In Their Own Image: Inuit Art at Vassar Focuses on the Indigenous Experience
By Robert Burke Warren
In recent years, the “official” history of indigenous North Americans – as told from European perspectives – has fallen under increased scrutiny. Potent critiques of the “textbook take” are increasingly common, and slowly but surely, the narrative is changing; the term “Native American” has displaced “Indian,” Christopher Columbus is losing credibility, the 1990 NAGPRA Act provides Federal protection of tribal property and historic sites, and contemporary indigenous art is gaining respect. Vassar’s own indefatigable Professor Molly McGlennen, a member of the Anishinaabe tribe, is part of this shift. McGlennen, with degrees in English and Philosophy, and a PhD in Native American Studies, is deeply committed to broadening students’ perspectives via her class, “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art.” In a unique move, the class culminates in an exhibit curated by those students: Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings From the Edward J. Guarino Collection. The exhibit features eight Inuit works on paper, displayed in the Focus Gallery at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from December 4th to February 2nd.
Upon meeting her students last September, McGlennen wasn’t surprised at how little they’d learned about the indigenous experience in high school. “Students come in and feel they’ve been lied to or cheated,” she says. “They just know Pocahontas and the first Thanksgiving, that’s all their history books have told them. They wonder why there’s such an absence of Native American resistance in their texts. It’s a fascinating history. You might hear about the 19th century Plains Indian Wars, you might read about the supposed demise of the Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century, but where are they now? Students are hungry for these stories, even if they don’t know it.”
Prior to this class, McGlennen began her time at Vassar as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Native American Studies, teaching the first Native American Studies course at the college. Soon after her arrival, she met art collector Edward J. Guarino. “Every year, he’d come to my class and bring these incredible pieces,” she says. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do an art class coming out of Native American Studies instead of the art department?’” It was important to educate the students about what a Native American Studies perspective is, as opposed to an art history perspective; it was important to have contemporary pieces to work against the prevailing stereotype about Native people being extinct; and it was important to be tribally specific, focusing on the Inuit, because that works against the notion that all native people are the same, that there’s this one monolithic group. [The Inuit, for example, were one of many tribes lumped under the term “Eskimo.”] There are over a thousand tribes in North America alone.
McGlennen also wants to dispel the notion of the indigenous experience being one primarily of “bygone days.” “Students think, ‘You teach native studies, you must be a historian,’” she says. “They’ll assume I’m only going to be talking about history, or my class will be about chronicling the wars, the great war heroes. But my primary area of expertise is contemporary literary and visual culture.”
Guarino, a champion of indigenous art, points out that the Surrealists, particularly Andre Breton, took much inspiration from Inuit art. “The Surrealists were fascinated by the multiple perspectives, distortions, emotional intensity, and seeming spontaneity of Inuit art,” he writes. “The Inuit world was filled with spirits and transformations that, to the Surrealists, corresponded with their desire to portray the dream world of the human subconscious. However, in the U.S., only a small number of discerning collectors and curators have had the foresight to champion Inuit art for what it is: contemporary art.”
“We try to privilege the Native perspective and voice,” says McGlennen. “In researching the pieces, contextualizing them, everything we read is written by Native Americans – scholars, theorists, artists. The students learn more broadly what’s happening in the Native American art world: who the artists are, what the pieces are about, what they’re trying to do, whom they’re speaking for or to.”
The exhibit features several mediums, including (pictured from top to bottom) Kenojuak Ashevak’s stonecut-on-paper “Animals Out of Darkness,” Jamasie Pitseolak’s dry-point etching “The Student,” Pitaloosie Saila’s lithograph “Strange Ladies,” and Annie Pootoogook’s collagraph “Pitseolak’s Glasses.” All artists rose from Inuit communities in the Arctic regions of Canada, some from dire circumstances, and most are still active and achieving renown. The works, by turns harrowing, gentle, and dreamlike, offer a glimpse into the process by which indigenous people express their continued resistance to one culture – the colonists’ – while enriching their own. Accompanying each piece is a wall label with a quote from the artist, which sets the context off, plus an overview by the students who chose the work.
The stories of the indigenous peoples of North America are fraught and complex, but Decolonizing the Exhibition shows they are also ever-changing, inspiring, and very much alive and well.
Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings From the Edward J. Guarino Collection
December 4th, 2013 to February 2nd, 2014
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Going To Pots: “Sangha,” More Than A Thousand Miniature Vessels By Kathryn Walker
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
Photos of pottery and shop by Kelby Lawson
Sangha, the Sanskrit word for community, is an appropriate name for the stunning installation of miniature earthen pots, each decorated by artist Kathryn Walker, that are on view through November 30 at Pergola, the luscious home store in the hamlet of New Preston, CT.
