WEIRDEST YEAR EVER

A rant about 2020……..

Housebound- 2020. Oilstick, graphite. 10 x 8

I haven’t posted a rant or a rave in many years. But man, oh, man, if ever there was a time in the history of the Universe to post a rant, this would be it.

I left NYC on March 13 for a normal weekend at my house up in the Catskills. Little did I know what was about to come down. The Spring up here in the mountains was long and cold. Unusually so. Time slowed down as the days slipped by. Disoriented and scared I  tried, like so many, to wrap my head around what was happening in the world. Jobs disappeared as the art world closed down and everyone hunkered down, just trying to be safe and be sure that those we loved were safe.

My studio here in Shokan NY is in the stable of an old barn. It’s a Summer studio, not heated and it was cold. But I cranked up the music, put on five or so layers of clothing ( no exaggeration) and even if I couldn’t make anything, I forced myself to spend the day out of the house and in the studio. Slowly, drawings began to emerge. For the first time I was making work that was more directly autobiographical than ever before.It was unsettling. but then again everything was unsettling.

Curfew 2020- paint, pastel. 20 x 17.50

Slowly I worked on pieces- drawings, sculpture and assemblage- the figures were lost, locked down, locked out, broken.. and yet they contain with a glimmer of hope.

Broken. 2020. Clay, glaze, ink, encaustic, object. 20 x 8 x 3

You don’t need me to go through the list of what has battered us this year. You know. I just wrote a huge impassioned paragraph listing every assault upon us that has happened this year (and it’s still October). I deleted it. You know, we all know……

Luckily I had a show to work towards. My solo exhibition -DOES SHE OR DOESN’T SHE? will open at Firecat Projects in Chicago on Oct. 23. (2019 N Damen Ave.,Chicago, IL 60647. see link). I had deadlines and people who were waiting for me to finish new work. It’s been a godsend, and I am deeply grateful to the gallery and Stan Klein.

I will go to Chicago. I hope that people come to see the show. I hope that we win and win big in November. I hope that a safe vaccine is found quickly and I hope that the brutality and hatred that has been unleashed in America will somehow be contained….. that’s alot to hope for. But I’ve always been an optimistic pessimist.

Eight months later,and I’m still in the Catskills. Trips to NYC once a month to pick up mail, art supplies have shown me that my beloved city is bent but not broken.

And the beat goes on…….

Good night and sweet dreams to you all.

Sweet Dreams. 2020. Ink, collage. 18 x 23.5
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A Memorial to Crimes Against Women and Children in Ghostly Glass

Published in Hyperallergic August 22, 2019

Northern Irish artist Alison Lowry addresses the 200 years of crimes perpetrated by the Catholic Church in collaboration with the Irish state.

Alison, Lowry, “Instead of the fragrance there will be stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding (Isaiah 3:24)” cast glass, rosary beads, human hair (2019)

DUBLIN — How do artists respond to the institutional horrors of the world? This is a huge and urgent question in our tumultuous time. I found a deeply affecting case history in Dublin, Ireland.

Northern Irish glass artist Alison Lowry has mounted an exhibition that addresses well over 200 years of crimes against women and children perpetrated by the Catholic Church, in collaboration with the Irish state. It is a devastating exhibition.

Alison, Lowry, “These are their names (Numbers 13:4)” Screen printed enamels, found objects (2019)

A brief background: In 2012 a mass grave holding the bodies of 796 children was discovered in Tuam, Ireland on the former site of St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, an institution run by the Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns from 1921 to 1965. Mother and baby homes (a tragically ironic name) were homes for unwed mothers and their children, many of whom were forcibly taken from their mothers for adoption, and the women forced into manual labor to “pay” for their care. The hygienic and medical conditions were abysmal; as a result, many of the babies, children, and mothers died.

This grim discovery was coupled with the ongoing investigation of another site of institutional abuse. The Magdalene Laundries, a Catholic institution run by nuns where unwanted women and children worked in forced servitude benefitting the church as a lucrative laundry facility. It is estimated that upwards of 30,000 women and teenage girls lived in slavery in these institutions from roughly 1760 until 1996, when the last workhouse was closed. Children in families where there was domestic violence were also routinely taken by the state and placed in “industrial homes,” also run by the Catholic Church, where the victims’ treatment was cruel and brutal.

Installation view of Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History, (photographed 13 May, 2019 by Peter Moloney)

These are the verifiable facts that Lowery used as a basis for her exhibition, titled  (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths. Her primary medium is a form of glass fabrication called “pâte’ de verre,” meaning literally “paste of glass,” an extremely labor-intensive 19th century form of glass casting. The technique is more typically associated with beautiful, ethereal forms than the commemoration of slavery. The aesthetic beauty of the material that Lowery is using serves to amplify the horror that it depicts. The exhibition also employs text, audio, and video to tell the stories of the survivors of these two separate but interwoven institutions.

Housed at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History, near central Dublin, the exhibition is installed in a slightly claustrophobic rabbit warren of small rooms, and painted black. You enter and begin a beautiful and emotionally wrenching journey. The first cases illustrate how women were shorn of their hair, their possessions and even their name; they were given new, Biblical names by the nuns.

The first object one encounters upon entering the exhibition is a life-sized, old-fashioned work apron fabricated of unfired pâte de verre over fabric. The beads of glass are textural and thick, giving the apron a slight fuzziness — like an old-time photograph that is slightly out of focus. The apron is both hard and soft, an interesting visual metaphor for the labor of laundry.

