Filling the elegant main rooms of Corners Gallery, an ample but not exhausting selection of black-and-white charcoal drawings announces the showspace's return from a long hiatus. Attached to the walls with magnets, unframed and otherwise unsupported, these playful abstractions bespeak austere warmth. Mostly larger sheets feature translucent white flame or ribbon-forms—carved out of the white of the paper—dancing across backgrounds of thickly rubbed, solid black conte crayon. Connecting 20th century modernist concerns to contemporary sensibility, they continue Corners' tradition of presenting work that engages body and mind alike.
Featuring recent work by New York City and Upstate-based artist Taney Roniger, "Never the Same River" takes inspiration from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who famously proclaimed that one could never step in the same river twice. Such was the metaphysical flux behind our conventional understanding of stable, self-consistent entities.
Flux notwithstanding, the show (up through the end of August) is a homecoming for the gallery, which closed in March due to the pandemic. Keeping busy, owner-director Ariel Bullion Ecklund has hosted rotating window exhibits and has recently reopened for framing appointments. The shop-gallery remains appointment only and is planning upcoming shows.
A single tiny graphite piece, untitled, hangs mysteriously and awkwardly alone on a section of wall. An adjacent wall features "Other Rivers #5," which mimics its composition--though at a much larger scale and in ghostly reverse. Roniger spent the first half of this year reworking older gesture drawings into a new larger format. Translating the rapid, confident affect of the originals into a stiffer, more sculptural idiom, the artist has arrived at a kind of casual grandeur, evocative of human bodies and movement.
"#5" features a nest of arcing planes—they resemble segments of a Frank Gehry building—self-enclosing amidst the black void. Together with a handful of more-or-less similar pieces, they suggest a contemporary twist on what the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin (in his classic book Principles of Art History of a century ago) called "closed form."
"Other Rivers (Glyph #16)," a particularly striking example, features two conjoined "figures," floating or standing.
Other pieces, in contrast, employ a more dynamic open form. "Other Rivers #1" and "#10" feature stream-like, turbulent horizontal flows, while "#3" and "#8" present tauter ribbons with vertical droops. Two gridded, multi-sheet "Microscapes" venture into the terrain of abstract sequential art. They have a flatter sense of space: reminiscent of maps or puzzles.
It's worth viewing these drawings in the light of Roniger's work as an art critic and essayist. Both unabashedly brainy and fiercely sensual, her writing on art engages philosophy, psychology, the natural sciences, and spirituality while remaining grounded in an awareness of art-making as a material process. Writing for specialist publications such as Interalia and The Brooklyn Rail, she is part of a group of artists and thinkers renegotiating the modern art traditions of abstraction and (so-called) formalism for our own time. In an artworld intent on foregrounding messages and "concepts," she persuasively advocates for the intelligence of perception and feeling.
For an independently run small business in Ithaca, NY—hardly one of contemporary art's major centers—Corners Gallery continues to do remarkable work in bringing in a range of exhibiting artists. Bullion Ecklund curates a thoughtful, evolving balance of local and non-local artists, demonstrating the ambition of the former as well as her own sophisticated, eclectic taste. It's a rich cultural accomplishment and it's good to have it back.
And while historical exhibitions of Cornell and Ithaca artists are usually the province of the Johnson Museum and other academic venues, Corners' late spring show was to feature work by the late John Hartell (1902-1995). Hartell, a Cornell architecture professor and practicing architect, was known in his latter years for his luminescent, atmospheric paintings evocative of natural and built environments.
Lost in the COVID-19 shuffle, the project remains in limbo. But in the window currently, a small selection of Hartell's work on paper and canvas offers some sense of his accomplishment and provides a compelling, if happenstance, complement to Roniger's drawings. "Climax" (1964), "Chapel III" (1980), and "Pears and Plum IV" (1982), all oils, are ethereal yet insistent, in the knowing tradition of Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston's "Abstract Impressionism."