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On View / Four that score

New exhibitions at the Castellani

Detail and installation view of Dana Tyrell’s Blue

Photos courtesy of the Castellani Art Museum and the artists


When a critic visits a museum in the line of duty, it’s usually to focus on a single exhibition. On a recent trip to the Castellani Art Museum, I discovered four small but impressive shows worthy of notice.


Western New York Collects: Nancy Dwyer is another in a series of exhibitions cocurated by Gerald Mead that spotlights the work of notable artists included in local collections. The show contains many fine examples from Dwyer’s earlier years, some of which were spent in Buffalo. These exhibitions offer as much insight into the collecting habits in Western New York as they do about the artists. It’s a delightful look back at one of what has come to be known collectively as the Picture Generation.


Appealing Words: Calligraphy Traditions in Western New York, may not sound like much fun, but it is. Edward Miller, Curator of Folk Arts, has pieced together a visually enticing collection of work rooted in the art of writing. Rosemary Lyons and Muhammad Zaman are standouts here, each in their own way using calligraphy as a basis for contemporary explorations of culture and art itself. Zaman’s richly layered works based on Arabic lettering sometimes run off the canvas and onto the wall. They are best described by a relatively new self-explanatory art term, calligraffiti.


Lyons slyly works contemporary elements of popular culture into gold-leafed illuminated manuscripts and icons. They might make you want to genuflect and guffaw all at once.


Two installations curated by Michael Beam, featuring young emerging artists, deserve special attention for their plucky aplomb.


Installation view of Dana Tyrell’s Blue


Going Blue

Spanning one of the museums largest central walls, Dana Tyrrell: Blue is a series of swirling forms made up of individual artificial Forget-Me-Not flowers implanted by their stems into thousands of drilled holes. There’s a wistful kitschy feel to this abstract wall display; call it craft store chic. Somewhat hidden throughout the work are small white casts of innocuous body parts—an elbow, a knee, feet, and so on. These don’t make much of a first impression, but bear with the artist; there’s a plan.


Like much of contemporary art, it’s impossible to decipher all the layers of meaning Tyrrell intends without referring to the accompanying catalog. And here, between the artist statement and Conor Moynihan’s essay, there isn’t an obscure connotation or allusion left unreferenced. Much is made, for instance, of the symbolic nature of the color blue, but one suspects that if Forget-Me-Nots were red, there would be a whole different set of crimson-based symbols cited. That’s because it is the flowers’ name that goes to the heart of the work.


These are flora that beg to be remembered. The name was originally coined in German, Vergissmeinnicht; the etymology rooted in a tragic tale of a lost love. They are widely used today as symbols of remembrance. In this country, they are reminders of the importance of keeping loved ones in our thoughts while they are still with us. And here we arrive at the melancholy theme of mortality, ours and others, and you might indeed start feeling a bit blue.


This sense of transience and loss is heightened through another contemporary art device, audience interactivity. The public is encouraged to remove individual flowers and take them as reminiscences (mine is on my dashboard). This act, repeated many times weekly, is part of a slow process of metaphoric decay or deterioration. This is where Tyrrell’s plan for the body casts comes in; over time they become fully exposed, less protected, more vulnerable. The thinning flower forms are like memories slowly fading. There’s something slightly woeful about all this, as the audience contributes to the slow demise of the meticulously crafted work, which is likely what Tyrrell intends.


Details and an installation view of Mark Snyder’s Muscle and Bone


Remembering dad

It’s not a coincidence that Mark Snyder’s Muscle and Bone installation is adjacent to Blue. On display is a mechanics workbench cluttered with sundry car parts and manuals. Next to that is an engine block suspended from a floor crane, some stacked tires, a car hood, and part of a racecar body panel. Car enthusiasts might derive added satisfaction knowing the significance of some of these items, but collectively they make a suitable representation of an auto workshop. Equally significant, though, is the arrangement’s altar-like quality, highlighted by a finely crafted symmetrical wooden sculpture suspended between two large red banners above. The arrangement hints at a crucifix and sacred wall-hangings, but there are other connotations. The monumental scale, emblem-like structure, and red ensigns also faintly suggest fascist décor.


This is another work that might leave viewers scratching their heads, without the handy catalog description. The hanging structure, it turns out, is a very precise wooden copy of the inner frame of an F1 Ferrari 310B Formula One racecar—the skeleton of the vehicle. Now the banners take on automotive significance; their color being rosso corsa, customary red of Italian racing cars since the 1920s. It may be what the catalog says between the lines, however, that most informs the work. Snyder writes that he recently inherited his father’s tools; he references his father’s passion for building model wooden boat hulls, one of which is displayed on the wall. The sleek and elegant design of the racecar model uses similar building techniques as the boat, and echoes its look.


Snyder speaks of the “anthropomorphic connection between man and automobiles,” that intersection between muscle, bone, and steel that makes human and machine one. Muscle and bone may describe the interior of a car, but they are also the perishable matter of the human body. Through the language of design and the physicality of mechanical labor, Snyder seems to be paying homage to his late father and the fragility of human life. Viewed this way, Muscle and Bone speaks to issues of ephemerality and remembrance as does Dana Tyrrell’s work.         


Bruce Adams is an artist, teacher, and Spree columnist.


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