2017-08-24 17:18:05
Critic's Notebook: Contemporary Art Steams Up the Hudson

CATSKILL, N.Y. — Marveling at oak galls, the glossy little tree growths that have been used since antiquity to produce a rich red ink, the artist Kiki Smith observed recently: “There’s a tremendous generosity in nature. There are so many gifts there, for free.” She added that it was “like SoHo in the ’70s, when there was all this industrial stuff lying around on Canal Street.”

For the last eight years, Ms. Smith, who has a gift for spotting expressive wealth in overlooked resources, whether they’re urban or rural, material or psychological, has been living nearly full time in Catskill, a couple of hours’ drive north of New York City.

She is not alone. Many artists, squeezed by relentless increases in real estate prices, are heading to these hills. So are exhibition venues. Since the Dia Art Foundation opened its Beacon branch in an old factory in 2003, both nonprofit and commercial art spaces have proliferated in the Hudson Valley. This summer has summoned a bounty of artwork to Catskill, Hudson, Cold Spring and beyond. Here is what I sampled recently.

I started at the 1815 residence of the Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, in Catskill (it sits just across the river from Olana, a popular Moorish Victorian house built by his successor Frederic Church). Ms. Smith’s home, part of which dates to 1690, is a short walk from Cole’s, and a few of his landscapes — reproductions are now on view — feature small renderings of it. So it made perfect sense that the Cole curator, Kate Menconeri, invited Ms. Smith to place work in and around the historic site for its second annual open house exhibition. Most of the work was made since her move upstate; none has been shown to better advantage.

Ms. Smith’s sympathies have long traveled in the border zones between the applied and the fine arts — she has twice previously integrated her work with historic homes and their furnishings, once in Venice and once in Krefeld, Germany. Glimpsed on entry at the Cole house is “Congregation,” a tapestry in a stairwell picturing a nude girl sitting demurely on a downed tree. A rain of twigs and branches streams from her eyes and fractures the surface, which is dotted with woodland creatures. (Like the other tapestries here, it was woven, with stunning subtlety, by the studio Magnolia Editions.) Ms. Smith lost 150 trees in Hurricane Irene. She says her backyard looked like a giant had been playing pickup sticks. Here, the debris creates a forbidding kind of radiance.

“Singer,” a cast-aluminum sculpture shown in a spare room on the ground floor, portrays a girl standing at attention and proffering a bouquet of silk flowers. The bouquet is wired to one hand; the other hand is rigidly raised. Ms. Smith said she was thinking of the little girl in Picasso’s bullfight images who holds out an appeasing bunch of flowers, and of Elie Nadelman’s folk-art-inspired sculptures. But the most evocative connection Ms. Smith named was to the early-19th-century liturgical tradition of shape-note singing, in which congregants chant, forcefully — it is more shout than song — hymns notated with simple geometric shapes. The raised arm of Ms. Smith’s singer echoes the tradition’s stern gesture for marking a beat. The girl’s expression, too, is stern: hers is a chastening innocence. One feels a connection to Cole’s vision of the American landscape, a Romantic construction to be sure, but less keyed to operatic drama than that of the Hudson River School’s next generation.

On a landing are several etchings, one of a handsome turkey and the others of crystals. Cole, like Ms. Smith, was a rock collector, and his collection is on view in an adjacent room. In Cole’s bedroom is a digital print, from an iPhone photo of Ms. Smith hanging her head upside down over a sofa; her flowing hair is overdrawn in white ink to suggest the nearby Kaaterskill Falls. Two aluminum chairs leaning into each other echo the lone outdoor sculpture: two upturned aluminum chairs, a pair of birds perched on one, suspended from a walnut tree.

In the sitting room are “Tiller,” a bronze sculpture of a maple sapling springing from a tree stump, and another bronze, “Phantom,” of a single stem issuing from a downed limb: death generating life. Nearby is Ms. Smith’s crystal sculpture of dandelions under a bell jar. If things get a little precious here, and again in the nursery, where Ms. Smith has fashioned covers for a crib and a bed and stocked them with cloth dolls, such moments are few.

Ms. Smith is still best known for her early, harrowing portrayals of human bodies, but she has long favored nature’s bounty. Skeptics have dismissed this turn as sentimental, a term that has become a dirty word for tenderness. In any case her fairy-tale characters — wolves and girls, bats and fawns — are wired in all of us, deep and dark, and Ms. Smith does their complexity full justice. Now 63, she began her career in the late 1970s as a member of Colab, a lively collaborative group that contested the premium on individual mastery, and she remains fundamentally committed to its ethic. Nothing in this installation was achieved in one go, by one hand. Working by choice with skilled artisans, Ms. Smith looks outward — to nature, to history, to a community of makers — with illuminating acuity.

