Talking past and present
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, may be this country's oldest continuing museum...or it may not be. Given its other distinctions, that hardly matters. Founded in 1799 by the wealthy entrepreneurs of Salem whose merchant ships sailed to India, Japan, Africa, China, the Pacific Islands, and beyond, it began with the curious idea of presenting the citizens of Salem with exotic treasures brought back from those places, something the museum continues to do courtesy of generous donors, adventurous curators, and minus the risky sea voyages. What can be said with certainty is that PEM remains our most curious museum in every good sense of that word-an unusually open place dedicated to asking questions, especially questions that unlock the past and charge it with newness. It was the ideal place to join a group of artists and the museum's curators to consider how art in our time can be presented and experienced.
But let us back up a moment for a few facts: Peabody Essex was originally two institutions, the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute. A bold sea change came about in 1992 when the two were joined and the first of PEM's stupendously successful fund-raising campaigns ($194 million) followed by a wing designed by Moshe Safdie resembling the billowing rigging of a sailing ship announced a new era. By 2003, when the museum installed the two-hundred-year-old Yin Yu Tang house brought over from China, it was clear that PEM was remaking itself on a grand scale. An additional 175,000 square foot expansion, which was to be designed by the late Rick Mather, has now been awarded to Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership) and should open in 2019. The museum continues to collect and present Oceanic, Asian, American, and Native American work, and it continues to be insistently curious about the effect these things can have on the lives of its no longer affluent Salem neighbors as well as on our own.
When chief curator Lynda Hartigan describes PEM's ambition to be "transformational" in its impact on people, she speaks for everything from its ArtLink program for local schoolchildren to a scholarly project like Karina Corrigan's research on eighteenth-century Indian palampores, to curator of contemporary art Trevor Smith's FreePort series that opens the museum's collections to artists who are encouraged to approach them with new eyes.
Most museums are eager to increase attendance and visibility by tapping into the energies of the contemporary art market. They want the allure of the new, but they tend to isolate it as if containing a contagion-whether it is from the contagion of the new or the disease of the old one can't always be sure. PEM by contrast exudes confidence about the conjunctions of old and new; its curators seem comfortable in both worlds, at ease with one another and with the innovations of PEM's FreePort project. That FreePort is more open and immersive than most museum forays into contemporary art is best illustrated by Michael Lin's current installation in the Asian Export Art galleries. Lin has painted the staircase and floors of the galleries with heraldic motifs snatched from the Chinese export armorial porcelain in PEM's immense collection, thereby liberating them from their association with whatever families originally brandished them. In a complementary move he had hundreds of replicas made of the fat and hapless figure Mr. No-Body, presumed to be the first representation (late 1600s) of a European gentleman in Chinese porcelain. Made at a factory in China, these new Nobodies, which Lin calls Everybodies, line ceramic drying racks in one of the galleries and are for sale in the gift shop. While Lin's heraldic paintings turn our attention away from the grandees who commissioned them and back to the motifs themselves, his Nobodies raise questions of scarcity and value (a rare late seventeenth-century Mr. No-Body sold at Christie's last January for $158,000) and elicit a laugh at the expense of these rapidly proliferating predators.
One of the things that make the collections at PEM exciting is the fact that its curators do not try to domesticate their strangeness. A Japanese helmet, a portable shrine for the goddess Guanyin, the wallpaper from Strathallan castle in Scotland, even the presumably familiar ship's models and maritime paintings are all allowed to startle us a little, as they should. By doing so they give us the entry point for really seeing them as the visiting artists did in the two days we spent looking and talking together.
PEM began more than two centuries ago as a museum intent on opening New England eyes to a world few of its neighbors could have imagined. In the East India Marine Hall, among the war clubs and masks originally donated by the founders, you can feel those mariners' excitement, sense the dangers they faced, maybe even their desire to capture a vast and unaccountable world between walls. During our visit the artists and curators began to envision the museum as open to the world in a new way, those walls as newly or potentially transparent, and PEM itself as, in the words of María Magdalena Campos-Pons, "a huge egg waiting to hatch." That is an apt metaphor for the future of the institution, containing as it does the breaking of an old frame, an opening out, and the promise of new life inevitably emerging from and connected to the past.
NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
Kent Monkman is a readable artist, which sometimes means that he is easily misread. His films, installations, performances, and paintings invite interpretation as satirical reimaginings of North American art history by a Canadian artist of Cree descent. That Monkman also has a transgender alter ego he calls Miss Chief Eagle Testickle who figures in much of his work only increases the likelihood of the occasional glib interpretation. His work is indeed often satirical but it is always much more than that.
