New life for old school: El Anatsui show on view in Kinderhook

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Since it opened a year ago, the School gallery has added the village of Kinderhook to the cluster of world-class art destinations stretching from Hudson to North Adams. Long-established New York Chelsea gallery-owner Jack Shainman, who opened his first gallery with his partner Claude Simard in Washington, DC in 1984, has a roster of international artists who collectively produce some of the most thought-provoking, ambitious and beautifully executed work on the planet. Now Shainman is exporting some of that talent to Kinderhook, hitherto known primarily as the birthplace of Martin Van Buren.

Located in a former public school, the School, whose 1929 Colonial façade remains unchanged, is exhibiting the work of El Anatsui, the Ghana-born artist, now based in Nigeria, who won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Venice Biennial. The 40-plus pieces in the show constitute a retrospective of the last 50 years of the artist’s career and include his clay pieces, colored wood sculpture, bold-banded acrylic paintings and etchings and majestic metal wall hangings, which reference both postcolonial exchange (partly through their resemblance to maps and recycled material) and Modernist abstraction; the draped forms have the delicacy of a tapestry and yet are also elegiac and monumental.

The School opened in 2014 with a boisterous exhibition of Nick Cave’s colorful Soundsuits and assemblages incorporating racist artifacts from popular culture, such as a spittoon in the shape of a black man’s head. To Shainman’s delight, the show attracted crowds of locals as well as the New York art audience. “I never imagined we’d have the kind of attendance we’ve had,” he said. “Originally we planned to be open to the public in the summer and have private viewings for clients from the city. But now we have regular hours year-round. We’ve gotten art junkies on their way to the Clark Museum, Williams College and Mass MoCA, and a lot of people going to Tanglewood. We’ve been getting an amazing amount of people.”

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Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Shainman about his latest venture:

 

You’ve been very successful in Chelsea. What led you to open a gallery in Kinderhook?

I have a weekend place in Stuyvesant, the next town over from Kinderhook. It’s a small farm, and I’ve always loved that area. That intersection [where the School is located] is so beautiful, with its historic houses. One day I was driving by and saw the For Sale sign.  I thought, “Oh my god, it would be a life dream come true to have a bunker for storage and a big viewing room for artists like El Anatsui and Nick Cave.” It has always been difficult finding a room in New York City with 20-foot-high ceilings…This school is such an amazing building. It’s the biggest in the village, and the bones of it were so good.

 

After buying the building, how much renovation did you do?

We went in really naïve. We had done several renovations in the City, but never on this kind of scale. We worked with Antonio Jiménez Torecillas, who’s designed several museums in Spain. Antonio is really good with regenerating a space, taking something that exists and figuring out the possibilities. Fortunately the building lent itself to being a series of galleries, since it’s very balanced, with a Palladian design. Antonio took advantage of that.

He lives in Granada, in the area where the Gypsies used to live. They lived in caves and would put a façade on the front so it looks like a townhouse, but it’s actually a cave. Because he lives in a cave, he’s the only person who would have thought of excavating the gymnasium. He dug eight feet below the gym floor [to create a 4,000-square-foot space with 24-foot-high ceilings], and it’s so beautiful. It’s surrounded by a perimeter gallery. You go through a corridor, which also is an exhibition space.

 

When you renovated the school, you also installed a geothermal system, so it’s a green building. Are you happy with the system?

I never dreamed I’d do this when I first heard about it, but after the first winter, when we kept the thermostat very low but still burned so much oil, I couldn’t think about not doing it. I love geothermal. Now we are cooling with the water that was sucked out of the building and heated during the winter. It cools and heats, and with the heat pump and heat exchangers runs so beautifully. It’s such an amazing system, but because of all the oil lobbyists in Washington, somehow oil controls our lives.

I feel better about our footprint. When I first found out the cost, I thought, “Are you kidding?” But all the costs are up front. It just made so much sense, and I feel so fortunate.

 

The building also has galleries on the second floor. How much gallery space is there in total?

At least 20,000 square feet. The amount of space gives my artists a lot more flexibility, because they can put a large-scale project up and leave it – as opposed to renting a room in Brooklyn, and you have 24 hours or maybe a week at most.

 

What has been your goal as an art dealer, and how does the School fit into that?

I want to show strong, interesting and challenging work. I work with artists from all over the world. Organizing El Anatsui’s show has been a high point in my career. When you exhibit an artist’s work from so many decades, you certainly see a cyclical thing sharpening over the years. His work from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s is so related to what he’s doing now. In his early sculptural work, he worked in clay, reconfiguring broken ceramic vessels in different ways. Then he worked in wood, and always from recycled materials. All that metal in his metal pieces comes from alcohol products produced in Africa. My partner [Claude Simard], who unfortunately passed away a year ago, traveled the world, and he went to El’s studio in Nigeria many times. El has a lot of shows. We meet in New York, in the UK and in Italy.

 

It’s a museum-quality exhibition.

People have said that. A lot of works I borrowed from other collectors and from El himself. I helped organize El’s traveling exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I work a lot with artists, and we talk about how to put an exhibition together.

El is everywhere in the School. We did that with Nick Cave as well. In between we had two group exhibitions, which were thematic. One was entitled “Mis en Scene” and the other was “Status Quo.” We also had a solo show of Meleko Mokgosi’s very large-scale works; one painting was 44 feet long.

 

After so many years in the business, you must have quite a collection.

Although we started the gallery with very humble means, Claude and I loved to buy and collect work. When we had a little money we always reinvested it, and over 30 years our gallery collection has grown. Storing things in New York is not only expensive, but this was an amazing opportunity to have a place to have the public see some of these works.

In the backyard we have a large-scale sculpture by Yoan Capote, who is coincidentally having a two-part exhibition right now at both galleries in New York. He’s a conceptual artist, and if you look down on the piece from above, you see the outlines of a drawing of the left and right sides of his brain. It’s made out of metal police barricades and is held up by a 10-foot-tall pole. It’s like a labyrinth. It was part of an outdoor sculpture exhibition in Toronto a year-and-a-half ago, and when it became available, we put it up in the snow and it just looked so good. We’ll probably take it down in early October.

I’m in negotiations to borrow another large-scale sculpture from another gallery for the front lawn. It’s very exciting to be able to do things that would be impossible in the City.

 

What’s coming up after the El Anatsui show closes in September?

We’ll be showing video work by Carrie Mae Weems in one of the rooms and another by Michael Snow, a very esteemed artist who’s considered the grandfather of video and film. We’re also working on a few other group shows. We have so much latitude.

 

“El Anatsui: Five Decades,” Saturdays through September 26, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., The School, 25 Broad Street, Kinderhook; (212) 645-1701, info@jackshainman.com.

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