Get Visual: Terry James Conrad – Object Permanence at Opalka Gallery

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We’ve all heard of the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – and most of us know that the first two are the more effective approaches to problems associated with waste. But they’re also harder to do, so we’ve tended to focus on recycling, which, also known as remanufacturing, has more and more clearly been revealed as not much of a solution at all.

Tin cans reduced to essential shapes

It’s admirable to try to reduce our production and consumption of stuff, but there’s a conundrum in it: Doing things – which often means making things – is what gives our lives meaning. And that goes double for studio artists. Just try to imagine all your favorite creators having built their careers without leaving behind a trail of stuff. Not at all likely.

All of which makes the unusual approach to making art that Terry James Conrad has pursued so fascinating. Currently the protagonist of a solo exhibition and series of events at Sage College’s Opalka Gallery in Albany, Conrad has taken that second R to heart, and made Reuse his raison d’etre. The result is both intriguing and – perhaps a surprise – esthetically appealing.

One of Conrad’s presses in use – the paper
is at the bottom, under the cans

Conrad is essentially a printmaker, though this installation also includes numerous small sculptures, four handcrafted wooden guitars, and a large musical apparatus, in addition to three homemade printing presses that are being actively employed during the exhibition. The level of skill involved in all these works is extremely varied, from pounded, foil-wrapped tin cans that evoke outsider art to fancy woodworking and metalcraft on the guitars. Somewhere in between is the Rube Goldberg-esque music machine, which Conrad set into sonorous motion during my visit. (He’s in the gallery every Thursday adding a residency component to the show.) Unlike many sound installations, the contraption’s rhythmic emanations were not unpleasant or intrusive; rather, they suited the room and the other art in it quite nicely.

It’s worth trying to explain about those presses. Conrad has invented a unique method of printing, which uses gravity to create downward pressure on a matrix of folded, joined, and grouped tin cans that are placed on top of the printing paper. Each press is a multilayered stack of found stuff, not all of it functional, but all of it adding to the overall visual and symbolic effect of the conglomeration. After homemade inks are piped into the interior spaces of the cans, where they pool and soak for several days, an embossed and colored image will be permanently impressed upon the page, formed of deep lines from the cans’ edges and flowing colors within and around them.

Conrad has embellished these found cans with colored foils 

Conrad makes his inks from everyday sources like walnuts and rust, and uncommon ones, too, such as silt taken from 565 meters below the ocean. Many of the more than 30 finished prints in the exhibition are displayed without frames or glass, making it easy to examine their soft textures and subtle variations in tone. Others are shown in frames, most notably a suite of black-on-white lithographs embellished with pastel-colored frames – but the unframed works are the stars of the show.

Four Conrad prints

The prints are abstract and have equally abstract names, and they are fun, funky, even stylish, with geometric forms and an array of mostly muted colors. Their method of display appears to be yet another Conrad innovation: Angled out from the wall on painted wooden supports, and placed well below the usual eye-level of gallery art, they invite relaxed intimacy and close examination. The experience is enhanced by the opportunity to also examine the tin-can constructions that made these prints, as they are also on view in the gallery, along with a number of simpler transformations of tin cans that evoke early Modernist minimalism.

Benthic 2021 – monoprints by Terry James Conrad

The show is billed as a survey, with prints ranging throughout the last 10 years. Most of them have white backgrounds, but a triptych entitled Benthic is brown and soft like suede, fully stained with walnut ink around its other colors and floating shapes. Benthic is also larger than the other prints, and super-fresh (dated 2021), suggesting a strong current direction.

Terry James Conrad: Object Permanence will remain on view through March 13. The Opalka Gallery is open to the public, with generous visiting hours that include Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. I highly recommend that you make time to see this outstanding show by a uniquely dedicated and talented artist.

Terry James Conrad adjusts his musical installation at the Opalka Gallery.
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