Beyond/In WNY: Setting course

By Bruce Adams
Photos by Tom Loonan

Albright-Knox installations, Otto Series by Simone Mantellasi.


Albright-Knox installations,
Into the Blue by Shayne Dark.

It’s not a biennial until the second one.

Without at least two, there’s no previous version by which to measure the latest, no point of comparison, no room to speculate on new directions or radical departures. So as the sun sets slowly on the second rousing rendition ofBeyond/In Western New York—Buffalo’s dazzling biennial showcase for contemporary art of Western New York, Southern Ontario, and the Eastern Great Lakes region—we now have a better idea which way we’re headed.

Beyond/In, as it’s often abbreviated, is the enhanced version of its predecessor, In Western New York, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s popular long-running biennial exhibition of local art. In 2003, newly appointed director Louis Grachos expanded the scope and profile of the exhibition, enlisting a passel of local art venues in collaboration with AK curators and bring to bear the full weight of the acclaimed institution on behalf of area art. The inaugural Beyond/In was a major leap forward, and Grachos has stated his intent to further bolster the event, eventually bringing it international attention.

Albright-Knox installations,
Walls of Love by Artemis Herber.

This year’s twelve-site Beyond/Inunveiling—spread over one feverishly paced September weekend—again engendered buoyant anticipation among migrating crowds of gallery-hopping art enthusiasts who were welcomed by a wide array of contemporary media including large-scale installations, video, performance, and a plethora of painting. Unfortunately, the Friday night opening receptions coincided with Buffalo’s theater season kick-off, Curtain Up, which garnered widespread media attention while coverage of Beyond/In was appallingly nonexistent. The Beyond/Inaudionce was comprised largely of the usual unfailingly supportive faces. Broader audiences have yet to buy in.

Beyond/In attendees viewing Kurt Von
Voetsch’s installation at the Castellani.

Overall, Beyond/In measured up to international standards of contemporary “cutting-edge” content and quality, providing ample evidence of a vibrant art scene. The work was often extraordinary and frequently witty, humor playing a featured role throughout. There were odd picks too, reflecting perhaps the democratic selection process and idiosyncratic tastes of individual curators. Does, for instance, elegantly crafted gossamer ceramic pottery work alongside violently grotesque fantasmagoric visions of dragons, war, and sexual mayhem? For that matter, do such stylishly decorative vessels or anthropomorphic ceramic fantasy figurines really reflect a sophisticated contemporary global art perspective? Or in an effort to please every curator, did some intracuritorial acquiescence occur?

A. J. Fries’ (top) and
Jay Carrier’s work at the
Castellani Art Museum.

In pondering these questions, it helps to consider whatBeyond/In is not. It’s not a “best-of WNY” show, and unlike many international art biennials there’s no overarching curatorial vision. It’s not really even collectively curated, as each site reflects that venue’s mission and distinctive predilections—what John Massier of Hallwalls calls “a combo platter of curatorial collaborations and individual curatorial impulses.” Arguably, this is an asset; multiple views provide diversity. Yet Beyond/In II felt more like a series of discrete exhibitions than a cohesive whole with a defined identity. The glue that held the inaugural Beyond/Intogether was the Albright-Knox. Having evolved from its predecessor, the project was perceived as a collaborative multi-venue Albright-Knox event. The internationally renowned museum lent authority, clout, and widespread name recognition to the project.

This year saw a subtle but profound paradigm shift. Visually striking promotional material—clearly aimed at a broad audience—portrayed the whole thing as an autonomous entity discrete from the AK aside from its role as a venue. The AK logo—ubiquitous the first time around—doesn’t even appear on the sparse Beyond/In website. This may have been to give all venues equal billing, but it squanders the considerable cachet of the Albright-Knox brand and diminishes the event’s status.

From left: Allyson Mitchell’s installation at UB Art Gallery, photo by Debra Steckler;
two views of Kate Wilson’s Geometric Sunshine, photos by R. Patrick Robideau (top)
and Steckler (bottom).

Make no mistake; Beyond/In II was a success. Project director Claire Schneider deserves credit for successfully managing such a huge and rapidly expanding undertaking with a boatload of dynamic personalities, while maintaining her duties as associate curator of the Albright-Knox. As the event continues to grow, it might benefit by bringing in an outside curator/manager to assign responsibilities, maintain the collaborative atmosphere, and hold egos in check. There are no simple answers as to what course organizers should set. But wherever they head, it should be under the Albright-Knox flag.

B/I WNY Highlights
It’s not too late to catch some of Beyond/In Western New York. Site exhibitions at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Castellani Art Museum, and CEPA run at least through November. With such a huge show, there’s only space here to touch on a few of the exhibition’s many highlights, beginning with the still-active venues:

The works of John Drummer would stand out at the BPAC, even if you couldn’t smell them: dark minimalist wall pieces made of thickly stitched rubber, often slathered with tar that’s scraped or otherwise manipulated. Without seeing them it’s hard to imagine the bold patterning and subtle textures produced, but these works warrant your contemplative attention.Paul Nicholson‘s conceptual pieces are discrete—often incomprehensible—objects and video projections. I’m a sucker for clever conceptualism like Frozen Horse, described as a “small ice horse frozen inside a larger ice cube.” Viewers ponder a platform with dirty water stains where the piece once stood. Shades of Yoko Ono.

Gone to Seed at CEPA is Hans Gindlesberger‘s photographic metaphor for loss, a sprawling black and white panorama of a decaying town onto which is projected a video of the artist eternally watering a dead crop in a desperate act of fading hope. Upstairs, Wilka Roig‘s formal photo portraits explore issues of identity and communication. Both artists tackle deeply affecting topics with detached objectivity, making this one of the more impassively reflectiveBeyond/In exhibitions. Classic CEPA fare served up cool.

At the Castellani, A. J. Fries provides one of the most whimsical works in Beyond/In. His monumental self portrait naturalistically rendered on hundreds of cocktail napkins stained with various alcoholic beverages is a self-loathing testament to consumption and desire. Kurt Von Voetsch also reflects on issues of consumption with his masterful drawings and crudely constructed objects. Jay Carrier‘s compositionally dense paintings of urban Native American life rounds out the most pictorially graphic of the Beyond/In exhibitions.

Other highlights now gone—or soon to be:

The Albright-Knox put its large rooms to effective use displaying many of the strongest works in the overall exhibition. Among these was Alfonso Volo, who in the AK’s Small Sculpture Gallery found the perfect venue for his miniature menagerie of modified found objects. Ani Hoover‘s circle-based abstractions reached new heights, literally and figuratively. Michael Snow‘s SSHTOORRTY video loop was mesmerizing. Chris Barr‘s Bureau of Workplace Interruptions was perhaps the most hysterically thorough multi-media performance/installation ever. I’m anxiously awaiting my interruption.

Three installations at Hallwalls played nicely off one another. Roberley Bell‘s candy-colored fantasy world blew me away. Other notable masters of whimsy include David Clayton,Adam Weekley, Jeremy Bailey, Jacqueline Welch, Allyson Mitchell, and Sarah Paul. Darker, much darker, were the powerfully fantastic drawings of Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo.

There are too many excellent works; each venue really deserves an individual review. —B.A.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.