Walker’s collection of vessels is as beautiful and complex as the artist herself. According to Peter Stiglin, co-owner with David Whitman of Pergola, where the jewel-like vessels have transformed the store, Walker is “a force, and a true intellectual.” He ticks off her accomplishments: Fulbright scholar, documentary filmmaker (The Millennium Journal), art photographer, novelist (A Stopover in Venice, published by Knopf in 2008), Emmy Award-winning actress (The Adams Chronicles), Broadway star (Private Lives, Wild Honey), and conceptual artist.
It stands to reason that Walker’s personal life would be as artfully charged as her colorful mini pots. After her longtime companion, screenwriter Doug Kenney, the co-founder of National Lampoon, died in 1980, she married singer-songwriter James Taylor and is credited with helping him overcome his substance-abuse issues. Today, she happily divides her time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she creates art, and New York City. She formerly had a home in Washington, CT.
Walker recounts the genesis of the vessels for RI. “Louis Grachos of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery saw the first group I made—a few hundred or so—and wanted to put them in a show. But he wanted me to make more—many, many more,” she says. She did just that for almost six years, pursuing each new theme until it was exhausted. The Sangha show opened at the Albright-Knox in 2011.
Because pottery has traditionally been used to save or store things, Walker feels her simple pots represent hope and the promise of tomorrow. “These jars, descended from ancient prototypes, carry ancient emblems. They stand in testimony to what has been achieved, what has been hoped for, and what may also be lost. They are at once spectators and votaries,” she says.
Part of the impact of the exhibit derives from the sheer number of vessels and the variety of their colors and finishes. It’s hard to resist touching them, although many guests didn’t repress this urge at Pergola’s opening party this past weekend, when lots of individual vessels and whole curated groups (vessel families, as it were) went happily to their new homes. Some collectors even asked Walker to bless and kiss them goodbye. Rod Pleasants, president of McIver Morgan Interior Design and Architecture, bought three vessels, each with a subtle celadon glaze. He plans on keeping one, and giving the other two as gifts. “Walker works in a wide range of color and style,” he says. “The vessels move from very subtle matte finishes to vibrant intense color—not many artists are capable of that.”
“The elements of human innovation, community, survival, and hope are implied in this collection,” Walker says. “Human survival is no longer an individual crisis. The future of the planet itself has become a commonplace of international debate. The human community grows closer in the face of such a threat, and our survival will depend not only on cooperation and change but, to an even greater extent, on our struggle to become more conscious and generous, the aspirations of the sangha, the Buddhist devotional community.”
All told, the vessels range from crude to more refined, reflecting the diversity within a community. However they end up, they all start as simple, unglazed, earthen pots from Mexico, similar to the vessels made in rural cultures for centuries. Some get left partially raw, while others are highly saturated with pigment. Walker then embeds a fragment of a Tibetan prayer flag in the surface, a gesture that, according to artdaily.org, “evokes the long tradition in Tibet of making “treasure vases”—small decorated jars filled with talismans and sacred stones that are sealed and buried to bless and protect the earth and its beings—while simultaneously symbolizing spiritual generosity.”
Walker then numbers each vessel and applies one of an array of finishes. “The washes, patinas, and textures created are distinctive and beautiful,” says Agnes Gund, former president of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Walker’s friend. Gund first admired Kathryn’s exquisite vessels some years ago. “They have stuck with me ever since,” Gund says. “I feel that each piece, despite its small stature, is a powerful presence capable of standing on its own—unique little jewels in a wide range of colors, textures, and embellishments. With their subtle distinctions in size and shape, they seem to reference different cultures and periods of history.” While those washed in celadon are reminiscent of fine Korean pottery, others, according to Gund, are highly decorated with an intricate and repetitive motif that suggests fine china. Some bring the ceramics of ancient Persia to mind, or recall Japanese calligraphy and Chinese scroll paintings. “The installation of one thousand pots is provocative and uplifting, too,” Gund says, “and symbolic of the differences and beauty in every individual. It speaks to the unique presence each of us contributes to the world and to the vital importance of our commonality.”
On a more material level, all of the individual vessels are $90 each, regardless of size. Groupings of vitrines (curated by Gund and Whitman together) range from about $370 to $1,150, depending in the number of vessels in each.Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
The Rising Son of Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints at Vassar
By Robert Burke Warren
Throughout time and across the globe, cultures rise, fall, and evolve with one constant: storytelling. While some stories die with their tellers, others are durable and mutable enough to claim immortality. Westerners often cite Shakespeare and epic poet Homer as masters, yet our culture overlooks the author of the first novel – 11th century Japanese lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. Nevertheless, a millennium after she finished it, her sprawling, 54-chapter, psychologically astute The Tale of Genji lives on in the East, as gloriously evidenced in Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Arts Center (now until December 15th).
