WHAT: First five venues of "Beyond/In Western New York 2005"
WHEN: Through mid-June
WHERE: Various venues
So far, so great. If the first wave of openings that hit last weekend is any indication, the thoroughly revamped Albright-Knox Art Gallery biennial, now called "Beyond/In Western New York," may very well shatter the persistent notion that most regional exhibitions are insignificant affairs doomed to exist outside the orbit of serious art.
Thus far, what we have is serious, often highly ambitious art, and much of it may ultimately prove to be of a significance that extends beyond the greatly expanded boundaries of the show. And mind you, this assessment is based on only 14 artists in five venues, which later on will also offer performances and screenings. During the next two weekends, eight more venues will join the exhibition, bringing the total number of artists to 58.
As it turns out, the multivenue approach to the show allowed the showing of a huge variety of art without having the show sink into a ragtag of various curatorial tastes. Happily, curators of this first round were able to create a sense of shared interests or, contrarily, to set up purposeful contrasts, among the artists they showed.
This skillful fitting of artist to space favorably affected the installations especially. For instance, Patrick Robideau's "2013," a dark and brooding reconstruction of his childhood home, is made to seem almost painfully forlorn enclosed within the darkened, boxy space of Carnegie Art Center's main gallery. At CEPA Gallery, Karen Henderson's exhilarating "Niagara Falls Storefront" is a film installation so tightly wed to its storefront space that subject and place act as one, the rush of Niagara's waters seemingly sweeping relentlessly outward along curved windows flanking a darkened doorway.
Perhaps the most stirring and convincing welding of a space and art is Carin Mincemoyer's "Grounded," installed in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery's towerlike Lightwell Gallery. The piece, made up of Styrofoam containers of varied shapes holding live plants, grasses and cactuses, looks like some kind of odd modernist architectural fantasy. The various topographies represented -- woods, marshes, deserts -- are united by a circular, elevated wooden walkway, the whole capped by a bridge at the center. The work is a gleaming wonder -- a somehow optimistic statement, even as it shows "nature" held captive in technology's most hateful containers and dominated by the ghost of the suburban deck builder.
Landscape is also Leslie Eliet's theme. Her rigorously worked-out, scroll-like painting/print "Sea of Dreams," also at UB, is a sweetly romantic meditation, a conscious revival of landscape as a source of lyrical feelings. Meanwhile, Mark Gomes takes the idea of natural forms and pointedly reduces them to simple schematics in intriguing cardboard constructions.
One of the great joys of this portion of "Beyond" is the way curators have set artists off one from another while leaving ample room for connections that a viewer might intuit. At the Carnegie, John Knecht's marvelous 12-monitor video installation, "Wheee! The People," shows various animated characters repeatedly smacking their heads against walls, the overlapping sounds creating a kind of crazed cacophony of "bonks." The contrast with Robideau is extreme. But then if Robideau can be said to depict an America past freighted by childhood foreboding -- the horror of the American unconscious -- Knecht can be said to show real horrors of the America present. Knecht's view is of a country at a real political impasse where a frustrated populous can only bang its collective head against the immovable walls of political intransigency.
UB's Anderson Gallery also successfully sets off two wildly different artists -- the overearnest but inventive video artist Kate Ross (whose "Red's Cave" offers esophageal views into two gigantic mouths that emit laughter modified to sound like a bull moose symphony); and Sadlo, a painter of acid humor whose chummy, illustrational style is cannily used to depict such things as men hanging around in brand-name underwear.
Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center performs an even more amazing sleight-of-hand by yoking the work of Carlo Cesta (sculpture of modified architectural elements), Allen C. Topolski (found vintage appliances altered to obscure their function) and Alfonso Volo (mouse tchotchkes in yarn caps). The purposeful ad hoc look of the display allows these three compelling artists to retain their very individual approaches to low culture and still makes them seem part of an artistic conspiracy to upset the dumb complacency of domestic life.
"Beyond" holds wonderful stuff and lots of it. My plea is that viewers don't just take the easy route and see the shows convenient to their neighborhoods. It's an exhibition that deserves to be seen in its entirety.