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Kinderhook Century-Old Limericks Foretell ‘Winter in America’

JS the schoolBy Jamie Larson

Who is Harold Van Santvoord? And why the hell are the 19th-century illustrated limericks from the long dead Kinderhook, New York writer’s journal being presented at one of our region’s premier modern art venues?

Past and present collided in 2006, when the Friends of the Kinderhook Memorial Library volunteered to clean out the old library’s moldy basement. After digging through mildewed histories, they found an old barrister’s cabinet. Inside, protected from decay by the books around it, they found a small marbled notebook titled Limericks, by Van Santvoord.

“Weary Waggles, though down on his uppers, Fills himself up with booze to the scuppers: “Wot breaks down the health, Of them Captains of Wealth, Is not dope, but hard work and late suppers.”

Van Santvoord (1854-1913) is known to local historians as a headstone in the village cemetery, but also as an author, journalist and a member of the Albany Times Union editorial staff. His skill as an illustrator was not an element of record until the discovery of this single — and presumably only — copy of Limericks. The 50 handwritten pages of wry rhymes and expressive caricatures are surprisingly expert. One can’t help but feel that the Friends of the Library have done local history and the artistic narrative of the region a great service.

The one and only copy opened to this: “Some folks knows it all - Say. Great Scott! What swelled heads in the town board we’ve got: But there’s folks -I know such- What knows just as much, As them folks that minks they know a hull lot.”

Flash forward to just a couple of years ago when Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School took over the abandoned Martin Van Buren elementary school in Kinderhook like an invasion of the hyper-relevant modern art body snatchers. Minus the signage and fantastic (yet municipally contentious) sculpture on the front lawn, the school looks as stately as it did when FDR christened its opening in 1930. But inside, the world shifts from what is known and what is historic to a modern art gallery as powerfully captivating as any contemporary museum of comparable size in a major American metropolis.

The current exhibit at The School (open to the public on Saturdays from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.), “Winter in America,” is, simply, phenomenal. The theme that winds through finished and stripped classrooms, hallways and the now-combined cafeteria and gym is described thusly:

“America is in a season of malaise, perpetually struggling with war, intolerance, environmental degradation, fear, gun violence, and alienation, all of which seem to quell optimism and growth.  The works featured in this exhibition express the mood currently experienced in the United States, and reflect the stark landscape, chilly air, and quiet introspection of winter.”

Van Santvoord is in excellent company at The School, on display alongside Andy Warhol, Kambui Olujimi, Michael Snow, Edward S. Curtis, Gerhard Demetz, Phil Frost and many, many more.

“Said a fool poet, Omar Khayyam: “Life’s a fake, and Future’s a sham, With my jug, and a jag, A sure cure for brain fag, I’ll play Love — that old game of flim-flam.”

Shainman has lived in the area for many years and while the inclusion of Limericks in “Winter in America” may seem to cynics like a philanthropic overture to the local community, any thought to that end evaporates upon viewing Limericks in context with the rest of the show.

Winter came early to American history. Van Santvoord’s work selected for the show cuts like an autumn wind, pleasant enough but with a chill becoming harder to ignore. An omen in hindsight, his notebook serves as a prologue to “Winter in America.” The enlarged prints selected show the artist’s humorous but knowing ideas on race and class. There are others in the book that are more genteel, but the ones on display give insight into a post-Civil War era when race, patriotism, war, political divisiveness and fear of the other was as palpable as ever.

There is not yet an official website where you can purchase the prints but if you have further interest in them, Friend of the Library’s Warren Applegate is managing the project and all proceeds from sales of the prints will go toward supporting the library. 

Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School
25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY
(518) 758-1628
Gallery hours: Saturdays from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The Kinderhook Memorial Library
18 Hudson Street, Kinderhook NY
(518) 758-6192
Hours: Closed Mondays
Tuesday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday, 12 – 4 p.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 11/02/15 at 12:27 PM • Permalink

An Artistic Revolution In New Milford: the harts gallery

Carmen Elsa Lopez Abramson.

