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During its monthly Second Fridays celebration tonight, the Burchfield Penney Art Center will mark the opening of three exhibitions, along with several performances and screenings.

The spotlight this evening will be on Charles Burchfield, whose work makes up the content of two new exhibitions exploring the famed watercolorist's early career. "Charles E. Burchfield: Road in Sunlight and Shadow" in the museum's rotunda gallery features Burchfield's 1936 painting of a country road near East Aurora, while the larger exhibition "Charles E. Burchfield: From Nature" considers the young artist's early decision to become a painter.

"I thought it would be interesting to trace his use of this pathway throughout his work over his career in art. I found that it became a metaphor for his spiritual search," said Burchfield Penney curator Nancy Weekly of the rotunda exhibition. "At least in my reading, the [1936] painting is more than just a pretty road."

In "From Nature," Weekly followed her fascination with Burchfield's debate as a young man over whether to follow his artistic muse or to become a naturalist in the mold of John James Audubon. Though Burchfield obviously chose the former, his dedication to representing the specific oddities of the natural world never waned.

"Early in his life he was toying with the idea of whether he would become a naturalist and use his artistic skills for illustration or whether he would be a full-blown artist with this great love of nature," she said. "There still is this constant pull throughout his life to the natural world and representing it, not necessarily realistically, but our experiences of it, what it feels like."

"From Nature" includes beloved Burchfield paintings like the monumental "Fireflies and Lightning" from 1964-65, "Wind-Blown Asters" from 1951 and "Early Spring" from 1966-67, along with early illustrations and studies.

>'A Shared Frontier'

To mark the War of 1812 Bicentennial, many galleries and museums locally and across North America are mounting special exhibitions. With a wealth of material in its collection that fits the theme, the Burchfield Penney has tossed its hat into the ring with "After 1812: A Shared Frontier." The exhibition, which opened in June and runs through Aug. 26, features a more expansive approach to the ongoing commemoration than other shows more focused on the time period immediately surrounding the war.

"We wanted to do something different, so we focused on the Niagara River," said Tullis Johnson, who co-curated the exhibition with Buffalo State College professor Andrew D. Nicholls. "The Niagara River was the shared frontier in that war."

Artists' representations of the waterway over the decades that followed the war reveal a landscape in constant flux, as industry rose up the river's banks, rapidly grew and gradually fell off as the economic fortunes of the region changed.

The exhibition begins with Hamilton Hamilton's 1876 oil painting "Fletcher's Furnace," a haunting picture that shows the dull glow of flames from the Fletcher Furnace Company from the opposite bank of the Niagara River, viewed through a dense cloud of smoke after dusk. "The flames of industry depicted in the painting evoke the flames of war that wrought devastation on both sides of the border in the War of 1812," the accompanying wall text reads.

The show also includes several paintings by Claire Shuttleworth, who painted more than 100 pictures of Niagara Falls and the river that contains it in a feverish effort to preserve its untrammeled beauty, which Shuttleworth believed was in danger of being destroyed by industry.

Other works include drawings by Amos W. Sangster and two paintings of the Buffalo Harbor by the little-known artist Mildred C. Green.

>Also on tap:

In its Community Gallery, the Burchfield Penney will host "Architecture Exposed," a collection of photographs of Buffalo landmarks and historic industrial sites by members of the Starlight Studio and Gallery. The show, co-sponsored by Starlight, CEPA Gallery and Preservation Buffalo Niagara, opens tonight and runs through Sept. 30.

As part of its Second Fridays event tonight, the art center will also host the following activities:

*A pencil drawing workshop from 4 to 7:30 p.m. for children of all ages.

*Music by The Larkin Plan from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

*A screening of "Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World," a film chronicling the lives of 19th century sailors, from 6 to 9 p.m. The film will be introduced by "After 1812" co-curator Andrew Nicholls and Gordon Laco, who served as the head technical adviser and historical consultant on the film.

*The Silent/Sound Film Festival, presented in collaboration with Squeaky Wheel, with Terry Riley's composition "In C" accompanied by original video works by Patrick Cain, Tony Conrad, Andrew Deutsch, Vince Mistretta, Scott Puccia and several members of Squeaky Wheel's staff and board.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW    

WHAT: Second Fridays    

WHEN: 4 to 10 p.m. today    

WHERE: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.    

TICKETS: $5 to $10    

INFO: 878-6011 or www.burchfieldpenney.org