Ushio Shinohara, Russel Wright exhibits open through Dec. 16 at Dorsky Museum

A view of the current Dorsky Museum exhibition Russel Wright: The Nature of Design. The exhibit explores the work and philosophy of renowned mid-20th-century industrial designer Russel Wright, whose former home in the Hudson Valley — Manitoga — is now a national historic landmark. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

One of the hidden gems of the Hudson Valley lies in the center of the SUNY New Paltz campus: the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (SDMA), with its vast permanent collection of art and the exhibitions and artists that it brings in from New York City and around the country and world.

“That’s part of our challenge,” said Sara Pasti, the collections manager for SDMA. “We’re set in the middle of a campus, surrounded by parking lots, and are not visible to people as they drive down Main Street or Route 32. Here is this substantial museum with an incredible collection, but it’s not directly in front of people. Of course, the primary goal is to serve the student body and the faculty; but our second goal is to serve the greater community and become a destination place for residents and visitors to the Hudson Valley.”


Walking through the elegant and peaceful halls of the Dorsky Museum, it’s hard to imagine that people don’t make this a daily or weekly stop, as it’s free to the public and offers awe-inspiring pieces of work, from historic Hudson Valley River School paintings to ancient Japanese prints and contemporary and avant-garde exhibitions that stir the visual senses. The SDMA has two stunning exhibits running right now, including “Shinohara Pops! The Avant-Garde Road, Tokyo/New York,” which features the wide variety of work by Japanese-born, now New York-based artist Ushio Shinohara.

An inventive imagemaker, Shinohara offers an engaging, compelling case of a diaspora artist who started out as an enfant terrible in Japan and emerged as an indispensable player in global art history with his “Boxing Painting,” a unique twist on Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings in which Shinohara puts on boxing gloves, loads them with paint and punches the canvas, creating moving pieces of action art.

In the corner of the exhibition is a video clip of the artist engaged in one of these artistic boxing matches. When he visited the campus for the opening of the exhibition, at 83 years of age, he strapped on the gloves and did an impromptu boxing painting, with art students and enthusiasts cheering him on.

“He used to throw out those canvases,” noted Pasti. “When he began to see people taking them from the garbage, he realized that they might be of some value and began to sell them. But throughout his career [from the 1950s to the present], he’s always been more focused on the process than the product, and there’s a playfulness about him that is so engaging.”

Once in New York City, the Japanese artist, renowned in his own country but not as well known in the States, began to collect all kinds of garbage that he found on the streets and turn them into sculptures. Notable among these are his motorcycle sculptures that were inspired by the film Easy Rider and the cultural play between the metaphoric freedom that motorcycles signified during that time in America and the fact that most of the motorcycles were actually being manufactured in Japan.

One of these works on exhibit is Motorcycle Oiran Kanzashi, circa 1988, which is a sculpture made from cardboard, metal and found objects, then painted with bright acrylics and sealed with a thick, shiny polyester resin. “It looks heavy, but it’s really quite light,” noted Pasti, who explained that the artist was fascinated by the underbelly of New York and its low cultures that encompassed shabby bars, pulp fiction, Hell’s Angels and the overflow of junk that he discovered around Canal Street, where he had settled. He once jokingly said, “I realized my American dream with cardboard.”

This is only a smattering of the wide range of work that the artist has created and what’s on display at the Dorsky. This must-see exhibition will run through Dec. 16.

In contrast to the found-object sculptures and whimsical boxing paintings of Shinohara is the nature-inspired ceramic, furniture and house design of Russel Wright (1904-1976), whom Pasti dubbed the Martha Stewart of the mid-20th century, before there was a Martha Stewart. “He believed that high design should be egalitarian and accessible to everyone,” Pasti said, pointing to Wright’s various dishware lines, textiles and furniture that became mass-produced and affordable to the masses.

Yet each piece has a nature-inspired design, with leaves engraved into the bowls, flowers or butterflies. Wright’s aesthetic wove together organic and industrial materials — leaves and plastic, bamboo, aluminum, stone and plate glass. When mass-produced and inexpensive, it revolutionized the average American home and the way that people lived in it, surrounding themselves with beauty in everyday objects.

His artistry and passion culminated in arguably his greatest work: Manitoga, his home built into an abandoned quarry in Garrison, which is now on the National Historic Register. “Manitoga is another hidden treasure in the Hudson Valley that many people don’t know about,” said Pasti. “This exhibit helps to highlight and educate people on Wright’s work, but it also serves to point them towards the magnificent Manitoga.”

Wright worked on the creation of this home for decades, and the result is a living structure nestled organically into the landscape, with plantings and waterfalls that turned a stripped quarry into a place of majestic beauty. “He built a roof made of grass — a green roof, long before it became an eco-trend,” said Pasti.

She also noted that “Artists have been drawn to the Hudson Valley for centuries, from the Hudson River School of Painting to the present, and that’s what we want to highlight at the Dorsky. There are artists everywhere, art colonies; and with our access to New York City, where so many of our great artists reside, we’re able to have pieces lent to us for exhibitions and bring the artist here to talk, educate our students and community.”

The “Russel Wright: Nature of Design” exhibition will remain open until Dec. 16, and then reopen on Jan. 23 through March 10, 2013. The SDMA is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, go to