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The power and strangeness of nature

Images in Union College exhibit are beautiful and, at same time, unsettling

Saturday, February 26, 2011
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“Hairy Spider,” a 2001 drawing by Louise Bourgeois, honors the artist’s mother. (Courtesy of Louise Bourgeois Studio)
“Hairy Spider,” a 2001 drawing by Louise Bourgeois, honors the artist’s mother. (Courtesy of Louise Bourgeois Studio)

There’s a big, black, fuzzy-legged spider lurking in the Nott Memorial.

Created by the great French-American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, “Hairy Spider” is an homage to her mother. Bourgeois, who died last May at age 98, once said that her mother was like a spider because she was “clever” and “protective.”

“It’s believable, yet unearthly. . . . I could look at this for hours,” Sally Apfelbaum said as she peered at the unusual drawing of an arachnid in the Nott’s Mandeville Gallery.

Apfelbaum co-curated the current exhibit, “Of Weeds and Wildness: Nature in Black & White,” which is about “the power and strangeness of nature,” she says.

‘Of Weeds and Wildness: Nature in Black & White’

WHERE: Mandeville Gallery, Nott Memorial, Union College, Schenectady

WHEN: Through Sunday, March 13. Gallery is open from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. daily

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: www.union.edu/gallery

The 38 drawings, photographs, prints and other works by 17 artists are subtle yet arresting. Like the Bourgeois spider that’s recognizable but not quite real, menacing yet nurturing, the challenging black-and-white images trigger conflicting thoughts and emotions.

Tantalizing mix

The mix of artists is equally tantalizing. There are two works by Bourgeois, three by Kiki Smith, two by William Kentridge and two by James Siena. Including Bourgeois, three of the artists are no longer living, and most are mature contemporary artists, more than 50 years old.

The youngest, at age 30, is Hedya Klein, whose small etchings of organic shapes are accompanied by an engaging video of hand-drawn animation that emits peeps and squeaks that can be heard throughout the gallery.

Besides “Hairy Spider,” the exhibit’s other key works are from Smith, whose “Constellation,” an installation of glass animal figures, you may remember from the 2000 show “Unnatural Science” at MASS MoCA.

Her etching “Fawn” depicts a young mammal that is appealing yet untamed and unapproachable, with stray hairs springing from its face and unfathomable dark eyes.

“It’s very open-ended. It blows apart these ideas we have about nature,” says Apfelbaum.

Another Smith work, “Bird Skeleton,” could be a sad, even cruel reminder of death, as we gaze at its dry, disheveled and spiritless crust.

And it’s not just the walls that are wild. Ink images of a skunk, a porcupine and butterflies float on long, translucent curtains of fabric that hang freely in the Nott. A smaller banner, printed with mushroom shapes, echoes the arched windows of the elegant edifice.

Titled “The Contents of the Falconer’s Bag,” the fabric works by artist-poet Desiree Alvarez were commissioned for the show. Alvarez, who was honored with a Yaddo retreat in 1998, carved the images into large woodblocks and then pressed them onto the fabric.

As humans are part of nature, they have a presence here, and it is unsettling.

Robert Adams, a photographer who for 40 years has documented landscape destruction in the American West, offers scenes of denuded field and forest from the series “Turning Back.” While the message in his work is evident, there is also an incongruent kind of beauty in his compositions.

Carried away

In Kentridge’s “Untitled (The World),” a monstrous figure brashly carries away a sphere representing Planet Earth.

New Hampshire native Kate Temple buried and then unearthed a photographic plate in a different outdoor place each season and then printed the images for her 2000 “Breathing Series.” On the “winter print,” made from a plate that spent three months in the woods, light cracks through a lattice of darkness, while the “summer print,” from a plate that lay in a stream, is bright and round like a sun.

From the 1930s and 1950s, there are five photographs by the late Harold Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who developed the stroboscope and was a pioneer in strobe photography.

Edgerton pointed his camera at anything that interested him, and his works were part of the first photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. “Flying Fish,” a 1940 photo, is a mysterious and majestic image of a bright fairylike form, with a spritz of illuminated water in its dark background.

Along with Edgerton’s photographs, there are drawings by two other college professors: Arnold Bittleman, a prominent artist and beloved Union College art professor who died in 1985; and artist Charles Steckler, a theater professor and designer-in-residence at Union.

Co-curators

Apfelbaum’s co-curator for “Of Weeds and Wildness” was Rachel Seligman, director and curator of the Mandeville Gallery for 13 years.

Seligman left the Mandeville in early February to become associate curator at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, a new position that was created especially for her.

Apfelbaum met Seligman two years ago when Apfelbaum was one of the five female artists in the exhibit “SNAP! Contemporary Photography” at the Mandeville.

A photographer, freelance curator and teacher, Apfelbaum is based in New York City and has a studio in Bennington, Vt.

 

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