Rhett Miller and Ryan Cronin at Unison

Rhett Miller

To my mind, Unison Arts in New Paltz was a real pioneer in the notion of interdisciplinary programming, mixed media and the experimental mashup of arts and education in an intimate and dedicated performance space and gallery a mile or two above the little village that could, but that might not. Unison is old-hat at interdisciplinary, but the terms and the talent keep changing. On the weekend of January 5, two old friends with big reputations – painter Ryan Cronin and rock star Rhett Miller – co-brand a weekend of art, entertainment and edification at New Paltz’s vaunted (and reenergized) cultural center.

Cronin – if you didn’t already know him by name – is the man who would brand New Paltz with his instantly identifiable, brash and iconic paintings. Beyond the pop art/high art paradox of his work, Cronin and his wife and business partner Melanie have distinguished themselves as outside-the-box thinkers and innovative career managers and as philanthropists. The Cronin gallery and store in the Water Street Market, CronArtUSA, sells not just Cronin paintings, but all manner of branded and utilitarian goods. It is getting hard to leave New Paltz without something Cronin on you.

Ryan Cronin

Even more impressively, Camp Cronin somehow engineered an almost-unprecedented victory of the local when Cronin’s art was installed, much like crown molding, in the downtown Mobil Mart. I don’t know the story and haven’t asked, but it is one thing to get your big canvases hung in the already-sympathetic Main Street Bistro; quite another to brand the walls of Big Petroleum. That set a dangerous and wonderful precedent.

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In the art of self-determination and postmodern career management, Rhett Miller is a role model sans peer. The hyperprolific singer/songwriter maintains two parallel careers, either one of which would keep most of us gasping. Career One is as the energetic, photogenic and undeniably gifted frontman and principal of the Old ’97s, the enduringly popular Dallas band that pioneered the rambunctious side of alt/country and roots/rock in the ’90s. Career Two is as a solo artist with more than a half-dozen records to his name – some on major labels, most recorded since he moved up here and started a family after an extremely close call with the events of 9/11.

Last year, the ’97s scored a surprising hit with their beefy, theologically oriented album Graveyard Whistling and its lead single “Good with God.” An invigorated cycle of touring and late-night TV appearances followed, and a lot of people either remembered or discovered how much they liked that band. This year Miller has released a new and groundbreaking solo album titled The Messenger, and it is one of the best and most daring recordings of his entire career. The songs tend toward the mature and confessional, and the music toward the lean, hip and cautiously Brooklynated.

So that’s my take on it: three pioneers of different kinds – Cronin, Miller and Unison – teaming up to enrich and ennoble our little community whether we like it or not. Rhett Miller performs on Saturday, Jan. 5 at 8 p.m., and Ryan Cronin’s exhibit opens on Sunday, Jan. 6 at 4 p.m. with a wine-and-cheese reception. General admission concert tickets range between $10 and $25, with discounts for seniors, students and Unison members.

Rhett Miller concert
Saturday, Jan. 5, 8 p.m.
Ryan Cronin art opening
Sunday, Jan. 6 at 4 p.m.
Unison Arts, 68 Mountain Rest Rd.
New Paltz, www.unisonarts.org

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