ART REVIEW: “5th Rochester Biennial” at Memorial Art Gallery

“Passage #3” by Robert Bertoia of Ithaca is part of the 5th Rochester Biennial, currently at Memorial Art Gallery. PHOTO PROVIDED


“5th Rochester Biennial”

Through August 5

Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave.

Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday until 9 p.m.

$5-$12 (half-price Thursday 5-9 p.m.)


The art chosen for the Memorial Art Gallery’s “5th Rochester Biennial” exhibit seems to reflect something like a sampling of the different breeds of ghosts carried by artists. These include the aesthetic influences of other times; the spirit of artistic materials; the specters of once-thriving domiciles; the eternal striving of human will against all manner of hardships; and the projected identities of our increasingly isolated selves in the virtual realm. It is in each of our natures to bear these fragments of essence; creative types simply spend more time in focused dialogue with them. There is a lot to say about the six artists included in this edition of the show, so I’ll get right to it.

The collaborative duo behind “Geolocation: Tributes to the Data Stream,” Nate Larson of Baltimore and Marni Shindelman of Rochester, deal with the ironic isolation brought about by our increased technological networking. Their work utilizes publicly available GPS coordinates embedded in tweets, and uses programs such as Tweetspot and Twitter Maps to locate where the tweets originated in the physical world. The artists then travel to photograph either the spot on which the sender stood, or what the person might have seen from that spot. The five-year project has included tweets from Rochester, Baltimore, Chicago, California, New Brunswick, and England, with projects in Russia, Japan, and Egypt in the works. Looking at the images, which include the original tweet, some clever editorializing is often present.

Larson and Shindelman make their point immediately with the first message-in-a-bottle: “i just put on that location thing for Twitter. I’m not sure how I feel about it though.” That’s paired with an image taken in seriously creepy proximity to the house from which the tweet originated, placing the viewer almost in the hedges near an unshaded window. Hello, person’s lamp.

Relationship troubles are aired from empty lots or different homes. One writer confirms the suspicion that something was off with the announcement of being laid off, tweeted from a street corner near a building which says W. Randolf Street on one side – hardship conveyed on a street named for Hearst, himself.

Val M. Cushing’s functional works of ceramic art are a nod to the “the rich colors, the dynamic textures, and the harmonious forms” found in nature, per the statement from the professor emeritus at Alfred University, where he taught for four decades. The 81-year-old Cushing credits Bauhaus-trained Marguerite Wildenhain with “opening his eyes to the excitement of a life totally immersed in art,” but also has found influences in the Chinese Song dynasty, Native American art, and jazz improvisation for the rich patterning on his bowls, platters, and jars.

From the tall Column series of jars to the squat, sturdy Acorn series of jars, each work is a perfectly harmonious object, certain to be an immediate heirloom. While a relic of this age, each also bears the essence of many others, as well as the ageless beauty of nature.

Cornell University professor of art Roberto Bertoia’s recent work “is an exploration of the relationship between landscape/environment and the human/built condition,” according to the artist statement. The artist uses local native wood for his boxy sculptures, crafting them mostly by hand, using traditional tools. Each of the table-top-sized works in the “Passage” series is some combination of cherry or walnut, plexiglass, brass, and rubber. The pieces resemble train cars with open ends, revealing a boxy tunnel with many cut-out windows that cast light into the shadowy interior. Slight kinks in the sides of the form indicate a lumbering motion, transporting us as we traverse the secret passage.

In the center of the exhibition space, “Forest Passage” is a life-sized version of Bertoia’s smaller works, with the same inviting boxy tunnel form, but most adults will have to duck to move through it. Bertoia envisions “a place of transition between field and forest” as the ideal location for these works.

Eunsuh Choi’s crystalline-structure sculptures serve to “visually communicate the spiritual essence of human ambition,” per the artist statement. “The contemplative nature of my work resonates with our human desire for something ‘higher’ and ‘bigger,’” she explains.

A native of Korea, Choi came to Rochester in 2004 and earned her MFA in glass from RIT’s School for American Crafts. Choi uses her kitchen as a studio to create the delicate-looking but durable glass forms. Thin strands of the material are used to create a latticework of stacked boxes that form triangles and house forms, often containing a ladder, tree, or both within a central empty space. The objects symbolize striving, says the artist, while the boxed-in nature speaks to her alienation within a strange culture. As an immigrant, Choi is not permitted to work in the United States, but shows her work here and abroad.

