Jack Shainman knows how to throw a party. Driving up to Kinderhook last Sunday for the opening of this summer’s exhibition at the School, a 30,000-foot exhibition space that the Chelsea gallery-owner opened in May 2014, a friend and I thought that we still had a ways to go when we entered the outskirts of a town. Capacious, lush lawns swept up to handsome, well-kept brick and Victorian mansions, and as far as we could see, parked cars lined both sides of the road. “Wow, what’s going on here?” we asked. “Must be some wedding.”
Then we passed the School, with crowds of people on the front lawn, adorned with an orange di Suvero steel sculpture, buses in the driveway and a huge banner reading “Jack Shainman’s The School” hanging off the front of the elegant Federal-style brick building. (Formerly Martin Van Buren High School, the building has a central colonnaded gable and white cupola.) With a little luck, I located a parking spot fairly nearby (all the side streets were similarly full of parked cars), and soon we found ourselves on the enormous lawn out back, mingling in a crowd that made us feel that we were at the coolest wedding ever.
Music blared from a huge white tent sheltering dozens of white linen-covered tables and chairs, and a lineup of half a dozen food trucks offered an enticing choice of cuisines: barbecue, Indian, Greek and German. Under another tent, people were lining up for drinks: lemonade served in glasses with mint and a choice of alcohol, including rum, vodka and wine.
Though my friend and I were eager to see the art, we lingered awhile on the lawn, enjoying the party. Once we finally climbed the stone steps into the brightly lit white-walled galleries, however, there was no sense of letdown; the exhibition – a combination of sculptures, photographs and paintings by four artists – was gripping, beautifully displayed in what felt like a temple of art. A series of rooms, unified by the brushed stone/gray concrete floor, flowed seamlessly through the building of three floors, effortlessly complementing the diverse artworks at every turn.
The four artists, Garnett Puett, Richard Mosse, Hayv Kahraman and Pierre Dorion, represent a range of nationalities, subject matter and media, but their work is united by “a tension between absence and presence,” according to the gallery, which notes that the art collectively refers to allusions to what is not explicitly there, yet haunts the viewer. Hence the title of the show, which is up through the summer: “A Change of Place: Four Solo Exhibitions.” To most viewers, that theme will probably seem obscure; what is most obvious is how each body of work is not only extremely consistent in style and theme, but also stands apart in dramatic contrast to the other art – and showcases the individual strengths of the School’s various beautifully designed galleries.
You enter into a rather intimate gray-paneled room, whose classical formalism is conveyed by the simple arched doorways and curved, floating ceiling, brilliantly illuminated by lights hidden behind the edge of the paneling. Its traditional elegance was the perfect setting for Garnett Puett’s rather delicate sculptures consisting of beeswax and covering or partially filling a wood or steel structure (one also incorporates a garbage-can lid and another an electrical cord). The forms of the beeswax, which is shaped by the action of the bees combined with the decision of the artist to remove them from the hive and preserve the form of the in-process comb, are vaguely biomorphic, almost erotic in their curvaceous droopiness; they also suggest strange fungilike growths and, in the wax’s sallow coloration, decay.
Yet the porous, waffled surface, knit of tiny, uniform hexagons, also suggests semi-translucent screens, a material incorporating voids as much as substance; while consistent in their patterned structure, like the weave of a fabric, the forms are also seamed in places, ragged and characterized by subtle shifts in hue: a crafted material that completely embodies the notion of craft. Each piece is displayed in a glass vitrine or large glass bell, as if it were a Victorian-era scientific specimen, an object of fascination. The quasi-scientific approach, the unlikely pairing of biomorphic forms with industrial artifacts and drab coloration have a kinship with Duchamp’s deadpan drawings and paintings of machines, of Dadaist found objects and of Surrealism’s preoccupation with dreams and the irrational, its systematic melding of unlike subject matter.
One piece, a vertical, humanoid form of solid beeswax titled Soul Spur, recalls Rodin’s bronze statue of Balzac in its suggestion of a monumental robed figure – here interpreted as a spooky wraith. (The dates on the label, 1996-2016, startle, indicating that the piece evolved over 20 years and presumably involved thousands of generations of bees.) While many environmental artists adapt a conceptual, didactic approach, Puett, a fourth-generation beekeeper living in Hawaii, successfully transmutes his organic material and working partnership with the bees into eyecatching art objects, which are abidingly strange, beautiful and rich in their associations with performance, sculpture and insect life.
On the second floor, Puett has installed an antique wood cabinet holding a gun rack, where honeybees, entering the cabinet from outside by means of a clear plastic tube puncturing the wall of the building, are busy building a honeycomb. The glass-fronted cabinet, illuminated by a red light, swarms with bees, and the two guns propped up inside are half-subsumed by reefs of comb. We were a little horrified to observe the glass covered with the dark fuzzy bodies of buzzing bees; not beekeepers ourselves, we were perhaps responding to the primitive revulsion for clusters of tiny animate things, be they insects or maggots – as well as the potentially demonic power of nature to strike back, as Alfred Hitchcock powerfully conveyed in The Birds. (However, when we encountered numerous bees that had escaped and were lying dead or dying on the windowsill, our response was “poor things”; I tried to scoop one onto my pad of paper to take it outside, until my friend advised me that I might get stung.)
