Big doings on Bridge Street in Catskill

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Photos provided by Bridge Street Theatre

 

Sometimes, more is more. A good case in point is “Big Works in the Big Room,” the current exhibition in the gallery space at Bridge Street Theatre in the village of Catskill. Featuring 19 sculptures by a total of nine artists, the show comprises large, dynamic and at times completely over-the-top works, happily married to the generous dimensions of an equally ample room.

At least six of the works represented here, however, require an even-larger space for their proper setting. For what seems like millennia now, High Falls artist Bob Schuler has been inscribing his manic ideograms into 16-inch cubes of granite, and then dropping the cubes one at a time, every hundred miles, in the ocean depths. Schuler’s Tethys Project, named for the ancient Greek personification of the sea’s prolificity, has already seen his carved blocks buried across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, through the Panama Canal and from Panama to the Galapagos. The six blocks on view in the Big Room are not the actual granite cubes, but castings of vacuum-formed plastic and plaster: facsimiles of four blocks that have already been dropped, and of another two awaiting their possibly eternal submergence in the sea. And who knows? Perhaps a geologic epoch or two down the road, the shifting of tectonic plates might raise the cubes from the stygian depths and redeposit them, for the delectation of whatever eyes are there to see them, in the plains or valleys of a radically altered continent. Ars longa, baby!

Chris Hawkins, who has been an able and indispensable assistant to Schuler, is a wild man in his own right. Known in Ulster County as a sculptor, musician and performance artist, he’s represented here by two outrageous assemblages: Judy’s Tanning Salon and Narwhale. The latter has a funky monumentality, towering ten feet above the gallery floor – almost like a breaching cetacean – and consisting of tons of materials: fabric, wood, stone, rusted ironwork and figures evoking a sturgeon, a human-looking turtle, a little girl, a lingam and the titular narwhal, among other riches.

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If Andy Goldsworthy has nightmares, they probably resemble Harry Mathews’ The Greene Man, a contemporary homage to the eponymous fertility figure of pagan mythology (eponymous, that is, except for that last “e” in “Greene,” which localizes this particular nature spirit in Greene County). Painstakingly constructed of intricately interwoven bits of driftwood – sticks, roots and branches – that the artist culled from his creekside property in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the stick figure seems to embody both the benign and chaotic aspects of nature, possessing a fierce, almost menacing quality that stands (or in this case, sits) in direct contrast to the patient skill of its making.

Another marvel conjured from interlocking bits of driftwood is Rita Dee’s Isabella, which looks like a carousel horse that has bolted from the carnival. The steed’s polychromatic pasterns, fetlocks, withers, hocks and gaskins are the result of a year spent in collaboration with the residents of Chiz’s Place, a homeless shelter in Kingston. Dee and her co-creators hand-painted hundreds of sticks and branches washed up by the Hudson, inscribing them in many places with poems, peace signs and personal statements, and joined them together with powder-coated decking screws. The resulting entity has more than the mere appearance of a horse; it has the magical spirit of one, as if a Palaeolithic cave painting had suddenly acquired an extra dimension. Dee has been making these equine evocations for many years; I remember one such sculpture that graced the front of the former White Rabbit in Red Hook – I lunched there on many occasions solely to hang out with the horse.

Space prohibits extended commentary on any of the pieces by Matt Bua, Carol Swierzowski, Jimmy Tim Fry, Marc Swanson and Richard Talcott, but all of them contribute fine, solid, provocative work. There’s not a clunker in the show.

“Big Works in the Big Room” is the third exhibition to be mounted in the multi-arts complex at 44 West Bridge Street in Catskill. The building – which was a beer distribution warehouse, a factory that made big, heavy, plastic vinyl strips used in refrigeration and a book depository in some of its previous incarnations – owes its renovation to John Sowle and Steven Patterson, a pair of energetic, enterprising and ebullient theater people who met and fell in love in San Francisco in 1983. After stints in Minneapolis, LA and New York City, they became full-time residents of Catskill five years ago, and in 2012 were married onstage, between a matinée and an evening performance of Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders at Stageworks Hudson. “We closed the show,” laughs Patterson.

The pair first became aware of the huge, empty space after moving to the village and passing the place every day on their way to the gym. “It was perfect: the size, the separate spaces, every single element that we needed to make [a theater] function,” says Patterson. “It’s the kind of space that enforces really creative staging.”

For now, that innovative staging takes place in the Raw Room, where Kaliyuga Arts, the resident company founded and directed by Sowle and Patterson, recently presented The Epic of Gilgamesh, hailed as an “awe-inspiring achievement” by the Albany Times-Union. But once the requisite funds are raised, the Raw Room will morph into a mainstage theater, capping the renovations that to date have included a lobby (which also functions as a speakeasy for musical acts and magic shows) and the installation of rest rooms.

Coming up is a double bill of recently discovered one-act plays by William Inge, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Picnic. Presented by Kaliyuga Arts, the plays – The Killing and The Love Death – run from August 14 to 23. And save the second and third weeks in October, when Kaliyuga Arts mounts a production of Grinder’s Stand, a drama by the late Oakley Hall III about the still-unsolved death of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame), who died of gunshot wounds that were either self-inflicted or dealt by a person or persons unknown. For a complete schedule, call (518) 943-3818 or visit www.bridgest.org.

 

“Big Works in the Big Room” exhibition, open Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. and by appointment, Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge Street, Catskill; (518) 943-3818, www.bridgest.org

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