Lacking the city funds that were available in years past, the Kingston Sculpture Biennial has been shrinking. This year’s show was the smallest yet, with 24 pieces clustered along lower Broadway and the Rondout waterfront. Unfortunately, it’s now even smaller, since vandals destroyed Tatana Kellner’s piece, Blue Line, consisting of a long strip of hand-woven blue plastic bags positioned over a row of bricks on Company Path, just a week after the opening, on July 16.
This year’s exhibition, which is up until Oct. 31, also got a late start compared to years past, and the opening was lightly attended. Some participants blamed the lack of publicity — the Arts Society of Kingston, which is the sponsor, did not send out a press release in advance of the opening. One veteran artist, who’s participated in three previous biennials, said he was saddened at the declining quality of the show, due to the lack of adequate funding. “Each one is more disappointing than the one before,” he said. This artist also complained about the nonfunctioning website: “They ask us for pictures and resumes and links, and then nothing happens,” he said. (As of press time, the website —www.ksb2011.org — was up, although most of the artist links were nonfunctioning, and there was no accompanying history about the biennial, leaving journalists in the dark.)
Yet, despite the sense of deflation and disappointment felt by some, there is still much to value in the exhibition, with the best pieces lending interest to the waterfront and Rondout cityscape. If it weren’t for the support of the three sponsors — Ulster Savings Bank, Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union, and JK’s Wine & Liquors — the exhibition wouldn’t have happened at all, and the city (which only four years ago was recognized in Business Week as one of the 10 best places for artists in the entire U.S.) would have been much the poorer. The sponsors collectively contributed $2,050, which paid for the signs that accompany each piece, a few of the pedestals, a small fee to the curator, the opening reception and a few other odds and ends, according to Vindora Wixom, executive director of ASK.
Entitled “Insight/Onsite,” this year’s Biennial was curated by Bob Johnson, an artist and past participant in the biennial and ASK board member. The artists range from recent MFA graduates to retirees who’ve dedicated themselves to art-making. They hail from as far away as Saratoga Springs and Westchester County. The pieces collectively represent a range of materials, styles and forms, which alternatively lounge on the ground (Lucjan Nowinski’s Cement Relief, the map-like parts of which sprawl on the grass in front of the Downtown Heritage Visitors’ Center); invade the streetscape (Bennett Wine’s Man in the Middle, a plywood structure perched on the Broadway median whose form echoes the neighboring street lights); dangle from a window (Kurt Swanson’s Blue Chain, a string of hand-blown glass pieces that adorns the entrance above the visitors’ center like a resplendent Baroque earring); float in the Rondout Creek (Marisa DePaola’s construction of corks, The Floating Island); and mimic viewing scopes (Tess Elliot’s Rondout in Stereoview, consisting of three Plexiglass viewing stations along the Rondout walkway offering an altered stereoscopic vision of the surrounds).
In sync with their waterfront location, some of the pieces incorporate a maritime theme. For example, Franz Heigeimeir’s large geometric construction, Nautica, evokes rotating sails, with its white, triangular forms, jazzed up with painted blue and red circles, spare as shadows. Patty Mooney’s piece, Navigating Change, also relates to the age of sail and its shift into the industrial era of steam and steel: a fin-like form constructed of strips of balsa, screwed together and delicately torn, sails above a steel blade inserted into a black wooden base, which skids above a concrete base, shaped like a parting wake, as if the sea had turned to stone. The piece combines the geometric and organic and simultaneously suggests movement in time and space. “I used contrasting materials that try to visually evoke or speak to a person about a struggle or push, something you have to break through,” said the artist. “We all live like that — trying to move forward and make the most of being.”
Mooney, who lives in Hurley and teaches art at Saugerties High School — she was down in the Rondout smoothing out the concrete base the other day — said the piece was very difficult to construct. Most of her work is smaller and more organic in conception, whereas this work required a high level of precision. “I called a lot of friends,” said Mooney. “One is a motorcycle mechanic who helped me with the construction.”
Other pieces evoked the industrial past of the waterfront. Susan Togut’s installation, Waves of Transformation, consists of a semi-circular seating area cobbled out of old boat parts and other found materials, including a large cleat, patches of tin ceilings, and a dramatically upended prow. The piece is accented with chunks of native bluestone, and the circular area of gravel, surrounding a central assemblage, suggests a sacred space — echoing the Healing Circle that Togut constructed in the vicinity a number of years ago, which was dedicated to cancer patients (decorated hubcaps from that piece are recycled into this one).
