It was half an hour into the opening reception for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's "In Western New York 2000" and artist Kurt Von Voetsch was already sagging a bit under the weight of a "harness" hooked into a fantastic 13-foot-long assemblage of cut-up bicycle parts.
Von Voetsch's intention was to last it out to the end of the reception -- two more hours of standing with some 40 pounds of sectioned tires and bicycle chain lying hard on his shoulders.
Viewers could scrutinize Von Voetsch's labors live from the side or go around front and see every sweat bead recorded on a big video monitor mounted on an open framework. Some up-close onlookers winced in empathy. Others further back had to smile a little at first sight of this huge, bird-like contraption with a half-naked man at its head. If they guessed the thing looked a lot like a mechanical rooster with a human pilot, they were right: the piece is called "El Gallo" -- "The Rooster."
Von Voetsch is one of 10 artists selected by Albright-Knox curators from more than 120 submissions for this important regional biennial. The show covers the eight counties of Western New York and is designed to give a focused view of what is happening in art around the region.
Anybody considering Von Voetsch's sculpture/video -- with or without the artist strapped in -- will likely recognize that this ridiculous bird is more than an abstract representation of a mere strutting fowl. Plenty of hints are on the walls alongside and behind the construction. Bristling in their macho steel frames are vigorous wax and charcoal drawings with titles like "Bone Out" and "Dad's Penis Planet." The latter drawing, and others like it, features a wildly swirling, globular thing with uselessly spouting turrets. Could trouble be brewing on Planet Testosterone?
This is all, eh, potent stuff, if a little confounding. Taking into account the performance portion, Von Voetsch's piece seems a furious assault on ingrained attitudes of machismo. With the artist straining in his self-made stocks, the piece rings with messianic self-chastisement, as though the artist could atone for the gender sins of the world. Then, the struggle over -- yes, Von Voetsch did successfully complete the 2 1/2 -hour stint -- and the artist out of his rig, the machine reverts to low comedy of Rube Goldbergian excess. However you might interpret Von Voetsch's art, it makes a wonderful counter
point to the other big work in the exhibition's central gallery, Sharon McConnell's row of hanging membranes titled "Hurricane." As Von Voetsch does with the masculine, McConnell assumes a stereotypical feminine voice in order to comment on gender and its chronic discontents. On each delicate translucent panel -- actually made of animal gut -- McConnell has stitched in elegant script the female name of a hurricane and its date. Vertical threads trail aimlessly from the letters, adding to the frail ghostliness of this forlorn column of suspended sheets.
Thus McConnell visually and tactically links the destructive fury of a natural disaster with woman, just as the original namers of hurricanes did before the sexism of the practice became overwhelmingly apparent. But there is an almost funerary sorrow to this appropriation of female names, making each sheet seem a fragile memorial to a Dora or Betsy or Camille.
A similar thing happens in McConnell's "Velocity," in which five hand-held fans bare, one to a fan, the words "sigh," "moan," "whistle," "howl" and "scream." The irony is apparent. Obviously the wagging of a fan cannot readily be associated with velocity, and these refined objects become symbols of a supposed female hypersensitivity. The wind-descriptive words, meanwhile, take on a human sound suggesting stereotypical feminine cries of distress.
The contrast is delectable: Von Voetsch struggling to keep his wacky, baroque male machine vital; McConnell elegantly drifting through the room in the deceptive guise of benign feminine stitchery.
Such finely adjusted use of contrast by the show's curators is one of the enduring pleasures of this very engaging exhibition. It's no easy thing to make a coherent display out of the work of 10 artists of widely diverse interests who work in various media and use differing technical approaches. Gallery curators Douglas Dreishpoon and Claire Schneider have done it with intelligence and finesse. That Dreishpoon and Schneider are new to Western New York in the last year and a half makes the achievement all the more impressive.
The sharp thinking that went into the exhibition is apparent from the first gallery. Robert Hirsch's photographs are about the inherent ambiguity of visual images. Small, often odd views of landscapes and cityscapes are set within an enveloping black field that makes the tiny images appear like temporary windows opening on a transitory scene.
The factual evidence -- ranging from what look like weird 19th century theme parks to off-beat views of the Peace Bridge -- is often of only marginal help in determining exactly what we are looking at. A carved sculpture of a snarling dog, a pristine gardenscape, a Sphinx and pyramid with conifers in the background, an ordinary gas station -- all of these things so tinily rendered release a string of veiled meanings that can never be clarified by eye or brain.
Hirsch's intriguing work neatly sets the stage for the whole show ahead. From Hirsch we can learn that art need not be a complete, easy-to-read cultural statement or even an object of firm visual resolution. In a world of shifting contingencies, meanings are always conditional, subject to sudden revisions. And so is the act of looking.