By Jacque Lynn Schiller

When a gallery’s business plan is as inspiring as the art on its walls, you know the gallerists are seeking to do more than simply display pretty pictures — though the recently opened the harts gallery [sic] in New Milford, Conn. accomplishes this undertaking just as beautifully. Imagining the airy space as a hub for creative expression through exhibits as well as residencies and compelling talks, husband-and-wife team Evan and Carmen Elsa Lopez Abramson seem well on their way to achieving something truly remarkable: a welcoming art gallery where one wants to linger.

The duo, who are also filmmakers, photographers and activists, “envision a place where people can express their thoughts and emotions through art. We believe art is transformative,” says Carmen. Quite like the building itself. Formerly the Harts Five and Dime, the beautiful structure still boasts tin ceilings, exposed brick walls in the downstairs rooms, and spectacular windows looking out onto an increasingly bustling Bank Street. All the better to entice passersby to stop in and have a look around, perhaps chat with affable Carmen.

“A few months ago we approached the landlord, Gary Goldring, about doing a pop-up gallery here at the old Harts shop and he liked the idea. Quickly, we decided to make this a permanent gallery as well as a non-profit organization providing a gathering space that does not yet exist in our region, where community can form around the common values of creativity, vision, sustainability and collaboration,” she says.

If you sense a bit of spontaneity in their decision, I think you’d be correct. Running an art gallery wasn’t necessarily in the plans, but given their passion for storytelling — in all manifestations — it made sense to take the leap. The subject of the first exhibit, Love & Sacrifice, could likewise apply to this new endeavor.

“Without love there is no sacrifice,” the exhibit proclaimed. “Without sacrifice there is no love. Mutually dependent, the two are interchangeable—and yet evoke opposing feelings and ideas when spoken together.” United under the theme of contrast/complement, the harts gallery brought together the impressive work of six unique local artists working in diverse mediums and expressions, including Mr. Abramson, Lauren Booth, Tealia Ellis Ritter, Sebastian Tillinger, Elizabeth MacDonald and collagist Peter Wooster. An impressive start.

Why here and why now? That’s a question I’m always curious to have answered when someone moves to the area, especially when the decision to open a company is involved. Explains Carmen, “I’m from Peru and have lived in eight countries. Evan and I work on social and environmental documentaries. Traveling, meeting and getting to know people is something I love. We now live in Bridgewater and are new to the area. I like bringing people together and making connections.”

Making links carries through to the curation of shows. For the current exhibit, She’s a Changeling, Carmen and Evan weaved together a startling reimagining of the role of women in a world of flux, inviting the artists Claudia DeMonte, Julia Randall and Cecilia Mandrile to examine the relationship between the female body and identity in unique and surprising ways. It’s a thought-provoking collection, marrying pieces that on the surface might seem disparate: saliva bubbles, Milagros covered calipers, foldable paper dolls. The works are intriguing, playful, dark and developing, and the Abramsons have an eye for and embrace themes of transformation. This extends to what’s happening just outside those giant storefront windows, as well.

“New Milford can be a destination for emerging artists, artisans, makers and entrepreneurs similar to Portland, Beacon or Brooklyn,” says Carmen.

Through a mix of contemporary exhibitions, workshops, film screenings, live performances and outreach programming, the artist-run harts gallery aims to build community and inspire transformation regionally. I like what I see.

She’s a Changeling is on display through Nov 7.
the harts gallery
20 Bank Street, New Milford, CT
(917) 913-4641

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/06/15 at 03:55 PM • Permalink

The School: One Year And Art Five Decades In The Making

El Anatsui, “Stressed World” (as installed at The School, Kinderhook, NY).

