War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics – A Splendid Exhibit

detail, Regimental Bed Rug, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod (Dates Unknown), India, c. 1865, wool, mostly from military uniforms with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection.

War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics, the current exhibit at the Museum of Folk Art is a must see!  Especially if you like quilts, but even if you don’t. Drawn primarily from the unparalleled collection of internationally acclaimed quilt authority Dr. Annette Gero, all the quilts were made by men in uniform: soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors.  This was not an accident of history, but rather the result of the English government’s attempt to boost the morale of its troops far away from home, whether in India, the Crimea or fighting the Napoleonic Wars.   Being a soldier could involve a fair amount of tedium, especially when stationed in areas that were remote, or where going into town was not sanctioned or not an  option.  In order to keep the troops from relieving their boredom by drinking and gambling, the English government promoted quiltmaking as a masculine activity, both at home (to future soldiers) and to the conscripted.

Because the soldiers used milled wool and broadcloth made for British uniforms, the color palette is pretty much red, greens, blue/black, gold, beige and white, with the occasional purple – however, that seems to have been a spur to the complexity of many of the patterns.  For me, the mix and arrangement of varying sizes of rectangles, stars, diamonds and squares into geometric patterns with concentric frames gives several of the quilts an op-art feel.  While many of the textiles have no batting or are not backed, the exhibit uses the word “quilt” as “a term of convenience.”  No matter what you call them, they are all stunning.  They are also very big, anywhere from 5 feet to 9 feet high.

Captain Webb’s Hut, 4th Dragoon Guards, Roger Fenton

In the entryway to the exhibit, you’ll find Roger Fenton’s photos of the Crimean War (1854-56) projected on one wall.  Because of the difficulty of taking and developing photographs in the mid-19th century, many of Fenton’s pictures are posed ones of key military leaders and enlisted men, or stills of their surroundings.  Against another wall you’ll find the words to “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as a wax recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading his poem (it’s faint, but give it a listen).

Off to the left, the gallery features 6 quilts mostly made in India.  Since soldiers were often stationed there for years at a time, the British government held quiltmaking workshops and sponsored competitions to keep them engaged.  It’s not clear if all the quilts on display were made by soldiers, or were the work of professional tailors, as they weren’t signed or otherwise attributed to a particular person, which also makes it difficult to determine where they were made and whether it was during or after service abroad (some are thought to have been made by soldiers convalescing in military hospitals).

detail, Beaded Soldier’s Quilt, artist unidentified, India, c. 1860-70; wool with beads; inlaid, hand-appliquéd and hand-applied beadwork. The Annette Gero Collection

You’ll notice that many of the seams are covered in chain stitch or rick-rack, and there’s often beading or other embellishments.  India has an ancient tradition of beadmaking, and quilts like this one were often made by a colonel’s orderly, who was more likely Indian than British.

Soldier’s Mosaic Stars Quilt, artist unidentified found in Germantown, PA, late 19th cent., wool, International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This piece from the late 19th century is a bit of an outlier – it was found in Germantown, Pennsylvania, artist and origin unknown, but it is similar to ones made by Jewett Washington Curtis, the only American soldier known to have made quilts in the British style. 

detail, Soldier’s Quilt, artist unidentified, Crimea, India or UK, 1850-75, wool, probably from military uniforms; inlaid; hand-appliquéd with buttonhole fabric discs. Denver Art Museum Neusteter Textile Collection. Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan, purchased in honor of Alice Zrebiec with funds from Nancy Lake Benson, 2015

This quilt, with compass stars, pinwheels and game boards, bears the colors of the Coldstream Guards, one of the regiments that comprise the personal troops of Her Majesty the Queen, and that is still in service today.

The main gallery area features 12 quilts made using the intarsia technique (pieces are placed next to each other and whipstitched together, so the front is often identical to the back), which was widely used in Central Europe.  As many of these quilts relate to the “Turkish Wars” of 1719  (Austria vs. Ottoman Empire) or the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800’s, you’ll find several of them have images of soldiers, or the double-headed eagle, or other references to the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.  The room is dominated by a very large (approx. 9ft x 9ft) quilt stretched out parallel to the floor which features architectural images of the HRE, such as the Maison Carrée of Nîmes and the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

detail, Hungarian Soldier’s Intarsia Quilt, artist unidentified, Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1820-30, wool with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered. Museum of Military History, Vienna

The central panel in this Hungarian Soldier’s quilt, made in the early 1800’s, includes hussar officers, a staff officer and a Hungarian magnate, framed by ten starry cartouches, each with a soldier in uniform styles that were popular in the 1820’s-30’s, and an outer border of pinwheels.

Military or Tailor’s Inlaid Quilt with Thistles, artist unidentified, Crimea or Scotland, ca. 1850-60, Suiting woolens, wool from military uniforms, embroidery thread, inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection

The wall label conjectures that this quilt was made by an professional military tailor.  The thistles in the central panel indicate that its maker may have been with one of the Scottish regiments that  fought in the Crimean War. 

