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Figuratively Speaking

Bruce Adams' figures taking in figures

In which our correspondent overcomes great obstacles to take in a fine exhibit at UB Art Gallery

Overdue to see an exhibit at UB Center for the Arts exhibition called Figuration and Its Disconnects, I was also six months overdue to have my car inspected. So this is a cautionary tale as well as an art review.

It’s called “ridin’ dirty,” and as long as I stuck to the East Side where there is often a minimum of city constabulary, I was able to finesse an extended period of noncompliance. Driving only at night was another aspect of keeping on the down-low as I made my chore runs around town for food, movies, and beverages. I wasn’t a habitually negligent driver, but I had lost the financial ability to make the repairs necessary to get my car inspected in a timely manner, having been way underemployed for the best part of a year, limping manfully along on bits of part-time jobs an of course the windfalls of being a practicing painter in the city of Buffalo.

Figuration is a group show pairing work in the permanent collection of UB with a number of Western New York artists organized around the idea of the “figure” or the conceptual deconstruction thereof. I planned to view the show with fellow AV art writer Jack Foran. Since he didn’t have a car, and I only marginally did, we drove out to UB North Campus together. As we headed into the tundric reaches of Amherst, the law of unintended consequences writ large in the bright lights of a police cruiser, as he (or they) pulled us over on a Millersport Highway overpass. They had run my plates. Niceties were exchanged, I was relieved of my car keys and dignity, placed in custody, and was soon rattling around in the back of the patrol car, in the least ergonomic interior Herman Miller, of “Herman Miller Aeron Chair” fame, could possibly imagine. Handcuffed and without a seatbelt, I began to realize the generally noncommittal attitude that police officers have for people they arrest, providing no appreciable leg room or even a decent radio station to listen to on the way to the lockup. A sizable tow charge would have been mine to pay if Jack hadn’t been there with me, had a valid driver’s license, and been able to drive my car back to his house.

That was the end of our art lover’s excursion. But my day had really only just begun.

Once we were out on Audubon Parkway, I could only guess how far I was from anywhere in the strip mazes of anonymous industrial lay-bys nicely landscaped to avoid identity.

Inside the UB Art Gallery
Amanda Besl study of a girl's obsession with horses
Jonathan Daly's requiem for a dead bird

“Don’t forget to lock your Glock,” the sign said. Once inside, the procedurals proceeded a pace; I was booked on a charge of “aggravated unlicensed operator 3rd,” boots and socks temporarily removed to inspect for weapons and/or contraband, personal effects put in a plastic tray and signed for, placed in a cell to wait to see a judge. I reasoned the wait would be short; they hadn’t put me in orange coveralls.

But even so I had time to think about how I was going to pay the $250 bail I had incurred so far. Meanwhile the guy across the aisle wondered aloud, really aloud, how could his old girlfriend have turned him in, “and I was out of state.” As I nodded in uncomprehending commiseration, I stared at the little crepe patches on my wrists, uncuffed while in the cell, and actually hoped being an “old guy” would work in my favor. Once called, we two were driven like a bovine species down a maze of corridors as the officer called out “turn left,” “turn right,” until the concrete floor turned to carpet and I knew the court room wasn’t far ahead. A policewoman accompanying me stepped on my heel and offered a brief apology. If I had tripped I would have face-planted, helpless to break my fall, my arms being bound behind me.

Dispatching my companion arrestee for warrants downtown, the judge asked me a perfectly reasonable question: Why didn’t I maintain the legality of my vehicle? I pleaded my case, repeating the litany of repairs and attempts to get the car inspected over the past six-months. After barely five minutes, the judge gave his opinion: License temporarily reinstated, no bail, released on own recognizance, with the stipulation I get the car inspected before the hearing date in two weeks. Somewhat buoyed by this outcome, I was taken back through the maze to the booking room, uncuffed, signed off for my personal effects, taken to the front door, and released into the biting maw of Audubon Parkway.