By Robert Ayers

It has been almost exactly a year since Jack Shainman changed the contemporary art landscape in this part of the world by opening The School in Kinderhook, NY. On Sunday, May 17, he is throwing a big party to celebrate that anniversary and to mark the opening of this summer’s School exhibition, a major retrospective of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. It promises to be quite a day: the remarkable Imani Uzuri — whose voice, the Village Voice suggested, “would sound equally at home on an opera stage or a disco 12-inch” — will be performing, local food trucks will be on site, and the organizers have already received more than 500 RSVPs.

El Anatsui: Five Decades at The School, Kinderhook, NY (installation shot).

El Anatsui is as big an art name as there is out there. He has just been awarded the Venice Biennale’s highest honor, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. His work was the subject of a big show at The Clark in 2011, but if you have not seen it before, then you are in for a remarkable experience. Though Anatsui’s principal material is garbage, what he creates from it is little less than magical: he salvages huge numbers of crumpled metal bottle tops from liquor bottles and threads them together with copper wire into huge sculptures. Stand close, and you see their tiny glistening components, stand back a few paces and you are struck by their size and weight. In fact they are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, though they might suggest strange metallic animal hides or perhaps flags or tents.

Anatsui is happy with the ambiguity. He actually allows their final shape to be decided by the people installing them. He does not see himself as the maker of monoliths, in other words, but of things that have a life. “I don’t want to be a dictator. I want to be somebody who suggests things,” he says.

“He has invited the world to come see Kinderhook.”

A new showplace for contemporary art such as The School would be heralded anywhere, but the fact that it’s in the Village of Kinderhook seems to some in the area to be an unexpected gift from the art gods.

“The School has put Kinderhook on the map in a way that was previously unimaginable,” says Renee Shur, the Village’s director of economic development. “Jack Shainman has an audience that’s world wide, and every time he promotes his gallery he’s also promoting the Village of Kinderhook. We want people to come here, see his artists’ work and what Kinderhook and the Hudson Valley have to offer.”

Could anything be better? Only this: Shur reports that there’s been a mutual embrace between Shainman and the local community.

“He’s very concerned about the impact of what he’s doing and the concerns of the community. Last year (at the opening) he made a special effort to invite the locals to come and party. People from New York City were mingling with our community and it really worked.”

And while Shainman turned a school into a spectacular gallery, he was sensitive to the school’s place in the town’s history.

“A lot of people who went to school in that building still live here, and remember walking through the front door into the beautiful foyer, which is still as it was,” says Shur. “There have been dramatic changes but Shainman maintained respect for the history of the school. It’s an incredible example of adaptive reuse.”

Jack Shainman shows a wide range of artists at The School (and at his two prestigious New York galleries) and says simply that he aims to “to exhibit, represent and champion artists from around the world, in particular artists from Africa, East Asia, and North America.” Anatsui is typical of these artists to the extent that his work is not only visually arresting but resonant with cultural meaning as well. Every one of those tiny pieces of metal that he uses means another bottle of hard liquor consumed, either in celebration or relaxation or perhaps something very different. Ask yourself what it means that an artist can build a whole career’s worth of work out of them and you begin to appreciate the seriousness of Anatsui’s work.

We are fortunate indeed to have El Anatsui: Five Decades — and The School itself — on our doorstep, and it has come about because of local connections. Jack Shainman grew up in Williamstown, MA, and he harbors an abiding affection for our area. He has a home in Stuyvesant, NY where he can escape the pressures of the international art world, and it was while he was driving there in the summer of 2013 that he realized that Kinderhook’s former public school had fallen into disrepair and was for sale.

What he did with the building deserves the lavish praise it has received. (The correspondent for Whitewall magazine described herself as “blown away.”) Working with the Spanish architect Antonio Jiménez Torrecillas, Shainman converted the classrooms, offices, gymnasium and cafeteria into a showing place for contemporary art that rivals not only other galleries, but any public museum in the country.

And now you have the perfect opportunity to see it. Last year’s opening attracted something like a thousand visitors. This time around you are invited and the gallery will be providing transportation from New York City to Kinderhook. For more information on transportation, check the website. All the gallery asks is that you let them know you’re coming.

