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Four art shows that are worth the drive

Buffalo bound 

Four art shows that are worth the drive

Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin (through September 10) and Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 (through October 22) | Albright-KnoxArtGallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo | Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fridays til 10 p.m.) | $8-$10; children 13 and under, free; and Fridays 3-10 p.m., free | (716) 882-8700, www.albrightknox.org.

Layers: Collecting Cuban-American Art (through September 7) and John Hultberg: Vanishing Point (through October 15) | University of Buffalo Art Galleries | Free | (716) 645-6912, www.ubartgalleries.buffalo.edu

Negotiating identities in Buffalo

For art fans eager to take a little trip, shuffle on over to Buffalo to partake of several noteworthy exhibits. Start by visiting the Albright-Knox. Currently available for viewing is On View: Stellar Works from the Collection, a refreshing reinstallation of the gallery's permanent collection. It features well-known and beloved examples such as Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom," as well as seminal contributions to modernism such as Gauguin's "The Yellow Christ" or "Spirit of the Dead Watching" and GiacomoBalla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash." Also on view, making the final presentation of its five-venue national tour, is a selection of sculptural works by artist Petah Coyne. (A major survey of self-portraits by Chuck Close is also now open, although it wasn't at press time.)

On initial inspection, Coyne's work seemingly vacillates between the poetically and spiritually evocative and the creative carrying-on of an obsessive-compulsive. This includes drippy, drapey cascades of girlie accoutrements --- bows, candles, flowers, pearls, and ribbons --- like in "Untitled #1093 (Buddha Boy)." To some degree, that's not that far off. However, what's really at issue here is Coyne's ability to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Take, for instance, "Untitled #978 (Gertrude and Juliana, The Whitney Women)." As you enter the main exhibition space, there they are, just a little to the left, their backs to us, looming large while seemingly floating. These are ethereal creatures, a vision of pristine white marble descending in sensuously voluminous folds. But wait --- they're not marble, but rather a combination of chicken wire, fiberglass cast statuary, drywall, plaster bandages, and plaster painted white. They also seem to be passing through the wall, the illusion of which soon becomes a reality as we walk around the engaged figures and see the tips of their up-turned palms and shrouded brow penetrating the planar surface of the exposed drywall. Indeed, it is this fusion of the physical and spiritual that has such resonance in Coyne's work. And that is no accident.

Art historian Rosalind Krauss once described the relationship between art and religion in contemporary times as a kind of "absolute rupture". Moreover, as Eleanor Heartney's essay in the exhibition catalogue points out, many artists have complained about "the psychological damage caused by the rigidities of dogma" -- like Catholicism, which is often seen as "hostile to contemporary culture." But this is exactly the realm where much of the work --- and inner workings --- of Coyne finds its inspiration and comes alive. And it's here too where the notion of duality or a dual consciousness is critical: it doesn't matter whether we're talking about light and dark, beauty and decay, or the sacred and profane. It all comes down to a lot of shades of proverbial grey, which is exactly what constitutes the human experience.

Speaking of darkly beautiful decay, consider for your next stop the University of Buffalo's Anderson Gallery. Located off-campus, on Martha Jackson Place near Englewood and Kenmore, the gallery currently features the work of John Hultberg, an abstract expressionist who caught the eye of dealer Martha Jackson (who also represented Willem de Kooning, AntoniTàpies, and KarelAppel, among others). Curator Kristin Riemer sees Hultberg's work as "[taking] viewers through a vortex into compartmentalized apocalyptic and alien lands (often inhabited by demons or otherworldly beings), where occasional uncluttered expanses create windows into the unknown."

Segueing from the unknown self to the self defined is the current exhibition at the UB Art Gallery, located on-campus at the Center for the Arts. The show comprises the work from two private collections and one public institutional collection in an attempt to show how collecting art --- not just making it --- involves, among other things, the negotiation of identities.

The "identity" at issue here is who or what constitutes a Cuban-American, and how one asserts that identity. For the collectors, who are Cuban-American, one way is to collect artworks by other Cuban-Americans. For the artists, there may be a variety of tactics, but, ultimately, it comes down to how they (and the collectors) negotiate between the twin poles of Cuban heritage and American culture. Cultural identity or a sense of place and roots are frequently recurring themes in these post-colonial times. And even though the modern nations of the Caribbean and Central and South America gained their independence from their European colonizers back in the 19th century for the most part (although it wasn't until 1902 in Cuba), questions as to who one is continue to percolate through a collective cultural psyche.

For example, artist MaríaBrito, who left Cuba for Miami when she was 14 years old, is one who juggles multiple identities: wife, mother, sister, artist, Cuban, catholic, American. In her large charcoal drawing, "Study for the Traveller," the very title alludes to one who has moved or fled from one place to another, for one reason or another. A seated figure, arms outstretched, palms upward, stares outward, passive and immobile. Off to the right is a severed tree trunk whose branches, seemingly barren, reach upward while its roots probe downward. There's a palpable poignancy to it all, which also applies to her painting "Evo." Here, Adam and Eve are "the travelers," having been just cast out of Paradise. The metaphor is not lost.

Experiences of exile and memory are powerful combined forces with which a number of these artists grapple. Like Brito, Alberto Rey also left Cuba for the United States, but at age 3, and settled in Pennsylvania. While he visited Miami every summer, it wasn't until he was in his late 30s that he ventured back to Cuba --- to a country he did not remember but whose heritage he shared. His painting, "Appropriated Memories: El Morro, Havana, Cuba," is classically painted, technically proficient, and depressingly desolate. Reminiscent of the now-abandoned prison on AlcatrazIsland in the middle of San FranciscoBay, El Morro is the castle/fortress that guards the entrance to Havana bay that was originally built in the 16th century. Perched on the promontory on the opposite side of the harbor from Old Havana, it dominates the port entrance and can be seen for miles. It is no doubt the first and last thing one sees when leaving or entering Havana by boat.

Thus, exploring that sense of place, of roots, encompasses the remembered landscape --- the jungles, the mountains, the beaches --- as well as the people. But any consideration of the physical geography and/or the ethnic and cultural diversity of Cuba likewise entails a consideration of social, political, and economic issues at work. This exhibition is not just about being Cuban or art-making as transcendent communication, but also about being human and defining our identities in the expanding global village.

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