Alison, Lowry, “His clothes became so white they shone. They were whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them (Mark 9:3)” Linen apron (created by seamstress Ann Burrows) pâte de verre (unfired) (2019)

A piece hanging in a glass vitrine has this chilling title, “Instead of the Fragrance There Will Be Stench; Instead of a Sash, a Rope; Instead of Well-Dressed Hair, Baldness; Instead of Fine Clothing, Sackcloth; Instead of Beauty, Branding (Isaiah3: 24)” (2019). Four pairs of giant glass scissors dangle from rosaries in the case, glittering in a very bright spotlight. Piles of long human hair lay in a heap on the floor of the case. Next to the case is a listening device where one can hear the voice of Catherine Whelan, born in 1935, now deceased, who recounts being conscripted to a Magdalene laundry at the age of 14. She describes in detail how she was “punished” by the nuns, in particular the experience of being held down and having her hair cut off.

Almost every work of art in the exhibition is accompanied by audio testimony. The recordings are deeply saddening to listen to. The exquisite beauty of the objects focuses us on the disconnect between what we are seeing and what we are hearing.

Alison, Lowry, “Bridget’s Story” pâte de verre, ceramic decals, ribbon. (2019)

In the piece “Red Cardigan” (2019), Lowry collaborates with poet Connie Roberts to memorialize Roberts’ experience growing up in an industrial home. Taken by the state at age five, along with her 14 siblings, she endured 12 years of incarceration. After her mother’s death, she returned to her childhood home where her father presented her with a red woolen sweater that she had worn before being taken. Its innocent color and the evidence of her mother’s hand mending the frayed old garment inspired Roberts to write a poem about her life that sparkles with crystalline sorrow. Lowry then responded by casting a replica of that sweater — a small artifact of a little girl’s sad life. As with the other pieces there is an audio recording of Roberts quietly reciting her poem.

Alison, Lowry, “The Cardigan” cast glass, ceramic decals (2019)

The showpiece of the exhibition is a group of nine infant christening gowns, made of pâte de verre and nylon fibers. Entitled, “Home Babies” (2017), the gowns hang slightly above our heads and gently turn and move as viewers in the two rooms bear witness and disturb the still air. A voice intones solemnly the names of the 796 babies whose bodies were discovered in the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Like a mantra, the soothing, mesmerizing incantation of names becomes the background sound of the entire exhibition.

Installation view of Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History, (photographed 13 May, 2019 by Peter Moloney)

When I visited the exhibition in mid-May it was the only crowded room in an otherwise almost empty museum, itself a former military barracks. The visitors were mostly women, some weeping openly. There are many survivors of these homes who are still living and this project is an important documentation for them of the abuse that they suffered. It is also gorgeous to look at. Lowry successfully marries the content she is working with to the beauty of her materials, a very tricky relationship to accomplish.

Delicate yet hard-edged, sensitive yet unflinching, deeply personal and yet universal, this show is most worthy of the stories it tells.

(A) Dressing Our Hidden Truths, at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History (Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin, Ireland) runs through May 2020. It was curated by Audrey Whitty.

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Figural Sculptures That Weave an Enigmatic Story of Disassociation and Isolation

Claudette Schreuders’s most recent show at Jack Shainman gallery, In the Bedroom is perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date.

published June 17. 2019

Install shot: “School Days” (2019) Lime wood, enamel paint. 10 x 9.) and “Little Table” (2018) Jelutong wood, enamel and oil paint. 20 7/8 x 8 5/8 x 17 5/16 ( all images by the author)

Claudette Schreuders occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary art world. Born in South Africa in 1973, before the end of apartheid, but in the center of its crumbling, her work has always elegantly danced the line between the personal and the political. Mention is often made of Schreuders’s “search for her African identity,” but I’ve always found her work to be firmly grounded in a deeply personal narrative — the political content of her work sneaking in around the sides rather than hitting you full frontal.

Her most recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery entitled In the Bedroomis perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date. The title hints that viewers will be privy to something intimate. It’s a little titillating, a tad seductive. Yet once you enter the gallery the first thing you see is a wall hung with five drawings, displayed closely together. Drawn in acrylic ink on paper, the five create a powerfully ominous narrative (all of them made in 2017). Entitled (in order) “Mingle”  a close-up portrait of a very intense adolescent boy staring intensely to the left, outside of the grouping. Next to him is “Note to Self” — a young woman staring blankly to her right. She is faced by “Anna in Uniform,” — a young woman with a traumatized expression staring to the left. She is next to “Loved Ones” — a young girl, topless with pre-pubescent breasts. Her body faces us, but her head turns away looking into the distance. This jovial grouping is punctuated by “The Neighbor” —  a middle-aged man grimacing angrily as he stares back at the group, a bloody wound on his forehead. Everyone is avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, as well as ours. This is a portrait of intimacy of the most terrifying sort. Whatever psychodrama has happened here feels like the stuff of the morning tabloids.

Install shot of five drawings (all 2017): “Mingle” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “Note to Self” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “Anna in Uniform” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16. “Loved Ones” acrylic ink on paper. 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “The Neighbour” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/17

This show is complex. When I first saw it I thought it looked too small for the gallery. The figures seemed isolated and even a little lost in the big, clinically lit space. But on second viewing I began to understand the almost desperate loneliness that this body of work conveys. The irony of the title is belied by the installation. We may be in the bedroom, but it is a room of emotional loneliness of a primal sort. Even the figures engaged in sex acts (there are two) seem dissociated from one another. This is sad sex. In the show’s title piece of sculpture, “In the Bedroom,” (2019) a couple lays intertwined. The man has his head buried deep in the woman’s neck. We cannot see his expression. She stares upward, her eyes blank. Not a lot of joy in this lovemaking.