The School — First Anniversary Celebration
Sunday, May 17, 1-4 p.m.
25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY
(212) 645-1701

The event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to:

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/11/15 at 10:54 AM • Permalink

Donkey Inspiration: ‘Travels With Missie — The Artists’ View’

Missie (as Carousel Donkey), by Susan Edwards

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Kevin O’Hara’s 1979 sojourn with a donkey named Missie has already been well documented. O’Hara, a lifetime Pittsfield resident (and quite proud of it, thank you very much!) who seems to have as many stories to share as he does friends around town, has already written a book (“Last of the Donkey Pilgrims”) about his year-long walk around Ireland with the donkey in question. (That’s in addition to his memoir “A Lucky Irish Lad.”)

But now, more than 36 years later, Missie marches on.

O’Hara retired a few years ago from a long career as a psychiatric nurse at Berkshire Medical Center. In 2013 he started leading annual tours of Ireland, retracing the steps —this time by chartered bus — of his quixotic journey. By happenstance, four Berkshire-based artists went on the tour last year, and had an idea: why not curate a group show of work inspired by their visit? An email was sent from the trip, and a Berkshire gallery committed to the idea before the travelers even got home.

Kevin O’Hara (author, photographer and raconteur), Mike Melle (sculpted the straw Missie), Sue Edwards (artist), David King (artist), Marge Bride (artist), Philip Pryjma (gallerist) and Scott Taylor (artist).

“Travels with Missie—the Artists’ View” is on exhibit at the St. Francis Gallery in South Lee from March 14 through April 12. It includes paintings by four locally based artists — Marguerite Bride, Susan Edwards, David King, and Scott Taylor — plus all sorts of assorted goodies like a life-size straw likeness of Missie crafted by Mike Melle of Plainfield, Susan Edwards’ wood carving of the now-famous donkey that will go on to be part of the Berkshire Carousel, and assorted ephemera and photographs from O’Hara’s original trip.

David King’s Cliffs of Mohar

In keeping with the Irish theme and O’Hara’s gregarious nature, the opening reception on March 14 is bound to be a bit boisterous, complete with live music.

“He wants it to be an Irish party,” Bride says of O’Hara, “and we want it to be an art reception, so we kind of met somewhere in the middle. We said we’re going to have wine and cheese — he said no, we’re going to have Guinness.”

When the artists got home from the nine-day trip, they decided to get busy painting but also to refrain from coordinating with each other. The idea was to respond to their own experiences and then see what happens.

McSweeney Arms, Killarney, by Marge Bride

Bride, who like Taylor keeps an artist’s gallery at NUarts Studios on North Street in Pittsfield, says she did get one pretty obvious clue about what her neighbor was up to. “All I know is, he used a lot of green,” she says.

The show is set to be a lush vision of the Emerald Isle. Each of the painters contributed upwards of 30 new pieces, which include work done in oil, acrylics and watercolor.

Aside from his four-legged companion, O’Hara’s journey was a solitary one; in-between visits to farmsteads and pubs where, he says, he was greeted warmly once anyone caught sight of the donkey and apprised his earnestness. Through years of storytelling, and now bus tours and this art show, he’s able to share the experience with his friends.

“The only regret I had in my donkey travels was I wished I had a bleacher section on each of my shoulders to have all my friends there, so I could turn my head and show them the most beautiful vistas and countryside imaginable,” he says. “It was sort of heart-wrenching in ways. I did have my dear donkey, but she didn’t pay much attention to the sunsets.”

Scott Taylor’s Pastureland

Sunsets, landscapes, seascapes, architecture: “Travels with Missie—the Artists’ View” will share a great number of these views, straight from the Emerald Isle.

