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Colin Dabkowski Reviews Three Exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Burchfield Penney shows explore design, water and war 
By Colin Dabkowski in the Buffalo News 
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 “Charles E. Burchfield: By Design,” through Jan. 26.

Where the aims and ideals of art and design meet, there you will find Charles Burchfield, the eminent watercolorist who had one foot in the art world when he was working as a designer and at least a few toes in the design world when he was working as an artist.

The three-person team behind this exhibition in the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Burchfield galleries – curator Tullis Johnson and graphic and digital designers Brian Grunert and Kyle Morrisey – have spent plenty of time in this fertile but vaguely defined terrain themselves. And their show, the latest in a promising new series of Burchfield-based explorations into subjects like the weather or the cosmos, is a friendly invitation into their own fascination with the subject.

On the walls, you can trace Burchfield’s development from aspiring artist to designer to full-fledged artistic visionary. Each phase of Burchfield’s career flowed seamlessly into the next. And, as this exhibition ably demonstrates, he never let go of his design sensibility – his appetite for symmetry and organization – even in his most fantastical paintings.

The exhibition contains several fine and often wonderfully strange examples of Burchfield’s early design work, from a spooky poster advertising a 1912 Thanksgiving dance to an exceedingly odd triptych of naturalistic Christmas trees juxtaposed with abstract, geometric tree forms that seem to draw from Native American art.

Later, after Burchfield moved to Buffalo and got a design job with the M.H. Birge and Sons wallpaper company, his design skills improved along with his ambitions. By the time he quit the company to paint full time in 1929, he had figured out the rough size and scope of his life’s project – to use his painting as a route for himself and his viewers to the beating heart of the natural world.

Still, as the curators have smartly illustrated, Burchfield’s fight to “combine pictorial qualities with conventionalization” continued to vex him throughout his life. But out of that vexation emerged some of his most interesting paintings, which seem vibrate with both the chaos of nature and its tendency toward supreme order.

“Ben Perrone: Illusion/Delusion,” through Jan. 2.

Buffalo artist Perrone, a veteran of the Korean War and an outspoken critic of America’s involvement in subsequent conflicts, has created a quiet and immense memorial to U.S. servicemen who died during the Iraq War up to 2009.

The installation, which hangs in the corner of the Burchfield Penney’s largest gallery, consists of 4,300 black bags, each one representing a member of the armed forces who perished as a result of the conflict. They’re suspended from the high ceiling by strings in the form of an inverted pyramid. Perrone seems to be suggesting, and it’s hard to disagree with him, that those lost lives are worthy of far greater memorials than are being constructed or envisioned for them.

With this work – powerful because of the simplicity of its concept and execution – Perrone is asking us to understand the totality of what was lost. This is next to impossible for civilians to do, but Perrone at least pushes us toward empathy, however uncomfortable that push may make us.

“I want people to understand that each one of these bags, that’s a life,” Perrone said in a video playing on a loop near the installation. “A wasted life that could have been lived.”

“Colleen Ludwig: Shiver,” through June 22.

This installation in the second-floor sculpture galleries doesn’t look like much at first glance. It’s just three white walls forming an open room, illuminated by fluorescent lights. But once you step inside, you’ll hear a series of clicks above your head. Seconds later, little rivulets of water start to flow down the white fabric walls of the structure, snaking across the surface in mesmerizing and unpredictable patterns.

The impressive contraption is technologically complex, containing 35 infrared sensors that detect human movement and 71 valves that dispense water to the appropriate space. That is, wherever you are standing.

While the installation is lots of fun to play around with, the concept behind it as presented in the wall text seems muddled. It has something to do with the importance of water to the human body and the way art has evolved to be interactive. Both of those are decent intellectual starting points. But the text – and the installation, too – stop short of a complete thought.