Turning a corner down a wide hallway, we encountered Richard Mosse’s photographs of Iraq and the Congo, whose vivid color, narratives and monumental scale couldn’t be more different in sensibility from Puett’s apisculptures. Breach, a series of images of US soldiers occupying the former palaces built by Saddam Hussein, explores the architecture of domination, be it crumbling, shoddily constructed stone columns or Nautilus sports equipment. One photograph depicts a solider exercising with sports equipment in an oversized arcade bordering a courtyard and an empty swimming pool; another a lone solider smoking in a chair, a dark, silhouetted form contemplating a distant, out-of-focus view of a lake and palm-fringed, settled land. These magnificently composed images have the grandeur of history paintings, reconstrued for our times: The isolation of these surreal, overblown, marble-and-stone follies, the way that they lord it over their distant surroundings and their occupation by the American soldiers hint at a frightening disconnect. The crude interpretation is that the soldiers, occupying the dictator’s viewpoint, represent the powerful, and therefore are another kind of oppressor. But there’s much more to the images: Lonely figures dwarfed by the architecture, they instead read as mere stand-ins; the architectural symbols are falling into decay, and the truly powerful are invisible.
Downstairs, in what had been the school’s gymnasium, one enters a vast 3,000-square-foot gallery with soaring ceilings; the late Spanish architect Antonio Jimenez Torrecillas excavated the floor to create an elevation of 24 feet. Three of Mosse’s enormous panoramic photographs from his Infra series serve as portals into the troubled landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ethnic cleansing and intertribal warfare have resulted in the loss of millions of lives. Mosse shot the photos using an infrared reconnaissance film once used by the US military in World War II and the Vietnam War. The psychedelic color emphasizes the otherworldly, off-limits character of a landscape otherwise portrayed as sublime in its mountainous aspect, immense scale and incredible detail (including tiny figures), as an Albert Bierstadt painting.
Mosse alludes to the economic activity as well, photographing an aerial view of a mountainous area, gouged by rough roads, where gold mining occurs and a woodland is in the process of being burned for charcoal production. He photographs a group portrait of members of a Tutsi village, in which not one face is smiling. In his series Come Out, he documents the provisional structures of branches and sticks made by people who are constantly forced to move; these temporary shelters have a frail beauty. The Irish-born artist, who lives in New York, represented Ireland in the 55th Venice Biennale and shows his work around the world.
Many of the second-floor galleries are devoted to the work of Hayv Kahraman, who was born in Baghdad and now resides in Los Angeles. She represents the sirens that she heard frequently growing up in Iraq – a painful sonic memory – as a grid of small Xes, underlaid by acoustic foam, piercing the torsos of the single nude women she paints in oil-on-linen canvases; the dark-haired women, who are depicted in a stylization of flat shapes, graceful lines and nuanced shadings inspired by a 13th-century Baghdadi illuminated manuscript, hold their ears. Her large, spare oil paintings of dancing or seated groups of women – many inscribed with Arabic writing describing aphorisms, stories or political sayings – are modern interpretations of the pages of the 13th-century manuscript and celebrate the flourishing culture that created it, before the Mongol invasion. Kahraman also paints watercolors of mysterious, gesturing hands, emerging from richly patterned sleeves, and makes sculptures and reliefs that describe geometric forms in flamelike wood tracery.
These upstairs classrooms have been transformed into a series of spacious, simple white-walled galleries with transparent white scrims covering the windows; vertical white fluorescent tubes are installed on the walls and ceilings. The setting changes at one end of the building, where there are several distressed rooms that retain an echo of the schoolroom: Broad blue bands presumably indicate the location of the blackboards, and a blue circle suggests the shape of the classroom clock. Naturally lit rooms, they have a somber and contemplative atmosphere and form the frame for Pierre Dorion’s illusionistic paintings of doorways, windows and corridors.
Dorion’s paintings are based on photographs of these very interiors, and the effect is of uncanny doubles – the illusionistic doorways and corridors disintegrating the solidity of the actual wall and telescoping space. Coolly painted and devoid of distracting details, they emphasize the geometry of the simple architectural features and are imbued with a mysterious sense of absence, of suspense, even; the painter’s unstinting observations of these empty spaces and flat surfaces – subject matter that normally would defy observation – are almost voyeuristic. The paintings have a crispness that causes them to emerge from the wall, as if they, and not the distressed, rather dimly lit walls on which they are hung, were the literal space. The painterly and textured features of the actual walls contrast with the luminous images; they seem to float on the marked and blemished wall like vivid visions, as if the wall were dreaming. Dorion lives in Montreal, where in 2012 he had a major retrospection at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal.
We drifted out onto the lawn after a couple of hours of viewing the art. The crowds had dispersed, but there was still food and drink, so we had a pulled pork sandwich and lingered. It was a luminous evening, and the fresh green leaves and flowers of spring perfumed the air. We felt sorry for the people who boarded the bus back to New York – and were reminded that the mid-Hudson Valley offers the best of both worlds: gorgeous nature and fantastic art.
“A Change of Place: Four Solo Exhibitions,” Garnett Puett, Richard Mosse, Hayv Kahraman & Pierre Dorion, Saturdays through summer 2016, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m., Jack Shainman Gallery, 25 Broad Street, Kinderhook; (518) 758-1628, www.jackshainman.com.