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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

“Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, SUNY New Paltz by Ross Rice

There’s something pretty exciting about an empty gallery: it’s a totally blank slate, full of potential energy, soon to be a vessel for collected expressions representing days or hours of artistic contemplation and creation. It’s also quite a good place for interviewing curators—great reverb qualities. In this case, the gallery is in the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, on the campus of SUNY New Paltz. We’re talking to Dorsky curator, Brian Wallace. The show he is in the process of assembling and planning for this empty space, “Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty,” features 24 Hudson Valley-based artists exploring the time-honored question: What is beauty?

First, Brian explains the title. “‘Beauty’ is ostensibly eternal. But I can’t imagine talking about it without having qualifiers that let you climb up to those rarefied heights. I think about how artists work—they work, and they work hard—and that’s where the ‘exercise’ comes from: practice, repetition, working toward perfection. And ‘unnecessary’ is deliberately provocative. I think a lot of folks think that for something to be beautiful it has to have no function, be useless, or somewhat abstract. And yet, show me someone who, in one way or another, doesn’t believe that we need beauty. Unnecessary? No way. (These words) don’t quite fit together on the same plane; they’re a little contradictory. But that’s all right.”

Over the years, the summer show at the museum has kept a strong local flavor. “I’m really proud that the Dorsky has not ‘outgrown’ the idea of an annual juried show of work by emerging artists from the region. I think it is a great way to connect a bunch of our different audiences to one another through the lens of this show. The range of artistic talent here is just amazing, but there aren’t concentrations of neighborhoods like there are in the New York metropolitan area.” Regional artists meet and recognize their peers; emails and numbers are often exchanged. “It’s amazing when that happens. And so the museum acts—it’s a term Steven Holl uses to refer to architecture—as a social condenser. A lot of stuff goes through, and some of it condenses out.”

“The show performs a service that way. It also shows our really mixed audience—including students, faculty, staff, local New Paltz folks, people from the region, and our tourist audience—what we’ve got. The museum works hard to make what could be just a juried show look really, really good. We spend a lot of time, and our resources, very carefully to make the installation, programs, and promotion of the show really work. It’s on par with all of our other shows. I say that because sometimes people hear ‘juried show’ and they think oh, that’s like a little pro forma thing. Not for us.” Unlike in previous years, the show will be carried over into the fall semester, allowing the student artists to check out some of their possible future peers.

For this summer’s show, Brian started out with the basic idea of “beauty” in his call for artists, keeping it pretty straightforward, waiting to see what artistic interpretations of that particular idea he might receive. He got nearly 250 submissions, way more than for any previous call, opening up numerous possibilities for how to present the elusive subject. From that group, 24 artists were selected, with a wide range of approaches from the obvious to the, well, not so.

“Sometimes there’s a fine line between the not-beautiful and the beautiful…I’m thinking of a couple of photographers in the show. Harry Wilks, whose work has been in this show before, photographs industrial landscapes in this region. (In one photograph) there’s this giant flowering shrub, and out from behind it sticks some inflatable structure. Or it might be a huge pile of some sort of waste, covered in white plastic. Very strange looking objects, and the result is not pretty, but there’s something extraordinarily strange about the juxtapositions. Tanya Marcuse photographs rotting fruit, and these things are just terrifyingly beautiful. Formally, they’re extraordinary, the colors….and you think about what they connote, in terms of decay meaning fertilization and subsequent life. That’s beautiful, right?” (It really is, in a strangely disquieting way.)

“I’d also mention Gilbert J. Plantinga, a photographer in New Paltz. He finds, in even the least likely places, incredible formal and narrative beauty in very unassuming settings. Charles Stein is a well-known poet who has been making photographs for awhile, and he submitted a few which are also just very simple, kind of frozen moments, and he has captured the grace you can find even in prosaic settings. There’s a photograph called Ghost Chairs, which looks like it was taken in some function room somewhere. And it’s an extraordinary image.”

“Every time that I think that there’s a lot of photography in the show, I stop to think about all the amazing paintings and objects. There’s a video work by Phoenicia’s Dave Hebb, which has a—I almost hate to say it—message about our environment and sustainability. It’s a beautiful video of water, welling up from a well. That, to me, was the first hit, yes, as if I needed a reminder, that the world is a beautiful place. All the little simple processes going on all the time are just extraordinary.” SUNY art instructor Amy Cheng’s paintings are “big and they’re bold and they’re subtle. And they are beautiful, exceptionally well-handled, and they refer to all kinds of natural forms through these filters of other representations of those forms, in art and in design. They’re really layered conceptually, really rich.”

Don’t expect any classic Hudson River School type landscapes in this show. “Jane Bloodgood-Abrams is working this kind of tradition of representational painting, but her work pushes the envelope; the paint is so seductive, so beautiful. Many people have gone too far and fallen off the edge, where you’re looking at this completely ridiculous confection. She knows how to see that as a danger in the distance, and walk up to that and stop and say ‘I am not a fool, I am not a cynic…I want my work to look like the real thing, but also to hint and suggest, connote and imply beauty in its own way.’ ”

“Scott Serrano is making a large installation that’s a sort of riff on how intellectual and artistic history might have gone had a few things happened in a different way 150 years ago. If Darwin’s partner had been the one to introduce the idea of ‘natural selection’ in evolution, if a couple of artists who were marginalized for various reasons had become the standard bearers of artistic innovation in the late 19th/early 20th Century…what would art look like? The answers are very interesting…a museum within a museum.”

It’s a subject guaranteed to spark passionate dialogue, because it couldn’t be more, well, subjective. And as everyone has their own personal idea of what beauty really means to them, and those ideas can be pretty strong, some of these images will no doubt challenge definitions. “I assume that one reason why visitors come to the museum is to be stimulated, or inspired, or provoked. Those mean generally the same thing. Hopefully, the museum is a place where people feel comfortable thinking to themselves, or having a dialogue with someone else about it.”


“Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty” will be showing through November 13 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, SUNY New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz,, 845.257.3844. Gallery Talks: Su 7/17, Sa 9/24, Sa 10/15 2 PM. Gallery hours We-Su 11 AM- 5 PM

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