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This fall, the galleries and museums of Western New York are overflowing with exciting work. There are, at this moment, major, can't-miss exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Burchfield Penney Art Center. But some of the most alluring painting, photography and sculpture on view this season is in smaller spaces, from Indigo and Studio Hart on Allen Street to CEPA Underground Gallery beneath the Market Arcade on Main Street. I've picked out five shows from the swirling activity of Western New York's art world, each one a perfect opportunity to wile away an afternoon:

"TopSpin 10: The Ten Year ?TopSpin Retrospective"

Through Feb. 17

Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University ?(5795 Lewiston Road, Lewiston, 286-8200 ?or www.castellaniartmuseum.org)

Throughout the past decade, the Castellani Art Museum has been an excellent predictor of future artistic success. TopSpin, a series launched a decade ago by former Castellani curator Eric Jackson-Forsberg, has consistently showcased emerging artists just as they have begun to break out and given each of them a needed boost. The retrospective, now running in two large galleries at the Castellani, is a de facto progress report in which each artist who has had a TopSpin show presents one or two pieces of newer work.

The show begins with a mammoth canvas by Jonathan Rogers, the 2009 painting "To the Finish," which shows a ghoulish, elongated figure dashing to some unseen finish line like Pheidippides on corticosteroids. Elsewhere, we see beautiful pieces of small-scale assemblage by Gerald Mead, an acrylic painting of a faceless figure set against an American flag backdrop by Edward Bisone, a wonderfully frenetic painting by Rob Lynch, eerie pinhole photographs by Mark McLoughlin and a gloriously lonely painting of a house floating off into space by Amy Greenan. Tom Hughes' 2008 piece, a little light-box scratched with the phrase "We Will Roar Like Lions and They Will Hear Us For Miles" is a perfect pint-sized declaration of humanity.

Together, the works collected in the retrospective serve as a pretty good sampling of this region's vast and eclectic creative output, from the sort of low-brow strangeness of work by artists like Jason D'Aquino and Tom Holt to the more familiar abstract and representational painting and sculpture. It is an absolute must-see.

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"Expanding Dimensions"

Through Nov. 17

Dolce Valvo Art Center at Niagara County Community College ?(3111 Saunders Settlement Road, Sanborn, 614-5975 or www.niagaracc.suny.edu)

Plenty of accomplished artists have emerged from NCCC, and the college's pint-sized art gallery is now showing work from four of those alumni, each of whom works in a completely different style.

It was news to me that Jack Massing, who makes up one half of the tongue-in-cheek team known as The Art Guys, went to NCCC. The gallery presents a small and eclectic selection of work from across their career, ranging from a hilarious document sending up the overwrought, overthought statements of conceptual artists to a simple and chuckle-worthy drawing of a round, clown nose labeled "funny" and a small section of that nose labeled "less funny." The work in this show merely skims the surface of the Art Guys' output, which, as critic David Hickey wrote, "has always seemed too clear to be sufficiently complicated, yet too protean to be efficiently summed up."

The most compelling reason to venture out to the gallery are two pieces of haunting, magnetic sculpture by Niagara Falls artist Patrick Robideau. One is a small and seemingly mud-caked suitcase suspended by two wires from the gallery ceiling, the front of which has been removed to reveal a meticulous model of a small, similarly mud-caked farmhouse. The other is a sort of massive diorama of a shipwreck encased in a huge glass and wood case, captivating both for its expert construction and for the strange, melancholy feeling it evokes.

The gallery also presents a series of unsettling burnt and modified canvases by gifted local artist Kurt Von Voetsch and several abstract paintings made with "2,800-degree molten iron" by New York City-based painter Michael Dominick that are much more successful as ideas than artworks.

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"As i See It: iPhone Photography by Cathaleen Curtiss"

Through Nov. 26

CEPA Gallery (617 Main St., 856-2717 or www.cepagallery.org)

After most images of artworks in museum and gallery catalogs and exhibition lists, curious readers and art connoisseurs will find a description of the medium the artist used. It could be anything from the classic "oil on canvas" or "watercolor" to the now meaninglessly generic "mixed media." The exhibition list for Curtiss' appealing exhibition of photographs on view in CEPA's Underground Gallery, however, is different. Her media? Four different models of Apple's iPhone. For Curtiss, who moved to Buffalo and took a job at Daemen College in 2010 after serving as director of photography at AOL, the exhibition represents a diary of sorts.