With the remaining battery on my iPhone, I checked my GPS to see how far I was from the North Campus, and walked the mile or so to student housing off of Frontier Drive,and got a shuttle across campus to CFA. As God was my witness, I would see that art.

Leon Golub was certainly the exhibit’s best-known artist outside of the Western New York region, but there were plenty of familiar names from around Erie County. Each work is given plenty of space, always a good idea in a group show, and it is well lit and situated to move the viewer to each offering in turn, allowing a pleasing flow. The artwork is connected in aesthetic balance between actual representational drawing and painting, mixed media, and what has become a kind of installation, by way of extension, to the figurative theme, as practiced by Adam Weekly and Roberley Bell in set pieces—the former painstakingly presented as a visual dialogue on the bittersweet interface between Nature and literally exposed humanity, the latter an ad hoc foster home for disparate objects.

The wall art is figurative in the usual sense: One large work by Bruce Adams is a painting of patrons in a gallery looking at a painting; one person is taking a picture of the painting, thereby creating a third strata of picturing pictures.

Richard Huntington has worked up, in his signature summary fashion, a series of domestically challenged calendar girls quaintly bothered by domestic pets. Leon Golub’s dark-hued figurative montage takes up the whole back wall of the gallery space, showing couples in various embraces—some dancing, some holding on for dear life, some writhing on the ground all worked in appliqué.

Lester Johnson’s buoyant pedestrians stride together in a parade of 1970s hairstyles and bright, lively patterns. Johnson, a figurative expressionist, was just hitting his stride himself when I was in New York studying at Cooper Union. His shows at the Martha Jackson Gallery in the 1970s were enthusiastically attended by art students all over Manhattan, and his graphic treatment of the figure as almost an abstraction gave young figurative painters freedom to experiment with representation then still often argued as being passé. He died at 91 in 2010.

Amanda Besl’s work is given a whole room to elegant advantage; like an especially sensitive issue of Seventeen Magazine, equestrian-edition, these small to somewhat larger, brightly viscous vignettes describe girlhood rites of passage over time, visiting a horse farm. Besl’s paintings move the viewer through her adolescent back pages that, for a certain way of life, remain timeless.

Still rubbing my wrists, not wanting to face the open expanses of the North Campus before absolutely necessary, I thought about the themes of the show, “the interplay between society and the individual” and “instinctual desires for aggression and sex” and “how they threaten to destablize societal relations.” With Freud’s thesis in mind, I toured the work a second time, going back to view a piece by Kurt Von Voetsch. In his continuing series of self-mythology as memento-mori, he presents a kind of scatological tautology as a public service on the functioning of the excretory tract post-chemotherapy.

Jonathan Daly’s paintings are silent as the grave and deal eloquently with requiem and loss. Joan Lindner’s large ink drawing of cord-bound contours with no visible body leaves the viewer to imagine immediately what is missing. Jackie Felix’s painting also deals with a constricting emotional orientation, with a couple in passionate embrace while a figure lies straitjacketed and up-ended across the room.

I turned one last corner in front of Nathan Naetzker’s painting, King. The perspective of the work, as if seen from above, is immediately unsettling: It’s as if one is watching a sleeping person from a monitor, hovering over a very private scene. The hair of the figure is undisturbed, the striped pajamas, the bedside table, the cozy quilt all play to the sweet refuge of sleep. But the face contradicts that evidence: The mouth is a sharp line, the eyes almost clenched, the jaw in a rictus of muscles, the fetal crouch brings unease. The painting is Wyeth-esque, and one continues to think about it after seeing it.

Out into the cut and thrust of wind and concrete. I got aboard the Blue Bird Shuttle to South Campus, where Jack drove gingerly out to pick me up. I got back in the driver’s seat and we quickly retired to Central Park Grill to mull events over jars of Guinness. Later I drove him back home and slunk back into downtown, riding dirty under the cover of the cold, dark East Side.

Figuration and Its Disconnects continues through May 14.

j. tim raymond

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