever challenging with ideas about migration, about environment, and about contemplation. This 24 by 18 inch ink wash with a little oil and rabbit skin on paper at the Strohl is called “Binary Forms: XXI” from 1990, and it is a bold look into the darkness, inviting discovery  of the barely recognizable forms that hide there, incantations perhaps, echoes of ideas from ages ago, a confusing emergence, maybe a false witness floating to the top, a ghost-like suggestion we need to decide to accept — or not.

This final show from the famed Albright-Knox collection is a gift. It has been up all season. It closes on August 19. See it again before it returns to the museum’s vaults.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College.