She's taken daily iPhone photos for more than two years, and the results – far better than the blurry, off-kilter and otherwise amateurish shots most of us manage to squeeze from our smartphones – are a pretty good argument that a photographer's best tool is his or her eye.

Her photographs have been manipulated with some iPhone photo apps and printed with a Photoshop border. One depicts a little cluster of tourists in ponchos peering over the side of the Maid of the Mist into the surging falls, another is the afternoon sun breaking through the clouds over Granada, Spain and a third shows passengers whipping through the air during a ride on the Sky Flyer at last summer's Erie County Fair. They are classically beautiful images, each one artfully composed, balanced, uncomplicated and devoid of even the faintest hint of cynicism. This perpetually rosy vision of the world may wear on the more jaded among us after a while. But the show demonstrates in elegant fashion that balanced and beautiful photography is less a function of technology than it is of vision.

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"David Mitchell: Select Prints from ‘And/Then' "

Through Dec. 1

Studio Hart (65 Allen St., 536-8337 or www.studiohart.com)

During the regionwide biennial Beyond/In Western New York in 2010, the Castellani Art Museum featured several photographs and one deeply disturbing sculpture by local artist David Mitchell. His artist statement was intentionally vague, imploring viewers to make up their own interpretation of his strange photographic and sculptural fantasies.

Studio Hart is presenting a series of photographs from his series "And/Then," which features unsettling visions of suburban destruction and supernatural nature scenes. One photograph shows us mist-shrouded high-tension wires running through a suburban neighborhood, while a group of houses burn in the distance. In another, wolves and other wild animals congregate around a car wreck in an otherwise pristine development leaving us to wonder whether those animals are responsible for the carnage. Other photographs show humans attending animal carcasses in wooded environments or portraits of animals with heads emitting unearthly flashes of light or a menacing gang of rabbits assembled on the green grass of a well-to-do neighborhood lit by streetlights. Another shows a boy blithely holding hands with what appears to be a rabid fox in a neighborhood playground. Mitchell leaves us to wonder whether he is sanctifying the animals he depicts, or imbuing them with special vindictive powers. The opportunity to ponder that mystery is part of the strange allure of this exhibition, as is the skill with which he has rendered these unearthly and cinematic scenes – each one suggesting a perfectly rendered still from a film I would really like to see.

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"Peter Stephens: Part 2: ?The Gravity of It All"

Through Nov. 28

Nina Freudenheim Gallery ?(882-5777 or www.ninafreudenheimgallery.com)

With his latest body of work, accomplished Buffalo painter Peter Stephens has ventured into strange and beautiful new terrain. His paintings, whether gauzy and abstracted interpretations of Eugene Atget photographs or more recent works based on the surfaces of distant planets, have long been concerned with the edges of human perception.

So for those who know and like Stephens' art, it might not be surprising to know that he has based his newest work on the big ideas and bold questions of quantum physics. That work has been the subject of two shows at Nina Freudenheim Gallery, the second phase of which runs through November.

The paintings range in style, from long, vertical lines set against an otherworldly background (his planet surfaces peeking through) to strange topography rendered in deep greens, pale blues and lipstick reds. Others take on the playful look of Keith Haring drawings, with thick lines dancing across the canvas and probably meant to describe some esoteric aspect of the multiverse. You will learn nothing whatsoever about physics by looking at these beautiful paintings, but then that isn't quite the point.

With his paintings, Stephens is attempting to create a graceful artistic accompaniment to what he sees as the grand aria of theoretical physics. In their individual and vastly different ways, science and painting are both noble human efforts to make sense of the world around us. This realization has made for a great deal of compelling art – see: da Vinci or the star-gazing Vija Celmins, whose work is now on view in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's excellent "Decade" exhibition.

Stephens' paintings, compelling as much in their concept as in their formal execution, serve as elegant reinforcements to the already inextricable links among art, beauty and science and help us peer through the scrim of the visible world and into another.


email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com