Exhibitions

Martin Puryear is Perfect for The Venice Biennale

The Trump Administration's tardiness in announcing which American artist would represent the United States at the forthcoming 2019 Venice Biennale was incredibly unusual. And it lead some to speculate that partisan officials were plotting to push the selection of an artist who would exhibit work that represented Trump at the expense of artistic quality. Thankfully, that was not the case and a few days ago it was announced that Martin Puryear would create new pieces for the United States Pavilion at one of the most important events in the international art world. Puryear is in many ways the perfect choice to represent the United States in 2019, with a decades-long body of work that is an effective  foil to the Trumpian zeitgeist.

The 77-year-old Puryear, a native of Washington DC, earned his undergraduate degree in Fine Art from the Catholic University of America in 1963 and holds an MFA from Yale. He served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts as well. He has been featured in the Whitney Biennial three times. MoMA, SFMoMA, MoMA Fort Worth, and the National Gallery collaborated on a traveling retrospective of his work. The recipient of both a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Puryear received the Gold Medal in Sculpture from the National Academy of Arts in 2007. He was awarded the country's highest honor for artists, the National Medal of Arts, in 2011 by President Obama. In short, Martin Puryear has the pedigree of an artist who should be featured at the Venice Biennale.

Puryear is also multi-talented. He is primarily a sculptor, but has also created furniture, tools, and other non-art objects. His work is often large scale and regularly commissioned for the public sphere. In 2014 he unveiled his Slavery Memorial on the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The work takes the form of a half-buried ball and chain. The ball emerges from the ground as a bronze dome with a chain jutting towards the sky where it terminates in a broken link. At the breakage, the chain is polished to a mirror finish, reflecting the sky and trees above. On a granite plinth nearby, a plaque displays a text remarking on the ways in which Brown University profited from the international slave trade and the unpaid labor of Africans and African-Americans. It is an incisive and moving piece that calls to account for historic wrongs committed by the University that commissioned it.

Brown University Slavery Memorial , Photo via Brown Univeristy by Warren Jagger

Brown University Slavery Memorial, Photo via Brown Univeristy by Warren Jagger

Puryear is an artist who is not only concerned with the conceptual, but also with the craft involved in making objects. As a result, his work is often both formally and conceptually complex. His large scale sculptures have an inkling of abstraction but also reveal narratives that reflect the real world. One of his most notable works, Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), shows his dedication to craft and thoughtful construction as well as his interest in history, politics, and sociology. The piece is a dramatically foreshortened and abstracted ladder that appears to recede into the far distance. It was constructed utilizing a single ash sapling hewed from Puryear's own New York property. The sapling was split precisely down the center and connected with maple rungs. Although it is essentially an abstraction, Puryear's Ladder is also a highly familiar and recognizable object. And it tells a story, too.

Ladder for Booker T. Washington,  wood (ash and maple), 1996,  The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Ladder for Booker T. Washington, wood (ash and maple), 1996, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Booker T. Washington  was one of the most prominent thinkers of his generation. An advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, Washington advocated for African-Americans in a variety of ways but suggested that through industrious pursuits they could improve their own opportunities in the United States. This idea made him the intellectual counterbalance to other intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois, who sought political routes and protested to broaden civil rights for African-Americans. Puryear's Ladder for Booker T. Washington suggests the winding road of progress that comes with proposed self-improvement. It also reflects the idea of the sometimes-apocryphal "American Dream" in which raising one's own status through labor and entrepreneurship would allow for a rise up the societal ladder.

In this piece, Puryear punctures Washington's arguments by suggesting the fraught nature of self-improvement for groups of people who are systematically disadvantaged by the political structures of their society. Puryear ironically utilizes his own skills and industriousness to undermine the idea that these qualities alone can change the course of an individual life. The work is quintessentially American and plays on many preconceptions about American life. It is a great expression, not only of an idea about African-American history, but also of the experience of a broad swath of the American public. It successfully combines craft and concept to educate and inform viewers.