In nearby Kinderhook, Jack Shainman, who maintains two galleries in Chelsea, has turned a 1929 Federal-style brick schoolhouse into a clean white 30,000-square-foot art venue. The current show at the School is a tribute to Claude Simard titled “The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Simard, who died in 2014, was a partner in the gallery and an avid collector of African art.

The billing is a little misleading. Of the nearly 200 artworks on view, only three are by Paa Joe, a Ghanaian craftsman of vernacular coffins; none of his sculptures at the School would accommodate a corpse. But they punch way above their weight. Painted with devastating brio, they are wood models of African Gold Coast “castles” that served as holding pens for Africans sold into slavery. (A fourth, in a related show at Mr. Shainman’s 24th Street gallery, grimly bears the name “Fort Good Hope.” All four were commissioned by Mr. Simard, whose collection is the subject of an exhibition now at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College.)

For the rest, the show is a wildly heterogeneous assembly of East and West, old and new. As promised, happiness — even ecstasy — is hotly pursued, though despair, exalting or otherwise, is not infrequently the result. Mr. Shainman’s collection of the Spanish Baroque is represented, as are African tribal figures, Indian paintings and the gallery’s artists — El Anatsui, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Richard Mosse, the last with an eerie, nocturnal photomural made with a heat-sensitive camera of a Greek storage yard for shipping containers, some of them sheltering asylum seekers. A wall of niches holds anonymous non-Western objects, and also unsigned busts of Gandhi and of Joseph Hirshhorn, and small paintings by Philip Taaffe and Linda Stark. Particularly engrossing are the handful of commissioned responses to Mr. Shainman’s collection. One is Titus Kaphar’s answer to a 17th-century portrait of Marie-Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV and supposed lover of an African dwarf in the royal household. It is said that the illicit couple’s brown-skinned daughter became a nun; Mr. Kaphar’s “Menina,” a moonlit painting, presents a determined little girl in court dress, with a deeply shadowed, faceless figure looming behind her.

Farther south — an hour from Manhattan by Metro-North — is the newly opened Magazzino Italian Art in Cold Spring. A horseshoe of elegant galleries surrounding a ghostly piazza, Magazzino was designed by Miguel Quismondo, who incorporated a pre-existing industrial building (the name means warehouse). It provides an almost comically sleek home for the Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu collection of postwar and recent Italian art. Their concentration is Arte Povera, a term coined by Germano Celant in 1967 that means, roughly, impoverished art. But as Magazzino confirms, by its design aesthetic as much as by its inaugural show — it honors Margherita Stein, a patron of the movement — an irrepressible sense of good taste prevailed from the start. In fact, so did fairly expensive materials, including an abundance of marble and steel.

Represented in depth in “Margherita Stein: Rebel With a Cause” are Michelangelo Pistoletto (he is also at the School), whose medium is mirror-finished polished steel, often with applied photo-silkscreens; Alighiero Boetti (embroidered textiles); Luciano Fabro (mainly stone, sometimes balanced in unexpected ways); and Jannis Kounellis (assemblages of hardware and miscellany).

A little clay bust and two mixed-media works on paper by Marisa Merz, the only woman here — and one of the few Povera artists who did rely on inexpensive materials and offhand techniques — are among the more unruly contributions. Others include two works by Giuseppe Penone, one an elaborately transferred image, mediated by photography, of his charcoal-sprinkled body. The result, a charcoal drawing, maps a territory of indeterminate scale and terrain, lively and unstable. Mr. Penone again registered his touch literally, and wittily, in a paper relief featuring dozens of 3-D fingerprints, each marking a tear made by that finger.

Bringing warmth to the exhibition is, paradoxically, a refrigerated sculpture by Pier Paolo Calzolari, its metal parts flocked with ice that is lent a pink cast by neon tubing. It emits a faint sizzle, promisingly. The Olnick Spanu collection is active, and examples of work by younger Italian artists can be seen in the final gallery, whose exhibitions will rotate twice a year. (The current selection of earlier work remains on view until late 2018.)

The lovely, spacious Fields Sculpture Park at the Omi International Art Center in Ghent holds nearly 80 works, many installed long term, by Dennis Adams, Donald Baechler, Dove Bradshaw, Folkert de Jong, Donald Lipski, Richard Nonas, Alison Saar and others. The park is open daily.

Noteworthy commercial galleries in Hudson include Jeff Bailey Gallery, showing Jason Middlebrook through Sept. 17; John Davis Gallery, with six artists, including Michael David and Bruce Gagnier, through Sept. 10; Galerie Gris, showing paintings by Lisa Corinne Davis, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 9.

In Saugerties, Cross Contemporary Art is showing work by Brian Wood Friday through Sept. 24.

At the Hessel Museum at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, an exhibition of contemporary art from the Arab-speaking world is showing through Oct. 29.