In her “Limited Barrier” series, ladders are capped with tree branches, some with opaque clouds caught in their arms. Other ladders break up and tangle. “Double-Consciousness” is an impressive work of three cubes with the same gridwork within, each with smaller cubes in a progression of merging or breaking free of the larger cube, marking a person’s internal shift. In each, tree branches break through the barriers, capped at the ends with clusters of glass beads, reminding me of nerves and dendrites.

In the center of the Grand Gallery space, a makeshift theater has been created for the projection of six poignant digital video works that address the historic and ongoing inequity, crushing hardship, and coping mechanisms of African Americans. The artist, Yvonne Buchanan, is professor of art at Syracuse University, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, filmmaker, and an activist, and is the artist chosen by the MAG for this year’s “Biennial” based on the merit of her work in two previous “Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibitions.” Each of the videos is equally striking, and I could have written this entire review on Buchanan’s work alone.

I was first struck by the magnitude of Buchanan’s work with “Territories,” her 2008 video featured in the 2009 Rochester-Finger Lake Exhibition which provoked consideration of issues such suspicious, surveillance, and alienation as it pertains to race relations in America. Her videos in this show run within a similar vein, and though they are heavy in symbolism and leave plenty of room for meditation, even the most privileged of viewers can grasp her meaning with a little focus and imagination. In the work, “In Court,” solid black shadows of anonymous men playing basketball are layered over a color video of a high metal fence with trees and sky in the background, indicating both the boundaries of the game and a cage. The shadows interact in a cluster mostly on the left side of the shot, and players disappear and reappear within the group. At the end, only one figure is left.

“I explore strategies historically employed by the African-American community to endure harsh experiences, including ideas of religiosity and belief in the afterlife,” says the artist in a provided statement. In “Gravity” we see rapidly flashing images of white man’s Jesus, paired with a here-and-now martyr: the silhouette of a black woman. In a rare instance of audio in the show, we hear “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics. The sorrowful tune, despite the uptempo rhythm, alludes in this context to that old promise made by the oppressors: accept your lot in this life, be humble and obedient in your suffering, because paradise is comin’ after you die.

“Less Than Strange” distorts clips from “Birth of a Nation” much in the same way that film distorted reality (look it up), and “The Ghost The Animal” deals with the class, sanity, and imprisonment while it refocuses our attention on perhaps one of the most wrongfully dismissed characters in all of classic literature, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, in the Charlotte Bronte novel, “Jane Eyre.”

It’s becoming a trend that the MAG likes to hide each “Biennial’s” breathtaking oil paintings in the far back portion of the gallery. There you will find the work of David Higgins, a painter with a purely poetic grasp on language. His artist statement reads: “Sometimes houses are skulls. Sometimes they are accretions of debris, like the weird little casings that caddisflies build from sand and pine needles. At night, they are cells in a larger organism, chambering sleepers in the dark.”

Most of Higgins’ works are near-photo-real tributes to houses from the older neighborhoods of Elmira, Binghamton, Cortland, and Rochester, as they “slip further into decrepitude.” I’d never heard the phrase “ruins porn,” offered by the curator’s essay, but it’s certainly a fitting term for the genre to which Higgins belongs, though he is at a less dramatic end of the genre’s scale. In his work, small things are off in familiar scenes: houses are missing portions of their siding, or posts in railings. In “Railroad Tracks,” a big storm looms over wild shrubs and a random dining room chair. Elsewhere, skinny stray dogs look after one another beneath a rusty overpass.

Curiously, the artist departs from the remnants for a moment to showcase “Peep Show,” a framed work of eight tiny, light-up dioramas. Each gives an immediate dainty impression, but upon closer inspection, something is awry. “When it Rains it Pours” shows the Morton Salt girl apprehended not by a cute pup, but by a pit bull. “Hartford Circus Fire, 1944” alludes to the instance when Barnum & Bailey waterproofed its tent with paraffin, which was burned down by a juvenile delinquent’s cigarette.

Amid so many dreary Upstate New York streets, Higgins offers a massive, acid-colored portrait of “Spaulding Street,” where even the dead grass is vibrantly hued. “My real goal is to make art that is the visual equivalent of Side Two of Abbey Road,” says Higgins, an associate professor of art at Corning Community College. The association is detectable, in the many instances of self-reflection and farewells.


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