The exhibit encompasses more than The Tale of Genji, however. “The show has a lot of layers,” says curator Patricia Phagan. “It’s not really straightforward.” Peeling back those layers rewards patrons with a dazzling visual experience, while also offering a fascinating story about a story, and insight into woodblock printing at its apogee.
The Tale of Genji – the bedrock of it all – follows the exploits of Hikaru Genji, or “Shining Prince,” the son of the emperor’s beloved concubine, who, while rich and handsome, will never succeed his father, and thus consorts with the common folk, enjoying many loves and adventures, a kind of Prince-and-the-Pauper-in-one, or James Bond-of-the-people. The story remained in the fabric of Japanese society for centuries, offering deft characterizations and glimpses into highborn ritual and custom; the woodblock prints at Vassar, however, mostly represent the boost Genji received from 19th century parodist Ryutei Tanehiko and his illustrator, famed printmaker Utagawa Kunisada. Tanehiko and Kunisada’s 1829 series, A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki, transformed the Genji story into a pop-art phenomenon, almost a century-and-a-half before anyone coined the term “pop art.” Their “new” Genji, Mitsuuji, the top-knotted second son of the shogun, enlivens 19th century Manga-ish booklets, game boards, and breathtaking triptychs – all on view at Vassar.
In a brazen bit of time-shifting, Mitsuuji traipses through 15th century Japan, wearing extravagant 19th century kimonos, while also popping up incongruously in gorgeously rendered, iconic late-Edo-era landscapes, engaging in similar exploits as his 11th century counterpart. The combined whimsy, beauty, and canny marketing sense caught on; the rising, new merchant class could not get enough of the Rustic Genji, and, like Weird Al Yankovic popularizing the songs he lovingly lampoons, Tanehiko and Kunisada breathed new life into Lady Murasaki’s original work, at last elevating it to the status of classic literature.
“Rustic Genji wasn’t only the best seller of the century,” says Phagan. “It also became a craze. You had Genji hair oil, Genji noodles, Genji face powder.” (Indeed, Genji products – like “Genji aromatic oil” – still exist.)
Tanehiko and Kunisada brought their hero to the people. “They pictured the Rustic Genji going to Kabuki theatre, historic places, and shrines,” Phagan says. “Japanese people loved the Rustic Genji story, but they also loved the fabulous colors, exotic locales, and fashions.”
While both Genji and Mitsuuji fit the profile of the questing hero, their stories are surprisingly feminist, perhaps due to the original author’s gender, and her initial audience, women of the 11th century Japanese court. The female characters, be they spirits, vengeful mothers, or lovers, are quite active, and clearly, the printmakers relished conveying these characters’ willpower. For instance, several works in the exhibit tell the poignant story of Genji and widowed single mother Yugao, the love of Genji’s life. (Murasaki, incidentally, was a widowed single mother.) Upon learning of Genji’s interest in her (quite forbidden, considering her status), Yugao does not wait to be wooed, but rather sends the prince a poem written on a fan covered in morning glories. (Yugao, in fact, means morning glory.) This poem is included on some of the prints, either on a rendering of a fan or, if the image is too small for text, on the clouds above the scene.
While the booklets are mostly black-and-white, the Rustic Genji prints offer a smorgasbord of visual stimuli, including beautifully detailed depictions of the seasons, flowers, birds, pleasure boating, and fishing, all as background for intriguing scenes of love, conflict, and pleasure. Even when Japan’s “era of modernization” began in 1868, artists created Rustic Genji prints featuring suspension bridges, telegraph poles, and bicycles in the background, all as a government-sanctioned means of introducing these new-fangled items to the populace.
Genji may no longer be a craze, and Westerners may need some elucidation, but his story, conceived by a remarkable woman of the 11th century Japanese court, lives on for the foreseeable future, on display now at Vassar.
Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints
September 20 - December 15, 2013
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
A Palace of Memory: Anselm Kiefer Invades MASS MoCA
Kiefer’s “Velimir Chlebnikov,” series at MASS MoCA; all photos courtesy of the Hall Art Foundation
By Nichole Dupont
There is nothing lighthearted about an Anselm Kiefer exhibit. The literal weight of his medium — lead, concrete, dirt — can be felt and seen in the near-monumental scale of his works. And the philosophical heft of these sculptures and paintings rivals their physical presence. All in a day’s work for the German-born artist, who long ago shrugged his shoulders at the Minimalist tendencies of his peers and opted for the darker, more figurative path of a post-WWII consciousness and mathematical mysticism. Museumgoers to MASS MoCA will soon see (and feel, and even smell) for themselves Kiefer’s monolithic yet fluid work at the museum’s newest 10,000-square-foot exhibition space (known as Building 15). From September 27 through the next 15 years, the North Adams museum, in collaboration with the Hall Art Foundation, will have on “temporary” exhibit three installations that span the magnitude and breadth of Kiefer’s work.
