Athens, New York, is as picturesque a river town as you will find in Upstate New York and definitely worth the detour it would involve if going to Hudson from the southern counties. Athens is on the west side of the Hudson about four miles from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and, before the bridge was built, was a busy port town, its ferry service a vital connector between the west and east sides of the Hudson. Now it is a quiet, even sleepy, enclave with tree-lined streets and some pretty fantastic architecture among which is the Athens Cultural Center (ACC), housed in what was formerly a department store on 2nd St.
The ACC includes in its pedigree that, over 150 years ago, the Hudson River School, the country’s first indigenous art movement, was founded in its back yard. In fact, I think Athens might be a bit of a secret so I almost hate to give it away, but right now the ACC is host to a particularly arresting art exhibition, Road Kill, curated by sculptor Tim Watkins. The title of the show was inspired by a poem by Chase Twichell in which the poet writes: “As a kid I always looked/at roadkill close up, and poked/a stick into it. I want to look at death/ with my eyes like my own baby eyes,/ not yet blinded by knowledge.
Watkins is one half of May & Watkins Design, the other half is his partner, painter Carol May, who is also one of the exhibitors. Together they create large-scale sculptures and installations for public spaces, museums, and interpretive centers. Their work is often whimsical and always interesting; the pieces tend to have a kinetic element and, especially when designed for children’s spaces, interactive. Watkins is also on the board of the Athens Cultural Center which is how he came to curate this show. Inspired by the success of last year’s art show at the Center curated by Carrie Feder with the theme of “Ice”, he proposed another thematic show that would, once again, draw on artists local to the Hudson Valley as, he said, “There are a lot of very good artists living around here.” Included among those is the iconic feminist artist Kiki Smith, who has a home in the locality.
In his curator’s statement, Watkins stated that his goal was to invite a group of artists to explore the idea of Road Kill, not necessarily literally, but that possibility was not excluded. He said, “As artists, we are always exploring life and death. Our work is about ourselves, and at the same time we are also dwelling on issues like our own mortality and hoping that our best work will ‘travel’ beyond ourselves in time. I also believe that the artists’ role in society is that of a mirror, reflecting the life and times around us. Road Kill is about our roles, our thoughts and our fears.”
A good deal of the work in the show does explore the consequences of our local faunas’ encounters with us humans, and acts as a salutation to those lives lost as a result and, in some cases, as cautionary tales. Bob Braine cheekily photographs an infant in a skunk costume in the middle of the road with the title: Fur Coat. This is juxtaposed by a companion photograph of a gravid snake destroyed on a similar road, perhaps even the same road, with its eggs and young broken from its body. Both of these photographs are separated by another depicting the corpse of a stork, that legendary bringer of babies, also spread-eagled on the asphalt. Braine raises doubts about the posterity of all of us, animal and human and, maybe, asks us to consider if the young of another species is less precious than our own, as his own; the infant is his own son. The mutilated snake is the one “ick” moment in the show and, yet, given the title, it would be remiss of the curator to protect us viewers from this uncompromising reality. This is road kill after all, and death, in all its bloody horror. By contrast, Portia Munson’s contribution of scanned images of dead birds laid out amid blossoms against her signature deep black backgrounds, are gentle and beautiful.
Claire Lambe contributes an installation that is part of her Rock, Paper, Scissors suite. It consists of a large quantity of origami birds and, of course, scissors and rock. In this piece, Swoop, the rock is symbolized by the glass in the window at which the birds fly (the piece has a forced perspective so is also designed to be viewed through the window from the street). She was inspired in this design by the experience of a flock of starlings swooping in front of her car on the highway. Lambe references the games of chance that all creatures play who dare to leave the nest to venture into the world. The white-on-white feels ghostly; perhaps this is the last flight, or the flight of the dead. Lambe is a multidisciplinary artist who works in a variety of modes including painting.
Kiki Smith and Valerie Hammond have also contributed bird images – Smith’s piece is an owl peering out of the darkness – scratched from an inky black background, and in Hammond’s case, there is an absence, an empty space, made clear by the evocative title: The Bird Has Flown. Smith and Hammond often collaborate and exhibit together but Watkins chose to separate them for this show. The dreamlike quality of Hammond’s piece in nicely echoed in Lambe’s nearby installation, Swoop. By contrast, Fawn Potash’s encaustic, Cape Cod Development, reminiscent of an aerial photograph, offers a macro view of man’s impact on nature in the form of the “development” of the title, oil spills and pollution on a grand and devastating scale.
Claudia McNulty’s poignant drawing of deer hung upside down on a hunter’s carrying stick is a reminder that many wild animals, especially deer, are prey to mankind’s appetites and sport. An all too often unfair contest as the hunter targets his quarry using telescopic sights from the comfort of his vehicle – a method of guerrilla warfare against the unsuspecting that has become the norm by well-heeled nations in the human theater of war. The drawing is overlaid by a Periodic Table from the chemistry lab perhaps to suggest that the deer are now reduced to only the sum of their parts. Or perhaps this relates to the Lyme disease of the title – an unfortunate consequence of our invasion of their territory that has resulted in the vilification of deer. This is a relatively subdued piece for McNulty who is known for her large-scale, edgy works that challenge our complacency with regard to our stewardship of the earth.
Carrie Feder’s installation of miniature drawings in frames that commemorate the demise of various small animals is both touching and witty – the drawings, you discover on close inspection, are not sketches or illustrations of the casualties referenced, but abstract marks and grey shadows. Each drawing includes an inscription on how an animal met its end. The title, Keriyah, refers to the Jewish custom of rending ones’ clothes in grief at the loss of a loved one and, in addition to the framed drawings, the installation includes a box of scraps of black material; visitors are encouraged to take a scrap and pin it to their clothes to mark their participation in the grieving process.
At this time of year, especially when in the countryside, we find ourselves swerving and careening, often risking our own lives, to avoid the kamikaze squirrels, chipmunks, and other small creatures that seem to hide in the undergrowth waiting for a car to appear with which to play a deadly game of chicken. This show reminds us that life is a game of chicken and death is the great leveler. Every night, as we shut our eyes, we take it on faith that we will wake up the following morning, but who is to know for whom the bell will toll that day.
Other visual Artists participating in Road Kill include Matt Bua, Nancy Cohen, Ryder Cooley, Eric Egas, Randy Evans, Jan Harrison, Linda Horn, Cindy Karasek, Kim Mclean, Carol May, Christy Rupp and Linda Weintraub. Performing Artists include Tina Chaden, Frank Cuthbert, Johnnie Moore, and Ryder Cooley, Hazel and the Dustbowl Faeries. The latter will perform in the closing reception on Saturday, August 9. The show runs through August 10
All images are courtesy of the artists.
Featured Image: Portia Munson, Downy Woodpecker:
pigmented ink on rag paper, 22 x 20″ — courtesy of the artist and PPOW Gallery
The Gallery is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 – 4 pm
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