Claudette Schreuders, “In the Bedroom” (2019) Jelutong wood. 24 7/16 x 11 7/16 x 8 5/8

Everything in the show is carefully placed to advance the mysterious narrative that Schreuders is telling. Near, but not too near the loveless couple making love, is a large girl or woman; the ambiguity of age is yet another intriguing element of these mysterious tales. Entitled “Guilty Bystander,” (2018) she is the largest figure in the show standing about 51 inches. Alert, she stands, body slightly twisted, looking at us. She seems aware of the couple behind her, but unable or unwilling to look at them, or perhaps they are her dream. She is wearing a jaunty little patterned dress and exquisite vintage shoes. Her ensemble is impeccable. Her painted hair is in a perfect coif. Yet she seems uneasy, unnerved perhaps by what is happening around her. Her eyes seem to follow you around the gallery with a haunted expression.

Install shot: “In the Bedroom” (2019) and “Guilty Bystander”(2018)

Schreuders carves her sculptures from Jelutong wood, a type of rubber tree found in Asia. It’s a soft wood, buttery yellow and smooth grained. The carving marks show, but softly, giving the works an air of gentility. The materiality is obvious, but the edges have been smoothed. The sculptures are painted in mellow, muted colors. Everything is just fine … which to me makes the depth of the psychological content all the more strange and powerful.

The scale of these works is also disorienting. I mentioned the dance that many of them do between ages — girl or woman? Part of this ambiguity is due to most of the pieces being the size of a large doll, or a small child. With adult faces and impassive expressions they can be seen as adults trapped in their childhood memories. Or perhaps they are about the inner “adult” dreams of children.  The consistently diminished scale of the figures, with their slightly oversized heads and feet and impeccable attention to small details of dress (beautiful delicate shoes are of particular interest to Schreuders), create a universe of people that seem benign, even toy-like, and yet their dramas are huge.

Install shot of In the Bedroom at Jack Shainman gallery

Another potent relationship is between the pieces entitled “Little Table” (2018 and “School Days” (2019) “Little Table” portrays a man and woman in the act of sex, the woman bent over forward and leaning on a literal, little table as the man enters her from behind. His head lowered, his expression passive, as is hers. The vibe is one of obligation, rather than passion. The piece is set off by a very small sculpture of a crucified little boy that hangs near them on the wall. The lad in “School Days” appears to be wearing a school uniform, Catholic school perhaps? The juxtaposition of these two sculptures creates a narrative that sets up pieces of a story, but each viewer must provide their own ending.

All the figures in the show are of European origin with the exception of a large formal bust of a Black African man. Simply entitled “The President” (2019), it is, according to the gallery, a portrait of the current South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa. It is an odd intrusion of the outside world into Schreuders’s dreamscape. Perhaps this is a brash reality check about the possibility of real intimacy or privacy? (The government is always watching.) This sculpture is carved out of teak and the wood is obviously rougher and darker. The artist’s carving is bolder than in the other pieces, the deep gestural carving marks enhancing the beauty of the teak. The artist has left the sides of the bust raw, exposing that this is carved from a large block of wood. The figure sports the same passive expression that permeates this show, but her looser carving imbues the bust with a more robust energy.

Claudette Schreuders “The President” (2019)Teak wood, enamel paint. 15 ¾ x 14 3/16 x 14 3/16

There is an admirable continuity in Schreuders’s artistic vision. Whatever odd world or dream we’ve wandered into is completely consistent in its logic. I would posit that In the Bedroom is a journey into our individual psychic rooms, where memory mingles with childhood, desire and loneliness, a potent cocktail that haunts the viewer long after you’ve left.

In the Bedroom runs through June 22 at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th St, Chelsea, Manhattan).

 

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Claudette Schreuders occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary art world. Born in South Africa in 1973, before the end of apartheid, but in the center of its crumbling, her work has always elegantly danced the line between the personal and the political. Mention is often made of Schreuders’s “search for her African identity,” but I’ve always found her work to be firmly grounded in a deeply personal narrative — the political content of her work sneaking in around the sides rather than hitting you full frontal.

Her most recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery entitled In the Bedroomis perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date. The title hints that viewers will be privy to something intimate. It’s a little titillating, a tad seductive. Yet once you enter the gallery the first thing you see is a wall hung with five drawings, displayed closely together. Drawn in acrylic ink on paper, the five create a powerfully ominous narrative (all of them made in 2017). Entitled (in order) “Mingle” — a close-up portrait of a very intense adolescent boy staring intensely to the left, outside of the grouping. Next to him is “Note to Self” — a young woman staring blankly to her right. She is faced by “Anna in Uniform,” — a young woman with a traumatized expression staring to the left. She is next to “Loved Ones” — a young girl, topless with pre-pubescent breasts. Her body faces us, but her head turns away looking into the distance. This jovial grouping is punctuated by “The Neighbor” —  a middle-aged man grimacing angrily as he stares back at the group, a bloody wound on his forehead. Everyone is avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, as well as ours. This is a portrait of intimacy of the most terrifying sort. Whatever psychodrama has happened here feels like the stuff of the morning tabloids.

Install shot: “School Days” (2019) Lime wood, enamel paint. 10 x 9.) and “Little Table” (2018) Jelutong wood, enamel and oil paint. 20 7/8 x 8 5/8 x 17 5/16 (all images courtesy Jack Shainman gallery)

 

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An Exhibition About a Book That Rejuvenated an Indigenous Culture

The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of Indigenous art and culture, chronicling how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakiutl peoples.

