CARS HOMES JOBS

2 collage artists offer an intriguing take on human affairs

Thursday, February 19, 2009
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Artists Michael Oatman and Thomas Lail have joined forces for “The Oatman-Lail NewsHour,” an exhibit at Hudson Valley Community College’s 2,000-square-foot art gallery.
Artists Michael Oatman and Thomas Lail have joined forces for “The Oatman-Lail NewsHour,” an exhibit at Hudson Valley Community College’s 2,000-square-foot art gallery.

When journalists tell us about the world, it’s “just the facts, ma’am” — quick observations that are tightly focused. When artists look at human affairs, there are no limits. And then there’s the viewer, who introduces yet another dimension, as the art is absorbed and interpreted in a process that is unfathomable and deeply personal.

So it is with “The Oatman-Lail NewsHour,” a potent and penetrating commentary by Michael Oatman and Thomas Lail at Hudson Valley Community College’s impressive 2,000-square-foot art gallery.

Like MacNeil and Lehrer, the consummate newsmen that the exhibit title suggests, Oatman and Lail are tried-and-true professionals, artists whose names alone would draw viewers to an exhibit. They also share a 20-year friendship, forged when they were master of fine arts students at the University at Albany.

Professors, colleagues

A Colonie native and associate professor of art at HVCC, Lail has exhibited in Europe and the Capital Region. Oatman, an award-winning Troy artist and assistant professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, leapfrogged onto the national scene in 2000, as one of the artists in the MASS MoCA exhibit “Unnatural Science.” He has coming shows at The DeCordova Museum and the University of California-Santa Barbara Museum of Art and is working on new commissions for MASS MoCA and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City.

‘The Oatman-Lail NewsHour’

WHERE: The Teaching Gallery, Administration Building, Hudson Valley Community College

WHEN: Through Saturday, April 4. Gallery hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday; and 12-4 p.m. Saturday.

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: www.hvcc.edu/teachinggallery or 629-8006

While vastly different in their approaches, both artists are collagists who use cut paper in their images. Lail’s cuttings come from photocopied newspapers and art historical sources, while Oatman uses vintage color illustrations from scientific journals and books.

For this viewer, news of their HVCC collaboration sparked imaginings of a single artwork created in tandem, but this is not the case. From the moment one steps into the gallery, it’s clear that their works are distinct, and strong enough to stand alone. Presented together, there’s a neat, clean architectural feeling to this show, which boasts 40 new works, some even created in January, just before the show opened.

Most of Lail’s numbered black-and-white collages are large, up to four feet wide, and hang casually, posted with nails on thick paper. Made with thin strips of paper, they often don’t display words, but a wild blizzard of black streaks that lash the surface, breaking and shattering, forming and re-forming.

For this viewer, there was a feeling that these were aerial views of a crowded human landscape. We connect with it, but it’s also unfamiliar, somewhat like the aerial shots of India’s urban poverty, a sea of flimsy shacks, in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”

In a series of smaller Lail collages, front pages of The New York Times are desecrated with black marks. The critical events and powerful people seem alien or distant, even ancient and obsolete. Is yesterday’s news meaningless? Was it ever important to begin with?

Revealing dialogue

The gallery provides an insightful handout, “Physical Comedy: A Conversation About Collage,” a dialogue that Oatman and Lail recorded in December at Tess’ Lark Tavern.

“I really like photocopies. I like them for all their associations: the dissemination of knowledge, but also ‘the memo,’ the band poster/agit-prop/leaflet under the windshield kind of thing,” says Lail. “I think of them as unbuildable spaces. They are these larger views of things that I could never really construct.”

And Oatman replies: “So we end up making them in our homes, in our studios, on the kitchen floor. World within world within world.”

While there’s probably never a moment that there isn’t an Oatman work on exhibit somewhere in the Capital Region, “The NewsHour” is the biggest show by the Burlington, Vt., native since his 2005 solo show at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.

Oatman calls his collage works “comfort food,” as they are studies for his room-sized sculptural installations.

In “Life Variations,” he manipulates four LIFE magazine covers from 1952; fracturing a beautiful woman’s face in one, and inserting the face of a child next to the image of a prominent Catholic cardinal in another.

“An Example of the Science of Turntabling Applied to Pictures (The Colony)” is a forest landscape with a beaver pond that has been injected with an Indian totem pole. In the foreground, a large beaver seems amused by the manmade wooden structure. Indeed, the totem seems ridiculously primitive and humans humbled when one considers what a beaver can do with its teeth and tail.

Another tableau, “Man Falls to His Life,” could be recalling the 9/11 tragedy or shouting down the excesses of a consumer society, as a blizzard of objects — teapot, file cabinet, toys, packs of gum — fall from the sky over a tall office building.

And what of “Progress Bar,” in which copycat images of seven rifles are stacked in a tall vertical? The bottom edge of the artwork rests on the floor, and a row of real pens protrudes from under the work. Is this a comment on the unending American love of guns that no amount of legislation can alter?

Oatman’s pièce de résistance is a 17-foot-long work in a thick frame not unlike a museum case. It’s a strange seashore scene reminiscent of a 1950s sci-fi movie, as war machines and technology appear to threaten unconcerned adults and children. A giant crocodile has a camera in its mouth, seagulls carry bomb-like rolls of Lifesavers and helmeted birds are armed with guns.

Is this a message about the degradation of the environment? A treatise against war and violence? It’s up to you to decide.

Apparent disconnect

If there is a weak spot in “The NewsHour,” it may be the sound and video segment, which is presented in a small dark closet. Twelve short works, seven by Lail and five by Oatman, seem disconnected from the collages somehow. Perhaps these require more time or attention.

Patience almost always rewards the viewer, but on this visit, this observer was so magnetized by the works on the wall, the video/sound works became secondary.

If you haven’t been to HVCC recently, you’ll probably be going there soon, as the Teaching Gallery, which opened in 2007 in the new $8.4 million Administration Building, has definitely joined the ranks of college galleries that enrich our regional art scene.

In 2001, four years after HVCC launched its fine arts program, the Teaching Gallery opened in Marvin Library and artist Tara Fracalossi (who is married to Lail and teaches art at HVCC) became its director. Although the library gallery had heavy traffic, the two walls of art space was severely limited.

Living laboratory

In 2007, after seeing its art enrollment grow, HVCC was one of the first community colleges in the country to offer an associate degree in gallery management, and the Teaching Gallery in its new home became a living laboratory for students.

It’s a handsome two-level gallery, with sight lines connecting the floors and an airy first-floor ceiling for tall artworks.

Near the entrance, a receptionist is corralled inside a U-shaped designer desk topped with an interesting cowboy-like metal fence. A charcoal portrait of a woman drawn by an HVCC grad who won a purchase award, hangs outside the gallery door.

 
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