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Chose What to Say and How to Say It

One of things we admire most about the artists and artisans we feature this week is the conscious and deliberate choices they have made while creating their work. Their skill in visual or verbal language, the nuances and intentions on view or part of a subtext, mean that their creations can speak eloquently to successive generations while influencing their own eras.

The two exhibits at The Grolier Club embody these ideas to perfection, showcasing the craft, inventiveness, and work of people involved in book production, from the artists and writers, to designers, engravers and printers, publishers, governments, and the public. ‘Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day: Five Decades of Rare Book School & the Book Arts Press’ presents rare books and texts from across centuries and countries, examining their creation, purpose, and impact in a contemporary and historical context. It’s awe-inspiring to realize that one person’s hopeful act of preserving a historic document ensured that we could see and learn from it today, decades or centuries later.

Of course, sometimes what we learn is that we weren’t the first to think of certain ideas, or even that we don’t do some things better than previous generations. For instance, it would be difficult to surpass the stylishly erotic drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, if only because the taste nowadays is for a certain frank vulgarity. And yet, people return again and again to his images, finding a certain honesty in his work, as it acknowledges some of the many aspects of love and lust in a way that porn can’t match. But there is so more to this 19th century artistic legend than NSFW illustrations as ‘Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young’, located in The Grolier Club’s 2nd floor gallery, proves. The 70 objects from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection in the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press range from private letters to publications by this remarkable talent whose career only lasted a few years before his death from tuberculosis in 1898. Beardsley’s designs for books and magazines became synonymous with the English Art Nouveau and Aesthetic movements, instantly recognizable with flowing lines and use of positive/negative space that was ahead of its time and perfect for printing. Graphic design history simply wouldn’t be the same without him.

Another example of autonomy in artistic terms is an exhibit on view now at The National Arts Club. ‘Selections from Australia’s Western Desert From the collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield’ presents six artworks from five Indigenous Australian artists who use their cultural background to reference, but not make explicit, aspects of their beliefs, history, and local landscapes. This protects information that is sacred and private, giving the artists’ control of their narrative in a way rarely seen in history. Instead, abstract shapes, made with large swaths of paint or small dots, stippled across the canvas, merely hint at a meaning to outsiders, while being clear to the people fully conversant with indigenous culture. It’s an elegant solution to the problem of choosing what to say and how to say it, without losing their sense of self in the process.

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It’s Art if I Say It Is

When considering American folk artists from the 20th century, one of the things we must ask ourselves is how did the establishment come to embrace certain artists and their vision? Because it’s institutions, from galleries to curators to scholars, that bring forward an artist, essentially assigning a label or category for their work, then introducing the public to this person. Sometimes it happens that the work survives the first flush of attention, becoming part of a larger narrative in art history, or perhaps simply a treasured image in a museum collection. Other times, ideas and tastes change, reducing the art to a fad, like a novelty Christmas song.

The latest exhibition from the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), ‘Morris Hirshfield Reconsidered’, takes a fresh approach to the noted self-taught painter, whose works and career benefited from a unique moment in 1940s American contemporary art. At that time, critics and curators felt that most US artists were leaning too heavily on European ideas and methods, being imitators, rather than innovators. This line of reasoning wasn’t strictly accurate: plenty of American artists working with local themes and were most definitely not part of European training or ideals were getting good reviews and supported by collectors and museums during this era. But there certainly was a desire for something more, something that could be claimed as authentically ‘American’. Enter folk art, a genre that encompassed a wide variety of people, backgrounds, and media, almost all self-taught (that is, without any formal scholastic training), whose works could be interpreted in a variety of ways by the art establishment and even by other artists, without threatening or offending the status quo of anyone.

Unfortunately, no one told Surrealists André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, who included Morris Hirshfield’s painting Girl with Pigeons in the 1942 landmark art show First Papers of Surrealism, accepting him as a modern artist, not a ‘folk’ or ‘primitive’ one, shocking many who did not believe that a self-taught artist had any place with professionals. But that’s Surrealists for you, always smashing up the carefully erected barriers and trashing the place. And actually, they weren’t wrong. Hirshfield was an accidental Surrealist, filtering images and his thoughts through a multi-faceted prism, then painting the results. He thought they looked truer than a photograph, the Surrealists accepted his truth, and everyone else could only see the flaws, not what the artist meant. A classic Surrealist moment.

Sadly, the accreditation didn’t last long. Hirshfield died in 1946 and after a 1947 posthumous show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery he essentially faded from view, remembered as a folk artist and nothing more. Now, thanks to curator Richard Meyer, curatorial advisor Susan Davidson, and coordinating curator Valérie Rousseau, AFAM is presenting a comprehensive look at Hirshfield’s work, his supporters in the art world, and a reassessment of his role as a Modernist artist. It’s a fascinating look at a forgotten bit of art history that played out in New York City.

Another example of an artist whose work triumphs over simplistic labels is now at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), which is presenting ‘Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle’, featuring the works of multi-faceted designer and performance artist Machine Dazzle. His costumes are a sensory overload: decorated with anything and everything; painted, stitched, and glued, in a dizzying array of colors. Best known for his collaboration with Taylor Mac, whose musical extravaganza, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2016), used his costuming, with its keen sense of American culture in all its ugliness and glory, to great effect, Machine Dazzle’s creations pull triple duty as stage props, set design, and embracing the kaleidoscope qualities of queer maximalism aesthetic. Trust us – you have absolutely never, ever, seen anything so fabulously amazing as his work.