The last gallery contains 9 textiles…

detail, Regimental Bed Rug, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod (Dates Unknown), India, c. 1865, wool, mostly from military uniforms with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection

including this regimental “bed rug”, one of the rare pieces whose maker, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod, was identified.  As noted several times on this quilt, he served with the 72nd Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, a highly-decorated Scottish regiment – you’ll find references on this coverlet to the many places they served. The photo at the top of this article is of another panel from this quilt.

detail, Soldier’s Quilt with Incredible Border, artist unidentified, India, ca. 1855-75, wool from military uniforms, with beads; hand-applied beadwork and layer-appliquéd border. The Annette Gero Collection.

You’ll also find a quilt made in India whose outer border is exceptionally intricate – the three-dimensional effect is created by multiple layers of crimped cloth which were probably bits of fabric that were punched out when buttonholes were created. This piece bears the regimental colors of the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, stationed in India from 1846 to 1875.

detail, Colonial Soldier’s Intricately Pieced Quilt, artist unidentified, India, ca. 1890, wool from military uniforms, with metallic thread and sequins; hand-embroidered and hand-embellished. Laura Fisher’s Fisher Heritage, New York City

The complexity of this quilt suggests it was made by a professional tailor, who assembled some 25,000 tiny diamonds, hexagons and squares, with embroidered seams.  This photo is of the inner frame, whose corners are festooned with crowns, cannons and flags.

detail, Soldier’s Hexagon Quilt, artist unidentified, Crimea or UK, late 19th cent., wool from military uniforms. The Annette Gero Collection.

This late 19th century quilt is one of the most unusual in the show, and the only one to feature hexagons, the usual motifs being  squares, stars and diamonds.  Since its construction is very simple, this quilt might have been made by a soldier convalescing in a military hospital.

Solider’s Quilt: Square within a Square, artist unidentified, Crimea, India or UK, ca. 1850-90, wool, probably from military uniforms. American Folk Art Museum, Gift of General Foods, 1986

This quilt might also have been made by a convalescing soldier.  While the top right and left squares are identical, each of the others are slightly different.  Even though it dates from the mid to late 1800’s, this piece feels very op-art to me.

This is a very small sampling of the wonderful pieces in this show. 

There’s also a detailed  240 page catalogue that accompanies this exhibit.  The museum is offering lectures and workshops around this exhibit – you can find the full schedule here. 

War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics was co-curated by Dr. Annette Gero, international quilt historian, author, and collector, and Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, and  organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln–Nebraska. 

The exhibit will be at the American Folk Art Museum until January 7, 2018.  However, get there now, as I’m sure you’ll want to go back.  More than once.  I did.


Editor’s note:  This post was edited on October 4th to correct the title of the exhibit; to include information on how the exhibit was organized and curated; and, in the photo credits, to add information on the ownership of the quilts.

Zinelli and Gabritschevsky: War, Science and Personal Narrative in Art

detail, Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, July 30, 1965, gouache on paper

I’ve always liked the American Folk Art Museum, as I’m constantly discovering new things when I go there, and their exhibits often make me look at art in a different way, or get me to look again at art that is not always easy to grasp.  They’ve just installed a new exhibit focusing on two self-taught artists who are not that well-known here: Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Garbritschevsky.  While both these artists, who are of similar generations, produced the vast majority of their works while living in psychiatric facilities, and were promoted by Jean Dubuffet, there’s not much else that binds them in either their biographies or their work.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see them together.  We’re also lucky to have their paintings – In general hospitals did not keep their patients’ work (especially that done by women).

Carlo Zinelli’s (1916-1974) story is one of loss.  Born in San Giovanni Lupatto, Italy, he was the youngest of 7 children.  His mother died when he was two; at the age of 9, he was sent to live on a farm.  There he not only learned to care for the animals, but also to dance and sing with his fellow workers.  This love of rhythm, repetition and movement stayed with him, and permeates his art, as do images of dogs, birds, goats, cows and other farm animals.  At 18, Zinelli was drafted into the military, serving as a member of the Alpini.  He later was a stretcher-bearer in the Spanish Civil War; after two months, he returned to Italy, shell-shocked.  At the age of 31, he was committed to the San Giacomo psychiatric hospital in Verona, where he participated in an art workshop funded by Scottish sculptor Michael Noble.  It’s clear that Zinelli’s life influenced his work, and you’ll find yourself reflecting on his biography as you go through the show.

The exhibit is divided into four parts, which roughly correspond to the changes in Zinelli’s style. He used the materials the hospital supplied, which is why he worked almost exclusively in gouache on paper, and his works are all of “standard” paper sizes.   In all of his phases, Zinelli used strong colors, block figures, animals, and sweeping sense of movement underlies it all.   His pictures are untitled.  Many of them are double sided, and are hung from the ceiling so that you can see both sides!

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1957 gouache on cardboard

Phase 1 (1957-60) for me has a very naif feeling, with its use of bright reds, pinks, yellow and greens, and the way the people, dogs, trees and buildings are all jumbled together.  Here we get a glimpse of motifs that recur throughout Zinelli’s oeuvre:  lots of animals – especially birds and dogs – as well as people – all facing the same way. Sometimes a hand or a bird will dominate the center of the painting.   

