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Pair of Shows Out of Spotlight at Albright-Knox

Jared Pappas-Kelley

Originally published: Buffalo News. Buffalo, NY. 17 Oct 2008. 

As the Albright-Knox Art Gallery prepares for the February opening of “Action/ Abstraction, ” perhaps its most important show in years, two other exhibitions on view through January sit quietly under the radar, each worth a look in its own understated way.

“Remix Inner Space”

The Albright-Knox’s small Clifton Hall Link space is almost an afterthought, a subterranean corridor connecting the main museum to the gallery’s library next door. It’s often overlooked by visitors and easily forgotten, but art is so often concerned with such in-between spaces, and it’s no surprise curators are using this space to showcase the photographic exhibition “Remix Inner Space: Photography From the Collection.”

The show is a meditation on interior life and its relation to the spaces we occupy. It invites us, according to exhibition curator Holly E. Hughes, to explore seemingly familiar spaces and the relationship between observer and place. In much of the work, especially conceptually focused pieces like John Pfahl’s series “View From the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit,” we are cast as observers attempting to discover inner meaning from the spaces people inhabit.

Thomas Struth’s photograph “Musee du Louvre No. 2” opens the show. It depicts a group of young children in a gallery filled with paintings from the Italian Renaissance. Just over the children hangs Paolo Veronese’s immense oil “Jupiter Expelling the Vices.” An oval cluster of children sitting on the floor mimics the painting’s oval composition. On their best museum behaviour, the children occupy a compact space, but they are not intimidated by the image of vices being bodily cast out from the heavens. On closer inspection, this is a scene from everyday life, and the restless children mirror the scene above; some kids sit on coats, fidget and shift their weight, while others sit dutifully. Several turn, curious to discover who has snuck in to take their picture. Even amid the grand authority of the setting, life is intimate and breathing.

Less intimate is Andreas Gursky’s “Atlanta,” in which 17 stacked balconies morph into a dense, patterned mass. It’s a world insects might create — geometric, dense and interchangeable. Here, the focus isn’t on individuals, but the environments they construct for themselves. Neat rows multiply into an alienating display of sameness on a grand scale. This austere display gives no hint of the human particulars occurring inside the photograph.

From out here, everything looks small.

“Op Art Revisited”

Op Art, traditionally defined as abstract work that uses optical illusion, attempts something nearly impossible. It uses condensed parallel lines, concentric rings, unexpected colour pairings or stark black and white pressed into images that hum to the human eye.

The paint can pull up, and sometimes away from the canvas, hovering just above the surface. With phantom colours and after-images, it confuses the eye, producing something more than we can decode — a deliberate visual misunderstanding or elegant optical illusion.

“Op Art Revisited” at the Albright-Knox consists of 43 works from the collection tracing the movement’s impetus from the 1950s to its peak in the 1960s. It also includes contemporary work tracing a shared heritage. On display are works by movement notables such as Josef Albers, Richard Anuskiewicz, Bridget Riley and Julian Stanczak.

At times, I’ve been resistant to Op Art, associating it with old, mildewed parapsychology magazines or the cover art for clever pop albums and forgotten musical genres, but the form keeps popping up with surprising vibrancy. It’s in some of my favourite contemporary art, such as Jennifer Steinkamp’s dazzling video installation titled

“Loom,” which was on display earlier this year at the Albright-Knox, and also in much of the contemporary work that uses hard-edged design and eye-popping colour.

The exhibition also features contemporary artists such as Susie Rosmarin, whose seemingly proto-digital painting “Grey-Blue” is a mirror looking back, an effort to transport the exhibition into the present.

Amid work that bends lines with textured glass and warped lenses, there are also several paintings by Riley. In Riley’s “Sequel,” vertical pinstripes repeat across the canvas in green, orange, violet, cantaloupe and white, creating bands of colour that seem to pulsate from the surface to merge into a new and unknown hue. In her black-and-white “Drift No. 2,” rippling lines glide over the canvas, hinting at rolling depths

Art designed to confuse the eye invites us to see things in a different way, to question our own experience. The gallery offers up an opportunity to revisit the work and see how the classics cozy up with the present. The rest — however we see it — is up to us.