The Hudson as muse

Larry W. Chapman, “The Morning Float” (2016), archival inkjet print, 44 x 66 inches.

Every summer, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on the SUNY-New Paltz campus hosts the Hudson Valley Artists series, a themed exhibition of work by emerging and mid-career artists in nine counties. This year the theme was “Undercurrents: The River as Metaphor.” The show opened June 10 and will remain on view through July 30.

Artists were asked to submit works in response to the following statement: “The Hudson River is a metaphor for life, death, human aspirations and challenges. Its beauty launched environmental movements, and it was used to transport immigrant groups seeking new homes and opportunities and slaves escaping bondage. It played a key role during the Revolutionary War and served as a passageway for battleships during World War I and World War II. These days, its wakes and waves bespeak the turbulence that marks our contemporary life.”

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Out of 190 submissions, 41 artists were chosen to exhibit: Fern T. Apfel, Andrew Barthelmes, Arlene Becker, Don Bruschi, Peter Bynum, Laura Cannamela, Tobe Carey, Larry W. Chapman, Dick Crenson, Carlo D’Anselmi, Shelley Davis, William Durkin, Richard Edelman, Susan English, Kari Feuer, Jenny Lee Fowler, Matthew Friday, Steve Gentile, Mark Gibian, Carla Goldberg, Theresa Gooby, Sarah Heitmeyer, Keith Hoyt, Ellen Kozak, Minjin Kung, Polly M. Law, Harry Leigh, Iain Machell, Annie-Hannah Mancini, Barbara Masterson, Mike McGregor, Antonella Piemontese, Camilo Rojas and Raquel Rabinovich, Margaret Saliske, Suzy Sureck, James A. Thomson, Susan Togut, Michael Washburn, Dan Wolf, Brian Wolfe and Xuewu Zheng.

With that many voices in the mix, the exhibit is a bit like a mixed-media work itself. There are drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptural works and video installations. There is also a wall-mounted shark made of buttons, a salvaged rowing skiff and a photo of a barge relic attached to the actual barge wood, along with its registration tags. But the diversity all comes together in an ultimately pleasurable viewing experience, and the gallerygoer leaves with new ways to view the great river and a broadened sense of how much it means to people who live here.

“Undercurrents: The River as Metaphor” includes a number of photographs. The Morning Float (2016), a large 44-by-66-inch archival inkjet print by Larry W. Chapman, puts realism to poetic use in an atmospheric image of the river in early morning light, the craggy rocks underfoot solid, the water’s far edge disappearing into the mist. Richard Edelman’s photographs, on the other hand, are constructs – fantasies of reality, as he notes – but no less real, somehow, in their visual impact. Hudson River Construct #9 (2016), a 27-by-40-inch pigmented inkjet print, depicts a dense patterning of leaves at the water’s surface that doesn’t actually exist, but feels as if it does.

More than a few of the sculptural works and installations have a palpably physical presence. Peter Bynum’s Psychedelia Rising (2015) offers an abstracted representation of underwater plant life, rendered in acrylic paint, sandwiched between two layers of tempered glass lit by an LED light panel. While the actual work is 72 by 48 inches, it feels much larger, mounted so that it rises to a height of eight feet. Standing in front of the glowing glass panel in the darkened gallery imparts a sense of immersion in water, and a bit of wonder, too. In his artist statement, Bynum says that he’s interested in “the flow of energy through living systems and the interconnectedness of all life.”

Another work with a strong physical presence is Harry Leigh’s Hudson Falls Cascade (2015). The title of the 11-foot-high work and its waterfall-like structure are suggestive of falling water, but the curved plywood strips that make up the sculpture also speak to the river’s history of boating and iceboating. And Susan Togut’s Lifeforce: A Gift from the River (2017) uses tree limbs, branches, roots, rocks, river glass from the Hudson’s shores, stained-glass paint and fishing line to create an immersive work representing the shifting currents of the river.

Other works are more contemplative, like Jenny Lee Fowler’s i swim in this river, (2017), a cut-paper piece executed with great finesse and detail depicting the silhouette of a swimmer whose body contains many of the natural forms found in the river, a turtle shell, fishscales and plant life among them. The figure is mounted against a river-blue backdrop and elegant in its simplicity.

The show was curated by Livia Straus, co-founder and current director of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, a nonprofit that focuses on contemporary art’s relationship to social issues. Straus says that when she first put out the call for exhibition entries, she expected to receive submissions that dealt with the Hudson Valley’s immigrant history or that spoke to its past industrialization, current gentrification or the return to an idealized agrarian lifestyle. But that wasn’t the case: Most of the artists who submitted works for consideration “stopped at the words ‘River as Metaphor,’” Straus says. Instead of sociological content, she found a population of artists inspired by the geography and beauty of the Hudson River.

The story that ended up being told, she notes, is a narrative of relationships with the river, of commitment and responsibility to maintain and value its beauty. And while the show is not what she had first anticipated, she says, “There is real joy in curating an exhibition that highlights the talents that populate the region.”

One or more of these artists will see their work added to the Dorsky’s permanent collection through the Hudson Valley Artists’ Annual Purchase Award, made possible by the Alice and Horace Chandler Art Acquisition Fund.

Artist talks will be held at 2 p.m. in the galleries on Saturday, June 24 (with Laura Cannemela, Kari Feuer, Carla Goldberg, Theresa Gooby, Sarah Heitmeyer and Antonella Piemontese) and on Saturday, July 8 (with Peter Bynum, Carlo D’Anselmi, William Durkin, Steve Gentile, Mark Gibian and Iain Machell).

There will also be two “family days” scheduled, with hands-on, exhibition-inspired activities for kids and their families. The first takes place on Sunday, July 2 at 2 p.m. with artist Jenny Lee Fowler, and the second on Sunday, July 30 at 2 p.m. with artist Matthew Friday.

“Undercurrents: The River as Metaphor,” Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through July 30, $5, Dorsky Museum, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; (845) 257-3844, www.newpaltz.edu/museum.

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