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, no date, gouache on paper

There’s also a strong rhythmic movement, not surprising given that he liked to dance. The “little priest” figures are also introduced, and they will become increasingly prominent in his work.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1963, gouache on paper

In Phase Two (1960-65) Zinelli starts to paint his backgrounds.  The images get bigger and thicker, and while some of the colors are a bit murkier, the reds become really bright.  This is also the phase where he places people, animals and objects in group of 4 (his “quaternity.”)    You’ll also notice that many of the people, animals and objects now have perforations in their bodies.  However, you can see the background of the painting through these holes.  The imagery is often evocative of war:  boats, wheeled transportation and planes start to appear, as do people with crosses.  Birds also feature prominently in this phase (the above picture made me think of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Birds)

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1962 collage, gouache on paper

You’ll also find this example of the collage work Zinelli did briefly around 1962 (a heavy smoker, those are the bottoms of cigarette packages he’s attached to the painting), that still has the groupings of 4, the wheeled transport, and everyone facing left (although I’m not sure about that smudgy figure in the lower left). 

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 7/9/68, gouache on paper, (Side 1 of 2)

The work in Phase 3 (1965-67) is primarily black and white, with occasional flashes of color, especially red.   During this period Zinelli incorporates words, letters and numbers into his work, more as graphic elements, since they seemingly have no meaning or coherence, and they make you wonder what he was trying to communicate.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, September 13, 1968, gouache on paper

The figures are larger, often a man wearing an Alpini helmet (self portrait?) or a man with wings, their bodies often perforated with holes, crosses and now four-pointed stars.  

In this part of the exhibit you can listen to a recording made by Zinelli while reading the English translation on a video monitor, which gives you a fuller feeling for his inability to process language using standard grammar and vocabulary.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 9/28/1972, gouache and colored pencil on paper (side 1 of 2)

Phase 4 (1968-1974) begins the year the hospital moved from Verona, which had a marked effect on Zinelli’s style.  In many ways his output is now very close to his early work, in that there are smaller images with repeated elements, all on the paper in a chaotic fashion.  Some of the images of men and women are combined into one being, and sometimes the people and animals will have other beings inside them.  In this phase Zinelli does more sketching with colored pencils.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, December 16, 1972, ink and gouache on paper

He still uses writing as a graphic element, but now it is reduced to almost dots. 

In addition to Zinelli’s art, you’ll also find photos taken by the photojournalist John Philips (Life magazine) in 1959 at the hospital in Verona where Zinelli was confined.  Phillips was given free rein, and shot the patients as they went about their everyday lives.  There are also a number of photographs he took of the patients who participated in the art studio. Philips respected the dignity of his subjects; far from being voyeuristic, his photos rather give us a deeper understanding of the environment in which Zinelli produced his art.

Eugen Gabritschevsky’s life took a different trajectory. Hailing from a very wealthy family in Moscow, as a child he exhibited a precocious interest in insects and mutations, as well as a love of drawing. After his studies at the University of Moscow, in 1925 Gabritschevsky continued his research at Columbia University, focusing on color changes and the transformation of forms in insects. He then moved to Paris, where his career flourished.  However, he had a mental breakdown in 1931 and was admitted to Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric facility in Germany, where he remained for five decades, during which he created over 3,000 gouaches, drawings and watercolors on paper, x-rays, administrative papers – anything he could find.  In addition to painting with brushes, he also employed sponges, as well as scratching and rubbing techniques, and worked with folded paper.

Untitled (Annotation on back: Columbia University Laboratory, N. Y./Dr. T. H. Morgan & D. C. Bridges, December 4, 1926, N. Y. C.) New York City 1927 Charcoal on paper 16 9/16 x 23 3/4″ Private collection, New York Photo by Adam Reich © American Folk Art Museum © Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky EG_3_NYF

Gabritschevky’s early work is easy to appreciate, and the show has some fine examples of charcoals he created in the late 1920’s, like the one above.  The pictures from that era have a strong architectural component, which carries on through much of his later work.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1938-39, pencil and watercolor on paper

Even though his interest was primarily directed to insects, it’s clear from this piece that Gabritschevsky had keen observational powers when it came to other species, capturing their personalities.

Untitled, Eugen Grabitschevsky, 1936, gouache and pencil on paper

There’s also a certain whimsy in his work, and the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret.

Gabritschevsky’s art goes in many directions – he was always experimenting, so it’s hard to pin him down stylistically. 

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on tracing paper

Against one wall is a lovely series of birds which he created using gouache on tracing paper.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, 1957, gouache and watercolor on paper

The scientific and fantastic often combine, as in this evolution of microorganisms depicted like men.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1947-48, gouache on paper

I confess I struggled with Gabritschevsky’s later work, especially paintings with spectral figures who seemed to resemble some cellular disorder.  But he often takes pains to stage them, sometimes in dreamlike opera settings, like the one above. 

