For Alberto Rey, a Cuban-born artist and professor at SUNY Fredonia, painting is a way to reveal aspects of the natural world that are hidden in plain sight.
His latest paintings, the product of three years of research and work in the studio, go on view in the Burchfield Penney Art Center on Friday as part of its monthly Second Fridays event.
The exhibition features five new 8-foot oil paintings of Scajaquada Creek, the much-abused waterway that flows past the SUNY Buffalo State campus a few hundred feet away from the Burchfield Penney.
In addition to the paintings, the exhibition includes water samples taken from the polluted creek, data on water pollution levels and a 70-foot map displaying the creek’s course from its mouth at the Buffalo River to its headwaters in Lancaster. It also has two new videos shot in or near the Scajaquada, as well as examples of past work in Rey’s long-running “Biological Regionalism” series.
For earlier entries into the series, Rey investigated the aquatic life of other local streams, producing gestural and often alluring portraits of fish and waterfowl. A 2010 show in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, for instance, featured scenes of fish in motion and other views of the nearby Ellicott Creek.
But in the case of the Scajaquada, Rey discovered, the water is so polluted that it supports next to no aquatic life. His new work – somewhere between art and activism – can be viewed as his contribution to the ongoing effort to return the creek to its natural state.
“It combines science with art, community interaction and conservation, so it’s kind of multifaceted,” Rey said of the series in a phone interview from his office at Fredonia State. “Hopefully, when you leave the gallery, you have this information or this experience, so next time when you drive by the Scajaquada Expressway, you start to think about it.”
In recent months, the Scajaquada has become the focus of increased attention from Buffalo’s creative community. An exhibition of photographs of the creek and its surroundings dating back to the mid-20th century is on view in the Buffalo History Museum through March 23, and multipronged efforts by members of the Black Rock community to shed more attention on the waterway and to repair decades of damage are under way.
For Rey, who was born in Cuba and spent much of his youth in a small Pennsylvania town where fishing was always a part of his life, water holds a special allure. He has dedicated his career to revealing the often-hidden natural beauty and complex ecosystems of overlooked waterways like the Scajaquada and arguing, through his paintings, for their preservation.
“I think change usually can happen best when you find common ground amongst different groups of people with different interests, and the paintings try to create this common ground,” Rey said. “The idea is to almost use art as a way of sensitizing people to their environment.”
The Burchfield Penney also will open five other shows organized around the theme of water on Friday as part of its quarterly series of launches: “Charles Burchfield: Water,” a selection of the famed watercolorist’s water-based paintings; “Bridging the Great Divide,” an exploration of landscape art over the centuries; “Melt,” a new series of paintings made with watercolor ice cubes by Brian Milbrand; “Hydro-Graphic,” a look at water-based artworks by 19th century and contemporary artists; and “Fly Fishing: A Celebration of the Stream.”
The exhibitions are timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the first significant water regulations in the United States in October 1914.
What: “Biological Regionalism: Alberto Rey”
When: Friday through May 18.
Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: Free on Friday; otherwise $5 to $10
Info: 878-6011 or www.burchfieldpenney.org