Settee back, unknown Kwakwaka’wakw maker, collected by George Hunt in 1898–99, wood, pigment, metal (all images by the author)

As a young anthropology student, full of piss and vinegar, I set out in1980 to write a university thesis addressing what I saw as the field’s wrongheaded approach to the study of material cultural. As a primary resource I drew upon one of the founding documents of the discipline, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, a study of the indigenous people of British Columbia. Originally published in 1897, it was notable for several reasons. Co-authored by German-born Franz Boas and an indigenous collaborator, George Hunt, it was one of the first documents of the field to give prominent credit to an indigenous co-creator. Based on first-person experience, it revolutionized the nascent field of anthropology, insisting that observation and involvement were fundamental to anthropological research. The volume contains a multitude of drawings, music, and stories, presented confidently as an exhaustive encyclopedia of Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous culture.

I, of course, tore it apart. The objects, music, and symbols were presented as removed from their cultural context. The authors focused on the nuts and bolts often without background; materials, color, patterning and symbols were the book’s defining organizational narrative. The authors created a volume that was encyclopedic in its study of the iconography and visual history of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, but made little connection between the objects and the living society that produced them. At the time, the lack of connection between objects and their use seemed to me misguided and emblematic of everything wrong with the field of study. However, even I had to admit that the book was impressively detailed and precise, including impeccable drawings of hundreds of objects and detailed musical and performance notation. This was a record of culture that was revolutionary in its observational precision.  One could say that it was almost a blueprint. In fact, more than 120 years later, the work turns out to be prescient indeed, a blueprint that has helped preserve and rebuild Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture today.

Installation shot of The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology with video projection of Franz Boas

The Bard Graduate Center on 86th Street in Manhattan has recently opened an exhibition titled The Story Box. The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of indigenous art and culture. It chronicles how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples to recapture, rejuvenate, and rebuild their threatened culture. The exhibition traces the book’s significance to the present day, which it turns out, was far more important than its authors — or this reporter — could ever have imagined.

The Bard Graduate Center, in conjunction with the U’mista Cultural Centre of Alert Bay, Canada has embarked on an incredible multi-year project. They are updating and digitizing the book, adding in hundreds of pages of previously unpublished fieldwork by Boas and Hunt as well as collecting information on the cultural diaspora of objects. There will be a comprehensive record, in one place, of the hundreds of artifacts and objects in worldwide collections.

Drawing on left attributed to Hiłamas/Ned Harris, Kwakwaka’wakw (c.1895), colored pencil, ink, and pencil
on paper, Center drawing: Unknown maker, (c. 1896), ink on paper, commissioned by Franz Boas for reproduction in The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, image on the right is the final version printed in the book

Corrine Hunt, the great-granddaughter of George Hunt, along with members of the  Kwakwaka’wakw community, are in some cases using the Boas/Hunt book as a template to recreate, in a contemporary way, the extraordinary objects lost to time and Western museums. This is a heroic step towards revitalizing Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture and language. Keeping cultural traditions alive and current is vital to keeping indigenous societies alive.

There is a beautiful example of such rejuvenation included in the exhibition. In 2018 to 2019, Corrine Hunt, and Chief David Mungo Knox together carved a Transformation Mask, a central object of the tribe’s ceremonial regalia. In 2019 the mask will be danced with at a Hunt family feast, or “potlatch,” reactivating a long-lost part of their family tradition.

Installation of contemporary Transformation mask with contemporary video by Corrine Hunt and Chief David Mungo Knox (2018–19) cedar, pigment, string, hardware, (courtesy of Hunt family)

The exhibition is didactic and for those with the interest to read and watch, it is truly a revelatory experience. Using clear and well-written wall text and both archival and contemporary video, the show portrays the deep and abiding influence this one volume of field research has had on real people’s lives. The show contains some beautiful objects, but I wished for more. One doesn’t feel the full impact of the range and depth of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artistry from the objects in this show. On one hand, I long for the passion one feels when we see objects that are transcendent. On the other, the story presented in the exhibition is deeply moving and one leaves the show with genuine and well-founded hope for the future.

Original drawing of a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw mask (attributed to Albert Grünwedel) with notes by Franz Boas; paper, ink, watercolor

Referring to his book as a “box,” in a letter written to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw chiefs in 1897 Franz Boas wrote:

It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept. My friend George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago. It is a good book, for in it are your laws and your stories. Now they will not be forgotten.”

The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology continues at the Bard Graduate Center (18 West 86th Street, the Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 7. It was curated by Aaron Glass and features designs by Corrine Hunt.

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A Treasure Trove of Oddities and Timely Exhibitions at Oxford’s Ethnography Museum

September 14, 2018 in Hyperallergic

Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, the Pitt Rivers Museum has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful.

The Pitt Rivers Museum (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

OXFORD, UK — The Pitt Rivers Museum, located at Oxford University, is one of the world’s great museums — one you’ve probably never heard of. Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, it has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful. Pitt Rivers is a museum of “stuff”: the amazing things that people make, globally, from antiquity to today. It houses over half a million items, many of them displayed in inventive and original ways. It will blow your mind.

Founded in 1884 by the immodestly named Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, with an initial gift of approximately 30,000 objects, the museum has continued to grow; to this day it is actively acquiring items from around the world. In addition, it houses extensive collections of photographs, sound recordings, manuscripts and film, which are accessible by appointment. The sheer volume of its holdings is extraordinary. It has been central to the development of the field of Anthropology and the study of Material Culture.

Cases of various objects

Pitt Rivers was a relatively enlightened Victorian collector. Though problematic in a contemporary context, he saw the collection and display of objects from non-Western cultures as a way to understand the “evolution” of society. Following in the footsteps of Darwin, this was a flawed, but timely attempt to apply the startling new theories of biological evolution to other parts of human development.

