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Telling Tales: Stores and, a Lack of Stories, at the Albright-Knox

"Telling Tales" comprises small sculptures and other works. The exhibit runs through April 17.

Telling Tales

Telling Tales, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibit of small sculptures, is a potpourri. It has a little of everything, even a few paintings.

And despite the pretty unexceptionable thematic idea that everything tells a story, a few works that seem pertinaciously insistent that they don’t tell any story at all. That they’re just a thing. Just art.

Such as Carl Andre’s minimalist herringbone column of what look like miniature timber sections. An elegant, orderly little construction, but no story implied.

Except the story about art. About an art that doesn’t tell stories. (Which of course is the big story about modern art. A lot of which doesn’t tell stories. At least in the way the art of all previous times and places seems to have told stories.)

Meanwhile, part of the inspiration for the idea of art that doesn’t tell stories is the discovery and appreciation, beginning about the beginning of the modern era, of art that we didn’t really know the stories about, and it didn’t seem to matter. Mostly what might be called primitive art.

A superb example of such a piece that is clearly magnificent art but we know almost nothing about it—that is to say, about the people who made it and why they made it—is a little Cycladic head of a human figure (but in an uncannily modernistic-looking abstract form) from the southern Aegean Sea area from the third millennium B.C. Twenty centuries before Homer.

But not knowing the story about such art doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. Adjacent to the Cycladic piece are two roughly similar heads by Czech artist Jirí Kolár, inspired by his viewing of the Albright-Knox piece.

The stories the works on display tell are of all kinds: straight historical (in addition to art historical), mythological, and sociological.

Another of the historical pieces is a fragment of a relief sculpture of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the husband of Nefertiti of the beautiful images, who decreed monotheism for a short while in Egypt in the 14th century B.C. The radical innovation in religious belief was accompanied by a similarly radical innovation in the direction of realism in Egyptian art (part of why the Nefertiti images are so memorable). The information label on the Akhenaten piece explains how one can see this artistic innovation in the Akhenaten image as well.

In terms of art as transmitter of myth, there’s a sixteenth-century Russian bronze relief of St. George discomfiting the dragon. But hard to see, so small and dark of hue, and so accompanied by an icon-like small painting of a similar scene, not dated, but looking as if from about the same time and place.

That’s one of two paintings in the exhibit. The other is a seventeenth-century icon of three moments in the story of the prophet Elijah, culminating in his being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. (Why or how this icon got into the sculpture show is unexplained. Maybe the idea is that icons, even as paintings, have a kind of sculptural substantiality, a palpable quality, about them.)

In terms of art as maker of myth, there’s Charles Simonds’ kiln structure of miniature bricks for his mythological community of Little People. Or by the Little People, is the idea. Where they make the bricks for the structures (like the kiln) that are the visible manifestations of their civilization.

As for sociological stories, there’s a piece by John Ahearn, called Pinwheel, consisting of plaster casts of arms and hands of people of various ages and presumably other characteristics, as if seated around a table, extending their arms onto the table, so that hands and fingers touch and overlap. An image of peaceful communality. A pinwheel, perhaps, but more like a flower.

There are tender personal stories, such as Medardo Rosso’s and Orella Pecori’s mother and child pieces; engineering technology stories, such as Kenneth Snelson’s maquette for his tensegrity sculpture, the large version of which stands just outside the gallery entrance, and Naum Gabo’s stainless steel coil wire sculpture with reference it looks like to the Brooklyn Bridge; and mystery stories, several of Joseph Cornell’s enigmatic boxes.

Among the pieces that don’t seem to tell stories (except about art) are a group of wonderful animal sculptures, by Edgar Degas, Louise Nevelson, Marino Marini, and Bohemian artist Sef Weidel. A deer by Weidel, horses by the other three. No stories, just art, about animal presence and vitality

The small sculptures show continues through mid-April.

jack foran

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