Collage degrees

Detail of collage by Wayne Montecalvo

Cut and Paste,” the regional juried art exhibition that opened at SUNY-Ulster’s Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery last week, is bright, bold and jazzy, a rich syncopation of shapes, color, texture and conceptual approaches. While its materials tend toward the traditional paper, wood and found objects, the show represents a blossoming of the possibilities that have developed from the artform’s Cubist roots and dry, understated aesthetic of tinted paper and torn newspaper.

Fifty artists representing four counties contributed work, culled from some 130 submissions, according to curator Michael Asbill. Asbill said that his initial intention to put together a spare, elegant show featuring 20 or so artists was discarded when he went through the submissions and discovered so much inventiveness. “I decided to admit everything that made sense in terms of fresh and bright and interesting,” he said.

The exhibition strikes just the right note between liveliness and order, with the cacophony of styles orchestrated by Asbill (co-director the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art, a/k/a KMoCA) into subtle arias that never become academic. They range from the purely aesthetic to the improvisational to a focus on craft to the collective (two contributors set up a table with magazines and glue, enabling visitors to make their own artwork).

The collages of Stephen Niccolls, a quartet of abstract, Modernist works that come closest to classical formalism, made the cut because of their vivid, acidic color harmonies, Asbill said. On close inspection, tonal areas consist of ballpoint-pen scribbles, an off-the-cuff gesture that undercuts any suggestion of preciousness. At the other end of the scale is Norm Magnusson’s relic of 1990s urban New York, a cowhide-sized hunk of encrusted billboards ripped from the side of a building. Set within a large black frame, which suggests both the after-hours provenance of the East Village club scene as well as the funereal, the remnant has been picked away at over the years, as if it were a noisome scab. This blackened memento, its juxtaposition of references to Grace Jones (in huge, smoldering letters) and Jesse Helms evocative of a specific time and place, is a battered survivor, a stand-in for memory itself, which makes no concessions to aesthetics. Yet upon closer inspection, one observes that the artist has peeled away sections in a pattern of polka-dotlike holes: an aesthetic dance that is the inverse of Niccolls’ ballpoint-pen squiggles.

A work that initially might strike one as inane and anti-art is Chris Victor’s candy-colored assemblage of foam blocks, wooden rods and colored string. The contraption, which suggests the messiness and free-form creativity of a marvelous, unwieldy ray-gun cobbled together by a kid, is exquisitely well made on closer inspection. It subverts Modernist orthodoxy, in which the purism of abstraction and style is diluted in the service of an outlandish lifesaving gadget.

Falling in the craft category, though not at all alike, are Polly Law’s piece, an assemblage of two puppet-like female figures having a fetchingly storybook appeal; Michael Lalicki’s sculpture of a ship, an elliptical framework fashioned of wood pieces with a cargo of Lotto tickets – an allusion to the actual “ship of dreams” for the vast majority of ticket-buyers; and Wayne Montecalvo’s two miniature building façades, theatrical set pieces whose cardboard-and-wood walls, adorned with faded billboards, powerfully evoke the run-down street of a poor Latin American or African city. The exquisite, symmetrical wood and mixed-media assemblages of Sarah Mecklem and Astrid Fitzgerald convey a sacred force, their solidly constructed forms pointing to allusive mysteries. While the abstract pattern formed by the arrangement of inset woods and metal hardware of Mecklem’s artwork is imbued with formal tension, the inclusion of a bird’s nest, inset with a stone, and copper piping in Fitzgerald’s more austere piece suggests a hidden narrative.

The more purely pictorial work includes Mariella Bissone’s vivid blue-and-white mountainscape, whose vast scale of glacial ice is conveyed in the inclusion of a cluster of tiny, barely suggested buildings, and Lora Shelley’s wistful, brooding girl, submerged in a pastel atmosphere. Also suggestive of a painterly palette and touch is Judith Hoyt’s neutral-toned composition Lost Direction, whose allusion to figures and maps harmonizes with abstracted geometric forms. Metamorphosis, the dreamlike conjunction of unlike subject matter and the automatic drawing of the Surrealists are evoked in Joy Taylor’s graphic Scapegoat, in which a flower-shaped floating organism, its internal organs exposed, has actual strands of hair, resembling delicate graphite lines. Jenny Lee Fowler’s twin collages of moon rocks placed in bird’s nests on a Wedgwood-blue background conflate the cosmological and the natural, stylistically combining astronomical photography with botanicals. Gisselle Potter’s whimsical, slyly subversive depictions of 1950s-era females dreaming of diamonds or perched on a piece of pie express both the retro charm and domestic claustrophobia of the period, down to the faded paper and homey frame.

Reflective tape and contact paper, the most common of materials, were used to construct an aerial view of a mysterious, gleaming island by Lynn Itzkowitz, while Tona Wilson’s video, Money Talks, is an amazingly constructed animated collage that tells a narrative of illness and financial disaster; the visual inventiveness and charm of her figurative creations keep one watching the full five minutes. If there is a star of the show, however, judging from the crowd clustered around the exhibiting table, it would be Valerie Johnston’s library of tiny collaged books, a collection of irresistible titles. Flipping through Summer Rental Flora II, Big Stupid Ugly New Houses, Poison Mushrooms, Barbie Says, Demons (dragonflies and other bugs bearing tiny human heads, à la The Fly) and Devil Horns is but one of the many highpoints of “Cut and Paste,” which is not just thought-provoking but also full of surprises and delightfully fun.

“Cut and Paste,” Monday-Friday through April 19, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5113, www.sunyulster.edu.

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