Kress Collection Rehang Misguided

The Kress collection at the El Paso Museum of Art, comprising works roughly from the 14th through the 18th century, is a remarkable treasure and has often quite correctly been called the crown jewel of the museum. Contrary to what some have said it really was rehung some 8 years ago along traditional historically linear lines with each room painted a different color to further emphasize the different time periods on view. This was not all that dramatic a change, but simply neatly divided the work up in historical categories.
Apparently the current administration decided the collection needed a complete reorganization, received a grant from the Kress foundation to do so and hired Dr. Elizabeth Dwyer, who fairly recently received her PhD from the University of Virginia for the task.
She decided to hang the collection thematically and to that end chose to hang the works based on the categories of “Madonna and Child”, “Honored Saints” “Sacred Stories” and the “Rise of Secular Art.”. This latter includes the sections world views, Rococo portraits, Nature’s outlines and grand portraits.
While the section of secular portraits and domestic scenes are fine, it is the art in the first rooms which focus on religious content rather than the treatment of that content and, more appallingly, explanatory notes which are too often mere religious propaganda and proselytizing which makes this current approach extremely troubling.
While individual exhibitions with a limited shelf-life are often created to call attention to content or to some link between different artworks not immediately apparent, more permanent displays, such as this is intended to be generally are designed to call attention to the skill involved or to historically important works. As such the display of religious works of art in public museums has always been universally acceptable precisely because museums, at least good ones, take care to take an objective, non-religious view of the art regardless of the relation individual patrons might have with the content.
The display would perhaps not be quite so objectionable were it not for the accompanying informational cards which too often read like religious propaganda.
One card begins “For two millennia, men and women of remarkable faith, fortitude and virtue have shared in St. Jerome’s desire for eternal salvation.”
In another card concerning St. Francis, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, the card reads more like a Sunday school catechism class than something appropriate for a museum. There are far too many “Our fathers” and other such verbiage spread about which creates something deeply troubling and ultimately off-putting.
The thing is it didn’t have to be this way. The works themselves are nicely displayed. As in the rest of the museum, the walls have been painted bright white or covered in white wall covering with a vaguely Italianate background,. and whether it is the reflection of the light against the now bright white walls or whether they have intensified the lighting, the effect is that details are more easily seen. This is a little shocking at first as we have lost the more intimate feeling which was provided by dark crimson walls and subdued lighting from before, but does make the fine detail more available. Reminds me of a certain club in Chicago back in the day which turned on all the lights at 5 in the morning when they wanted everyone to leave. You could see every detail-scary in the club, helpful here.
Even with the works displayed to focus on the religiosity of the work, there could have been a more thorough objective discussion. For example a larger discussion of how the portrayal of the Madonna and Child from a purely otherworldly view to a more human one reflected the profound change in thinking resulting in the Renaissance. This was mentioned on one of the cards, but the theme could have been much better developed, along perhaps with a later discussion of how as money began flowing to individuals rather than only to the church, art changed from glorifying religious figures to glorifying wealthy individuals. This would have provided a better bridge to the later works in the show which seem a bit unconnected. There could have been a discussion of gold leaf or the importance of certain colors, or the inclusion of certain patrons within what were exclusively religious works. These religious works were, of course, originally intended as instruction, but art museums have been correctly and fairly scrupulous in avoiding this aspect. Here it seems to be predominant and this is completely unacceptable.
An art museum is a place for everyone, regardless of personal belief, to feel welcome and a close scrutiny of much of this rehung collection does the opposite. Despite a few interesting bits of historical information such as that on a Jacopo del Casentino altarpiece, the misguided choice to focus on theme has led to a display which is too often off-putting, divisive and deeply troubling.-david sokolec

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Extinction and Excess

In the show Ethics, Excess, Extinction currently on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, the elephant in the room is the elephant in the room, or rather three large white puffy elephants created by Billie Grace Lynn. I don’t know whether the artist considered the idea that the term “white elephant” refers to a usually large, expensive undesirable purchase or if white was simply the color of the material at hand, but in either case they are here to remind us of the danger to the species as well as the danger to many others. One of the really heartbreaking photos in the show is by Nick Brandt, whose black and white photos of park rangers in Africa holding elephnt tusks is a simple but powerful image of the destruction men have wrought on these wonderful animals for the sake of money.
The show consists of a wide variety of approaches to the subject. Karen Knott has a haunting group of photos from her India series which shows an animal ensconced within the walls of a beautiful India interior.
Internationally known artist Kiki Smith contributes a number of huge tapestries portraying various wild animals. There is documentation of performance artists and videos linking people at a flea market with animals foraging.
All of the works in this show remind us in various ways that we are not the only ones on the planet,and that extinction not only means a loss to the animals but a profound loss for the world.
The show is organised by Artworks for Chicago and runs through May 13.-david sokolecIMG_20180221_140256701~2.jpgFotor_151925865347478.jpgIMG_20180221_140740398~2.jpg