“About eight years ago we tore down the brick portion of this huge water filtration tank, not knowing what we were going to do with it,” says MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson. “But when we started thinking about a Kiefer exhibit, it became a perfect space to house his work.”
Kiefer’s “Narrow Are the Vessels”
From the outside, the “tank” at the back of the property (at bottom) looks like a run of the mill warehouse space – metal sides, a concrete foundation, slightly pitched roof — but the interior, thanks to the genius of designer Bill Katz, a frequent Kiefer collaborator — is a world unto itself. The huge enclosure is divided by a thick concrete partition, where on one side is Kiefer’s wave-like Narrow Are the Vessels (above, 2002) and on the other The Women of the Revolution (1992), his homage (of lead beds) to woman heroines of the French Revolution. Adjacent to these is a galvanized steel pavilion that could easily be mistaken for a mausoleum: A building within a building that houses Velimir Chlebnikov, (2004, below right), a series of 30 paintings of nautical warfare (a part of the entire section pictured at top). While there are no windows on the sides of the space, a quick glance upward reveals two perfectly symmetrical rectangles – skylights – that allow soft, natural light to filter in.
“The skylights give the whole space a completely different vibe. I mean just look at that,” Thompson says, waving his hand at the alabaster spectacle of Narrow are the Vessels. “It looks like something from an act of war.”
The undulating concrete, rebar, and lead sculpture forces a long stare. It is graceful in its configuration, yet the harsh materials and large “broken pieces” lend a coldness.
“It is symbolic, I think, of the endless reverberations of war since the days of Troy,” Thompson says. “Yet there is this sexual undertone of rhythm and confluence. There are so many layers to this.” That is arguably the touchstone of Kiefer’s entire body of work, going as far back as his earliest watercolors, oils, and artist books of the 1970s and 80s (some of which will be on display at the Williams College Museum of Art, with selections from the Hall Collection as well as Kiefer’s Studio). Layers, both tactile and metaphorical, thicken the entire experience. A stray white glove is taped tenuously to a rugged painting of an epic naval battle, pools of water collect in whitish puddles atop behemoth lead beds honoring women warriors of times past. Every work is weathered. So weathered, in fact, that despite their sturdy appearance, Thompson sees Kiefer’s art as an ongoing study in preservation.
“Stuff falls off the paintings all the time – dirt, bits of straw. He writes directly on the canvas and that can fade. It takes years to sort out,” he says. “Even Kiefer himself has said ‘My art is very difficult to live with.’ Once it’s purchased, it’s all about conservation. It becomes like alchemy.”
Yet Kiefer might not be as concerned about the ruinous effects of time on his work. Nor is Andrew Hall, founder of the Hall Art Foundation and “proud father” of these works on loan to MASS MoCA and WCMA.
“All works of art have conservation issues. Watercolors degrade in the sun, photographs deteriorate,” he says. “Kiefer, because of his method, is fairly relaxed about how his works evolve over time. He often puts his paintings outside to weather them. He likes to see that process accelerated.”
Rest assured, there will be no paintings leaned up against the exterior wall of the Building 15. All will be safe inside what promises to be an exhibition for the masses. Visitors cannot help but have a visceral, gut reaction to the scale and brevity (and literary confluence) of heady issues and lead canvases. That is exactly the point, says Hall.
“When you look at the different works they each fulfill a different need. He tackles weighty issues and the end result is evocative. No one will register indifference seeing this work.”
Anselm Kiefer @ MASS MoCA
Opens Friday, September 27, 2013
1040 MASS MoCA Way
North Adams, MA
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Beyond Borders: The Art of Kenro Izu
By Robin Catalano
After three decades of seeking his muse in far-flung locales, from the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, photographer Kenro Izu is looking for inspiration closer to home — as in, his backyard. The peripatetic artist, renowned for capturing sacred places in dramatic, moody black-and-white images, has just released his second “Lumina Edition,” a collection of photos made in collaboration with his wife, photographer Yumiko Izu, and that shines a spotlight on places and things near their home in Rhinebeck, New York. (Left: “Lumina 10 Cosmos” by Kenro Izu.)
