Swimming against the current

Local artist Alberto Rey gets a solo exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, publishes a book with SUNY Press, and shows fans that careers CAN be built on passion – and years of dedication to one’s craft.

Alberto Rey, SUNY Distinguished Professor for Research and Creative Activity, made a hard choice early in life: stick with science and depend on a relatively secure future, or change his major to art and let the paint chips fall where they may.

His many accomplishments and awards prove he made the right choice.

“My career began in college when I made a conscious decision to switch from being a major in biology to art,” Rey said. “I knew, at that point, that it was not going to be easy making a living as an artist and that I would need to make appropriate decisions in the future to be successful.”

For this Cuban-born interpreter of humanity and nature, that success was hard-earned.

“I spent the first six years out of high school studying art and then the following thirty years perfecting my craft and envisioning what I would say with the work,” he says.

In that period of time, Rey has earned not only his current professorship with SUNY Fredonia’s Visual Arts and New Media department, but several awards and recognitions for his work and teaching, as well. These honors include having his paintings selected into the permanent collections of El Museo del Barrio in New York City, the Albright-Knox Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Bronx Museum of Art. In 1994, Rey received the Hagan Young Scholar/Artist Award for distinguished research/creative activity as a junior faculty and the Minority Visiting Scholar’s Award from Central Missouri State University. In 2001, he received the Kasling Lecturer Award for distinguished research/creative activity as a senior faculty member and in 2003 was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activity.

In 2007, the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees promoted Professor Alberto Rey to SUNY Distinguished Professor for Research and Creative Activity, the state university’s highest rank. He has also served on numerous boards and panels for the art community at state and local levels.

Rey, who works in watercolors, oils, and video, has focused on issues related to nature for the last 15 years.

“I think that art is a human translation or interpretation of experiences,” Rey explains. “Not everyone sees art in nature. I am drawn more to the spirituality that I experience when I’m in nature. The more I study and learn about the flora and fauna of a specific region, the richer my interaction is when I am in the environment. I feel more connected to it.”

Connectivity is at the heart of much of Rey’s work, though growing up in America with his familial roots in Cuba has sometimes led to feelings of cultural homelessness. Instead of letting those feelings stymie his passion, though, Rey uses them as inspiration.

“It is difficult to feel fully connected to any one culture. I have always felt like a stranger looking in … not fully American or Cuban. There are benefits to that disconnection. You can often see things a bit more objectively,” he says.

Rey is careful to consider his audience when he crafts these visual statements-along with being objective, he is also inclusive, allowing for viewer interpretation and appreciating those perspectives.

Here, he describes his approach:

“I try to seduce the viewer through the aesthetic value of the work and then, hopefully, create a sense of curiosity that will entice the viewer to read the exhibition statement. The experience then changes as they view the work from this new perspective,” he says. “I also try to make the work a bit nonspecific that the audience has a chance to interpret the work without looking at the artist’s statement. There is usually a good deal more content to the work than one might first interpret in the initial viewing. It can be a complicated balancing act.”

Fans of that aesthetic now have a new body of work to consider: Rey’s art is currently on display at Buffalo’s Burchfield Penney Art Center in the solo exhibit “Biological Regionalism: Alberto Rey,” until Sunday, May 18.

Rey calls the exhibit “a personal reflection of what is important to (him) but the issues raised are universal.”

Some of the show’s highlights include a 70 x 12 foot map of Scajaquada Creek, which begins in Lancaster and flows through Buffalo, and five 8-foot landscapes of specific locations along the creek.

“Water samples and data from these five locations are installed next to the paintings,” Rey says. “There will also be two large video projections that include a leech swimming underwater at one of these locations and another video documenting part of the (3.5) mile tunnel that contains the creek as it flows under the city of Buffalo.”

Many of Rey’s earlier works will also be included in the exhibition, as well as displays documenting the process of preparing for the show.

In conjunction with the show, a book about Rey has also been published by SUNY Press: “Life Streams: Alberto Rey’s Cuban and American Art.”

According to a statement by the SUNY Press, “‘Life Streams’ explores the paintings, videos, sculptures, and installations of Alberto Rey, () whose work addresses issues of identity, cultural diversity, environmental studies, and global sustainability. As a Cuban-born artist living in western New York State, Rey’s current work emphasizes his involvement with his community and its local landscape, especially its trout streams and their surrounding environment.”

A series of lectures on Rey’s work entitled “The Aesthetics of Identity in the Art of Alberto Rey” will be held April 25 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center from 1 to 5 p.m. Rey himself will present gallery talks there at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 13 and Sunday, May 11.

“Life Streams” is available at the Burchfield Penney Art Center book store or online at www.sunypress.edu/p-5906-life-streams.aspx. The Burchfield Penney Art Center is located at 1300 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. For information on hours, admission fees, and group tours, go to www.burchfieldpenney.org or call 878-6011. To learn more about the work of Alberto Rey, go to www.albertorey.com.

Rebecca Schwab writes periodically for the OBSERVER. Send comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com