Untitled (Dream NII-Glass Floor), November 1945, Gouache on paper

I like his use of color, and his sense of composition. You often have the feeling that you’re looking at organisms as they swirl under a microscope or in a petri dish, in their own private  carnival.  Sometimes you have the sensation of chaos trying to cohere into some kind of order…

detail, Untitled (The Last Judgement #84), Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on paper, mounted on cardboard

It seems as if Gabritschevsky’s scientific training influenced everything he did – the above painting seems to be looking at the judgement day on a cellular level…

I found that I needed to spend a fair amount of time with both these artists, as it wasn’t immediately clear to me what they’re trying to say.  So I took a tour with Valery Rousseau, the show’s curator, which I found very helpful in understanding the work of these two artists.  I can also recommend taking a  free drop-in tours led by museum guides, which are held on Thursdays, from 1:00 to 2:00.  There’s  also one on Saturday, April 29th

On April 25th, the Museum will be hosting Dialogue + Studio: Science Illustration, a workshop led by professional illustrator Patricia Wynne, in which participants will learn the fundamentals of science illustration and how to draw from bones.

The American Folk Art Museum is located at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.  I recommend you see the show before it closes on August 20th.  In addition to great exhibits, the Museum is free!

Crochet, Coral and Hyperbolic Geometry

Over at the Museum of Arts and Design, twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim have taken over the third floor with a coral reef which is a wonderful combination of crochet, mathematics and ecology!   The Wertheims were distressed by the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, and set out to increase awareness of the destruction of coral reefs around the world.  To that end, they began crocheting a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs, using yarn and plastic trash (a major cause of the acidification of the seas, which destroys the corals).  Crochet Coral Reef:  TOXIC SEAS  displays their work from the last 10 years on this theme.

Chalk board showing the evolution of corals

Chalk board showing the evolution of corals

At the beginning, there’s a “black board” which explains the evolution of life, the evolution of coral reefs and the development of plastics.  Coral reefs are among the most ancient life forms.  Even though they occupy less than 10% of the world’s ocean areas, they are home to 1/4 of all marine species.  So their destruction (and the role of plastics in that process) is of great concern to all of us. 

The Midden, personal plastic trash of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, 2007-2011

The Midden, personal plastic trash of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, 2007-2011

Suspended from the ceiling is The Midden, a fishing net holding a collection of the twins’ plastic garbage from 2007 to 2011, inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where millions of tons of plastic trash accumulate in a giant ocean gyre.

As you go through the exhibit, be sure to read the wall labels to see the wide variety of plastics, such as  water bottles, cassette tapes, garbage bags, and other materials such as chicken wire which were used so ingeniously in these sculptures.

Coral Forest - Nin'imma, 2007-14, plastic shopping bags, Saran Wra[, found plastic trash, yarn, felt, cable ties, Sonotube, chicken wire

Coral Forest – Nin’imma, 2007-14, plastic shopping bags, Saran Wra[, found plastic trash, yarn, felt, cable ties, Sonotube, chicken wire

In the next section, the Coral Forest, you’ll find fantastical figures with mythological names like Nin’imma and Medusa, all made with yarn and plastic.  You’ll also notice the lighting is very dramatic, evoking the feel of the ocean deep. 

Detail from "Bleached Reef"

Detail from “Bleached Reef”

The third section of the exhibit showcases more of the international nature of this project.  In two large cases you’ll see Bleached Reef representing the first stage of reef deterioration, and Toxic Reef representing the subsequent stage.  The various elements in these reefs were crocheted by women (mostly) around the world, and then assembled by the Wertheims.  Since 2006, their  Satellite Reef Project, which works with communities around the globe to create local reefs, has had over 8,000 participants.  The wall labels credit all the contributors, so you get a good sense of how much work goes into a project like this.

Pod World - Beaded Baroque, 2007-12

Pod World – Beaded Baroque, 2007-12

Lining the walls of this section are miniature Pod Worlds, which use the textures, colors and forms of the crocheted yarns to mimic the diversity of living corals. 

And now for a word about the math behind the exhibit.  Hyperbolic geometry is widely found in nature, as it allows the expansion and crenelation of surfaces, not only in corals, but also in vegetables like lettuce and kale.  The art of crocheting a hyperbolic plane was discovered by Cornell professor Daina Taimina, who was looking for a way to create a durable model of this mathematical concept, which was widely thought to be impossible. 

Detail, Coral Forest - Eryali, 2007-14, yarn, felt, Sonotube and chickenwire

Detail, Coral Forest – Eryali, 2007-14, yarn, felt, Sonotube and chickenwire

In 2003, Margaret and Christine Wertheim established the Institute For Figuring (IFF) to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes, especially relating to environmental threats to marine life.

All in all this is a wonderful exhibit combining math, science and art, while making us even more aware of how fragile our marine ecosystem is.  It will be at the Museum of Arts and Design  until January 22nd.  Go see it NOW – it might even make you want to learn how to crochet!

More photos are on my Instagram feed  

The Feverish Art of Ronald Lockett

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett,  at the American Museum of Folk Art is a show that demands your attention, on many levels.  The work is astounding.  But it may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface.  If you do, you will be rewarded.

