Photos by Lauren Thomas
For people who think visually, the old bromide that “One picture is worth a thousand words” is a given. But the verbal and visual arts are by no means exclusive lenses through which our world can be viewed and described. “The Stories We Tell: Hudson Valley Artists 2015,” which opened with a well-attended reception at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on the SUNY New Paltz campus last Saturday, literally and beautifully illustrates that border where words and pictures merge. Each of the diverse collection of images by 26 local artists proffers tantalizing bits of a tale and nudges the viewer’s imagination to take it further.
When Mary-Kay Lombino of Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was approached by the Dorsky’s Sara Pasti and Daniel Belasco to be this year’s juror/curator for the museum’s annual “Hudson Valley Artists” exhibit, she says that she was given “total free rein” to “come up with a theme and run it by us.” Lombino, whose husband is a journalist, got to thinking about how, in addition to the region’s wealth of artistic talent, “There are so many writers living here too.” She decided to seek out artworks that incorporate storytelling — and often actual or fanciful text — into their imagery.
The call for entries for Hudson Valley Artists 2015 invited artists from nine counties to “submit work that considers the following questions: What is the difference between illustration and art that is shaped by narrative structure? How much is narrative a conscious or unconscious factor in an artist’s practice? How do stories factor into abstract art in which the narrative might be known only by the artist?” The challenge met with an enthusiastic response, with nearly 300 works submitted. “The opportunity to look through them all was such a gift,” says Lombino.
The resulting collection of all-new works, arrayed in what Belasco praises as “a very visually intelligent installation,” is a richly rewarding, thought-provoking exhibition well-worth a couple of hours of browsing. Lombino calls each one “a conversation between the artist and the viewer… Collectively they tell a story — a narrative about what’s happening in art in the Hudson Valley in the last two years.”
Unsurprisingly, most of the works on view are representational, though even abstract paintings can contain threads of personal narrative, such as Perry Meigs’s acrylic-on-canvas renderings of snippets of rug, wallpaper and bedspread patterns from various houses in which the artist has lived over a lifetime. Other works are much more explicitly suggestive of a story, such as Karen Whitman’s linocut Solitude: a cityscape in which a man sits on a bench on a tiny island in the middle of a busy intersection, with a “Do Not Enter” sign looming over him, reading a magazine in which we can discern a picture of a palm tree. The license plates on the passing cars carry messages like “Joy” and “Fun.”
“You don’t know exactly what’s happening in the story, but that’s part of the charm,” says Lombino as she pauses by Richard Edelman’s “photos influenced by paintings” in her guided tour of the exhibition. In one, Bathsheba with a Text from David, the chiaroscuro influence of old masters like Rembrandt is evident, but with an ironic modern twist: The woman seated at a table in a dark room set with a still-life assemblage of fruit could be from some past century, were it not for the fact that the light from her cellphone, along with a pair of candlesticks, illuminates her face.
Many media are represented in the show, with some pieces incorporating more than one. Lucid, sculptor-turned-painter Matthew Maley’s acrylic painting of a scene from a recurring dream from his childhood, pops into three dimensions as the bottom two steps of a staircase and a wooden doorframe emerge into the gallery space. Tona Wilson’s 6:45-minute, four-panel video installation on the subject of immigrants, Crossing Paths, is a real dazzler, with a musical score by Jeremy Mage, its stop-motion animated images of people on the move meticulously cut from newspapers, letters and immigration documents. The story that it tells is set in America from the 19th century to the present, but it is visually timeless, occasionally evoking that 11th-century masterpiece of visual storytelling, the Bayeux Tapestry.
Humor is to be found in abundance in “The Stories We Tell.” There are a couple of clever small sculptures from Dina Bursztyn’s “ArTchaeological Museum” series, including Proof: a ceramic mermaid in a sardine tin, displayed with an exhibit card soberly claiming that it is scientific evidence that women evolved directly from fish. Graphic novelist Deb Lucke contributed a couple of hilarious prints from a narrative about a fearful young girl named Pearl who is trying to get the attention of her Mom, away visiting her aunt, with sketches of imagined perils like “a dangerous girl-biting deer.” There’s one of Michael X. Rose’s fun cartoony paintings, King Kong vs. Moby Dick, and a couple of B-movie-poster-style prints from Ben Fishman’s “Monsters of Mohonk” series.
And finally, the mystery of that cryptic historical marker mounted in a doorway near the Ulster Publishing offices on Wall Street in Kingston has been solved: It’s one in a series of acrylic-painted cast aluminum signs being created by sculptor Norm Magnusson, each one’s text beginning “On this site stood” and going on to tell a snippet of some character’s personal saga, often with a bit of a sociopolitical punch. The exhibition includes information on how to submit your own idea for Magnusson’s next sign, to be chosen in a contest.
With all its suggestive, brain-tickling threads of strange narrative, “The Stories We Tell: Hudson Valley Artists 2015” will have special appeal to audiences who tend to be left cold by purely abstract art. But it will also amply satisfy art-lovers who are more interested in technique and visual impact than representational content. The show runs at the Dorsky’s Alice and Horace Chandler and North Galleries through November, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.
Check the website at www.newpaltz.edu/museum for dates, times and descriptions of talks and interactive workshops to be held over the course of the exhibition. These include a “Digital Portrait Studio” on second Saturdays beginning July 11, in which artist Tasha Depp will sketch gallery visitors on her iPad and then incorporate some of the images into her evolving slideshow that is part of the exhibition, Live Sketch Project.