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2006 Rochester Biennial

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2006 Rochester Biennial is on display at the MemorialArtGallery, 500 University Avenue, through September 10. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday til 9 p.m. $7; $5 seniors and students; children 6-18, $2. Reduced general admission, $2, Thursdays 5-9 p.m. 473-7720, mag.rochester.edu.

Celebrating the heroism of modern life

You know it must be summer when the MemorialArtGallery turns to and champions the art and artists of our upstate region. Currently on view is the second outing for the Rochester Biennial, an exhibition that highlights the work of a small selection of invited artists.

Like the inaugural Biennial, the curatorial team is again comprised of Grant Holcomb, director; Marie Via, director of exhibitions; and Marlene Hamann-Whitmore, curator of exhibitions. The team continues to emphasize a commitment to excellence. But what is really interesting to note is how the use of metaphor not only also occurs again in terms of a kind of connection that runs through all of the work, but also how the seemingly disparate now becomes related. That's no easy task to accomplish when you have six artists working in six entirely different media.

Consider the work of Michael Rogers, a faculty member of the School for American Crafts at RIT. Regardless of whether you enter the designated "special exhibitions" space from doors on the east --- in which case you'll first encounter the large-scale woodcuts of Phillia Yi --- or if you come in from the south, where you'll be immediately confronted by Rogers' installation, the work looms large. The impression is not a "hit-you-over-the-head" kind of bombast, but rather more like you've just come upon a sleeping giant. You want to tread quietly, slowly, while you contemplate all that surrounds you.

And what surrounds you in this dedicated space are seven works that, although created independent of one another over the course of nearly a decade, come together as a unified whole. It is a space where you can --- to paraphrase Rogers --- learn "vicariously through an [artist's] experience and creativity." For example, "The Flock" is an elegantly poetic wall arrangement of eight cast-glass framed images of birds in flight. There is something wistful about them. They seem to evoke another time, another place...a modern-day memento mori.

This theme of remembrance and longing, or better yet, the bittersweet reminder of the transitory nature of one's existence, is evoked throughout Rogers' work. But it is also discernable elsewhere in the exhibition, such as in the slyly humorous work of Allen Topolski or the meditative photographs of Carl Chiarenza.

Topolski collects domestic appliances, mostly ones from the 1950s and '60s, and alters them in ways that render them functionless yet vaguely familiar. Does "Part of an Old Future" make ice cream, dry hair, or just zip around like R2D2, helping out the happy homemaker when the need arises? Sometimes the artist has made multiple alterations while other times hardly anything has changed at all --- maybe just a switch is added or the orientation of the object is altered in such a way that masks its original use. For example, a pair of foot massagers are now wall apparatuses that teeter between begging us to ask "what do these do?" and simply existing as something that quite naturally just belongs on the wall, like a picture.

While these "faux appliances" may offer a promise of increased domestic leisure through the help of technology, and feature titles such as "A Tool for Making of a Happy Home" or "Living the Dream," they also suggest a future that has never arrived. This is a darker side of the social and the private to which Topolski also alludes.

There is a dark side as well in the photographs of Carl Chiarenza. Collages consisting of paper, film, foil, and other materials have been transformed into events of light and form. Indeed, they are transformations in silver, gelatin silver, and are now strikingly beautiful black and white photographs. While it may seem that the very mention of "black and white" precludes the use of color, these photographs, representing selections from two recent series, Peace Warriors and Solitudes, are astoundingly rich in a range of tonalities. They are anything but "black and white."

In their fragmentation and ephemerality, the images evoke a sense that something is lost or in the process of being lost --- a passing. Each exudes a requiem-like silence appropriate for the passing of a hero or the remembrance of an age of heroes, perhaps the very "heroes" Chiarenza refers to in the parenthetical titles of the Peace Warriors series (e.g., Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Samurai).

Here, warriors and heroes dream of a future that is at times unattainable but must be fought for so as to find a Utopia that is a real place. Certainly Sancho Panza, the realist and loyal servant, understood that warriors like his master Don Quixote fight for all of us in his belief in fantasy and beauty and solitude. In the hands of Chiarenza, the photographs express an evocative tension between light and dark that metaphorically longs for the solitude of the hero/warrior/ individual/artist.

Was it not Charles Baudelaire who said that an artist should celebrate the heroism of modern life? Happily for us, all of the artists included in this exhibition do exactly that --- whether quietly contemplative or exuberantly joyous, as in the very colorful quilted constructions of Carol Taylor or the still-life paintings of Sydney Licht.

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