When Hallwalls curator John Massier saw the completed Gates Vascular Institute, a sleek, 10-story cube of glass and metal that popped up last year on Buffalo’s medical campus, it struck him as an object of rare and unexpected beauty.
“After I started looking at it more closely and thinking about it, I was fascinated with the fact that it’s really just a variant on a cube,” he said. “It’s not a Frank Gehry structure, it doesn’t aspire to be something wild and wacky architecturally. It’s actually very tight and professional and elegant. It’s a very concise manipulation of a simple form.”
Not content to indulge in endless gawking as he passed the building each day on his way to work, Massier converted his enthusiasm for the new building into a new and unorthodox exhibition concept. And today, after months of preparation, Hallwalls will open the exhibition “Vascular Modes,” an ambitious group show featuring work by 21 artists charged with creating work inspired by the building.
In a shrinking city known for its important historic architecture and strong preservation community, the appearance of a building like the Gates Vascular Institute is an all-too-rare occurrence. Massier stressed that his unabashed fandom for the building was in no way a negative comment on the city’s overriding preservation mindset, but a kind of celebratory embrace of the new.
“I’m talking to you now from the heart of a renovated structure,” Massier said of Babeville, the former Delaware Avenue church that now houses Hallwalls and the offices of Righteous Babe Records. “I think that’s one of the more magnificent things about our city. [But] it might be precisely because we’re all collectively so reverent toward our architectural past and we’ve maintained it so well that when you see something brand new going up, it catches your eye.”
In inviting Western New York artists to participate in the show, Massier gave no specific instructions and laid out no constraints other than to say that the building should serve as the work’s point of departure. The work that came back was, somewhat predictably, all over the map.
Kyle Butler, who typically draws and paints about issues having to do with architecture and control, constructed a sculpture that turned the building into a kind of slot machine. Fredonia filmmaker Phil Hastings shot exteriors of the building and turned them into an abstract film that Massier called “pulsing” and reminiscent of the work of the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, best known for his work on the “Alien” films. Alicia Paolucci, a University at Buffalo student with a unique style of drawing, described her interpretation of the building – the side of which is interrupted by a snaking line separating two huge rows of windows – as “slugs having sex.”
The other participants in the show were either artists Massier has worked with in the past or whose work he admires. They include a bevy of former Beyond/In Western New York exhibitors, including installation artists Michael Bosworth, draughtswoman Joan Linder, sculptor Denis Maher, photographer J-M Reed and designer/installation artist Julian Montague.
The exhibition is accompanied by a documentary film, shot by Massier, which features all 21 artists discussing their working processes and their inspiration for the work they created.
The show is co-sponsored by Leslie and Howard Zemsky, as well as by Cannon Design, the international architecture firm with offices on Grand Island, whose architect Mehrdad Yazdani designed the Vascular Center. For Massier, the fact that Cannon reacted positively to the idea for the show and lent its support has something to do with the connective tissue between art and architecture.
“I think for Cannon, what’s probably nice about the show is it brings it full circle back to that original moment of the drawing board,” Massier said. “I think for them it sort of reiterates the core of the creative impulse that’s at the heart of architectural design.”