Lockett lived and worked his entire life (1965-1998) in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama.  A satellite of Birmingham, (which was once a center of iron and steel production, as well as the civil rights movement) this area both engaged in the fight for equal rights and endured the repercussions of the deindustrialisation of the South, as factories closed and jobs became scarce. Lockett would have heard the stories of his family and neighbors who had worked in the fields and factories or participated in the protests.  And he was connected to the larger world through TV, which he liked to watch.  These personal interactions and more distant events combined to shape his work.

Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. (The late artist Thornton Dial was his cousin and mentor.) Working mostly with found materials, especially tin, wood and chicken wire, as well as non-traditional materials such as industrial sealing compound and enamel, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss.

A recurring motif  throughout his work is the stag, whose body is always surrounded by wire. Lockett also references many historical events, such as Jesse Owen’s victories in the1936 Olympics, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, using them to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans.

The front space of the exhibit showcases Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. In all these works, his imagery is allusive, rather than realistic: set against a stark, featureless background of one color, or large blocks of three or four colors, are people (or skeletal images)  who are drifting or falling.  Their lack of defining features gives them a universal, everyman quality. (His Hiroshima series has no people, only swirls of smoke).  In this area you’ll also find Civil Rights Marchers, a powerful painting in swirling grays, white and red with embedded objects, which read almost as an aftermath.  (Two other pictures also from 1988 which use the same colors, materials and techniques, but have environmental themes, Poison River and Out of Ashes, are in another section.)

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The rest of the show focuses on Lockett’s larger scale (about 4’ x 4’) works of found materials, which he took from buildings that had belonged to the Dial family.  Most time, Lockett uses the materials as he’s found them – lots of wood, rusting tin sheets layered over each other or with metal grills – sometimes he’s painted over them with iron-oxide based paint, industrial sealing compound and enamel.

In some cases the image is not readily accessible – it may be made from strips of tin that blend in with their background, or it may be found in the negative space, outlined in nail heads or in holes. It’s worth spending time with these multi-layered works; I found the wall labels helpful in understanding them. His depiction of the runner Jesse Owens is especially moving.

Sarah Lockett's Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

Sarah Lockett’s Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

There are a few pieces in which Lockett painted over his metal surfaces with bright colors, evoking quilts: I especially liked his homage to Princess Diana (England’s Rose) , and the one to the garden of his great grandmother, Sarah Dial Lockett (Sarah Lockett’s Roses).   He spent many hours in her house, and the influence of her quilts is evinced by Lockett’s use of blocks of color, and his layering of materials.

Environmental degradation is another theme that is important to Lockett, and in this exhibit you’ll also find several collages and paintings that address this issue   

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

My favorite work is at the end of the show (or maybe it’s the beginning); on paper which has seemingly been washed over in black ink, is the collaged image of a deer, outlined in white, staring straight ahead.  Even though the stag is a recurring motif in Lockett’s work, there is something very specific about this one – it just seemed to grab me.  I’ve posted more pictures on my Instagram feed.

I attended a talk by author and professor Deborah McDowell, who grew up in Pipe Shop. Although she never met Lockett, she certainly understood the context of his art.  In her talk, Prof. McDowell made several points which were helpful to me in understanding Lockett’s work.  Below is my summary of her remarks.

When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about emotion and affect.  Too often,   African American artists are viewed only through historical and socio economic lenses.  An emotional response should not be viewed as insincere – after all, Rothko invoked emotions when speaking of his work, and how his work provoked them.

Our understanding of the civil rights era comes through photos of violence – sneering dogs, horses, troopers, clubs – or pictures of the spirit of triumphalism.  These images have claimed and cannibalized history, leaving out the experiences the historians didn’t see.  The civil rights era also coincided with the deindustrialization of the South – we need to consider the larger context of this era and look at its casualties.  As people were gaining their rights, there were no jobs for them.  Even though he was born too late to participate in the Civil Rights era, Ronald Lockett was embedded in kin networks and would have heard all the stories, especially as he interacted with older people.

Remembering is re-membering:  taking the remains and putting them back together.

Ronal Lockett  was preoccupied with using the remains and converting them into something new; his work is saturated with grief, loss and mourning. He found resonances of suffering in historical events.  The titles of his works – Hiroshima, Oklahoma, Driven From My Homeland – convey these themes and reflect his engagement with history and also the local, human, personal plane.  Some of his work makes references to mass graves; a mass grave was discovered when the US Pipe factory was built – the bodies were disinterred and re-buried somewhere else.

Prof. McDowell also read from her 1997 book Leaving Pipe Shop, Memories of Kin , which recounts her years growing up in Pipe Shop (1950’s and ’60’s), as well as her return there to investigate her father’s death. I’m about half-way through the book, and even though I grew up in New York City, McDowell’s use of local dialogue and specific imagery creates a very intimate portrait of life in a close-knit Southern community which resonated with me. This memoir also brings to life people who were part of the civil rights struggle, who may not have made the front pages, but whose support and participation were essential to its success.