Enemy skull

For me, Pitt Rivers is a stunning and archaic monument to the history of collecting, a kind of museum about museums. Plus, the objects are jaw-droppingly fabulous. Materials, craftsmanship and passion combine to present some of the most stirring objects you’ll ever see anywhere. For example, the building’s atrium is dominated by a 383-foot-tall totem pole made by a Haida carver from British Columbia. Acquired in 1901, this monumental, spiritual sculpture rises from the floor of the museum opposite a full-sized sailing vessel, suspended from the cathedral ceiling. The scale and depth of the collection are unsurpassed among ethnographic museums.

Most ethnographic museums struggle, both with their place in contemporary curatorial practice and with the simple fact that their collections are often largely the result of wanton colonialism. How does such an institution make peace with its history? The contemporary curators of the Pitt Rivers Museum have sought to address these issues in several ways.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

Resisting several ill-advised efforts to modernize the building and collections Pitt Rivers has added a separate, but attached building housing several new galleries devoted to changing exhibitions (as well as conservation labs, classrooms and archives). The original soaring three-level Victorian museum remains intact. The major move into the modern era occurred in 2016 when the museum  installed lighting. When I first visited seven years ago the building was almost entirely dark; visitors received flashlights to view the exhibits! While some of the mystery and thrill of discovery are somewhat tempered, the glories of the museum are definitely easier to see.

This summer the museum is hosting three exhibitions, each deeply moving in its own way. The space above the Haida totem pole now features huge black and white contemporary photographs of displaced Syrians living in Turkey in 2017. Entitled Syrians Unknown (through September 30), the photographs are accompanied by extensive details of the sitter’s life and displacement history in English and Arabic. Printed on Foamex by artist John Wreford, the faces of the displaced stare impassively at the vast museum below. It is monumental in many ways.

A second modern gallery is hosting a small but powerful exhibition of photographs entitled Kwibuka Rwanda (through September 28)This exhibition documents some of the 243 roadside monuments made by local residents to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which five hundred thousand to a million Rwandan people were killed. The works portray the spontaneous expressions of members of a society, seeking to remember the violent past and memorialize those who perished. Kwibuka Rwanda gives potent voice to the makers and caretakers of these monuments.

Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (detail)

In the third temporary exhibition, Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (through September 23)the artist explores his family’s roots as part of the Asian Diaspora in Uganda. When Idi Amin expelled 80,000 Asians in 1971, Shah’s family members became exiles from a country they had lived in for generations. Through vintage photographs and eloquent narrative fragments Shah recreates their journey and lives as displaced persons. Poetic and elegant, his work marries image and word, creating a visual narrative of memory and loss.

These days the museum’s collection grows primarily through donations. New acquisitions include Ghanaian carved coffins, First Nations moccasins embroidered with a Nike motif, and a plethora of East Indian advertising materials. Founded as an educational institution bound by its historic time and place, the Pitt Rivers Museum is a vibrant example of how a museum can morph and grow in the present, even as it delights in its quirky past.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

The Pitt Rivers Museum is located at the Oxford University Museum Natural History (South Parks Road, Oxford, United Kingdom).

 

 

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Artists and Scientists Concoct Immersive Projects at the Wellcome

Published July 3 in Hyperallergic

The Wellcome Collection in London introduces four mixed-media installations in an immersive, collaborative show between artists and scientists.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm. (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — The Wellcome Collection in London has long been known for some of the most innovative and daring exhibitions imaginable. The museum is dedicated to the confluence of art and science, specifically to health and medicine. Sounds like a dry mission statement, but the creative curators of the museum have taken this vision to new and unexpected places.

Founded in 1936, the Wellcome Trust, under whose umbrella the museum sits, is financially and politically independent, enabling it to tackle controversial subjects without limits. In 2011, I saw an exhibition they mounted entitled Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life that dealt with the world’s relationship with “filth,” aka: shit. It was brilliant in its scope and curatorial rigor.

The current exhibition, entitled Somewhere in Between, partners four visual artists with four scientists, each approaching a current issue in health or science. The exhibition features four very disparate subjects with which each artist has had personal experience. These subjects were matched with scientific experts in the respective fields. It is an ambitious undertaking with mixed results. There is no common thread between the four constructs, which may be part of the problem.

Maria McKinney, installation view of Sire at the Wellcome Collection

Sire, by artist Maria McKinney and scientists Michael Doherty and David MacHugh, is about the genetic engineering of bulls at an Irish stud farm. The bulls are genetically modified to emphasize the characteristics that will make these animals more efficient breeding machines. Ability to withstand climate change, increase in muscle mass, and lack of horns are desirable for future breeding stock. The artist has documented these bulls each wearing an intricate sculpture woven from insemination straws. She’s used traditional local corn weaving techniques to produce these futuristic fluorescent objects that the placid bulls each sport on their backs. Printed very large and in lush colors, the photos are oddly funny — big bulls meet DIY artisanal weaving. Several of these objects are exhibited as free-standing sculptures. They are very attractive. There is a passivity to the work that belies the undertone of the project. The back-story, presented in both text and audio to the public, bestows a much more ominous meaning upon the work, a story of genetic engineering taken to the extreme.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm

The second of the four pairings sets out to examine the newly discovered neurological phenomenon of “mirror- touch synesthesia.” Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses are blended. That is, you may associate letters or numbers with colors, or words and sounds with spatial locations on a consistent basis. This has been widely studied and documented. “Mirror-touch synesthesia” appears to take the notion one step further. To quote the exhibition catalogue, “A person with mirror-touch feels other people’s sensations of touch, both painful and pleasurable. When they observe touch, they sense it in their own body, as if experiencing it themselves.”

