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Out of the way Carnegie worth the trip



The latest indication that the Carnegie Art Center in North Tonawanda is successfully clawing its way back from a difficult funding period was evident at its recent opening of two separate exhibitions. First of all, there was the huge crowd in attendance, much, if not most, of which made its way up from Buffalo to North Tonawanda. Few events would draw such a large concentration of urbanites to an off-the-beaten-path section of NT on a cold winter weeknight, but the Carnegie managed to do it. And the converted library looks good, having gotten a facelift, or at least a nip or tuck here and there. The building’s beautiful stained glass skylight has been restored and relit, looking impressive, and the water damage on the ceiling has been repaired. Invisible to viewers is the asbestos that’s been removed and the plumbing and electrical repairs and improvements. All this bodes well for the future of the feisty little art gallery with a history of exhibiting often challenging contemporary art.

Of course, what’s an art gallery without art? Curator Lauren Albrecht calls the two exhibitions on display her curatorial début, though she previously facilitated a couple of prefab solo shows. Cloud Corrosion: Photography at the Visual Threshold exhibits digital photography by four young emerging artists. It might be redundant to add the word “digital” to “photography” anymore, so ubiquitous is the medium. But it seems appropriate here because these images of post industrial debris and regional landscapes have each in their way benefited from some degree of digital tweaking. Then too, even saying that might be redundant, since these artists are young enough to never have even held a conventional film camera. To them, image manipulation is just a part of picture taking.

Alexander Enser and Christopher Franklin, who work as a team, photograph decaying urban remains, often with a focus on contemplatively observed detail. A rusty valve, an abandoned and twisted leather boot, a moldy book; these all become absorbing fodder for carefully composed glimpses into the process of urban decomposition. Enser and Franklin sweeten the scenes by pumping up the color level and manipulating contrast to enhance the poetic atmosphere. In a couple instances their handling approaches distracting as objects nearly glow from heavy-handed use of the dodge tool. Though frankly, whether you find this disturbing or stylish may come down to personal preference. Overall these are interesting, sometimes riveting, glimpses into modern urban ruins.

Phil Cavuoto makes use of a wide-angle lens to capture skillfully made, though fairly conventional, land and seascapes. A dynamic view of the Grand Island Bridge, for instance, benefits from the sweetened contrast of complementary colors, but is otherwise pretty standard postcard fare. Cavuoto is at his best when he pushes himself beyond the traditional into slightly off-kilter territory. On The Edge is a land and frozen sea panorama of snow-swept terrain whose haunting beauty is heightened by the presence of the lone figure of a woman against an ominous sky, her back turned to the viewer. The Urban Atmosphere is an intriguing downward shot on a city street at night. Both of these works make a leap beyond prettiness into more evocative terrain.

Viewed next to the hyper-saturated images of Enser, Franklin, and Cavuoto, the work of Jonathan Grassi seems slightly overshadowed. But these are in many ways the most quietly compelling images of the exhibition. Grassi sticks to a single subject, mountainous windswept piles of snow pushed into parking lots by winter snowplows. He shoots these monolithic formations at night lit by street lamps against pitch black skies. The result almost passes for black and white photography, apart from the occasional orange tungsten light. Some evoke lunar landscapes, others seem like desert scenes. All are achingly familiar to Buffalonians, yet somehow otherworldly as well. It’s a little hard to see the connection between these artists’ work, beyond their individual documentation of various physical aspects of the region (though Grassi’s snow piles could be anywhere).

The other exhibition is a solo effort by Esther Neisen titled Smother. The press release describes it as “the first exhibition in the newly reformatted East Gallery 'Project Space,'” a place for artistic and curatorial experimentation. Presumably this is Albrecht’s idea, and it’s a good one, though Smother would be just as at home in the other part of the gallery. What Neisen does is difficult to explain adequately. She makes collaged insects out of scraps of used film: 35 mm, super 8, slides, even old porno movies. Each is about three inches in size. The spiders, grasshoppers, flies, and other creepy-crawlies are strikingly executed, with the film lending a shimmery quality reminiscent of insect exoskeletons. Neisen makes good use of the value range and patterns of the various film types.

What sets this apart from the cutesy craftiness of say, seashell frogs, or flowers made of wood-shavings, is Neisen’s underlying concept. Each insect is mounted in a circular frame, more of a containment apparatus really. It seems that the artist was inspired by her sister, who deals with pesky insects by trapping them under cups and allowing them to slowly suffocate. Neisen’s insects are also in the throes of death, confined within their circular enclosure. Seen in this context, the dying bugs become open-ended metaphors for aversion, suppression, and allusion. Or, you know, they could just be dead bugs under a drinking glass.

In addition to the insect pieces, Neisen includes a desk and some raw bug-making materials. This might be an attempt to add an experimental aspect to the show, but it isn’t really necessary, and doesn’t add much. The work stands on its own without the added “installation” component.

Overall these exhibitions represent a good reboot of the Carnegie exhibition program. On another note, the Carnegie is a not-for-profit gallery, so it doesn’t depend on art sales. But the work in this exhibition of young artists was somewhat unexpectedly labeled with prices, and sales were encouragingly brisk. It’s another indication that local collectors are catching on to the excellent quality and value of regional art.

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