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Concurrent with The Fever Within is  the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, which mixes ten of Ronald Lockett’s works with some eighty small and portable works imbued with protective qualities and powers, made by a wide range of artists situated outside the mainstream.  There are some lovely amulets, plugs and pendants in the shapes of seals, polar bears and wales crafted from walrus ivory during the 18th and 19th centuries by peoples of the Thule Culture.  One display of Brazilian votive offings consists of wooden carvings of hands, feet, heads, torsos, and a few complete figures, which were made with express wishes for recovery, marriage, good harvest or other important life events.  There’s a wonderful recreation of Noah’s Ark – in the back is a crank that animates the animals.  I especially liked the work of Melvin Way, a contemporary artist whose small scale drawings (ballpoint pen on paper and scotch tape) are filled with mathematical formulas.

The Museum will be hosting other events around this exhibition, the next one being at 6:30 on August 9th, when Director Camille A. Brown will perform an excerpt from her 2014 Bessie Award–Winning production Mr. TOL E. RAncE and will speak about shared cultural themes and issues of race that are common to her and Ronald Lockett.  More information here   

On August 18th, filmmaker David Seehausen will introduce several short documentary films he has made about African American self-taught artists from the South, and will dialogue with artist and filmmaker Scott Ogden. More information here  

Both exhibits continue until September 18th. 

Masonic Art

Detail, International Order of Odd Fellows Apron

Detail, International Order of Odd Fellows Apron

I had often passed the “Odd Fellows” building in Downtown Brooklyn, wondering who this building was named for.  I didn’t get that question answered, but through the new exhibit at the American Museum of Folk Art, Mystery and Benevolence:  Masonic & Odd Fellow Folk Art From the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, I discovered who the Odd Fellows are.  And quite a bit about the Masons, whose  Grand Lodge is on 23rd Street and Avenue of the Americas (you can take a tour.) 

Fraternal organizations have been in America since the 17th century.  Probably the best known of these, the American Masons, grew out of the medieval stone mason guilds in Scotland and England.  Early members included luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and George Washington.  The International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) began in the early 1800‘s, and was comprised of members from diverse trades.  Both organizations had at their center individual lodges where men (women have separate organizations) could socialize, share values, improve themselves, their communities and help others.  Elaborate rituals would mark the initiate’s advancement through the degrees or steps that would allow him to understand the mysteries of the symbols.  Even though the various fraternal societies employed many of the same rituals, regalia and symbols, they did not always have the same meaning!  So it can get confusing, but thank goodness there are very helpful wall labels.

The exhibit, composed of a wide collection of prints, banners, aprons, wooden signs, staffs and textiles, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, is organized around several themes, such as  Fellowship, Signs, Labor, Passage, Wisdom, Charity and Fraternal Mysteries. 

Starting in the large exhibit space, there’s a lovely silk collar embellished with gold paint and metal & glass jewels that belonged to IOOF Emblematic Lodge #169, as well as wooden axes from different societies, each decorated with their lodge’s respective symbols.  Throughout you’ll notice that several symbols are common to many of the orders:  the all-seeing eye, the three-link chain, the pair of clasped hands, the heart in the hand…

Appliquéd Quilt by the grandmother of Wane Robb

Appliquéd Quilt by the grandmother of Wane Robb

You’ll also find a tracing board of black painted canvas, on which are seven symbols in muted gold paint, giving it a mysterious and somewhat scary air (especially the skull).  Close by is a stunning black wool carpet with various Masonic symbols and an open Bible woven in bright red.  Next to that is a large Summer Spread from the late 1800’s, whose white blocks are hand appliquéd with red 3-link chains (symbolizing friendship, love and truth).  In the Labor section are a pair of wooden beehives, covered in gold paint, created for the the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s branch of the Odd Fellows, established in 1851.  Beehives represent industry and unity in working towards a common purpose.  Next to that is a magnificent appliqué quilt made by the grand mother of a Texas Ranger named Wayne Robb, composed as a grid of 25 squares, some of which contain symbols such as a rainbow and menorah which are not commonly found in Masonic art.  Above the quilt are 5 silk banners, dating from the 19th century, with 2nd degree symbols painted or embroidered on their backgrounds. 

Fraternal Apron, 1800's

Fraternal Apron, 1800’s

In the Fraternal Symbols section, you’ll find a lovely hooked rug, several wooden staffs, carvings of a cornucopia, and a doubled headed eagle, as well as banners with symbols from the Encampment degree.  Towards the end of the exhibit are two intriguing items incorporating Native American iconography:  one is a hooked rug by the Daughters of Pocahontas, a women’s auxiliary which styled itself after the virtues of Pocahontas: kindness, love, charity and loyalty to one’s nation; the other is a fraternal apron from the 1800‘s depicting a Native American extending a pipe to a white man  (detail above). 

There’s lots more to see – the exhibit has almost 200 pieces.  I’ve posted more pictures on Instagram   The show runs through May 8th.

There will be a tour of the exhibit on March 31st from 1:00 to 2:00

The Museum also hosts jazz+Wednesday’s – on March 30th, from 2:00 – 3:00 they’ll feature Bill Wurtzel, Jay Leonhart and Sharon Fisher.  I caught them last week, and they were fabulous!

