Buffalo’s actuelle-garde

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Photo by Jethro Soudant

“So when did it all end?” That’s the question posed to longtime Hallwalls director Ed Cardoni at the Albright-Knox Wish You Were Here opening. Cardoni’s inquisitive friend seemed to be asking just when the freewheeling creative spirit celebrated in the exhibition had ground to a halt. As one who has passionately advanced the cause of progressive art here through good and bad times for nearly thirty years, Cardoni is the wrong person to ask such a question. “It hasn’t!” was his crisp and incredulous response.

Cardoni has a point. On any given weekend, there are too many arts events to attend, far more than in the fêted seventies. Pockets of innovation are ubiquitous. Still, you could understand the question. Hallwalls has long since graduated from its early fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants icehouse beginnings to the status of respected institution. Same for CEPA. Big name artists no longer visit for free and sleep on couches. Media Study and Creative Associates are gone; the Buffalo Philharmonic and Artpark have taken different directions. Have the forward thinking attitudes established in those freewheeling seventies petered out?

An answer comes the next night in the form of three coordinated exhibitions collectively titled We Are Here Now: Just Deserts Exhibit, held in a ramshackle downtown commercial building where several artists illicitly reside. Notification of the hastily organized event has been spread through social networking, but as I arrive at the fifth floor quarters of Scott Bye and Kate Gaudy, I’m not sure what to expect.

“Amazingly enough,” explains Bye, “I was able to magically hide away everything we own, our whole life behind walls and in our bedroom for this event, transforming our comfy home into quite an amazing gallery in just one week.” The makeshift space has several large rooms discerningly arranged with sculpture and painting by A. J. Fries, Ani Hoover, Anne Muntges, Kasia Keeley, Katharine Renee Gaudy, Marie-Claire Bozant, Nathaniel Hall, Bye, and Caudy. In an adjoining room, an experimental digital projection by Phil Hastings runs continuously. It’s a strikingly strong, if somewhat disjointed, show.

I make my way up to the dark and dusty unfinished sixth floor where tables stacked with cans of Genesee beer and food are scattered with dollar donations. This space is GaleryNFS, the brainchild of do-it-yourself curators Hartmout Fischer and Olivier Delrieu-Schulze. Dominating the cavernous room are three large installations by visiting artist Tim Noble, whose Detunement: New Works of Tim Noble is a spectacular hybridization of open source technology and sculpture. An elaborate belt-driven robotic chalkboard creates an abstract composition. Elsewhere a wire-suspended LED glides ominously around the unlit room “drawing” in space, the work in progress viewable on a nearby monitor. This exhibit would be a showstopper in any major museum in the country, but I’m viewing it in a derelict downtown storeroom while swilling a Genny. Quintessential Buffalo.

I descend to the fourth floor living quarters of Kyle Butler and Frank Napolski. Butler’s engagingly meticulous drawings and sculpture join work by Alicia Paolucci, Kristen Seeley, Reanna Kaopuiki, Jason Seeley, Paul Wilson, Shasti O’Leary Soudant, Alice Alexandresu, and Yu Fayefaye. By now, all three floors are packed with what Butler calls a “weird mix” of visitors cutting across social strata. “The size of the event and the people involved grants us some legitimacy,” says Butler, “but there’s still the sort of unavoidable house party quality that comes with putting something on where you live.”

The thing that I am struck by is the quality of the art. Consistently good, often exceptional, it’s an eye-opening reminder of the abundance of extraordinary artists working in Buffalo, the “actuelle-garde” as they call themselves here. “We all aimed high with the artists we invited,” explains Butler, “and were lucky to get interesting people to agree to exhibit. It took a lot of ambition just to get [Noble’s work] to Buffalo and set it up.”

This scrappy let’s-put-on-a-show attitude echoes early Hallwalls. “Our goal,” says Bye, “is to proclaim the current group of local artists as part of a vibrant scene, a hidden underground renaissance happening here now with some amazingly talented people.” The convergence of events that put Buffalo in the vanguard of the art world in the seventies can never be recreated, but optimism in the face of many