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What Is It Like to Blow Everyone’s Tiny Mind?

A lot of artists would like to believe that their work has changed the world in some way. This is ego and vanity at play of course, even we don’t really think art does that very often. But sometimes you do see something that jolts your complacency, making you realize how dumb and insensitive you are to the stunning variety of life experience out there – and usually it’s art that is the catalyst. Two gallery shows now on view demonstrate this power of art, bringing the unseen and unspoken, the disregarded and disenfranchised to the attention of the world, and yes, blowing everyone’s tiny mind.

How can you begin to describe the effect of Diane Arbus’ photographs? The subjects: ugly people, people who think they look good, people who don’t know or don’t care what they look like – all of them paraded in front of the lens of a camera operated by someone who had to record them, make them seen, make them visible to the world, whether the world wanted it or not. In 1972, this was not how photography was supposed to be: either it was aesthetically beautiful, reportage, portraiture, or casual. It certainly wasn’t supposed to confront you with your own reaction. And yet, here these images were, doing just that, and to hell with it all. Naturally, the uproar was considerable, with the critics shouting yay or nay, the intelligentsia doing the same, and the public? Well, they went to her posthumous exhibition at MoMA in 1972, and they looked, recoiled, looked again, whispered, and talked, then went home to think about it all.

Now David Zwirner and Fraenkel Gallery are presenting a re-creation of this event: .cataclysm.: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited, brings together the original 113 images to a contemporary audience that has a different reaction. Today, people see these images more as records of ordinary people, especially those often ignored, marginalized, or shunned by most of society, which has the effect of removing the shock value but increases the emotional connection between viewer and subject. Perhaps this change in reaction takes away some of the discomfort felt by an earlier generation and so lessens the photographs’ impact, but in turn, a greater acceptance of humanity’s near infinite variety might be an outcome that Arbus could not have imagined for her work. At any rate, it’s something to consider when visiting the show.

A different approach to art photography is found in the images of Lorna Simpson 1985-92 (now on view at Hauser & Wirth), with their visual and verbal cues on some of the same questions of gender, identity, and representation, with an added focus on the countless issues facing women and Black women in particular. Simpson’s cropped photographs invite and deny the viewer’s gaze, while the open-ended language applied to the images can be read as fact, history, or a continuation of an implied violence and/or trauma. There is no refuge in neutrality: every person who stands in front of her work is pushed to consider their interpretation and reaction to others and society as a whole. Simpson’s work is timely and timeless, confronting the difficult truths of society with an austere beauty that compels attention and changes the viewer forever.

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The Art to See When You’ve Seen It All

Not to brag or anything but we figure that we’ve seen at least 80 – 100,000 artworks or images of artworks in our lifetime.

How did we get to that figure? Well, if you accept that a special exhibition has on average 100 objects, and you go to at least 40 shows a year, that’s already 4,000 objects. Then there’s the permanent collection spaces, say those have 15 to 50 pieces per room, and there’s at least 10 rooms, so that is anywhere from 150 to 500 items…Now of course, we’re also saying that we’ve spent more than 3 seconds on each object wherever it is displayed, examining and filing away images, questions, comparisons to other works and so on. And this has been over many years, in cities and towns across the world, not to mention in chapels, churches, cathedrals, galleries, and public areas like streets and subway stations. Then there’s the books…now that’s worth a good 3,000 images a year, easy. And studied in some depth as well, don’t forget.

We’ve embraced everything: adoring Impressionism (French and American), ancient artifacts ranging from Sumerian to Mesoamerican, Northern Renaissance (actually, that’s still a favorite), all the -isms and strange international art groups that lasted only a year or two, and finally, an acceptance that there were very few surprises left in our knowledge of the world of artistic endeavor.

And then we discovered contemporary ceramics.

Here is a field that consistently pushes and strains against the physical and chemical boundaries of creation. Its practitioners accept that although planning is essential to make an object match an idea, the element of surprise is always present, ready to improve or destroy their efforts. Nowhere is this clearer than in the latest show at Lisson Gallery, ‘Masaomi Yasunaga: Looking Afar’, where the ceramics simultaneously refine and demolish the rules of earthenware itself. Yasunaga’s technique is a blend of control over materials combined with the unique aspects of each firing event, subject to weather, temperature, placement in the kiln, etc. These objects, created using clay slip, rocks, minerals, and glass powders are a departure from standard pottery shapes and decoration, with an exuberantly tactile surface that also acts as the framework for the piece itself.

Another aspect of contemporary ceramics is the way shaping clay seems to tap into the human desire to tell stories of all kinds, giving form to visions of the world as it is or might be. One artist who uses narrative to contextualize his pieces this way is Sakari Kannosto, a Finnish artist whose works and installations examine the relationship between humans and nature. His new show at HB381, ‘Children of the Flood’ imagines the outcome of a natural catastrophe that forces humans to mentally and physically evolve to live within an ocean environment. Kannosto’s thoughtful approach to the practicalities of such a situation are leavened with empathy and humor, allowing viewers to reflect on the myriad possibilities of adaptation in a changing world.