On April 25th, they’ll host a Fraternal Art Symposium.  Find out more about the Museum’s programs here  

Before They Close

I can’t believe that 2015 is almost over!  Since many of you will be leaving soon for other locales to celebrate the holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or another tradition, I wish you happiness, merriment and peace in this holiday season and in the New Year.  In the holiday spirit, I’ll be taking a bit of a rest, and will resume publishing mid-January.  ‘Til then….

While your intrepid blogger has been active, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to write a fuller review of some of the exhibits I’ve seen, but, in the tradition of the year-end round up, I’d like to offer a few recommendations for shows before they close. 

Over by Lincoln Center the American Folk Art Museum,  is hosting a splendid exhibit “Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet,” featuring over 150 pieces by 35 artists from the Collection de L’art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Many of the works – pen and ink, pencil, embroideries, mixed media – are incredibly detailed, highly patterned and very imaginative.  A small but fulfilling show.  It closes on January 10th.

On the evening of January 5th, the Museum will show Bruno Decharme’s film, Rouge Ciel, the story of unconventional artists.  There will also be a talk back with the director after the screening.

Across the way at Lincoln Center, the Library for the Performing Arts has an exhibit about “Alice in Wonderland” in performance and song, which runs through January 16th.  My previous review is here .

At Columbus Circle, The Museum of Art and Design  I caught two excellent exhibits.  Wendell Castle Remastered is a wonderful show of the work of this master furniture maker, designer, sculptor, educator, and acclaimed figure of the American art furniture movement, who deftly merges sculpture and furniture.  The show pairs new works in which Castle combines hand craftsmanship—such as carving, rasping, and finishing—with digital technologies—including 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and computer-controlled milling – with the earlier pieces that inspired them. 

Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward   showcases the work of 12 established and emergent kōgei artists. Kōgei is a genre of traditional artisanal crafts that is associated with specific regions and peoples in Japan.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

If you’re at the Brooklyn Museum, the Francisco Oller show, (here’s an earlier review)  continues through January 3rd.  Be sure to leave time for “Arts of Africa, Double Take”  a small but innovative exhibit that pairs African art from the 19th century (and earlier) with works by modern African artists.  The show is grouped around themes such as “The Art of Portraits,” “The Art of Trauma,” “Art that Moves,” which gives it a more nuanced feel than the usual chronological/linear displays that are so often used in museums.  The beadwork, especially on the beaded crowns from Nigeria and the man’s corset from South Sudan are standouts, as are many of the masks and carvings.

If you’re looking for theatre, I’d recommend the revival of The King & I  at Lincoln Center;  if you like dance, An American in Paris   is a delightful show, with some wonderful old songs, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is compelling.

In the book department, I’m currently reading “The Boy is Gone:  Conversations with a Mau Mau General”  by Laura Lee P. Huttebach.  I picked it up after hearing her speak about her visits to Kenya to understand the General’s story, and make it known to the wider world.  As its title implies, the book recounts the many conversations Ms. Huttenbach had with Japhlet Thambu about his life and his participation in the Kenyan independence movement.  The story is told in Mr. Thambu’s voice and makes for a fascinating look at an episode in African history that has been too often misunderstood and distorted in the West. 

Folk Art & Modernism

Federal Sideboard Table, New England 1810-1830, Photo by John Parnell

Federal Sideboard Table, New England 1810-1830, Photo by John Parnell

Between now and September 27th, if you’re over by Lincoln Center,  be sure to stop in the American Museum of Folk Art.  Their current Exhibit, “Folk Art and American Modernism”  has works owned by collectors, artists, and dealers who were instrumental in bringing “folk art” to prominence.  These pieces – by American’s earliest self-taught artists – exerted a strong influence on the modernist artists of the 1920’s and 30’s.   The exhibition is grouped according to the individual collectors, showing paintings, objects and furniture in the same space, which takes a bit of getting used to, as you don’t have the thematic feeling you often get in museums.  But they all had an eye for the well-made. 

Some standouts for me:  In the collection of Jean and Howard Lippman, you’ll find painted wooden desks, bureaux and chests from 1760-1825, some of which employed faux grain, trompe l’oeil, as well as vinegar painting techniques. There are also several watercolors, portraits and landscapes from the 19th century.  I especially liked the watercolor and ink painting of the Oswego Starch Factory; it’s straightforward depiction clearly demonstrates the economic importance of this manufacturer, whose box factory, starch factory, carpentry shop, stables and storehouses seem to overwhelm the surrounding town.

Exotic Bird and Townscape, Montgomery County, PA, ca 1830-1835, attributed to Abraham Heebner

Exotic Bird and Townscape, Montgomery County, PA, ca 1830-1835, attributed to Abraham Heebner

The collection of Edith Halpert contains “Exotic Bird and Townscape” a watercolor and ink example of Fraktur art, a kind of illuminated manuscript, usually with calligraphy that was used for certificates and blessings, rather than the secular subject depicted here.