In another large scultpure, Big Phrygian (2010 - 2014), exhibited at Matthew Marks Gallery in 2015, Puryear uses painted red cedar to created a monolithic version of the Phrygian Cap which was worn historically to denote liberation. During the French Revolution les sans-culottes often donned le bonnet rouge as an additional sartorial statement of their ardor for liberté. The use of such headgear to mark free men in the eighteenth century is likely a bastardization of the pileus, another type of hat, which in antiquity was the sign of a manumitted slave. Re-contextualized for the American scene, Puryear's Phrygian suggests the incomplete work towards emancipation, justice, and a liberal society. Through this comparison between American democracy, Revolutionary France, and their ancient antecedents, Puryear comments on the veracity of claims about American exceptionalism. His cap is impractically enormous, not meant to don a head, but to demarcate space.

Big Phrygian , painted red cedar, 2010-2014,  Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD

Big Phrygian, painted red cedar, 2010-2014, Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD

For both his exceptional skill and his exquisite use of sculptural craft to evoke American historical and political realities, Puryear is not only a justly respected American artist, he is a fantastic choice to represent his fellow Americans in Venice. He will also be the second consecutive African-American artist to be featured in the Biennale's United States Pavilion. It is fitting, too, that his work in Venice will be commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which recently collaborated with Puryear on his Big Bling installation. The Park's Deputy Director and Senior Curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport will spearhead the project, representing New York's cosmopolitan tastes on a global stage.

Madison Square Park was notably the site of the installation of the Statue of Liberty's flame bearing arm from 1876 - 1882 as fundraisers sought to publicize the donation of the sculpture from the French in order to pay for its base. It is appropriate that in our current political climate, a craftsman, an African-American, an artist who has commented on the American experience through his work, should show the world what Americans are thinking and making now. And it is interesting that the patron of this work will be New York City, one of our nation's most open, most liberal, most international metropolises.

Whatever Puryear creates for the 2019 Venice Biennale will bear the mark of his singular sculptural acumen, and it will also certainly share the very best of American culture with our neighbors around the world.

 

Additional Resources to Learn about Martin Puryear:

Vivacious Shapes: Justine Hill's Paintings at Denny Gallery

Justine Hill (b. 1985) is a Brooklyn-based painter who, in her own words, "collages different ways of making marks to accomplish a desired texture, color, or opacity for each form. Most marks are made from paint, crayon, pencil or pastel. The final painting is simply a composite of these varied marks and based on their formation can behave as animated creature or moving environments."

Hill's current solo exhibition, Freestanding, on view at Denny Gallery on New York's Lower East Side, shows off the range of her considerable technical capabilities and the breadth of her vision. Her lively and vibrant paintings are made up of shaped, canvas-covered panels. Layers of texture and color are built up within each shaped form, which are assembled together to create complete objects. The formal elements of each unit in Hill's paintings bounce off one another, resulting in a rich and varied interplay within, without, and between her cutout panels. The work is also full of energy; producing the occasional hallucinatory vibration. Hill's paintings are, in short, exciting.

To paraphrase Denny Gallery's description of the show, the objective of Hill's exhibition is to explore how her paintings can reassert themselves in space, reacquire their background, and become “freestanding”. The show succeeds in every regard. Through her considerate use of line, color, layer, and texture, Hill transforms the viewer's understanding of her shaped supports. In some instances, the painted surface underscores a preconceived notion about the form below. In others, the surface seemingly rebels against its own panel. Hill's work keeps the audience guessing, and the details of her paintings are transfixing.

The strengths of Hill's work are in the rigorous thinking that underpins them. She explores and re-explores the potentials and drawbacks of shape, of line, of content. Her marks are at once practiced and improvisational, but always very purposeful. By utilizing traditional formal elements of construction in novel ways and by undermining or second-guessing their usefulness, the artist engages with the history of the artform. In her work Hill interrogates the very medium of painting to dazzling effect.

