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Burchfield Penney explores Burchfield's 'Golden Year,' shows off new gifts

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Burchfield Penney Art Center, whose director, Anthony Bannon, departed earlier this year after his second stint at the helm, is charging ahead in his absence with a series of compelling exhibitions.

Here's a look at three well worth your time:

If you're feeling the least bit unproductive, by all means avoid Nancy Weekly's exhibition about one life-changing year in the life of the great watercolor painter Charles E. Burchfield. In this characteristically engrossing show, Weekly transports us to 1917, when Burchfield returned to his hometown of Salem, Ohio after graduating from the the Cleveland Institute of Art.

As is the case for many young college grads, Burchfield looked upon the familiar surroundings of his home with new eyes. The fields and houses of his town shed their familiar look and took on new and strange vibrations. The force of nature seemed to seep into everything, from a solitary shed standing in a field to a dark bedroom where brooding figures peer out from the shadows.

"I was back home in the town and countryside where I had grown up, which were now transformed by the magic of an awakened art outlook," Burchfield wrote in his journal. Weekly shows us how he went on to transform them even further.

The paintings Burchfield churned out in 1917 represent some of the most fascinating of his career. One is "Sun-glow on a Rainy Day," a typically Burchfieldian scene of an abandoned shed in an overgrown field. An absurdly large, white sun, barely perceptible against the brown-grey sky, illuminates a structure that seems to vibrate with energy.

It was also in this year that Burchfield invented his "conventions for abstract thought," a series of strange symbols representing concepts like "imbecility" or "aimless brooding" that he used throughout his career. These appear in "Salem Bedroom Studio," a scene of lonely terror from February of 1917, and in his similarly creepy "Pine-Knot House," which depicts a wooden structure featuring strange whorls and shapes that seem to spell out a warning in some ancient language.

Many other curiosities -- and a masterpiece or two -- line the walls in this exhibition, which traces the trajectory of one of America's great painters in an entirely new way.

"Michael Bosworth: The House Has Gone Down and the Lamps Are Out," through Oct. 29

If Burchfield's dread-inducing scenes and symbols aren't disconcerting enough for you, take a walk into this four-channel video and sculptural installation by Michael Bosworth. It asks a fascinating question: Why are we so terrified of abandoned houses in the middle of the woods?

In his lengthy introductory text, Bosworth draws heavily on James Agee and Walker Evans classic work of narrative journalism "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which explores the essential disconnect between educated, urban Americans and their working-class counterparts in the rural south.

In order to explore why city folk approach rural environments with a sense of fear and distrust, he took his camera to the woods in the middle of the night and found an abandoned house. He then used the age-old photographic technique of "light-painting" -- using long exposures and walking around with a flashlight -- to create eerie, glowing images of the house surrounded by trees. The viewer stands amid skinny sculptures of trees, taking in Bosworth's flashing images and a skittering soundtrack. All of it seems designed to activate your brain's fear center and make you forget you're in a bourgeois art space.

You'll want to leave, but you'll feel compelled to stay.

In the end, Bosworth's installation falls somewhat short of achieving the impact what Agee prescribed in his famous preamble, but it is a fascinating attempt that leaves a lasting impact. Then again, it was a tall order:

"If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here," Agee wrote. "It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food, and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game."

"50 in 50: Fifty Works for Fifty Years," through Sept. 24

Time is ticking on this exhibition, the century-spanning swan song of former director Anthony Bannon. The center is selling it as "a testament to our cultural history," which it is, displaying recent acquisitions representing each decade of the 20th and 21st centuries, and a couple from the 1800s as well.

Light on context, inaccurately titled (it features 62 works) and effectively themeless, the show over-privileges the art-world insider. Still, it contains many gems worth considering.

Among them is Robert Longo's installation "Death Star," which features a hulking sphere made of outward-pointing bullets and suspended by chains from a scaffold of steel beams -- newly relevant in nuclear sort of way. Paintings, each containing multitudes, by UB stalwarts Harvey Breverman and Seymour Drumlevitch watch each other from separate walls, testifying to the deep academic tradition of Buffalo painting. And a 1991 piece by Peter Stephens after a moody George Inness painting is a revelation, giving new understanding to his later and more cerebral abstractions.

As in any such scattershot collection, other works are less impressive. What's most impressive is the source from which the project emerged: Bannon's erudite enthusiasm, his ability to make the old feel new and the new seem ancient, and his commitment to build an institution dedicated to curiosity.

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