The Abby Aldridge Rockefeller collection includes an exquisite theorem painting (made using hollow stencils) by Matilda Haviland, a cast iron horse weather vane from 1875, and a set of 6 wooden toy animals.  Linger at Joseph Pickett’s “Manchester Valley,” a peaceful depiction of a high school, its surrounding town, and the train and stream that run through it.  By combining sand with oil paint, Pickett has created a subtle 3-D effect in the trees, stream and brick buildings.    

In the Ogunquit Modernists collection, the standout for me was “Woman with Red Shawl” by Ira Chafee Goodell.  It’s aptly named – but that shawl gets competition from the sitter’s blue, blue eyes.   The workmanship of the tulle lace bonnet and ruff are exquisite.

Exhibition “Folk Art and American Modernism” American Folk Art Museum, New York Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson © American Folk Art Museum

Exhibition “Folk Art and American Modernism”
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson
© American Folk Art Museum

Juliana Force was director of The Whitney Studio Club, and the first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  In this section, all of the pieces are outstanding, but I especially liked  “Baby with Cane” (notice the pose);  “Coryell’s Ferry” by Joseph Pickett (contrast his textured surfaces of the animals, water and trees with those of “Manchester Valley” cited earlier); and the surreal “Girl in a Garden” (contrast her with “Girl Seated on Bench” in the AA Rockefeller section).

On the wall with Elie and Viola Nadelman’s collection, you’ll find Asahel Power’s portrait of Dorothy Dandridge, otherwise known as Mrs. Patrick Henry (give me liberty…), with it’s subtle notes of gold in her necklace and the background ribbons a counterpoint to her somber expression.

There’s lots more in this exhibit – paintings, furniture, duck decoys, trade carvings, weathervanes, hooked rugs and a quilt.   

Take your time and see them all. 

The Museum will be hosting a talk on Monday, September 21st:   “Investing in Folk Art: The Remarkable Edith Halpert and her Downtown Gallery,” by Lindsay Pollock, Editor-in-Chief of Art in America.  On September 24th, they will host Dialogue & Studio on stencil painting, with artist Katarina Lanfranco.  You can find more information here

Last Look Before the Curtain Descends

Deborah Berger (1956-2005) "Mask" Knitted orlon 26 1/2 x 33 1/4 x 13" Collection American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, gift of the Art Council of New Orleans, FIC.2014.67 Photo by Mary Dwan Courtesy American Visionary Art Museum

Deborah Berger (1956-2005) “Mask” Knitted orlon
26 1/2 x 33 1/4 x 13″
Collection American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, gift of the Art Council of New Orleans, FIC.2014.67
Photo by Mary Dwan
Courtesy American Visionary Art Museum

Hurry and see “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” , the wonderful exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum  before it closes on July 5th.  I have to say this has been one of my favorites, showcasing the work of 27 self-taught artists from various countries, who have incorporated some form of public performance in their art.  Several of the artists (Vahan Poladian, Charlie Logan)  made highly ornate costumes – coats, pants, jackets festooned with beads, coins, found objects and often with elaborate embroidery – think Elvis or Liberace – which they would wear when they went into town. One artist, Palmerino Sorgente, thought he was the Pope, and created elaborate Papal hats.   Giuseppe Versino crafted coats and pants from cleaning rags, which he would tear apart and reweave into complete garments, which he wore, even though they could weigh up to 100 pounds.  Deborah Berger knitted elaborate masks, one of which is in the photo at left.

I was a bit overwhelmed trying to think about the planning and labor that went into making each of these costumes, – the deliberateness of their construction, the care in their ornamentation – and how they transformed not only their wearers, but also the materials that went into their fabrication.

Not all the artists shown personally transformed themselves.  Bill Anhang imbued his cast aluminum hats and breast plates with LED lights.  Others created machines, sculptures, writings, structures, light art and sound art.  No matter what the art work, it is clear that a lot of love went into their creation, and they each had deep personal meaning for the artist.

In addition to the exhibits, there are oftentimes accompanying videos, photos or sound recordings which provide an extra dimension to the displays.

This show is worth rearranging your day for.

Looking for Something to Do?

New York City certainly doesn’t lack for world-renowned cultural institutions, so I’d like to give a shout out to some that may be lesser-known, but equally worthy of a visit.  I’ll update this post as I visit venues, so be sure to check back.

If you’re over by Lincoln Center – one of the great performing arts centers anywhere – stop in at the  American Museum of Folk Art    on Columbus and 65th.  This gem of a space houses very comprehensive exhibits focusing on self-taught artists,  often encompassing a wide variety of media.  Even though the space is small, you will come away with real insight and knowledge.  The museum has the added virtue of being free, but if it weren’t it would be worth paying for.

Over at Columbus Circle is the Museum of Art and Design, a multi-story facility of changing exhibitions on everything from jewelry to paper art to furniture, fashion and textiles from the US and abroad.  The museum also houses artists studios, which are often open to the public.  You also might want to check out their lectures, movies and performances.

If design is what captivates you, then be sure to head uptown to the newly re-opened Cooper Hewitt – Smithsonian Museum of Design on Fifth Avenue at 91st Street.  Housed in the former Carnegie Mansion, the museum has incorporated technology in it’s redesign, including a pen to let visitors make their own designs.