“Living here, in this community, we’re exposed to something different,” Kenro explains. “This work is closer to my life.”
Kenro, who was born in Osaka, Japan, and studied at Nihon University College of Art, emigrated to the United States in 1991. After early success as a commercial photographer, including for jewelers Harry Winston and Asprey, he gained recognition for his “light over ancient stone” images. Most are shot with 14-by-20 and other large-format cameras, which allow him to create supersize negatives and prints that befit their larger-than-life subjects. There is no digital image manipulation—the artist has been known to sit, much to the amusement of locals, for hours, even days, to capture just the right interplay of light and shadow—making the exquisite gradation from light to dark that much more impressive. (Top right: “Indonesia #15” by Izu)
Howard Greenberg, owner of the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, has represented Kenro for more than thirty years. He relates, “The art of photography is a marriage of craft and vision. . . . From the very first time I looked at Kenro’s photos, I had an excited feeling that he is as good as this can get.”
Though Kenro started out photographing locations, shooting in Bhutan between 2003 and 2007 triggered a shift in perspective. He notes, “I was amazed at how differently the people behaved from the Western world. Every moment of life is integrated with worship. When I saw this, I thought that the sacred places without the people were meaningless.” From then on, Kenro focused on portraiture of people in sacred locales. He has photographed in 35 countries, sometimes going back to a place over several years to complete an in-depth series that speaks to how people experience spirituality and meaning-of-life questions. (Top left: “Tibet, Mt. Kailash” by Izu.)
The “Lumina Edition,” by contrast, is much smaller in scale. For the second collection, which debuted on August 6, the Izus shot on both film and digital, with minimal digital alterations of contrast, color, and lightness. The collection includes beautifully soulful images of rescue horses from Equine Advocates in Chatham, New York (30 percent of sale proceeds of these images benefit the organization); Shaker furniture and interiors, shot at Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts, that have a “living” quality, as if someone might return to these abandoned spaces at any moment; and meticulous still-lifes of natural objects and vintage kitchen utensils. All are remarkable for their fine articulation of tones and texture, and their exploration of depth and form. (Top right: “Lumina 41 Equine” by Izu.)
In addition, the “Lumina Edition” blurs the lines between Yumiko’s and Kenro’s work—and viewer expectations. People often assume that an image with a square, composed character is masculine, or that a loose, more organic arrangement is feminine. So do the photographers do anything to dispel this stereotype? He laughs. “We never tell.”(Left: “Lumina 10 Cosmos” by Izu.)
Kenro is much more forthcoming about his philanthropic work, which was borne out of a life-changing experience. Following the banning of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1993, Kenro traveled to Angkor Wat to photograph the world-famous temples, and was stunned to see the many children who had been disfigured from Pol Pot–era landmines set as booby-traps around the sacred spaces.
The following year, he visited a government hospital in Siem Reap, where hundreds of injured children from poverty-stricken families were refused medical care. Such was the case with a young girl—approximately the age of the photographer’s own daughter—whose father had spent all his money on travel to the hospital. The girl died, untreated, a few days later. He says, “I couldn’t let it go. Is the value of life not the same in the U.S. or Japan or Cambodia? I could not just walk away.”
Instead, Kenro came up with the idea for a free pediatric hospital. He called on friends to contribute funds and expertise to the cause, and founded Friends Without a Border in 1996, to build and manage the hospital. He also founded an annual art auction, Friends of Friends, in 1998, to benefit the facility. A year later,the Angkor Hospital for Children (AHC) opened its doors in Siem Reap.
The auction continues to bring in upwards of $150,000 annually, thanks to donated works by hundreds of photography luminaries, such as André Kertész, Herb Ritts, and Annie Leibovitz. (This year’s auction will take place on December 10 at the Metropolitan Pavilion.) All proceeds go directly to the hospital — which now boasts a staff of 435 and a $5.5-million annual budget — and its affiliate, AHC Satellite in Sotnikum, which opened in 2007. Kenro recently handed over operations and management of AHC to a local NGO, AHC International, though he remains on the board of directors. This November, he and Friends Without a Border will break ground on a third facility, Lao Friends Hospital for Children, in Luang Prabang Province, Laos. (Left: “Bhutan #207” by Izu.)
As the photographer understates, “My time is quite well spent.”
And in between, Kenro Izu continues to create art that is at once accessible and mysterious, familiar, and spellbinding. Says Greenberg, “In our art world right now, it’s more about big names and the new. [Kenro’s] vision is so deeply classical, he’s the antithesis of all that. Not too many photographers can make photos of subjects that have been photographed over and over and get some new essence from it. I find him to be a great artist in that way.”Comments