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Engage your imagination and decide

One commenter called it "Andy Warhol meets L.L. Bean." Another disparagingly dubbed it "a group of missiles ready to be launched in a zillion directions." Another, after a period of reflection, drew this definitive conclusion: "Yuck."

These are a few of the reactions to Nancy Rubins' wildly unorthodox new sculpture made of more than 60 silver boats on the west lawn of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The work has been drawing quizzical looks since Rubins and her crew began erecting it June 6.

Now that the sculpture is complete, the opinions have begun to fly at dizzying speed and from all directions. And boy, has the volley been fun to watch.

It has become the overriding, yawn-inducing cliche of contemporary art to say that people get out of a work of art what they bring to it. But like all cliches, it is based in truth.

And it applies especially to this new, as-yet untitled sculpture, which is far more interesting as a sort of hook for the imagination and for its self-contained visual impact than any discussion about where it fits in the story of art history or an academic evaluation of its formal achievements.

But if you flush your mind of preconceptions and simply sit and stare at the thing, as many of the sculpture's new fans have been doing for weeks, ideas will invade your imagination almost unbidden. You could think of it as a starburst in midmotion, a violent explosion of silver razors shooting off into the sky or a massive, 60-pointed asterisk denoting an exception to some huge cosmic contract. You could think of it as something that Magneto, that metal-wielding antagonist of "X-Men" fame, created out of boredom during a vacation at the lake house, or a game of bumper-boats gone horribly awry. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly fun to contemplate.

But here's the rub: They require imagination.

The annals of art history are filled with ill-considered reactions to artworks most of us now revere. Duchamp's now universally acclaimed "Nude Descending a Staircase" caused howls of protest in 1913 and was dubbed "an explosion in a shingle factory." In Buffalo, when A. Conger Goodyear brought Picasso's important and beautiful painting "La Toilette" to the Albright-Knox, he was unceremoniously relieved of his position. Thus spurned, he trudged off to New York City to serve as the first president of a little institution known as the Museum of Modern Art.

Stubborn pockets of that parochialism, that age-old resistance to modernism (to say nothing of post-modernism or contemporary art) remain in Buffalo, and they appear every time someone tries to move the state of the art forward in this city by, say, sponsoring a tightrope walker to launch an art exhibition or building a new museum.

None of this, of course, is to say that Rubins' sculpture is unimpeachable. I think it competes too much with the tree behind it and lacks some of the stunning tension and unlikely balance of some of her past works. Even so, something about its monochromatic purity attracts me even more than those other pieces.

There are other arguments against the sculpture, too, which many in the community have been making cogently and with plenty of consideration. And that's the best of what you can hope for when a new artwork arrives on the scene: an honest debate that's the result of a direct engagement with the piece.

Negative reactions are only harmful when they stem from a failure of imagination and engagement. Because, like it or not, bringing your own imagination to the table is now an integral part of appreciating contemporary art -- whereas in the past, Turner or Van Gogh did most of the imagining for us.

Now would be a great time to head over to the Albright-Knox and give yours a workout.