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Claudia Nagy and Craig Ziper at Rust Belt Books

Uncommon Work in Uncommon Places

Admittedly, along with the masses, I tend to consider established galleries and museums as repositories for visual art that will move me and give me insight into my life and the world. We have no shortage of such venues in Western New York and it’s not hard to find compelling contemporary work when one follows the usual path through commercial galleries and museums to experience the vast array of fine art that the area has to offer. And for those of us viewing art around the globe, we know our region produces artists with insight, vision, and talent that stand up to the scrutiny of a global critique.

But it is in veering off the established path that the art seeker has the potential to find not only competent artwork but also art of such strength, grounded in brilliant investigation and execution, that it can swallow the need to stay the projected course.

What many Buffalo art lovers never see is the authentic work of artists showing at venues off the beaten path: at those informal galleries with doors open and wall space open to emerging heavy hitters of contemporary art. So I would like to focus for a moment on venues not necessarily in the gallery guide, that do not exhibit art with the primary mission to sell but choose to do so because they know the intrinsic value it brings. I tend to think of this as art of the people, by the people and for the people. It is work that we come upon when we might not expect it and it has depth that charges us to pay attention. Just like the art you find in museums, galleries and art fairs, it may or may not be easily accessible through its unique visual coding and it may or may not speak to every viewer in a meaningful way.

Rust Belt Books has been buying and selling used books in Allentown for 10 years and before that five years on Lexington Avenue. It is an eclectic bookstore. One that I liken to a mine filled with valuable ore, packed tight with lots of other minerals that I’m not necessarily looking for. It takes some work. Unlike mining this work is always a pleasure, but like mining, it can reward you with gems. (Note: I know a bit about mining and the drudgery and physical discomfort that accompany it. As a young boy my father’s idea of a vacation was breaking rocks in the hot sun in northern Ontario. I fought my dad but my dad won.) Kristi Meal and Erin Verhoff, who run Rust Belt Books, decided from the beginning to create a venue that would support local artists by providing space between the stacks of books that fill the store. They want to offer a different avenue to art for their audience, informal and accessible. Most of their customers come here for books, pleasantly surprised and quite engaged by what they see hanging on the walls.

The current artists showing at Rust Belt Books, through July 30, are Claudia Nagy and Craig Ziper. The show, entitled, is an exhibit of richness and depth that should not be missed. The opening reception was especially meaningful with both artists on site and discussing their most recent work with a packed house.

Nagy’s work is her first exploration of ceramic sculpture. It follows the favorable reception she experienced in the Manhattan art world with beautiful mosaics and cast reliefs. Much of her work in the show is derivations of domed forms she calls moons, marked by her fingers and simple tools, predominately in unglazed white ceramic. The pieces reflect the directness of exploration of scale, form and material. Her formal exploration starts with similar bodies of clay and utilizes different manipulations and finishes to offer a cohesive continuum of variations on a theme that force the viewer to review what came before. I found myself going back through the space several times discerning an implied dialectic, never sure if I was coming closer to one but realizing that the value was in the exploration. Many of the forms have an obvious visual connection to oceanic organisms but their positioning on the walls, in relation to other art and books, allowed me to transcend the obvious and build a world of her work that I anthropomorphized into my own. Through the work, one can sense the artist’s desire to see what result her derivations will present. In addition, she has created several works that reflect her exploration of allegory. Heart Tearer especially invokes a deep psychic experience that presents itself in a surreal composition.

Ziper’s work is glass, both the subject and the object. It is glass objects about glass, its nature, its sensuality caught in a moment of stalled time. These objects give the impression that they are wrestling with time. Although we know intellectually what we see is stationary (or think we know), in fact glass is always moving, is always a liquid and if we had enough time, we could watch these objects continue on their journey of change. Yes, even at ambient temperatures, the structure of glass is in motion so this obvious artifact of glass in motion has only slowed down from Ziper’s manipulation with fire and gravity. This work is an artifact of where it came from and where it is going, moving at an incomprehensible pace but moving non-the-less. The sense that the glass is capturing a moment of fluid movement, not like the dramatic fireworks of Dale Chihuly’s process but more like freezing the instant after Jackson Pollack dripped and spilled the paint before it hit the canvas, before it sealed its own fate. That exquisite fragment of time when the material flows and stops and continues and holds its breath so we can catch a glimpse.

Or is his work about light? A connection not lost on even the casual viewer. The relation and play of the shadow carrying not an identical tracing of the object but a dancing gesture, paying tribute to the gleaming clear glass that can only direct the shadow, not control it. These pieces hold court in their small corner of the universe that is unassailable. Nothing competes for their attention for their presence is complete, only allowing light and the viewer’s gaze to enter the space. They are free of color, and that purity of just light and form, especially highlighted in the visually complex environment of Rust Belt, has a power to hold the viewer in trance.

These objects of both Nagy’s and Ziper’s are full of beauty and meaning not intended to be glanced over but rather absorbed like a good book. For those art aficionados interested in experiencing contemporary art with conceptual depth, technical finesse and aesthetic vibrancy, you must pay a visit to Rust Belt Books. And for those collectors looking for work of killer integrity at a reasonable cost, you would be foolish to miss this show. Judging from the active purchasing at the reception, you may have already missed out on some strong work at this beloved Allentown venue. Keep the fires burning.

kevin kegler

Kevin Kegler is an artist and a professor in the Art Department at Daemen College.

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