Photo Caption: ALBANY UNDERGROUND ARTISTS principals Tommy Watkins, left, Mark Gregory and Chip Fasciana are mounting the group's biggest show to date at the Albany Institute of History & Art next week.






Section: Life - Scene,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, September 9, 2005

When Albany Underground Artists stages its latest contemporary art happening in the Albany Institute of History & Art next week, it will be as if the stepchildren of the local arts scene have been invited to the grand ball.

The dramatic debut in one of the region's premiere art museums follows two years of struggling to show contemporary homegrown paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations in alternative spaces. Previous Albany Underground Artists events have been held in a defunct bakery on Lark Street, a cavernous downtown bank lobby and a prominent old mansion on the edge of Washington Park, among other locales. After audiences numbering in the thousands turned out for the one-night-only events, the local arts establishment began to take note.

"It's a total experience to go to their openings," said Christine M. Miles, the director of the Albany Institute. The exhibits "have a density of individuals in the arts probably higher than any other activity you could go to on one night."

Miles first made contact with painter Chip Fasciana, a founder of Albany Underground Artists, three years ago at Art on Lark when she purchased one of his works for her personal collection. Thereafter, she kept an eye on Fasciana's work as both painter and arts entrepreneur.

"I'd been talking to him very casually, and we realized we had a gap between (shows at Albany Institute), and this would be a great time," said Miles. "I've been telling a lot of people who are into conventional art to come and experience (an Albany Underground Artists show). It's a scene. It has a great flavor to it, and says a lot about how dynamic and useful our artists community really is."

A couple of blocks from the marble halls of the Albany Institute, the Underground Artists have set up shop in the dingy gray space that was once the Carosello Bakery on Lark Street. In the waning days of summer, Fasciana and fellow painters Tommy Watkins and Mark Gregory spoke about the upcoming event as a bittersweet mix of achievement and drudgery. But that's the way it always has been.

"People think because we're having success, we're doing well financially. That's not true at all," said Fasciana. "After the Bank Show (in May 2004), everyone in the world wanted us to go do a show at their place. They didn't want to give us anything, but they wanted to be part of the hype."

But Albany Institute's offer would have the added benefit of lending a certain above-ground imprimatur to the work on display and the organization itself. And in a departure from the one-night-only model, the exhibit will remain on view for four days after the free opening-night party.

"We're getting no financial support," said Fasciana with a sigh. "We're experiencing the exact same thing as the past, it's just now at the institute."

While operations may be on the proverbial shoestring the Albany Underground Artists collected $20 application fees from artists seeking to be part of the show, and will receive a 40 percent commission on sales making something happen from nothing is part of the allure.

"They're a group of artists who say, `We're not going to wait for a gallery show,' said Miles. "They took matters into their own hands and had a positive, constructive approach to having their work and others' exhibited. It's responsible and self-reliant, which is really refreshing."


Artists far and near

In terms of the sheer quantity of art, "The Institute Show" is the Albany Underground Artists' most ambitious undertaking to date, with work from approximately 70 artists on display. That figure, according to Gregory, represents half the number of submissions the group received, but is twice as big as any previous show. For the first time, the lineup includes artists from throughout the Hudson Valley and New York City.

Among the participants is Shawn Lawson, a 28-year-old media artist and faculty member of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He has exhibited work in venues like the Chelsea Art Museum, but never locally. On view at the Institute will be an interactive "Mona Lisa" that Lawson created in collaboration with Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal.

"I heard about it from a friend," said Lawson, referring to Albany Underground Artists' call for submissions. The show "looks like it's going to be big."

Painter Luke Williams, a veteran of past Underground shows, lives in Albany's Center Square neighborhood. "There's a particular quality of having work on display," said Williams, who became a full-time artist about a year ago. "You acquire a more objective eye for your work when you see hundreds of people viewing it."

Besides being a behind-the-scenes organizer of shows, Mark Gregory said he has benefited from having work in the shows.

"The Bank Show gave me a sense (that) if you want to do it, you can do it," said Gregory, who recently left a full-time job to devote more time to painting. "It gave me the courage to make the leap."

The majority of the works at "The Institute Show" will be for sale, with prices generally ranging from $500 to $4,000. Perhaps it's the thrill of the openings or the opportunity to meet the artists, but the organizers believe they're witnessing the emergence of a new group of local art collectors.

Christine Miles should be among the potential buyers and this time, perhaps for Albany Institute's permanent collection. Miles says that over the past 10 years, the Institute has acquired works by 60 or 70 new artists, most of them local.

"We have to make sure that what we're buying is part of the artistic fabric of the region," Miles said. She sees the upcoming show as a way to get to know "the next generation of artists in our area."

Beyond giving good parties and moving the occasional piece, Watkins says the Albany Underground Artists have a bigger goal: building a strong local arts scene.

"Two years ago, the art scene was dry. Now it's out of control," said Watkins. "What we set out to do, we've done. If one can't get into a gallery or an institute, you do it your own way."

Joseph Dalton is a local freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Times Union.

****FACT BOX:****

ABOVE GROUND ``THE INSTITUTE SHOW'' Where: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave.Opening night: 6-9 p.m. Thursday. Free.Continues: The exhibition will remain on view through Wednesday, Sept. 21. Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission is $3-$7.Info:; http:// 463-4478