Daria Martin, At the Threshold (2014–15), 16-mm. film, 17.5 min.

Daria Martin has chosen to explore this phenomenon in two related 16-mm films: Sensorium Tests and At the Threshold. The former seeks to recreate the first tests that led to the discovery of this condition. The latter investigates the fictional relationship between a mother and son who share the condition. For Martin’s own reasons, she shot the second film as a 1950s-style melodrama. The films are being shown in two separate rooms that share a common entryway. I watched both of them twice and was unable to connect with the films, the subject matter, or the narrative, if there was one. The exhaustive text that accompanies this and all four of the projects is what finally gave me a hint as to what I was watching. Michael Banissy, the scientist with whom she collaborated, presents his work in an accompanying paper. It made me long for the writing of Oliver Sacks, who wrote extensively on these types of neurological oddities in a most erudite but accessible voice.

Daria Martin, Sensorium Tests (2012), 16-mm. film, 10 min.

For me, the installation’s extensive written annotations lead to a larger question about this kind of didactic museum exhibition. Can the art stand without the text?  What happens when you have a visual art project that necessitates lengthy text to convey meaning to the viewer? While text can give additional insight into the work, the politics, or the artist’s intent, I prefer to be walloped by what I see. Having to then turn to the written explanation sucks the magical experience of looking at art right out of the room for me.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, large paintings, acrylic on un-stretched canvas, various dimensions

Luckily, the final two projects in this exhibition stand more securely on their own as powerful visual statements. Alien Sex Club is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors, seeking to mimic the architecture of gay cruising spaces (according to the artist’s description). This multimedia, at times almost psychedelic, installation explores a sub-culture of gay sex behavior post-HIV anti-viral treatments. This project was done in tandem with a primary infectious diseases researcher and a team of sexual health professionals from many parts of the UK. This installation is as excessive as the first two artistic pairings are spare. Videos, sex toys, viewing booths, drawing, wallpaper — this is a dizzying array of ideas, colors, and objects.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

John Walter has created a vibrant universe of “post-HIV” gay life from an admittedly personal point of view. In his work, text is used as a dictionary for explaining some of the imagery of the Alien Sex Club, rather than as an explanatory crutch. The artist envisions a kind of parallel universe to ours, populated with “bugs”(the virus) and the rigid geometry of the retro virus pills, as well as icons like Keith Haring and Alistair Crowley.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

The installation in its entirety is a giddy romp; I found the most affecting pieces to be a series of mixed-media drawings in a piece entitled “Big Book” that acts as an instructive and informative “Bible” of the Alien Sex Club. The drawings are beautiful, wry, and sometimes sad. They pack an emotional punch that isn’t present in any of the other pieces.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

The final installation in this quartet is quite literally breathtaking. Martina Amati is a free diver. That is, she free dives deep into the Red Sea without an air supply. She has trained her body to withstand the physiological and psychological pressures of doing something that is life-threatening and arguably insane. Her immersive installation of three wall-sized projections is entitled Under. They explore the three ways that free diving is measured — time, distance, and depth. The artist appears in each of the videos, which are shot and projected in such a way that you feel you are in the water with her. She sinks deep into the sea. She dances seemingly in elegant slow motion around a guide rope. The moving images are mesmerizing and incredibly beautiful. Meanwhile, my mind is racing: “Oh my god, how is she that deeply under the sea without any air?” The beauty of the videos belies the danger of the act. It is literally death-defying art. Two films are shown simultaneously in one room, the third on its own. There are accompanying still photographs from the videos exhibited on their own.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

Amati’s collaboration with scientist Kevin Fong was clearly one that really clicked. Each has written a succinct and poetic essay about their experience of working together. In this case, the art works completely independent of the text. The text becomes an additional poetic device to discuss both the mysteries of what the human body is capable of and the poetry of collaboration.

Though a bit of a mixed bag, the Wellcome Collection doesn’t disappoint in its eagerness to embrace new artistic possibilities at the growing intersection of art and science. In this era of blockbuster, crowd-pleasing mega-shows it is a delight to experience a cultural institution that is willing to challenge its audience.

Martina Amati, stills from Under (2018), C-prints, framed

Somewhere in Between is on display at the Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London) through August 27.

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Artists Who Unlocked the Modernist Grid

published April 11, 2018 in Hyperallergic

A gallery show that turns the form of the grid inside out, shedding more light on this iconic 20th-century favorite.

Arshile Gorky, “Still Life” (c.1930s), oil on canvas, 8″ x 10″ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

For the past 100 years or so the basic geometric grid has proved an irresistible form for many visual artists. Perhaps there’s something about the possibility of ordering the world and the restless nature of the artist’s mind that has fueled the allure and ambivalence of this relationship. Sometimes the simplest of concepts prove to be the ones most ripe for interpretation.

The current show at Lori Bookstein’s new gallery on the Upper East Side takes the notion of the grid as artistic palette in a delightfully different direction. The show entitled Unlocking the Grid focuses on artists who for the most part have chosen to take the “grid” apart, that is to work against its ordering qualities and screw around with the possibilities that this liberation affords. It is an impressive showing of some great 20th century painters including Arshile Gorky, Joaquín Torres-García, Adolph Gottlieb, and James Siena. The range and degree to which each of these artists has played against the grid underscores the fascinating possibilities of such a seemingly simple gesture.