Printmaker Xiaowen Chen, whose beautiful if somewhat precious work manages to hold its own in the imposing company of Von Voetsch and McConnell, delicately plays on this ambiguity of meaning and of looking. His little rudimentary figures appear vulnerable as eggshells and yet all the while suggest the perfunctory coolness of the diagram. For instance, one figure drawn in a sensitive hesitating line cranks his head back and forth, leaving dotted lines in its wake like an exercise out of an instructional manual.
Often these characters are cast adrift on an expanse of page where random scratchings and smudges are left to suggest -- a bit portentously, I think -- their existential plight in the big, scary universe.
As we move into the west gallery the pairing of two artists of contrasting style is again apparent. David Schirm's paintings play up the decorative for all it's worth. In these big works, fairyland colors wend their way through a complex of vegetation, flowers and various imaginary creatures, including a couple of humans made up of tightly packed, intersecting patterns.
Facing these paintings are smallish, illustrative paintings by James Allen. His "Woods" series offers a string of puns on forest terminology and puns on those puns. "Babe in the Woods" shows Babe Ruth swatting one into the trees. "Babe in the Woods II" shows a well-constructed blond woman in a nightgown. Extending the pun to painful levels, "Batter in the Woods" has the archetypal housewife standing amid the trees whipping up a bowl of batter.
Nothing could be further from Schirm's painting than these and other Allen works. Although the paintings have a childlike tone, there's nothing particularly comic about Schirm's fantastic landscapes. And yet these two artists, so different in approach and attitude, do perceive a sinister undercurrent in American culture. It comes out not only in Schirm's sometimes threatening creatures but also in his almost frantic exaggeration and insistent multiplication of shape and color.
Allen, for his part, shows the dark side of culture indirectly with the fairyland-evil potential of his woods and overtly in two "American Folk Tale" pieces.
In the east gallery Joshua Marks launches an all-out if good-natured assault on suburban and corporate America. Again the contrast looms. Across the way hang the autobiographical constructed and found-object paintings of Katherine Hannigan. Hannigan's work is a kind of confessional saga extended across the larger world. There is a vague sense of unease, of the individual endangered. It is all a deadly serious business, rent by hyped existential alarm and expressed by a shop-worn aesthetic.
Marks, on the other hand, seems comfortable with his subject. His work is as witty as it is biting. The diorama "Field of Dreams" is a comic attack on the suburban nightmare featuring a "track mansion" with a circle drive utterly isolated from the world by acres of American flags on poles. Another diorama, "Dreaming of Joining the Real World," shows a kid looking in from outside a glass box containing a silvered replica of the expensive American dream home. What makes Marks' work seems so honest and to the point is that he sees suburban and corporate life not only as a social and cultural construct. As pieces like "Executive Hopscotch" and "Box for a Flamingo" reveal, Marks has uncovered a ready-made aesthetic in the lawn ornament, in slick office furniture and in the suburban home. His commentary is so effective because it holds so many echoes of what is visually already deeply entrenched in the culture.
The last two galleries offer big cumbersome sound constructions by Tony Conrad followed by small, finely put together drawings by Terry Beebe. Beebe's drawings are careful renderings of what sometimes look like cryptic machines with useless flaps, flags and feathers appearing on them, all done up in a tightly tuned style reminiscent of late Kandinsky. Other times the artist depicts passageways and tunnels that work their way around themselves to know obvious purpose. The effect is sometimes surreal, sometimes just flat and illustrative.
Typical of Conrad's often esoteric work, these pieces are not simple objects that deliver what they promise: some kind of music or noise. Indeed, they deliver not only both noise and music but also elucidate ancient musical theory as espoused by court composer Vincenzo Galilei and his more famous son, Galileo. "Begetting Opera and Modern Physics" is a stringed contraption hung on a copper-pipe rack that illustrates in monumental form an experiment that Vincenzo did to refute Pythagoras' principle that a string's frequency is proportional to its tension. Vincenzo, learned in the ways of the cherished contrapuntal music of his time, used the experiment to advocate for a new monody. Thus the "Begetting Opera" of the title.
"Recomposing Galileo" is a 21-foot-long double-tubed and sloped affair that sounds a steady rhythm as a steel ball clanks past ridges on the tubes set at irregular intervals. Each interval is precisely calculated to increase in distance in correct proportion to the increasing speed of the ball. Galileo might have been flabbergasted at this bombastic re-creation of his experiment with a small musical apparatus, but contemporary viewers may very well get swept up in the noisy fun of it all.
The Conrad pieces, evidently, are on some level serious forays into the complex connections between musical and scientific history and art. But their effects play out in anything but an academically serious way. Wryly conceived to usurp the material they investigate, they are objects that are cheerfully outrageous in both physical deportment and action. They add new and unexpected riches to an already rich exhibition.
The show continues through March 5. The gallery is located at 1285 Elmwood Ave. The law firm of Phillips, Lytle, Hitchcock, Baline & Huber is the sponsor of "In Western New York 2000," with additional funding coming from the New York State Council on the Arts.