“A.J. Fries: Light in Shadow” Through Jan. 21 Big Orbit Gallery 30D Essex St. (560-1968, www.bigorbitgallery.org)
Anyone who has Instagram, the popular smartphone app that adds a gloss of artificial intrigue to otherwise ho-hum photographs, knows the feeling.
Through the lens of your iPhone or Galaxy, everyday scenes that held absolutely no interest in the pre-Instagram era can suddenly become the stuff of unspeakable beauty.
A.J. Fries, the Buffalo oil painter whose monochromatic scenes of perfectly unspectacular objects and vistas are now on view in the Big Orbit Gallery, gets that. He, like artists of many disciplines, has made a career out of going beauty-mining in the bland surroundings of everyday life. The stuff he pulls up includes air conditioners sticking out of drywall, gravestones casting long shadows on snow in the late-afternoon light, droplets of water streaking across car windshields in highway traffic and snowflakes catching the light of a digital camera flash against the night sky.
Each of these scenes – the result of hundreds of digital photographs, lots of deep pondering and second-guessing and finally the painstaking process of painting – is an amplification of a tiny moment that might otherwise pass unnoticed.
What separates Fries’ endeavor from that of Instagrammers who consider themselves uniquely attuned to quotidian beauty is nothing more or less than his love and talent for his chosen medium. And this difference, in a world overflowing with banal digital flotsam that does anything but invite contemplation, is everything.
Fries is addicted to the pure pleasure of pushing paint across the canvas, to the drudgery of solving issues like reflectivity and depth – and to the way, on a good day, that eight hours in the studio can seem to fly by in 10 minutes. The results in Big Orbit, from a panoramic view of the Grand Island bridges seen through a scrim of snow and fog to the gleaming tiles of a Manhattan bathroom, are screens onto which viewers can project their own storylines, fantasies and sentiments.
You may think of Fries’ work as lacking in conceptual heft or too consciously or conventionally pretty, but that just means you’re not looking hard enough. His paintings, powerful because of their simplicity, are a way to hit pause on the world and to milk a single moment of lonely beauty for everything it’s worth.
“Transmutation: Photographic Works by Carl Chiarenza” Through Feb. 17 University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery 1 Martha Jackson Place (829-375, www.ubartgalleries.org)
If Fries’ paintings are about providing fodder for the imagination by providing the brain with a recognizable image, Carl Chiarenza’s photographs take the abstract approach to the same end. “Transmutations,” an eye-opening survey of his captivating black-and-white photographic collages in the University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery, sends the mind wandering in all kinds of wonderful directions.
Among abstract photographers, Chiarenza, who is based in Rochester, is something of a pioneer. Very early in his career, in the late 1950s, he began making tightly choreographed collages out of industrial detritus and other objects at hand. As his work evolved, he began creating large silver gelatin prints with a large-format camera, and the results are stunningly unorthodox.
Chiarenza’s starkly lit collages – like the best abstract paintings – achieve a kind of reassuring visual balance even while throwing viewers’ expectations off-kilter. Depending on your mindset, the materials they contain can look like otherworldly mountain ranges, coiled-up sheaths of snakeskin or pools of rippling water – or all these things at once.
Especially compelling are the artist’s large-scale triptychs, which get their hooks into your imagination in a way that a traditional photograph couldn’t hope to do. Also notable are Chiarenza’s strange portraits of human figures like Don Quixote and, above all for me, a small and graceful homage to Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man” sculptures, of which the Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns one.
This exhibition, like “Light in Shadow,” demands a quiet and concentrated mind in order to unlock its full potential. And though that particular mental state might be difficult to achieve in the midst of the holiday season, Chiarenza and Fries both show us that it’s more than worth a shot.