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ITHACA, NY -- Located in the garage of their West Hill home, Handwerker Gallery director Mara Baldwin and experimental composer-percussionist Sarah Hennies’ Neighbors is Ithaca’s chief “alternative space” gallery. Leveraging academic and grassroots connections, the pair have curated music and visual art, promoting a genuine alternative to Ithaca’s mainstream gallery scene.?

For its third exhibition of the year, “Pop Rocks,” Neighbors is showing colorful abstract wall sculptures by Cornell art department lecturer Gail Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald shows infrequently in town and this is a welcome, if modest, chance to investigate a locally lesser-known genre.?

Her work is brash. The presentation here, in contrast, is almost desperately austere: seven modestly-sized pieces, widely spaced on well-lit, clean white walls. Fitzgerald has installed before on colored, patterned walls, and used more varied hanging. Those things are not easy to pull off but they would have likely enhanced the experience here.?

The artist comes to sculpture through a background in ceramics and what has been described as “painting in the expanded field.” The goal of her work is to sculpt with color, to make hue and tone palpable.?

Her combination of “make do” craftsmanship and unapologetically garish color calls to mind low budget theatre production. Fitzgerald uses pre-stretched canvases — the kind used by beginning painting students — as a way of anchoring her work to the wall. She builds up her rumpled, semi-stiff forms using wire mesh and plaster wrap, coloring these in careful-casual layers of acrylic and spray paint.?

Fitzgerald’s “rocks” are very much in the tradition of soft sculpture, slyly mocking traditions of gallery art with a studied casualism.?

The artist plays tricks with color. “Krystal Roks” (the kitschy-playful titles here are apposite) is colored with a bright pink-purple highlighting a darker blue. Like several of the other pieces here, the piece toys with light and shadow, distorting our perception of these objects’ actual dimensionality. Others, like the lime green and mint “Quisp,” juxtapose colors of similar tonal value, forcing the viewer to work their brain a little harder to figure out what is actually going on. The results suggest a parody of academic color theory and its allied branch of abstract painting.

I enjoy Fitzgerald’s work — it is exuberant, clever and fun. I also think it’s worth distinguishing the aims (or apparent aims) behind her pop abstraction and the kind of inwardness and nuance sought by more traditional practitioners of the genre. And I think it’s worth asking why work of that latter sort has, at best, a marginal place in what might be called the academic-hipster art world — of which Neighbors is probably the leading independent local outpost.?

The history of abstract and modernist art is full of lofty, seemingly pretentious claims being made on behalf of artworks that may appear to some to be emptied of worldly significance. Fitzgerald comes out of a post-Pop generation of artists, coming to maturity in the’80s, often bent on deflating or deconstructing these types of presumptions. Some would regard this sort of approach as emblematic of what up-to-the-moment abstraction remains about.?

This is by now a completely established artistic genre, with variations in both high profile big city commercial galleries and scrappier outposts, and in the BFA and MFA culture, which is why Cornell and Ithaca College are necessary for the promotion of this sort of work locally.?

The problem is accentuated by the sparse hanging. For a classical abstractionist like Kandinsky or Rothko — or for their contemporary followers of much more humble accomplishment — an individual painting or sculpture can be a tunnel into another world. Fitzgerald’s works here don’t do that — and as far as I can tell, they don’t seek to. This formal, sacralizing presentation is not called for and feels like a distraction from what is genuinely interesting and valuable here.?

Neighbors is also a participant in the local nexus between contemporary art and experimental music. This Saturday, starting at 8 p.m,, Hennies will be performing, in her own words, “a semi-improvised piece for vibraphone that I taped at the gallery last fall for a festival in the UK called TUSK that had to go online because of COVID.” Also on the bill will be local experimental/electronic acts VauxFlores and The Concept Horse. Go look and listen.?

Neighbors Gallery is located at 526 Elm St. in Ithaca, and opening hours are generally 2-4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday while exhibitions are installed.

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