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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

Ashton Hawkins & Johnnie Moore: A Collected Life At Auction

moore and hawkins

Moore and Hawkins.

By Jamie Larson

Auctions at the laudable Stair Galleries in Hudson often capture specific artistic moments or movements. On display now and up for sale this Saturday is the sum of an artistic life steeped in style, history and love.

The personal collection of Ashton Hawkins and Johnnie Moore spans over 50 years of collecting, including Hawkins’ 32-year tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the fruitful pairing of the couple’s curatorial eyes after they met and began collecting together in the 1990s. This is an excellent auction for experienced and novice collectors alike, as both style and price vary greatly.

“The collection speaks about us,” Hawkins says. “Every piece tells a story. I knew many of these artists.”

“Henry Hudson Runs the Half Moon Aground, Gentrification of Hudson Begins,” Mark Beard.

I think we have a shared aesthetic,” Moore said. “We both have a great love of bronze, for instance, and I like to think we are both very eclectic and smart in our interests.”

Hawkins began collecting art as a teenager and maintained a long and important relationship with the art world through his legal career as Assistant Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Counsel to the Met from 1969 until his retirement in 2001. He traveled the world, socializing on behalf of the Museum with artists including Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, David Hockney and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as Jackie Onassis, Lillian Hellman, Jane Engelhard and Brooke Astor. Hawkins has served as chairman of the Dia Center for the Arts and the Alliance for the Arts. He currently sits on the Boards of the World Monuments Fund, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Studio School, and he serves as a special consultant and secretary of Christie’s American Advisory Board.

The variety of Hawkins’ worldly experience is explicit at Stair; there are historical Egyptian and classical bronze figures, as well as whimsical modern paintings and sculpture. Colin Stair, owner of Stair Auctioneers & Appraisers and friend of Hawkins and Moore, said he had been thinking hard about how to characterize the theme of the couple’s collection, which, while apparent to the eye, eludes definition.

AW Shirt

A T-shirt signed by Andy Warhol and gifted to Hawkins by the artist at a dinner party.

“It’s nature,” Stair decided. “Nature in a lot of different ways: the male form, fish and animals, color and shape.”

Though there are certainly exceptions on display, they serve to accent Stair’s point rather than contradict it.

“As two people with different tastes, we often wander off at art shows and come back together,” Moore says. “We surprise each other when we’re interested in the same things. We’ve been lucky; our tastes have come together in a way, and we hope people will enjoy that about the exhibition.”

In advance of the auction, Stair held a private viewing of the work last Saturday. The event, like the auction, was as much in honor of Hawkins and Moore’s artistic life together as it was in the collection itself.

Classic to Contemporary: The Collection of Ashton Hawkins and Johnnie Moore
Saturday, September 27 at 11 a.m.
Stair Auctioneers & Appraisers
549 Warren Street, Hudson, NY
(518) 751-1000

At the private viewing:
Stair Galleries owner Colin Stair with Lisa Thomas and Sutter Antiques owner Alfons Sutter; Interior architect Juan Carretelera and US Editor for The Independent in London David Usborne.

j and hbronze
Moore and Hawkins; A sampling of the impressive collection of bronze figures up for auction on Saturday.

General Director for the Chautauqua Opera Jay Lesenger, author and illustrator Hudson Talbott and Olana Partnership President Sara Griffen; Benjamin Krevolin, Purcell Palmer and Steven Harris.

Attorney Meghan Davis, Kay Toll and the author of an upcoming book on the history of the restoration of Olana Dorthy Heyl; Wingo Inc.‘s Doug Wingo and Tim Legg with Stair Galleries’ Erika Clark.

Rodney DeJung and Randy Hinz; Steve Byckiewicz, John Sare and Bob Macleod.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 09/22/14 at 03:25 PM • Permalink

BUMP at Basilica Hudson

By Lisa Green

Try this, and see what happens: Touch a dinosaur skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History. You might not get arrested, but you’d have security all over you faster than you can say Tyrannosaurus rex.

So maybe don’t. But next week, at Basilica Hudson, you will be encouraged to put your hands all over the bones of three massive marine mammals in a whale-sized interactive exhibition called BUMP. You won’t recognize the anatomy of the whales — the bones will be configured in an abstract way — but really, how many other present-day animals would have bones this big?

The hands-on whale exhibit is the brainchild of Frank and Dan DenDanto, brothers who grew up in the Hudson Valley. Dan is a biologist and whale researcher in Maine, and Frank is a set and lighting designer in Bloomingburg, New York. Back in 2008, Dan was working on a whale installation at the Nantucket Historical Society and called in the services of Frank, who had experience with rigging. The image of the skeleton swinging in the wind left an impression on Frank, and later, when he saw a pile of animals (that’s what people in the business call skeletons) in Dan’s backyard, he suggested creating a mobile. A really big one.

And so the project – not necessarily a biology exhibit, but an arts one – was installed at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Maine School of Arts in Portland, where Frank was formerly a light designer. After a highly successful installation there (called “visually stunning” by the college), the bones needed to migrate to a new space.

“I’ve been trying to do a whale project in Hudson since 2008,” says Frank. “I was working with StageWorks/Hudson and interested in the historical significance of whales in the community.”  They contacted Melissa Auf der Maur, founder and creative director of Basilica Hudson, about bringing the skeletons down to the Basilica’s cavernous space. They couldn’t have found a better partner in terms of mission and artistic goals.

Auf der Maur picks up the story. “Last year we exhibited a lifesize glow-in-the-dark replica of a whale skeleton. Since then, it’s been my passion to have an annual exhibit to honor the whaling history,” she says. “Luckily, we read all the inquiries that come in to our general mailbox. When the DenDanto’s proposal came in, I was interested right away.”

Basilica Hudson. Photo by Matt Charland.

It’s an obvious fit. Basilica Hudson has huge spaces to fill, and endeavors to program out-of-the-ordinary experiences. BUMP offers the only whale skeleton in the public arena you can touch — at least in this country. And this one is a reflection of the “epic and eclectic history of Hudson,” Auf der Maur explains. Basilica Hudson itself is built on a landfill that was the historic port. “BUMP allows us to look at part of Hudson’s history through a contemporary reality,” she says.

The bones will be suspended at eye level in Basilica’s Main Hall. Once the bones are touched, they are set in motion, causing shadows to dance around the space. Adding to the atmosphere will be the soundscape, a combination of oceanic noise, overlaid on top of whale “songs.”

Black Sea Hotel. Photo by Jim Roberts.

The DenDantos will be present at the opening reception on August 23. A closing party on August 29 will feature music performances curated by Lea Bertucci, an interdisciplinary artist who works with sound installations, and will include Black Sea Hotel — an a capella Balkan women’s trio whose breathy harmonies have a similarly haunting quality to the whale music in the exhibit — plus Charlie Looker and Patrick Higgins.

“BUMP gives us an opportunity to reflect the history that made this building and this town,” says Auf der Maur. No doubt, it will be an immersive experience involving sight, sound and touch — and wonder.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/12/14 at 10:12 AM • Permalink