Adolph Gottleib, “Nostalgia for Atlantis” (1944), oil and tempera on canvas, 20 x 25 inches

“Nostalgia For Atlantis” (1944) by Adolph Gottlieb is painted with a sense of whimsy that I’ve never associated with him. Gottlieb, in the mid-1940s, was in the midst of developing his pictograph series, loosely defined as a system of visual images that serve as clues for “reading “ a painting. This Gottlieb piece is a series of comic and emotional faces and expressions, interspersed with bold gestural marks. It’s lightly variegated blue and neutral-tone palette is shocked into animation by one gorgeous streak of brilliant cadmium red. There are other artists in the show working within the “pictograph” formula including Torres-García and Fonseca, but this Gottlieb painting, with a hint of humor in its narrative flow, is the standout.

                                  Anonymous, Kuba Peoples, early 20th century, Central Africa. Textile, 36.5″ x 24.25″

An unattributed early 20th century textile made by a member of the Kuba peoples from Central Africa is a brilliant addition to the show. I’m always intrigued when someone makes a significant visual connection between Western and non-Western art, and the inclusion of this piece certainly does that. Not knowing any more than what can be visually observed (the image appears to be painted onto a linen–like fabric) one can only marvel at the beauty of this piece. Rhythmic patterning changes as it dances across the wheat-colored surface, punctuated by several hits of a lighter tone. I love how it is both orderly and disorderly at the same time. The eye wants to create a repeated neat pattern, but the maker has slyly tweaked the design so that is never possible. Unfortunately this piece is hung in a narrow corridor outside of the main exhibition, lessening the impact of its presence in the exhibition.

James Siena, “Large Manifold, Second Version” (2016), graphite on paper. 20″ x 25″

“Study For Mural Based on Egyptian Motifs” (1955) by Louis I. Kahn is another surprise in this show. Though I’ve seen many drawings of Kahn’s plans for building projects, I had never seen anything quite like this. Meticulously drawn in fine charcoal the piece is highly structured but shows the presence of a free hand, the charcoal is allowed to drift across the paper in gentle tones.It is a mosaic-like composition, which reads as both something and nothing. Observing close up, you notice the mark making, the irregular edges of the drawn tiles. However when viewed from afar the shapes all coalesce into the abstracted features of a portrait. There’s a playfulness in this beautifully rendered drawing that is, to my mind, delightfully unusual for Kahn’s oeuvre.

The exhibition is a candybox of terrific 20th century blue-chip artwork, with the sole exception of a rather tepid Jennifer Bartlett. (“Swimming Pool,” early 1970’s). It’s an odd inclusion of work from an artist who has worked extensively and very innovatively with the grid structure. But Bartlett aside, it is a delight to see such a disparate group of painters nestled under the curatorial construct of the “grid.” I loved the process of both ordering and disordering the world that unites all of the work in this show.

Unlocking the Grid continues at Bookstein Projects. (60 East 66th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until April 14.

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Tantalizing Quilts Woven with Poetic, Political Messages

published March 13, 2018 in Hyperallergic

The artists in Piecework embed intriguing, coded messages into their quilts.

Vanessa German, “Delia Quilt 1” (2015), silkscreen on found quilt (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pavel Zoubok gallery is currently hosting an intriguing show entitled Piecework. Riffing on the traditional women’s work of piecing fabric together, the five artists in this exhibition have produced quilt-like works that belie the traditional definition of the genre.

Using a wide variety of approaches, though mostly sticking to a rectilinear format, the artists all share an interest in embedding messages into their quilts. The origins of this practice have been traced to the American urban myth that quilts made in the 17th and 18th centuries had escape directions for slaves “coded’ in their patterns. There have been many historical attempts to debunk this urban myth, yet it persists. The idea of conveying messages with fabric, however, remains an enduring and intriguing jumping-off point for artists.

Installation view of Piecework at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Diane Samuels’s “Poetry Quilt” (2017), measuring a mighty 87 by 90 inches, is constructed of paper and backed with fabric, while the surface is covered with poems that have affected the artist’s life. The giant panel is constructed of hundreds of strips of painted and drawn-upon paper, which she painstakingly pieced together and then wrote over, in the tiniest font imaginable, the poems that have been meaningful to the artist throughout her life. From far away everything merges into a rhythmic sea of jewel-tone colors. It’s only upon very close inspection that one sees the writing (a magnifying glass would have helped) and is able to make out the words of some of the most beautiful poems in the Western cannon, including ones by T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich.

Diane Samuels, “Poetry Quilt” (2017), paper, paint, craypas, ink, glue, backed with cotton fabric, 87 x 90 inches

There are two chilling pieces by the artist Joe Lewis made of Kente cloth, a Ghanaian woven fabric that has traditionally been used as a message of identity — the patterns of the cloth signal who the wearer is, their tribe, and their status in the world. Lewis has made two “Juvenile Body Bags” — literally. He covered one side of the plastic body bags used for children (the bags are shockingly small) with the cloth associated with Africa and the African diaspora. In the center of each is a clear plastic window with a blank “toe tag” — that is, the tag used to tie to a corpse to identify it. The tension between the beautiful hand-woven cloth and the shocking message of the bags is powerful.

Joe Lewis, “Juvenile Body Bag 2” (2018) ( detail), kente cloth, plastic boday bag, paper toe tags

Donna Sharrett’s two pieces in the show, from her series Tailored Herbaria(2018), appear to be in the decorative tradition of textile work. The pieced, embroidered, and embellished groups of stylized tree leaves make for very attractive wall pieces. However, upon doing some research, spurned on by the pieces’ mysterious titles (like “41°10’8”N 73°49’15” W”) I found that the pieces refer to the exact geographical location of flora endangered by climate change. The coded message becomes a tangible alert to parts of the natural world we are in danger of destroying.

