ALBANY This is not art!” Teddy Roosevelt bellowed.
“Insanity!” the critics screeched.
One hundred years ago, the Armory Show shocked America, and hundreds of thousands of people gawked at the exhibit in Manhattan, Chicago and Boston.
The modern art in the international, 300-artist show was out of the box and out of our comfort zone.
You know the rest of the story. The Armory Show changed American art forever.
Now, at the centennial of this mythic event, “An Armory Show” lands in our own backyard.
Artists Michael Oatman of Troy and Kenneth Ragsdale of Albany have taken over the Opalka Gallery with a momentous and challenging exhibit that showcases our Capital Region talents.
Works from 45 artists
As curators, Oatman and Ragsdale’s efforts were Herculean, as they visited the studios of 70 artists before selecting works from 45 of them. The two artists designed the space, and a team of more than 15 people, under the sharp eyes of interim director Ruth Hall Daly, built and installed everything.
‘An Armory Show: Kenneth Ragsdale and Michael Oatman’
WHERE: Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Dec. 15. Gallery is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday; 12 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Gallery will be closed Oct. 12-15 and Nov. 27-Dec. 1.
HOW MUCH: Free
RELATED EVENTS: Artist tour: talk and installation walk-through with Michael Oatman and Kenneth Ragsdale, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, walk-through begins at 6:30 p.m. At 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, a screening of the new documentary film “The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show,” followed by discussion with writer, director and producer Michael Maglaras. At 6 and 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, performance of “Man at the Controls” by puppeteer Ed Atkeson. At 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24 and 6 p.m. Dec. 6, performances by Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company.
MORE INFO: www.sage.edu/opalka, 292-7742
From the first step inside the Opalka, we are jolted from our usual going-to-a-gallery state of mind, as the art space is hidden behind a gigantic black-and-white photo of an armory.
No, it’s not the armory of 1913 fame, it’s the New Scotland Armory, which Sage College of Albany plans to purchase and add to its campus. The Albany armory was built in 1913, and the retro sign that lists the exhibit’s artists came from there.
Like Alice in Wonderland dropping into a rabbit hole, we enter the installation through doors in the lower right corner of the photo mural.
“D’entre les Morts (Nude Descending a Staircase),” a video work by Oatman, is presented in a door-sized frame that hangs on a wall covered in vintage red brocade wallpaper. A ghostly figure of a dark-skinned naked man, his body striped white, appears and disappears on a staircase. During a recent visit, the image appeared only for a few seconds, and the screen was blank the rest of the time. It could have been a technical problem. Or maybe not.
“The Gypsum Clad,” a massive, white tank-like structure made of Sheetrock by Ragsdale looms in the center of the gallery, and has a small gun-like appendage that appears ready to slide into action and fire out the window onto New Scotland.
And then the confusion begins. Entering the maze of walls covered with artwork is unsettling. Where to look first? And no labels, no names. The 1913 show was maze-like, perhaps this mimics that design.
After a moment to adjust, I recognized sculpture by Sharon Bates and paintings by Brian Cirmo.
Just when I decided to just look and not worry about who and what, I noticed that other viewers were walking around with a gallery guide.
More confusion. The guide is difficult to use.
“This is a pain in the butt,” a man in the gallery said to his female companion. “I really wish they’d put the names up. It’s weird.”
Visitors seemed to be spending too much time deciphering the guide and not enough time looking at the artwork.
Echoes of 1963?
If one needs to take a break, it can be on a black leather couch, next to hanging globe lamps and geometric-patterned curtains that look very “Mad Men.” Could this be an homage to the 50th anniversary Armory Show, held in 1963 at Utica’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute?
Oatman, Ragsdale, Bates, Stephen Tyson and Abraham Ferraro created works specifically for the show, and much of the other work is new.
Remember the Nathan Meltz video at last year’s Mohawk Hudson Regional? It was a clever piece about a post-apocalyptic world populated by robot-like characters. His 2013 video, “Quit Job. Press Play” is a mesmerizing commentary on how technology has taken over our lives, as it deftly blends animation and black-and-white archival images.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions: Sample 7” is jaw-dropping, as she creates a sculptural portrait of a unknown human being by gathering DNA from debris gathered in the New York subway.
Several pieces trick the eye.
One of them is a wall sculpture that looks like a coiled wire, the kind that marked the battlefields of World War I, but with it, on the wall, there is a soldier’s silhouette made only with reflected light.
Art historians and art students will probably be able to find many witty references to the 1913 show that this reviewer has missed.
Oatman’s video, of course, recalls Marcel Duchamp, the French artist whose “Nude Descending the Staircase” was vilified as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
There are paintings of trees, and a printed book, “Trees Hit by Cars,” by Adam Frelin.
An image of a tree appeared on the button for the 1913 show with the slogan “The New Spirit.”
Want to read more about the 1913 event? In the lobby, there’s a table with books and articles. Posters from the 1913 and 1963 shows are hanging outside the gallery, too.
The artists of “An Armory Show” certainly raise many questions and issue many opinions. That’s what contemporary artists do.
But what does “An Armory Show” say about art in 2013?
What is the message of this show? What is its purpose?
Does it reflect a tech-obsessed, Twitter-bound world and the droids in the sky above? A cold, militaristic future?
The 1913 Armory Show exposed the narrow-mindedness of American art critics. Perhaps this is happening again.
“An Armory Show” is chaotic and overwhelming. Could that be its message about 2013? Maybe. Go and experience it for yourself.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or email@example.com.