As the winter winds are set to billow across Lake Ontario, a wind of a different sort has already blown into Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It came in the form of a new director, Louis Grachos, who arrived this past January. Grachos has introduced several new initiatives calculated to reinvigorate the gallery, including a refocused approach to the gallery's world-renowned collection of modern and contemporary art.
So the gallery is reinstalling its permanent collection and repainting its walls. No longer are they a freshened-up modernist white. Instead, you'll find colors ranging from a grayish wedgwood blue to a bluish dove gray --- colors appropriate to International Style buildings, such as the Gordon Bunshaft-designed 1962 building that houses much of the permanent collection.
The wall colors dramatically enhance the art work --- whether it's a 19th-century Impressionist painting or a late 20th-century sculptural sink by Robert Gober. Paintings like Jasper Johns' Numbers in Color (1958-59) take on a completely new life. Its blues and reds are intensified, asserting the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, while the numbers themselves have somehow become almost three-dimensional.
If the reinstallation is not enough to jumpstart visitor appeal, then the gallery's current exhibitions offer an exciting, if not provocative and challenging, array of works by prominent contemporary artists that should surely entice.
In discrete gallery spaces whose walls were formerly graced by the likes of august Old World painters like Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix, you'll find two temporary exhibitions of work by Janine Antoni (through February 1) and Kara Walker (through February 8), which include recent acquisitions --- no doubt the contemporary continuation of what Grachos referred to as "the thoughtful and daring patronage of people such as [A. Conger] Goodyear and of Seymour Knox Jr."
Both Antoni and Walker are makers of objects --- whether the object is a silver cast of the inside of the artist's mouth and palm of her mother's hand, or a series of screen prints in the style of Victorian-era black paper cutouts. And it is the made object, or making of an object, that unites six artists --- Petah Coyne, Leslie Dill, Ken Price, Tom Sachs, Jeanne Silverthorne, and Fred Tomaselli --- in another temporary exhibition, Materials, Metaphors, Narratives.
Thematically cohesive, visually and intellectually engaging, each artist's work commands one or more of the special exhibition gallery spaces and weaves in and out of the serious and not-so-serious.
Admitting to being "seduced by religion," Petah Coyne obsessively and intricately compiles silk flowers, bows, tassels, velvet, lace, pearls, candles, branches, metal wire, and more under delicate, drippy blankets of wax to create meditations on the dualities of life --- life-death, black-white, good-bad, fragile-strong, funny-serious. There also seems to be a little free association thrown in for good measure.
Untitled #1165 (Paris Blue) is a waxy, bluish-black pile of lots of silk flowers, some feathers, and a few tassels, plus a little chicken wire and blue velvet. As an object in space, it looks like a blackened mound of dirt from a freshly dug grave in front of a Celtic-inspired headstone. The black color and grave-like appearance is only contradicted by a humorous anecdote the artist provides for the audio tour. Coyne talks about how the inspiration for this piece came from the revelation that her friend Anne at Galerie Lelong (Coyne's New York gallery) was going to go to Paris. She recalls thinking about Paris, about how beautiful, how fun, but then also recalls how sad, how "blue" she will be when Anne is gone.
Nearby is Untitled #961S99-01 (Mary/Mary). Rising to just beneath the high ceiling, a creamy white shrouded figure seems to push through from behind a lean-to of plastered drywall. The figure's pleated mantle cascades into the viewer's space --- not unlike the long trail of a wedding gown --- and the surrounding floor space is strewn with white waxy flowers. The look is random, the reality is anything but. A sense of quiet elegance and reverence momentarily overcome you. Virgin Mary, virgin bride, pregnant bride, pregnant Virgin... Irreverent? Maybe. Humorous? Definitely. The "pregnant" figure is pregnant from the back. These idiosyncratic constructions become metaphoric narratives on the material collision of conflicting emotions.
Although not an overtly humorous exhibition, humor, or the use of humor to communicate the serious, has a palpable presence. Jeanne Silverthorne likes rubber because it can be both industrial and flesh-like, and therefore, funny, because it is has no spine, no backbone. Scale is also very important. In Under a Cloud, a small, worrisome figure made out of colorless rubber sits beneath a big, gooey-looking, pendulous lump of a cloud. The figure's hairdo sticks out in all directions... Is she just having a bad hair day or is there more to it? (What does feeling look like? How dowe visualize emotion?)
While Silverthorne is admittedly "not a high colorist," Ken Price uses clay to create amorphous sculptural bodies alive with tiny vibrant dots and squiggles of painstakingly applied color. While color is very important to his work, neither the choice of colors nor the work itself has social or political content. His objects are what they are --- quirky and whimsical --- and it is up to the viewer to decide what, if anything, they might be. This is not to say they shouldn't be taken seriously, since, at least according to Price, "most serious art has humor --- if not, it's not serious."
Fred Tomaselli's collaged paintings are pretty funny, too, but don't let that fool you into thinking they're not serious. Like Coyne, Price, and others, Tomaselli is very process oriented. He combines magazine and picture-book cutouts of flowers, birds, butterflies, eyes, lips, hands, and cannabis leaves with real and painted pharmaceutical drugs to create abstract and representational composite images encapsulated in resin --- not unlike the composite heads by the 16th-century Italian painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. In this way, Tomaselli says he's "allowing people to use drugs... but in a completely safe, inverted way... Instead of through the bloodstream to affect consciousness, they travel through the eyeballs."
Though the narratives conveyed may vary from artist to artist and viewer to viewer, these six artists have succeeded in communicating the otherwise intangible on a simple and visceral level.
Materials, Metaphors, Narratives: Work by Six Contemporary Artists is on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, through January 4. Hours: Tuesday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission: Adults, $8; students and seniors, $6; members and children 12 and under, free. Free admission to the permanent collection on Saturdays, 11a.m. to 1 p.m. Info: 716-882-8700.