Donna Sharrett, “201.8 41”2’5” N 73”58 46” W”, clothing, jewelry, guitar strings, guitar-string ball-ends, fabric, thread

If anything, this exhibition is slightly frustrating because it is small and left me wanting more. Pavel Zoubok Gallery is hoping to expand the exhibition in a different space and this would indeed be a welcome development. Piecework is a tantalizing taste of the possibilities inherent in what was once only considered “women’s work.”

Piecework continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 21.

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The Story Behind Northern India’s Breathtaking, Disappearing Frescoes.

In Hyperallergic-January 23, 2018

The Shekhawati region covers almost 5,000 square miles and hosts an estimated 2,000 frescoed buildings built from the 17th to the early 20th century.

A ceiling fresco in a haveli in India’s Shekhawati province (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MANDAWA, India — Some artistic wonders have been unearthed as buried treasures. Others are hidden in plain sight. India’s Shekhawati province is in the northeastern Rajasthani desert and more than seven hours by car from Delhi. The region covers almost 5,000 square miles and hosts an estimated 2,000 frescoed buildings built from the 17th to the early 20th century. Many of them are abandoned and most are breathtakingly beautiful. Arguably the world’s largest collection of outdoor painting, Shekhawati is a treasure trove of startling architecture and adornment.

The view over Madwana

Driving through Indian agricultural towns, you can spy these buildings, called “havelis,” through the dust. Decorated with historic frescos, many are in a state of gentle but inexorable disintegration. The owners — almost all of the havelis are privately owned — have either abandoned the properties or rented them out to local people.

The Shekhawati region sits strategically in the middle of what was once the major trade caravan or “Silk Road” between modern-day India, Pakistan, China, and beyond. Over several centuries local merchants became rich in the trade and transport of opium, cotton, and spices. These communities became collectively known as “Marwari,” referring to the wily traders who brought commercial savvy and great wealth to the district. As a public show of their success, the Marwari commissioned ostentatious homes — the more elaborate the haveli, the richer and more prestigious its owner. As overland trade routes shifted to the seaports of Mumbai and Calcutta, the traders followed, moving their families, but maintaining and continuing to commission frescos for their Shekhawati havelis. Think of it as the Hamptons of Rajasthan.

Inhabited haveli
Detail of a haveli

Havelis were almost always built in the same basic form: two-storied with two to four inner courtyards, all in rectangular layout. Each courtyard and the rooms surrounding it were used for specific purposes; the first was always for men and their public business dealings. As one entered deeper, the rooms and courtyards became more intimate, used for various family purposes.

Looking down into the courtyard

The frescos that adorn these buildings are a triumph of artistic expression and of the luck of climate, materials, and isolation. The dry heat of the desert and the use of 100% natural pigments in the plaster have proved surprisingly archival. The colors have remained rich and vibrant, although the interior exposures are much better preserved than the exteriors. The oldest of the frescos are painted using ochre, red and white lead, cinnabar, indigo, lapis, copper carbonate, Indian yellow (made from cow’s urine), lamp black, lime white, red stone powder, and saffron orange. The result is a vivid palate, augmented in some of the interior rooms by 22-karat-gold leafing. Later frescos incorporated synthetic pigments imported from Europe.

An unfinished fresco

I visited the two main towns of the region, Mandawa and Nawalgarh, where there is a large concentration of havelis, but they are everywhere in the surrounding region. A few havelis have been preserved as small museums, where for a few rupees one can freely wander around the rooms and explore the labyrinth of courtyards, stairways, and balconies. The Haveli Heritage Trust in Nawalgarh is one of the best known and organized. Many havelis stand largely empty or barely used, but some are still inhabited.

In Mandawa I visited a haveli rented to a local family. After passing through a courtyard, I was ushered into the family bedroom. I looked up to find the entire room — walls and ceiling — painted with a mythological love story and gilded in 22-karat gold leaf. There was no electricity in the building, but the sunlight streaming through unglazed windows gave the room a brilliant glow.

Meeting of the gods and goddesses
High fresco of Krishna

For the most part the frescos tell glorious tales of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Mythological armies march across ceilings, goddesses perch on the walls, and elephants dance in the corners. Ganesha, the Hindu god associated closely with money and wealth, is honored many times over. Border motifs tend to use either decorative designs common to the era, or portray local flora and fauna, which give us a catalogue of the region’s natural history. Many display great playfulness, portraying the patron of the house and his family delighting in the interplay of two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional architecture.

Detail of a fresco depicting British soldiers

In the more recent havelis (dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries) we see the appearance of trains, hot-air balloons, and white people. The English colonizers make their appearance in the frescos as awkward figures. There is a sly political statement embedded in these funny, stiff depictions of the British, set against the elegance of the Indian gods and goddesses. The English are wearing way too much clothing for the heat of the Rajasthan desert; they stare with empty expressions at one another. One could argue that the painters were merely recording what they saw, but as one often finds in the art made under oppression, the painters and their patrons were likely proclaiming their views of the colonizers.

Detail of a fresco depicting English women

While remarkably intact for their age, these national treasures are being lost over time to neglect and reckless modernization. Local guides say there is an effort afoot to put this region on the UNESCO list of heritage sites, a complex and unlikely prospect given the havelis’ private ownership and their vast geographical span. (Hyperallergic reached out to UNESCO for comment, but received no response.) The Shekhawati frescos are off the well-worn Indian tourist path and difficult to get to, but you should see them if you can. They won’t last forever.

Looking up at a goddess and Mughal emperor
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