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Art Review/Surveyors, surveyed

Installation view of Zhan Wang's "Urban Landscape Buffalo", 2005-2010, and Matthew Ritchie's "Morning War", 2008

Tom Loonan

Outside the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, visitors encounter the banner slogan “expect the unexpected.” Upon entering the sculpture court to view the current exhibition Surveyor, one sees a giant recreation of downtown Buffalo (among other iconography) executed in stainless steel kitchenware. The spectacular artwork by Chinese artist Zhan Wang is typical of the unexpected connections to be found in this show.

Curator Heather Pesanti transforms the typical “new acquisitions” and “works from the collection” exercise into a dynamic interplay by inviting five Buffalo-based artists to use works from the collection to amplify their aesthetic concerns. The result focuses on nature broadly conceived—from DNA to the cosmos, with landscape and the human figure in between. Themes include the historical, the scientific, and the poetic. This broad interpretation initially provokes insightful contemplation, but eventually the multiplicity generates a sense of disconnect. 

Surveyor implies human/landscape interaction; poems that reference nature are interspersed as wall texts. The show’s title comes from a poem by the Dutch writer Rutger Kopland that locates a person in a landscape and suggests that for a surveyor a map is Utopia.

Peter Stephens creates impeccable surfaces and illusionistic textures in his large oil paintings. Scientific inquiry and the visual extremes of scale inform his installation Outer Limits, which includes a beautifully rendered monochrome orb. (Though entirely abstract, the paintings are inspired by satellite photography of Mars.) Richard Long’s big floor sculpture, Santa Cruz Circle, perfectly parallels Stephens’s fixation with texture and, as the artist points out, geologic time.

Millie Chen finds inspiration in seventeenth century prints by Jacques Callot that document the horrors of the Thirty Years War. In her installation Miseries and Vengeance, blood-red wallpaper with silhouetted images of hanged and tortured figures forms the background for the etchings. In a second gallery she recreates the imagery in bold ink lines drawn directly on all four walls and subtly updates it with contemporary images, such as a squadron of helicopter gunships.

Bingyi also looks to history, reproducing techniques and images from centuries of Chinese painting in a huge horizontal “scroll” of black oil paint on linen, entitled Seamlessly Lost. The artist recreates every landscape brush technique and includes thousands of human and animal figures from the Chinese painting lexicon. Her description identifies parts of the subject as natural cataclysms like floods, but the painting feels almost lyrical and only occasionally ominous, despite its large size and the extensive use of black. The artist’s inclusion of an Alison Saar sculpture of a figure in a fetal position, its legs becoming tree roots, poignantly reflects the human-in-nature subject. Outside the gallery Courbet’s “cave painting,” The Source of the Loue, supplies a smaller scale parallel to the scroll.

Paul Vanouse makes illuminated pictures from DNA and his installation, titled Optical Revision, includes two large circular video projections of DNA strands in gel solution in an electrophoresis chamber he created (also present). Although formally impressive with its pulsing yellow-green and blue-violet discs, the visual information remains cryptic. The works Vanouse chooses to accompany the display—a Chuck Close portrait, a red monochrome painting made with lipstick by Rachel Lachowicz, and a David Hammons earth-on-paper process piece—are equally engaging.

Some inclusions of poet/artist book collaborations seem only tangential to the “surveyor” theme. While this caveat might also apply to the work of Michael Basinski, his droll and dense word and image collages exude a welcome lighthearted attitude. Clearly fascinated with pop culture, Basinski employs an unashamedly derivative late-1960s psychedelic poster style—among other conceits, he associates model and actress Milla Jovovich with the Egyptian goddess Nut by means of wildly idiosyncratic wordplays (including obviously intentional misspellings) and clever bits of collage.

Despite this superficial silliness, a deep appreciation for poetic imagination and practice emerges. Employing a neologism, Basinski titles his works “OPEMS,” suggesting that his word clusters are open to individual interpretation. His inclusion of works by Joseph Cornell, a Cy Twombly scribble painting, and a Mel Ramos screenprint, is totally apt.

Surveyor’s goal of highlighting recent acquisitions with dramatic juxtapositions occasionally overcomes its conceptual focus—as with the inclusion of figurative sculptures by Erika Wannamacher, Stephan Balkenol, and Auguste Rodin, which seem somewhat superfluous. In other cases, the new works—such as Matthew Ritchie’s wall and floor installation, Barnaby Furnas’s big red painting, and Mariko Mori’s photographs—reveal compelling reworkings of the nature theme. Though the show’s wide range sometimes causes the surveyor’s lens to be a bit out of focus, it is ambitious, challenging, and—almost always—exciting.

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