Hill earned her BA at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, and her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been featured in four previous solo exhibitions at Galerie Protégé, Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, and Denny Gallery in New York, as well as at Blueshift Project in Miami. Her work has been widely reviewed including mentions in Artsy, ArtNet, Two Coats of Paint, Hyperallergic, and The Huffington Post. Her work is in numerous private collections and was recently acquired by the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. Her extensive CV, and her excellent current solo exhibition at Denny Gallery are indicative of her well-deserved status as a rising star of contemporary painting.

Freestanding is on view through March 6, 2018 at Denny Gallery.

Dwarf Set  and  Cyclops , by Justine Hill

Dwarf Set and Cyclops, by Justine Hill

Bookend 3 , by Justine Hill

Bookend 3, by Justine Hill

Encountering The Divine: Fra Angelico at the Gardner Museum

Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro, c.1395 - 1455) was described by Vasari in his Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori as "an excellent painter and illuminator, and ... a perfect monk". Vasari also lauded the Angelic Friar's surprising piety in the face of his immense artistic talents. Angelico ably captured the Catholic imagination of the Early Renaissance with his unusually sensitive and humanistic depictions of normally distant saints. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's current exhibition on the artist provides an incredible opportunity to see a series of Angelico's gold-drenched reliquaries, which invite viewers to look deeply and intimately at revelatory and beatific scenes.

On view at the Gardner Museum in Boston February 22 - May 20, Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth is an excellent show featuring stunning pieces. It is described by the Museum thus: 

 

Heaven on Earth reunites the Gardner's magnificent Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin, acquired by Isabella in 1899 and the first Fra Angelico to reach the United States, with its three companions from the Museo di San Marco, Florence. Conceived as a set of jewel-like reliquaries for the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, they tell the story of the Virgin Mary's life. This exhibition invites you to explore Fra Angelico's ground-breaking narrative art, marvel at his peerless creativity, and immerse yourself in the material splendor of his craftsmanship.

 

The exhibition lives up to its promise, bringing together companion artworks that are rarely seen outside of their home at the Museo di San Marco in Florence. The reliquaries are presented in an ecclesiastically-inspired architectural setting constructed within the Museum's rotating exhibitions gallery. This context serves the practical purpose of highlighting the relatively small works within the Gardner's relatively large exhibition space. It also reminds viewers of the original intent of the pieces, which were housed at the Dominican Friars' Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and were meant for quite a personal kind of devotion.

Fra Angelico (c. 1395 - 1455),  Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin , tempera with oil glazes and gold on panel, 1424-1434, 24 5/16"x15 1/16", Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

Fra Angelico (c. 1395 - 1455), Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, tempera with oil glazes and gold on panel, 1424-1434, 24 5/16"x15 1/16", Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

The works on view are full of lively interactions between God and his holy courtiers. These are underscored by Angelico's eye for the humanity of his subjects, which gives them a vitality remarkable for the time. Each reliquary is also imbued with a sense of humor. Looking closely one can find a waiting angel with hands on hips, or St. Peter looking over his shoulder at the viewer. There are a few moments in which saintly observers of heavenly sights turn to the on-looker and invite them closer into the scene, fulfilling their traditional intercessory role.

In 1899, when Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased Angelico's Assumption and Dormition of The Virgin (1424-1434) it was the first piece by the artist to come to the United States. Gardner and her contemporaries were no doubt drawn to Angelico's work due to his technical virtuosity and the timeless beauty of his paintings. In bringing this stunning object to Boston, Gardner added to her own esteem as a collector with a refined eye. She also set the stage for viewers to encounter Fra Angelico's vision of the divine.

This exhibition is a rare and wonderful opportunity not only to see the Gardner's Angelico reunited with its peer reliquaries from Florence, but also to see these works in relation to the Gardner Museum's extensive and eclectic holdings. By viewing Gardner's collection in her original "Fenway Court" and carefully looking at the works in Heaven on Earth, visitors will not only gain an understanding of the connoisseurship that compelled Isabella to buy her Fra Angelico. They will come away with a sense of the deep faith and spirituality that drove the artist to create it in the first place.