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DEFINING LANDSCAPE DESPITE DRASTIC CHANGES IN THE GENRE, SHOW AT THE ALBRIGHT-KNOX IS REMARKABLY JOLT-FREE

WHAT: Landscape at the Millennium
WHEN: Through Jan. 2
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

TICKETS: $4, $3 seniors and students, 12 and under free.

INFO: 882-8700

Landscape as image and symbol -- not to mention the direct experience of landscape itself -- has changed drastically over the last century-and-a-half, and promises to change even further as the new century progresses.

But don't expect the exhibition "Landscape at the Millennium," at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, to reflect these changes.

Although it begins in the mid-19th century and ends with contemporary versions of landscape done this year, the show is remarkably jolt-free. There is nary a hint of the various abuses to which the citizens of the world have so readily subjected the land. And although the computer plays a role in the work of one contemporary artist -- that of John Pfahl -- Pfahl's digitalized photographs only obliquely suggest that the computer is altering our vision of landscape in any radical way.

The chief reason for this homogeneous take on landscape is that Albright-Knox Curator Douglas Dreishpoon has selected, in two of the three contemporaries, artists who refer to ancient uses of the landscape experience as a kind of conscience-expanding device. The impulse that drives Pat Steir's abstract rendition of landscape (her room-sized installation was reviewed earlier in Gusto) is not so different from that that moved a 19th century quasi-transcendentalist like Albert Bierstadt, who is represented in the show. Both are enraptured by the force and sublimity of nature and both are theatrical artists.

Tobi Kahn also seems to be involved in highly personal identification with landscape. Kahn evokes landscape by presenting only the most rudimentary information -- the basic sky/ground division. Each painting -- all on horizontal formats -- bluntly presents this "horizon," transplanted upward or downward a few inches from painting to painting. Weightier, muted red-brown and blues are reserved for the "earth" or "sea," while above dense grays and off-whites fill the "sky." Within this simple formal structure Kahn accrues neatly streaked layers of thick pigment, building an impervious surface that nevertheless breaks up the light in minute, horizontal-moving vibrations.

The "horizon" is critical. It is a mark -- a gouge really -- that signals the grandeur of nature, even as it is an abstraction almost physically dividing the painting itself. The line is also shaded illusionistically so that the two halves of the painting seem to bump over one another awkwardly.

These are not so much objects to look at but representations of already achieved beyond-the-norm psychological states. The paintings not only encourage meditation -- the old view of landscape as a screen on which to project human emotion -- but they also seem like impossible objects capable of meditation on their own. The effect is uncanny. And fragile.

Following old guide books on the subject, Pfahl in "Permutations on the Picturesque" carefully recreates picturesque scenes in England's Lake Country and other British Isle sites, right down to exact vantage points. Then he scans these photographs into a computer, which translates them into the style of neat British watercolors of the last century.

Pfahl is commenting on how landscape is conditioned by aesthetic expectations that have little to do with "real" landscape experience (the real is always a slippery category for Pfahl). The introduction of computer technology -- as clever and beautifully controlled as it is here -- might more emphatically impinge on the landscape idea of the picturesque. Even with passages of pixel squares left like watermarks on each print to signal that a computer is involved, the irony is very gentle. It is a frail irony that only manages to hold the art work in teasing abeyance from the viewer.

The juxtapositions within the 19th century section are among the great pleasures of the show. Dreishpoon has arranged things so that Ralph Blakelock's dark and romantic visions are set alongside such impressionist interpretations as Theodore Robinson's almost brusque "Midnight, Giverny." Nearby, Lars G. Sellstedt's 1871 "Buffalo Harbor from the Foot of Porter Avenue," carefully rendered with an eye for incident, represents the academic vision.

In another gallery two folk paintings (one a boldly designed view of Genesee Falls by Thomas Chambers) bookend another Blakelock -- this one even more painfully poetic -- and the gallery's wonderfully mysterious "Temple of the Mind" by that most modern of 19th century American painters, Albert Pinkham Ryder.

In a show of mostly moderately sized painting, we don't find the big smashing, boundless landscapes that made the reputation of the Hudson River School artists. But the little things are delights: John F. Kensett's "Coast Scene"; Martin Johnson Heade's delicate watercolor, plus some archaic looking landscapes of Florida; and Thomas Moran's "The Watering Place," with its sweet clutter of cows obligingly reflecting their pretty shapes on the water in which they stand.

Impressionism is represented, besides Robinson, by a couple of paintings by the always interesting John Henry Twachtman, and Childe Hassam with his great "Dock Scene, Gloucester" from the Albright-Knox.

Another kind of painterliness is found in George Inness, who painted "The Coming Storm" as a powerful natural drama with wide psychological implications. It is one of the gallery's prized romantic American landscapes.

Water seems to be everywhere in this show, with more paintings of Niagara Falls -- sweet, dramatic, silly -- than you perhaps want to see at one viewing. Twachtman's greenish-blue, in-close view of the Horseshoe Falls is a beauty, however.

The water picture to beat all happens also to be the first painting to enter the gallery collection: Bierstadt's complex and astutely composed "The Marina Piccola, Capri, 1859." This fine picture was the gift of the young artist, who handled the multiple focal points and tricky lighting like a seasoned veteran.

No doubt, the three contemporary artists are strong and interesting artists in their own right. But as "landscape" interpreters these artists take a relatively soft, mainstream modernist approach. I would have liked to have seen the whole idea of landscape as valid expressive subject matter at the close of the 20th century take a bit of an aesthetic pummeling.

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