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Art Review: 'Director's Choice,' BigTown Gallery

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"Horizontal 8" by Hugh Townley
  • "Horizontal 8" by Hugh Townley

Sometimes exhibitions are so radiant that you want to soak them up like the sun. "Director's Choice," currently at the BigTown Gallery in Rochester, is one of those. Curated by director Anni Mackay, this exuberant group exhibition features the work of seven artists, each with a clear voice and mature practice: Varujan Boghosian, Pat dipaula Klein, Helen Matteson, Ira Matteson, Nicholas Santoro, Hugh Townley and John Udvardy.

A range of mediums is represented, from the slightly zany embroidery of dipaula Klein to the smooth, dignified stone of Santoro. Mackay has artfully mixed the 60-odd works into a visual feast of texture, shape and color. Somehow, it is not overwhelming.

Mackay said during a gallery visit that the seed of the show was the works of Helen Matteson. A lifelong artist, Matteson moved in 2004 to Thetford, where she lived and worked with her husband, Ira, until her death in 2011. She left behind more than 400 completed sketchbooks and approximately 9,000 works on paper — all unsigned, undated and untitled.

As Matteson's gallerist, Mackay has been working to archive this unruly body of work. She doesn't seem to mind, though, and expresses her respect for artists who "[work] just doing their art, regardless of the sales outcome," and put their energy into "the language they're developing."

Untitled watercolor by Helen Matteson
  • Untitled watercolor by Helen Matteson

For "Director's Choice," Mackay has selected 18 of Matteson's untitled drawings and watercolors. Often colorful geometric studies, they are minimalist but rarely stark, owing to the infinite gradation possibilities of watercolor. Concentric circles look like the cross-section of a jawbreaker, though Matteson frequently interrupted geometric perfection by lopping off a circle's side with a line, a different color or both — a suggestion of alternative perfect forms. Some of the works, particularly those with Matteson's thick, gently twisting lines, recall the work of Corita Kent, an artist/activist known for the colorful prints she made in the 1960s and '70s.

Helen Matteson's works are exhibited alongside those of Ira, who turns 99 this year. Though classically trained as a bronze sculptor, he shifted to working more with wood upon moving to Vermont. A broad selection of Ira's works are at BigTown: abstract, freestanding wooden sculpture; large-scale "wood-grain rubs"; and nude figures, both in bronze and wood panel.

Late artist Townley shared Ira Matteson's attraction to wood, though he achieved very different results. Matteson investigates dimension and depth, shifting between lifelike figures and full-fledged abstraction. Townley developed a rudimentary lexicon of shapes cut with a band saw.

Looking at "Horizontal 8" or "Michigan Avenue," one can easily identify common symbols — star, hand, heart, arrow — as well as figurative and natural forms. A more abstract, untitled work by Townley is painted in play-school-bright hues, seeming to celebrate the sheer joy of shape and color.

"Untitled," figure relief series by Ira Matteson
  • "Untitled," figure relief series by Ira Matteson

Udvardy's sculptures show a similar interest in basic forms and pronounced color, but, where Townley favored clean lines, precision and solid material, Rhode Island-based Udvardy opts for precariousness. Both "Table Setting" and "Wings of Icarus" appear suspended in motion and on the verge of toppling. The wall-hung compositions "Lunar Ivory" and "Forge" are made of painted cardboard, using the lowest common denominator — both in material and form — to suggest the titular items.

In contrast to this irreverence, Santoro's stone sculpture is solid and unwavering, looking as if it emerged whole from the ground. This description especially suits "Origins Triptych," which includes three freestanding pieces. Each features smoothly intertwining, tuber-like forms that reach for the sky.

Far more precious in scale are the works of Boghosian and dipaula Klein. The latter's embroidered pieces present a menagerie of invented creatures that seem to be dancing flora/fauna hybrids. With titles such as "Rumpus of Shapes," "Genitalia Sampler," "Garden Notes" and "Phantasmagoria," dipaula Klein's creations look like crafty illustrations of sci-fi petri dishes. She delightfully blurs the lines between human and plant biology.

Mackay has selected collages by Boghosian that similarly take the natural kingdom as their subject matter. Vintage images of swans and roses populate the bricoleur's intricate scenes, providing a sort of nostalgic, ephemera-based counter to dipaula Klein's imaginative and possibly futuristic critters.

Mackay has successfully harmonized the works of individually strong artists for a group exhibition that stands out in both formal sophistication and playfulness. It may make you want to get your hands dirty making your own art — which, some say, is the hallmark of a great show.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Variety Show"

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