"It's like I curated a group show, but I made all the work in it," remarks Sharon Bates about "Exhibit B," her art show at the Opalka Gallery in Albany. The pieces include sculpture, installations, collages, drawings, and paintings.
Bates was the founding director of the Art & Culture Program at Albany International Airport from 1998 to 2016. Her innovative exhibitions were recognized throughout the nation. One of the meanings of this show's title, "Exhibit B," is that Bates is better known for her curating; that's exhibit A. This is her first solo exhibition in the region.
"My curatorial practice and my art practice have been hard to separate," Bates observes. The core of this show is a massive assembly of "found objects" Bates has accumulated over decades. "She has a collector's eye," says Judie Gilmore, director of the Opalka Gallery. "Her studio is almost like a cabinet of curiosities." Gilmore is referring to the heterogenous collections of Renaissance-era princes, which included fossils, art, taxidermy, archaeological curios, and what we now call "antiques." In the studio, Bates arranges her collections into "taxonomies," families of similar objects, some of which are reproduced in "Exhibit B." For example, Taxonomies of Wood includes Adirondack souvenir plaques, rulers, and nautical ashtray holders, laid out in precise and pleasing rows.
The word "taxonomy" suggests living creatures, and, in fact, the nautical ashtray holders do resemble single-celled organisms. Bates has held onto some of her eccentric gadgets for 25 or 30 years. In some ways, these are "rescue objects," like rescue animals.
"They're pretty ephemeral," Bates says of her installations. "The way they're assembled is pretty wacky. Some are just stacked, and some are held together with Velcro." She reworks and recombines her constituent pieces for different settings, and retitles them. Often she employs cable ties (also known as "zap straps"), plastic fasteners useful for tying cables together. Her artwork is a game like Scrabble, where unities are dissolved and reassembled.
"I like things to be luscious and beautiful," she admits. Many of the oddities Bates collects—even utilitarian items like a wire egg poacher or a wooden shot put—have a Victorian elegance that's glaringly absent in the modern USA. One of her goals is artistic recycling. "I think about making artwork, and I think about the environmental concerns," remarks Bates. "Why should there be more stuff in the world? I mean, there's so many resources available that are just going to get discarded."
The drawings are also, in a sense, "found objects," because Bates executes them spontaneously, without conscious intention; they record discoveries she's made in her mind. Many of the drawings resemble an industrial designer's sketches. Bates is an inventor of imaginary objects with imaginary uses, and a collector of real objects with often obscure utility.
Three glass cases at the center of the exhibit each contain 12 ink drawings. The three series are entitled "Animal," "Vegetable," and "Mineral," as if they encompass all of earthly life.
In 2013, Bates did an installation at Chesterwood, the estate of the American sculptor Daniel Chester French, consisting of carefully deployed black and white aluminum targets. Now she's taken the same targets, chopped them in half, and reconfigured them into a sculptural collage called Wink. "There were so many more possibilities with them cut in half—how I could arrange them," Bates explains. The symmetry of each target has been severed, to create a larger symmetry. Domestic Tableau #1: Turf evokes a Zen altar composed of a wooden table, Styrofoam, Astroturf, yarn, a paper hat, and rubber dog toys.
"Sharon Bates: Exhibit B" will remain at the Opalka Gallery at Sage College of Albany through October 13. (518) 292-7742.