Best of 2004


Critic: David Brickman

By any measure, 2004 was a banner year in visual art in the Capital Region; never in my memory has there been so much to see and so much of it good. My colleagues and I at Metroland reviewed more than 70 exhibitions in the past year; even if other years may have had a higher incidence of greatness (2003, for example), this was still a year to remember.

Among the notable characteristics of 2004’s exhibitions was the stunning preponderance of photography shows after a year in which there were nearly none at all. Just about all of the area’s heavy hitters (Martin Benjamin, Phyllis Galembo, Mark McCarty, Marie Triller) as well as several up-and-comers (Jeri Eisenberg, Ray Felix, Connie Frisbee Houde) had major solo exhibitions. Other solo shows (Route 22: Autobiography of a Road by Benjamin Swett and at this place in this space by Mark Lunt at the Arts Center of the Capital Region) as well as important inclusions of photography in group shows at numerous venues (such as the University Art Museum’s Home Extension and Presence of Light at the Berkshire Museum) added to the mix. Finally, there was a gorgeous show of international superstar John Coplans’ last work (he died a few months before it was mounted) at the Tang Teaching Museum, and another last-gasp exhibition by architectural photography god Ezra Stoller (who died midway) at the Williams College Art Museum—both were among the year’s best.

Additionally, there were juried shows of photography: In the annual standby Photography Regional, new and old faces joined forces in a traditionally oriented but strong exhibition at the Fulton Street Gallery, and the brand-new Upstate Photo Competition energized the fresh “working” Gallery in Schenectady. Hopefully, that will become an annual as well. Finally, the rarest thing of all, a serious curated show of photography—Urban Visions: Photographs of City Life at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer—brought together six underrecognized regional shooters working in a variety of styles to considerable audience response (full disclosure: It was conceived and organized by yours truly).

Speaking of curating, 2004 saw an upsurge of curator-driven concept shows, some of them outstanding (such as Corinna Ripps Schaming’s First Happiness at the University Art Museum of UAlbany) and some of them brutally bad (such as Gretchen Wagner’s Space Invaders at the aforementioned ACCR). Also noteworthy in this category was the ACCR’s Day Job, New Figuration at the Saratoga County Arts Council’s Arts Center Gallery and The Hair Show at the Tang).

Of course, the museums had their turnstile spinners, including Winslow Homer at the Fenimore Art Museum, Gustave Courbet, et al, at the Clark Art Institute, an awesome showcase of minimalism at the New York State Museum, a traveling show of American masters at the Hyde Collection and the Norman Rockwell Museum’s special showcase of the late work of their favorite artist. But none of it could compare to last year’s breathtaking Turner: The Late Seascapes at the Clark, and so each was somehow subtly disappointing. The only blockbuster show by a contemporary artist, Matthew Ritchie at MASS MoCA, was also the best of the bunch—pretty hearty kudos for the art of today and the region’s museum most committed to it.

It wouldn’t be a complete year in our region without a controversial annual Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition, and this year’s did nothing to disappoint on that count, garnering several of the most scathing reviews ever printed in local papers. It was lambasted by critics and columnists alike as much for the venue (a barely disguised defunct downtown department store in Schenectady) as for the art (which included everything from plastic chickens to neo-abstract expressionism).

Tacky venues, however, were the very lifeblood of this year’s top story in visual art, that being the meteoric rise of Albany Underground Artists from tiny abandoned storefronts to, well, glorious abandoned storefronts, in the form of several one-night extravaganzas including the Bakery Show and the Bank Show. These events drew hundreds, even thousands of people—and art was sold at the parties. Culminating in a city-sponsored soirée on a frigid fall night that opened 16 Windows, this movement proved to have legs as well as legitimacy (hence the 16 Windows installations don’t need to disappear before the housing inspectors get there, and are up through Feb. 11).

Finally, I mustn’t sum up without mentioning the ongoing-but-never-to-be-taken-for-granted shows at the serious small venues around our area, which provide outlets for our best artists, exposure for interesting artists beyond the area, and a pretty decent social life for everybody in between at their openings. So here’s to Firlefanz Gallery, A.D.D. Gallery, the Teaching Gallery at Hudson Valley Community College, Siena College’s Yates Gallery, Gallery 100, the Lake George Arts Project, Fulton Street Gallery, Albany Center Galleries, the College of Saint Rose Art Gallery and Union College’s Mandeville and Arts Atrium galleries. They’ve all done a great job this year.

The top 12 shows of 2004 (six each for larger and smaller venues):

Larger Venues

1. Matthew Ritchie: Proposition Player


2. Form/Structure/Place: Minimalist Art from the Guggenheim Museum Panza Collection

New York State Museum

3. Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!: The Bruyas Collection from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

4. Body Parts: A Self Portrait by John Coplans

The Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery

5. Hometown Hero, Citizen of the World: Rockwell in Stockbridge

Norman Rockwell Museum

6. Winslow Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks

Fenimore Art Museum

Smaller Venues

1. Conrad Atkinson: Constantly Contesting

Opalka Gallery

2. Pam Barrett-Fender: Drawing & Painting

Chris Duncan: Sculpture

Firlefanz Gallery

3. First Happiness and Selected Works from the Pierogi Flatfiles

University Art Museum, University at Albany

4. Arnold Bittleman: Drawings

Mandeville Gallery, Union College

5. Helen Suter: Works on Paper

A.D.D. Gallery

6. Susan Hoffman: Contemporary Quilts/Peter Hoffman: Sculpture

A.D.D. Gallery

Photo Caption: Playing games: a portion of Matthew Ritchie's Proposition Player at MASS MOCA.