Frida y Diego en Blanco y Negro

There is a reception tonight (Sept 7) at the Franklin Smith Gallery in the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso for what appears to be a great exhibition of photographs taken of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Sponsored by the Consul General of Mexico in El Paso the show called “Una Sonrisa a Mitad del Camino”features photographs of the daily life of the pair by such luminaries of photography as Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo among others.
The reception scheduled for 6 pm will also feature the participation of the group Euterpe Jazz Flamenco.
The exhibition will continue until December 22. -David Sokolec

Dreams Under Border Skies at Rubin Center

I thought the day the DACA program was rescinded would be a good day to visit Erika Harrsch’s installation Under the Same Sky..We Dream at the Rubin Center.
Before I talk about the show, I want to talk about the flood. No, not that flood, but the one that hit the Rubin Center here in El Paso. It seems the intense rain last Friday completely flooded the first floor of the center. There had been problems during rains before, but this was so bad that everything had to be ripped up and torn out from the small auditorium to the offices. The first floor currently looks like a construction site. Fortunately the main gallery space upstairs was untouched, and the indomitable director Kerry Doyle is currently running her empire from a card table set up in the small corridor between the reception desk and the back room. Here’s hoping that all get repaired soon.
As I said the upstairs gallery is fine and that means one can certainly explore the current exhibions. Erika Harrsch is based in New York, but she has spent a fair amount of time on the border and her work often concerns immigration and border issues. A year or so ago, she set up a huge spinning wheel here in which participants could “win”a North American passport”” which presumably would give one the right to freely cross all borders in North America. Revolutionary concept. Shengen convention anyone?
Here she has done something quite moving.
Hanging from the ceiling and completely stretching from one side of the gallery to the other is a cutout of the US-Mexico border completely filled with a video composed of 35,000 photographs of the sky over the Juarez-El Paso border. This video consisting mainly of shifting cluds is projected on both sides of the cutout. Ducking through this low hanging cutout (well, some probably have to duck, others of us can just fit beneath)brings one immediately to a darkened space filled with the same mats and blankets used in ICE detention centers. On each mat is a “Dreambook” illuminated by an attached reading light, containing the words of the “Dream Act.” From stereo speakers comes the magical voice of Mexican singer Magos Herrera singing those same words and thereby transforming the pure legalize into something truly wonderful. I was vaguely reminded of the practice of singing the words of the Torah, which also transforms what are, at times, purely prosaic words and some fundamental laws into something somehow much greater.
One is encouraged,to sit on the mat, read the book, listen to the words being sung and wafting over the room and then looking up at the shifting clouds projected above and ponder, reflect and perhaps to dream.
This is a deceptively simple, and perhaps precisely because of the simplicity powerfully moving work.
The installation is accompanied by a collection of interviews with various dreamers made by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. Around the corner from Harrsch’s installation photographers Sylvia Johnson and Kerry Scherck show portaits of dreamers and a short interview with each one in which they discuss their life and hopes and dreams.
The two parts of the show combine perfectly into a profound reflection on an extremely relevant and important issue.
Erika Harrsch and some of the “dreamers”will be holding a panel discussion on September 28 at the show’s closing. It is scheduled for 6 pm, but check with the center for more details. -david sokolec

A Bug A Cactus and World Domination

Textiles and dyeing techniques seem to have suddenly become the topic du jour for museum shows. About two  weeks  ago, I was reading Rainey Knudson’s excellent review in Glasstire  of the Ikat textile show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; I see there is a show of waxed batik at the Dallas Museum of Art, and just last week I stumbled into the magnificent show “The Red That Colored the World” at the El Paso Museum of Art.
This show comes from the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe and explores the importance of cochineal dye throughout the ages and throughout the world.
The dye comes from the cochineal bug happily feeding on the prickly pear cactus and if you think this is a bit too arcane or tedious you need to think again. This is a remarkably vibrant show.
The discovery of using this bug for a particular shade of red and its variations first occured in both Mexico and Peru centuries ago, but with the conquest of the area by Spain it soon spread throughout the world. We often think about the Spanish conquest in terms of gold or maybe chocolate but this dye became the third most important trading item for them and was used in all kinds of ways.