R. Jane Bouchard’s spare Circle Study, located near the monument in Gallo Park, summons up the city’s industrial ghosts with its bands of rusted steel. Bouchard, who also utilizes found materials, said the sphere was one of three she constructed of materials rescued from an industrial dump. Three slightly different metal circles are welded together; more space than matter, it’s as light as a seedpod blown by the wind, the rusting metal strips suggesting the grace of meticulous hand-drawn lines.
Bouchard’s husband Paul also has contributed a piece, which occupies the prime position at the base of the Broadway median in front of Mariner’s Harbor. Entitled Converging Arcs #7, the white-painted aluminum sculpture conjures up David Smith, with its falling-in-motion arrangement of solid and cut-out geometric forms. (Bouchard, prior to his and R. Jane’s retirement to Saratoga Springs, was an artist for the federal government, creating viewgraphs on how to rescue astronauts from the space shuttle and illustrations designed for briefing admirals. The couple’s connection with Washington continues, with three of R. Jane’s pieces recently included in a group show at the Smithsonian.)
Casey Schwarz’s City Backscape makes a kind of diagram of an urban landscape, albeit carved in sumptuous Vermont marble. On one side of the block of marble, he’s carved a Klee-like geometric cityscape, while on the other he’s incised curving forms suggesting a figure. The piece, in its repose and generalized forms, relates to Henry Moore’s lounging figures and Matisse’s series of sculpted reliefs of nude backs.
Forming a kind of gateway to the show is Bennett Wine’s Man in the Middle, a looming plywood structure poised on the Broadway median papered with blown-up photos of the surrounding streetscape. At the top of the trapezoidal structure is a clunky, crucifix-like form depicting a man bending backwards, two clusters of rocks (or rather, photographs of rocks) dangling on strings hung from his arms. Wine, who lives in Westkill, said he wanted the figure to evoke Fiddler in the Roof, and the tragi-comic theme plays throughout the piece, which magnifies both what’s wonderful and mundane about the surrounding objects, the material itself (it’s called bus wrap) signifying an in-your-face commercialism.
Curator Johnson said he spent a lot of time meeting with the artists and walking the waterfront. Several of the installations were particularly challenging and dependent on extra volunteers. Artist Eitan Dor, for example, discovered he couldn’t transport a forklift over the Rhinecliff Bridge from his home and studio in Clinton Corners, which was required for the installation of his piece, consisting of two enormous metal yellow letters reading “If.” After asking around, Johnson contacted Ken Darmstadt, owner of Darmstadt Overhead Doors, in Kingston, who donated the forklift plus the labor of himself and two other guys. “He was a godsend,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s two nephews also chipped in, spending an afternoon screwing together the plywood for the Wine piece. Yet another piece that posed a challenge was Swanson’s. Johnson helped Swanson hang his string of delicate hand-blown glass pieces from the faux, fiberglass-lined attic perched on an extension ladder, but it took a while, since Swanson couldn’t stay in the attic more than 10 minutes at a time.
The curator said he was sick about the trashing of Kellner’s piece. Shortly before it was vandalized, he had added a statement, at the artist’s request, to the identifying sign. The statement noted that the piece, which Kellner had been crocheting since January, referred both to the disappearance of print media (referenced by the woven blue bags, which were used as wraps for The New York Times) and rural roads, which appear as blue lines on road maps. He said Company Path had been the ideal location, since the hill extended the visitor’s view of the long blue strip of woven plastic. “I was so impressed with the amount of rebirth going on in the area,” Johnson said. “Even late at night people are out and about. It’s such a heavily trafficked area, it was a shock to me.”
Although he lives in Stone Ridge — he is the art director at SUNY Ulster — Johnson said he plans to visit the Rondout often to keep an eye on things. He’s also suggested holding a closing party, which hopefully would attract a bigger crowd and make up for the lackluster opening. Wixom said ASK also planned to publish a catalog of the show sometime later in the summer. Meanwhile, free maps are available at the ASK building, enabling people to take a self-guided tour. Hopefully this year’s event won’t mark the end of cultural tradition that’s contributed mightily to Kingston’s reputation as an arts destination.