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Colin Dabkowski on New Exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

When it comes to describing the breadth and volume of activity now swirling within the walls of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, "ambitious" doesn't quite cover it.

From historical deep-dives into the life and work of Buffalo's first African-American architect and the careers of women artists to a sprawling dreamscape of eye-popping oddities in the grand east gallery, it's tough to move an inch in this place without stumbling on something at least modestly mind-bending.

Among the 10 exhibitions currently running (not including Charles Burchfield's permanent studio or the constantly running outdoor projections), here's a brief look at three that stood out on a recent visit:

"Art in Craft Media," through Jan. 24.

Though in some ways based on the murky distinction between craft and art, this biennial exhibition consistently features some of the most innovative uses of materials traditionally thought of as the stuff of craft.

In manifold ways, from the traditional to the unexpected, artists featured in this show have turned glass, wood, fabric, even furniture into transporting pieces of art that extract you from the humdrum of your daily life and into a playground of the imagination. It's a bit like wandering into a Dr. Seuss book, with a few extra flickers of darkness to keep you tethered to the floor.

Visitors first encounter Maude White's "Wild," a 2015 paper cutout of absurd intricacy and the product of many hours with an expertly wielded X-ACTO knife. It sits beside a bed of gorgeously formed black flowers made from old bicycle tires by Ani Hoover, whose mastery of her chosen "craft" media continues in the main exhibition room with an enormous (and ever-expanding) ball of multicolored yarn.

Elsewhere in the sprawling show, highlights range from the magnificently strange to the simple and satisfying. In the first category, it's hard to avert your eyes from Ben and Delaney DeMott's David Lynch-inspired living room tableau, or from Jozef Bajus' virtuosic "Black Composition," which seems to vibrate with dark energy. In the second, William Keyser's pleasing wood-and-glass sculpture "Fetch" seems to be an abstract reduction of an "Architectural Digest" photo shoot into two essential elements.

"Through These Gates: Buffalo's First African American Architect, John E. Brent," through March 27.

Chances are you've never heard of John E. Brent, the first professional African-American architect to emerge from Buffalo. This important exhibition, which welcomes viewers with Chris Siano and Patrick Robideau's excellent reproduction of the iron gates Brent designed for the Buffalo Zoo, sets out to change that.

Because none of Brent's major work remains -- his proudest achievement, the YMCA building on Michigan Avenue, was demolished in the '70s -- exhibition organizer Nancy Weekley and her team had to construct a portrait of the little-known architect from primary source materials and architectural plans. And they've done yeoman's work.

From Brent's original architectural drawings for landscaping at the Buffalo Zoo and for the wading pool at Martin Luther King Park to newspaper clippings and documents charting his various jobs for architectural firms in Buffalo and Washington, D.C., visitors emerge with a definite sense of the man's impact -- faded as it now is -- on the landscape of the city.

"A-Z: An Historical Survey of Women Artists," through March 27

Gifted oil painter Coni Minneci knows well that she stands on the shoulders of giants.

To honor that fact, she created a remarkable series of tributes to great female artists throughout history, each portrayed, unlikely as it may sound, as a still life featuring a pear. For Cindy Sherman, she paints a half-eaten pear sitting on top of a Tops receipt, a reference to Sherman's landmark "Fairy Tales and Disasters" series.

For pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, she painted a pear violently penetrated by three screws, writing in her accompanying statement that she "did to the pear what I believe she would think the History of Art has done to women."

And on it goes, each gorgeously rendered still life a thoughtful and sometimes quietly subversive reflection on a woman who altered the trajectory of art in ways big and small. This series, though exhibited several times before, is a remarkably successful and moving body of work, whose lasting power comes from its smart use of traditional means to sometimes radical ends. It's not to be missed.

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