It's easy to forget that one of the world's great natural wonders sits casually rumbling in our own backyard.
Sometimes we need artists to remind us of the wonders around us that remain hidden in plain sight. Through their peculiar filters, something as familiar as The Falls can become strange and wondrous again.
The bifurcated waterfall has always held a mysterious allure, from long before the first written accounts of the Falls in the early 17th century to today, when photographers send drones soaring across the Niagara River to capture new vistas.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery's compact exhibition "Picturing Niagara," takes viewers on a three-century tour of the falls through the eyes of artists.
The show, organized by curator Holly E. Hughes, is meant to mark the gallery's recent acquisition of Stephen Hannock's large-scale painting "The Great Falls at Dawn for Xu Bing." That piece, hung across from Frank C. Moore's domineering 1995 painting of a chemical-drenched Falls from a tourist's perspective, provides what at first seems to be an enchanting view of the Falls at dusk.
Hannock's piece, true to his practice, comes across as a straightforward landscape from more than five feet away. Get closer, though, and you can see Hannock's thoughts -- some touching, most inane -- scrawled across the crepuscular cliffs. Along the rocks, he has pasted in tiny pictures of inspiration for the piece, including Moore's more thematically loaded painting and a massive metal sculpture of birds by Chinese sculptor Xu Bing.
It's unclear what Hannock's slapdash journal entries on topics as diverse as his eye tumor and Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster (which the artist misspells as Dykstra) add to the viewer's experience. They seem only tangentially connected to the subject, a great natural wonder that other artists in the exhibition explore with more impact and finesse.
These include early romantic landscapes concerned, as many artists of the 19th century were, with reminding many of their relative insignificance compared to the great movements of nature. To that end, paintings by Thomas Pickering Rossiter and some anonymous artists of the era depict the falls as immensities, with human figures -- both natives and interlopers -- shown as barely visible insects crawling helplessly along the rocks or gazing into the river.
Two photographs by master John Pfahl from his "Niagara Sublime" series, shot with a telephoto lens Pfahl used to thrust his perspective into the water, attempt to capture the sheer violence and terror-inducing power of the falls. They are extraordinary compositions, even if they do not achieve their stated aim.
A print by the famed illustrator Harry Fenn, one of many in the Albright-Knox collection, gets across the defining visual paradoxes of the Falls: the meditative calmness of swiftly moving water and its spontaneous eruption into roaring plumes of white froth.
Perhaps because of the strong pictorial associations we hold with the falls, more conceptually adventurous pieces seem to fall flat. Hannock's journal-painting, Moore's somewhat hokey environmental statement and Matts Liderstam's meta 2001 photograph "The Artist is at Niagara Falls," to cite just three examples, come across as using the waterfall as a projection screen for underdeveloped ideas rather than a source of inspiration.
Alas, some of the best recent work inspired by the falls is either too conceptually distant and ambitious (see Alec Soth's stunning "Niagara" series) or too bulky to install for such compact show (see Robert Irwin's cool, calming "Niagara" light installation.).
Even so, Hughes has done an able job packing a surprising range of approaches into a small space. Each of them pushes us out of our comfort zones and away from our apathy, helping us to think about Niagara Falls in ways we're not used to.
Through March 25 in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave. Admission is $9 to $15. Call 882-8700 or visit albrightknox.org.