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Feeling blue (and white, and gray, and green) in Buffalo

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Glass activism

Private Visions, Utopian Ideals: The Art of Howard Ben Tré is an ambitious exhibition including sculptures, works on paper, and a selection of drawings, models, and photographs of Ben Tré's public art projects. And although the exhibition space is relatively small, the work, for the most part, is not.

Patrons of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library should be familiar with his Ring of Knowledge: Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, Void; visitors to the Albright-Knox might recognize a pair of cast-glass benches, Chazen Bench I and II. (Although currently unavailable for viewing due to the renovation of the library, the Ring of Knowledge installation will re-emerge in October as part of a planned display to attract "new and diverse audiences as well as high caliber lecturers." For more information, see www.buffalolib.org/events/centralconstruction)

Thirteen years ago, I was initially seduced by Ben Tré's early cast forms --- such as the Dedicants, Primary Vessels, and Basins --- for their elegant evocations of Egypto-Greek architecture as well as for being quietly contemplative totems that seem to celebrate life and its energies. They were then, and many still are, large, watery green forms. Given the extremely high heat of the molten glass, it can take months for one of these sculptures to cool. And when it does, it's not uncommon for there to be a little crack here, a fissure there: what Ben Tré calls "controlled accidents." He accepts them with all the aplomb of a non-Western philosopher.

Indeed, with influences far and wide combined with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright and his famous Arts and Crafts predecessor William Morris, Ben Tré's public and private sculptures reflect a Wrightian respect for the nature of materials. That said, what's new or noteworthy about this current exhibit is the opportunity it provides to grasp and thus more fully appreciate the depth and breadth of Ben Tré's commitment to urban planning, to social and "utopian ideals."

Chief among these ideals is how to create a public work of art that somehow becomes part of or contributes to the community space it inhabits. For Ben Tré, he was able to take the meditative quality of his glass forms when experienced privately --- say, in the inner sanctum of the art gallery --- and transport it outside to the middle of the hustle and bustle of a busy bank plaza, a dying city center, a public library.

These kinds of projects reveal "Ben Tré's belief that city dwellers deserve places both for gathering and communal interaction and for private, quiet contemplation," as the catalogue says. You'll notice that the very gallery in which these quietly majestic glass forms and their artistic companions temporarily reside is in the midst of a quiet urban neighborhood ripe for interaction.

--- Heidi Nickisher

Private Visions, Utopian Ideals: The Art of Howard Ben Tré through July 24 at the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, 1 Martha Jackson Place, Buffalo. Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. 716-829-3754, www.ubartgalleries.buffalo.edu/UBartGalleries.html

Believing is seeing

The end of painting was proclaimed (for the second time) in the 20th century with two artists' monochromatic paintings. Ad Reinhardt made a series of black paintings in the late '50s and early '60s on which he left no discernable mark, and Alexander Rodchenko made three paintings using only one primary color on each. "It's all over," he said.

But a collection of monochrome paintings is included in the The Natalie and Irving Forman Collection, a recent donation to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery. And since those pieces range in date from the mid-'50s to 2003, it would seem that painting is far from over.

Instead of an end, monochromatic art can actually be seen as one of the many new beginnings in painting. Of all the modern approaches to painting, monochromes really need to be seen in person. No reproduction will ever show the subtleties that are involved in producing these intricate objects. And although meanings are definitely present, there is no "picture." What has to be seen is the painting itself in all its glorious object-ness.

Painting is the picture. These works are quiet and contemplative, and they need time to be absorbed. What holds this collection together is an extreme love of the beautiful object juxtaposed alongside beautiful, albeit subtle, ideas.

Rodney Carswell's Two Grays and Orange Around an Empty Rectangle is oil and wax on canvas that "frames" a space on the wall of the museum. In other words, the empty, white wall becomes a monochrome "painting" surrounded by a three-color frame. The question is, which is the art: the frame, the wall, or the concept? (Told you it was subtle.)

Meanwhile, three paintings by Rudolf de Crignis are intensely blue. Upon closer examination, you realize that the blues are all different. Crignis's process is to apply as many as 40 layers of oil paint to the canvas. Turns out most of these colors aren't blue at all but orange, red, and silver, which in the end give the proper luminosity to the coats of blue on top. The surface is so amazingly smooth and unblemished that it seems as if this work couldn't possibly be on canvas, much less made by a human hand. But it is.

Light Stone Veil,an acrylic painting on aluminum by James Howell, is a subtle gradation of gray --- lighter at the top and darkening towards the bottom. You get a feeling of staring into a dense, gray fog. As such, and although there's no pictorial reference, the painting is eerily representational.

Joseph Marioni's White Painting at first seems like a joke because it looks anything but white. In fact, it's actually a creamy orange color. But the point is that Marioni wants us to look closer. And when you do, that's when you realize that the orange actually lies below a translucent white coating.

And don't miss John Beech's Large Elmer Painting. The materials may surprise you.

--- Alex Miokovic and Heidi Nickisher

The Natalie and Irving Forman Collection, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo. Hours: Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10, $8 students and seniors, free admission Friday 3 to 10 p.m. 716-882-8700, www.albrightknox.org

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