“Travels With Missie — The Artists View”
Artist Reception & Celebration: Saturday, March 14, 2-6 p.m.
St. Francis Gallery
1370 Pleasant St., Rt. 102, South Lee, MA
(413) 717-5199

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Posted by Lisa Green on 03/10/15 at 08:12 PM • Permalink

Brendan O’Connell, The ‘Walmart Painter,’ Turns Abstract

One of Brendan O’Connell’s foot-square paintings currently on display in Washington Depot.

By Robert Ayers

You wouldn’t normally think of going to a real estate office to see an art exhibit. But whether or not you are looking to buy a place in Litchfield County, you will find a visit to The Matthews Group in Washington Depot well worth it. There’s art there you shouldn’t miss.

Brendan O’Connell, the artist who made this wildly varied array of small abstract paintings, turns out to be one of the most interesting characters you are ever likely to run into, not least because he enjoys a healthy celebrity for making a totally different kind of art.

Applauded in media as diverse as USA Today, NPR, The New Yorker and The Colbert Report, O’Connell is the successful painter of brightly colored pictures of the interior of Walmart stores. But in truth, he never intended to be a painter at all. In fact, it was to break the tedium of trying to write a novel that he first decided to have a crack at drawing. “I was 22 and I picked up a pencil and taught myself to draw,” is how he remembers it now.

By 1996 he was showing in New York City as a fully fledged abstract painter — in fact, all of his shows until 2006 were abstract — but he found himself frustrated. “It seemed as if only five people in New York knew the difference between good and bad abstract art,” he recalls. “My career was in the toilet.”

He met his wife, the celebrated landscape painter Emily Buchanan (whose watercolor was featured in the White House’s 2014 holiday card) in 1997, and they moved to Litchfield County a couple of years later. It was when his daughter was born that the change came, though it came indirectly. He decided to switch from oil to acrylic paint because he didn’t want the baby breathing in toxic fumes, and in order to get the hang of this new material he started doing portraits of great artists he admired. “I was a closet figurative painter,” he says with a smile. Then he did a series of paintings of people doing routine day-to-day tasks, and then, to discover new source material, “Someone suggested I follow somebody out into the world” and photograph what they did. The very first day he found himself inside a Walmart.

One of O’Connell’s celebrated Walmart paintings.

O’Connell is happy to admit that he happened upon his most successful art by chance. It makes a refreshing change to encounter an artist who doesn’t imagine that everything in one’s work stems from conscious decisions. Contrasting his attitude with Andy Warhol’s conception of the studio as a factory, he explains, “I think of the studio as being more like a garden: you put different plants together and they cross fertilize, just like you put a portrait next to an abstract painting and they serve one another.” Instead of mass production, he pursues constant experiment and rule breaking.

So it comes as no surprise to discover that he started these small abstract paintings at about the same time as the first Walmart paintings. He talks of them as a laboratory of color, and it would seem that he uses them to try out ideas, but it’s clear that they have their own rationale as well. He isn’t interested in giving them titles, and he rarely records the date they were made, almost as if this information might obscure their purely pictorial logic.

The artist, second from right, with Alec Baldwin, Emily Buchanan and actor Josh Charles at his NYC show.

But in terms of how they are painted — what colors he uses, or what shapes, or how the paint is applied, or whether the paint edges are hard or soft or straight or curved or wobbly — the possibilities are endless. No two of these paintings are even nearly the same. He even has the little square panels machine cut so that they can be hung with any of their four sides at the top. He only regards them as finished when they work equally well in all four directions, and he is happy to let their owners decide which they prefer.

Perhaps it’s the energy that derives from this sense of endless possibility that makes this show of paintings so uplifting. That and the fact that they seem to offer a more private view of how a famous artist works, even when things are turned on their head. Smiling at the irony, O’Connell puts it like this: “Now I’m a closet abstract painter.”

Abstract Work by Iconic American Painter Brendan O’Connell
On view through the end of May.
The Matthews Group
4 Green Hill Road, Washington Depot, CT
(860) 868-0511
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday - Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/16/15 at 01:36 PM • Permalink