In addition to telling the history and showing the spread of the dye back to Europe then to Asia and back again to the Americas. It displays all sorts of items on view from bags to ancient huipils centuries  to paintings centuries old to dresses made in 2014. The dye was used for the English “redcoat”uniforms in the Revolutionary War and in items we use today.  It was found in Native American weavings and along the silk road. I mentioned the Ikat exhibit because I believe there is a tie-in. The Ikat weavings were from Bukhara and Bukhara was one of the important stops along the way for the trade of the dye to Asia.
This is a marvellous show and there is even a section where you can try on various red colored pieces of clothing and take photos of yourself. Photography is not allowed in the rest of the show.
It  will be up through August 20 and unlike most of the previous majot shows at the Mueum this is free. -david sokolec

 

Exceptional African American prints at EPMA

San Antonio art collectors Harmon and Harriet Kelly have put together an extremely impressive collection of African-American art. If they had collected nothing more than the works on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, they would have still made an impressive accomplishment. These works on paper  can be viewed in any number of ways, all of them satisfying.
The exhibit ranges from the late 1800’s to 2002 and does a pretty good job of providing a cross-section of important artists during that time. Most of these artists studied at prestigious art schools in the US and abroad, and many travelled extensively . One question raised by the exhibit is why aren’t these artists better known?
The early works by artists like Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) who spent most of his life in Canada  or Lois Maillou Jones (1905-1998) or Henry Ossawa Tanner(1859-1937) who studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy and then went on to spend most of his life in France generally focus on purely aesthetic concerns whether a shipwreck off the coast of Brittany or a ranch in western Canada. These are   highly skilled and well trained artists.
There is a shift a bit later with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance and with a general trend by many artists to focus on the society and social conditions around them. Although white artists like George Bellows and photographers like Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange have long been much better known, the skill and perception of an artist like Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) known as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance among others makes us want to see more.
Although Europe was often a favorite place for these artists to live and study, a few also went to Mexico. Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) and Hale Aspacio Woodruff  (1900-1980) were among those who found inspiration in that country. Woodruff in fact  worked with Diego Rivera on murals.
The newer pieces in the show are generally far more overtly political, some using humor others straight-forward.
The Kelleys apparently started collecting this art when they saw a show and were somewhat embarrassed they were not very familiar with many of the artists. Their gain is also our gain in this excellent exhibition which can be seen purely from the point  of view of aesthetics as there are a wide variety of printing techniques employed and a wide variety of artistic skill at play, or  it can be seen as a socially relevant show documenting African -American life and concerns over a century or it can be seen as at long last bringing to view some extremely talented artists who are not nearly as well known as they should be at least to much of the general public. This show helps to rectify that situation.
It is free and on view until April 16.-david sokolec

 

 

 

 

New Director for El Paso Museum of Art

The El Paso Museum of Art has finally selected a new Director. Hesse McGraw comes from  the San Francisco Institute of Art where he was Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs.He was in charge of its Walter and McBean galleries  which focus on contemporary art, public lectures and community involvement. Prior to that he was chief curator at the Bemis arts center in Omaha where he seems to have done some remarkable things in terms of promoting local arts and extremely creative use of non-traditional spaces.

The more I read about him the more excited and interested I am to see what he is going to be able to do here. He seems to be someone passionate about both contemporary art and community outreach, both of which we desperately need here. He seems to want to push boundaries in terms of exhibitions and to interact with the community at large  as well as help promote local art and artists.

It should prove an interesting appointment.  Although the museum does have works by late 20th century artists, unquestionably its most important holdings are the Kress collection, roughly 15th-18th century European works; Spanish Colonial works, and Tom Lea. So there is certainly a need for a closer look at contemporary work. The question is whether there is an appetite among the broader community for it. This is where a strong educational program and active community involvement comes in. This is  a place where some people seem easily offended by such things as a sculpture of melted guns turned into birds and where a work at a past biennial couldn’t be shown because it was considered too graphic, though the piece showed in Juarez with little comment. Some of the exhibitions McGraw staged in his first years at SFAI would probably raise both eyebrows and blood pressure here which is also something we could definitely use.

The El Paso Museum of Art is unusual in that it is partly public owned and partly private so the director needs a deft hand and perhaps special tap shoes to do the multi-stakeholder shuffle. From everything I’ve read McGraw seems like he could make a dynamic contribution and bring some fresh new blood to the Museum. His appointment starts Oct 10, and I, for one, am really very excited to watch the developments.-david sokolec