Born in St. Marys, Ontario, in 1965, Monkman grew into an artist who is keenly aware of the way that nineteenth-century art painted First Nations people out of history, but one who nonetheless has a fine appreciation of the technical skills of a Bierstadt or a Catlin. Where many artists of his background might have looked to abstraction for a new pictorial language to escape the sorry business of Canada's native populations, Monkman has chosen instead to appropriate and misappropriate the conventions of history painting to get under the skin of those narratives, to make a scene, as Miss Chief does in The Triumph of Mischief where she rules a tableau of cultural mayhem while a lesser figure like Picasso looks on, nonplussed and ignored. But if you see that painting and miss its homage to the painterly majesty of, for instance, the Hudson River school, you have missed half of what makes Monkman so good-and so much fun.
Miss Chief is not to be misread as a drag queen and her films, tableaus, and performances are not camp, having no whiff of the insincerity that camp often implies. She is instead Monkman's version of the berdache, a two-spirit figure common to many Native American tribes who occupies both genders, and in that sense can look both ways at once...just as Monkman does in revering the painting of a Tiepolo or a David but calling it into question at the same time. The unmistakable depth of art historical reference in his satire as well as its lightheartedness has made Monkman quite popular in Canada. He is also well represented in Europe and in the United States, where he is featured in the exhibition Sovereign: Independent Voices at the Denver Art Museum until August 17.
In many ways Peabody Essex is the ideal venue for Monkman's work; his giant tipi of crystal beads containing films created by Miss Chief at the museum's 2012 Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art set the tone for the surprises that exhibition held in store for anyone with preconceived notions about Native American art. In going through PEM's collections with us what drew Monkman's attention was not what you might expect. He wanted to talk about the richness of the museum's many maritime paintings, especially the four by Michel Felice Cornè depicting the 1812 battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerrière.
PEM is uneasy about being too narrowly identified as a maritime museum given the immense range of other holdings and its ambitions for the future, but Monkman sees the maritime works as the metaphorical portal to the collection. "Everything in the collection came off of these ships," he says, "the people, the goods, all of it. And I like the symbolism of the sea, the mystery of what is on the other side of the ocean." He then adds another note to his appreciation by observing that "they also interest me because of their technical difficulty." The depiction of water is something that has interested Monkman since childhood and he is, he says, about to make a huge (ten by twenty foot) maritime painting of his own for the first time. Museums often invite him to go through their collections so he was especially impressed that when PEM invited him to do so they were interested in his point of view. "Curators and artists do need to talk to each other," he says. "It's great that they are asking us to come in and saying, ‘What do you think. What is your impression of what we are doing?'" These are fruitful questions because this is an artist who has thought about how the museum might remystify the sea by presenting its maritime paintings in a different context, in different formats, with different companion pieces. Given the spirit of this place, that just might happen.
NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
Shelagh Keeley draws on walls. She has been doing so for the past thirty-plus years, and as we go to press she is drawing on the walls of the renowned Abteiberg Museum of contemporary art in Monchengladbach, Germany. So perhaps it is no surprise that the Canadian native zeroed in on the remarkable late eighteenth-century Chinese export wallpaper at PEM. "I was floored by it," she says. "It looked so contemporary, and it touched a nerve in the way it brought one place and time into another, just as I do in my work. Plus," she adds, "it was actually painted by hand-up close you can see places where the artist changed his mind and redrew lines."
Keeley does much more than draw on walls, of course. She photographs, makes collages, creates artist's books of drawings and photographs-some one-offs, others printed in small editions-and she does series of smaller drawings. But, always, she is expressing her universe of the moment, almost as though she is writing a journal, drawing from past and immediate experience, emotion, poetry, sometimes politics, and history. She uses a slew of different mediums, from charcoal, pastels, graphite, and gouache to more visceral wax crayons, acrylic paint, oil stick, and pure pigment. She's worked on plaster, steel, and wood walls, as well as on paper.
At Canada's York University (from which she received a BFA in 1977) Keeley found herself drawn to African art and anthropology and, at eighteen, made her first visit to Africa. By her senior year she realized that art, not academics, was her destiny. She subsequently returned to Africa several times, including making a twenty-three thousand kilometer trip across the continent in 1983, which resulted in her first major works, one of which was the walls of a room in the Embassy Hotel, an alternative art venue in London, Ontario. It already embodied her concept of taking one space and time and bringing it into another. "I took a building, a fort, that I had experienced in Algeria and brought it into that room using photos and other media on the walls. It was sort of a political statement. South Africa was still under apartheid, and the fort represented the success of Algeria's fight for freedom from France."
Over the next two decades Keeley lived in New York and Paris, and back-and-forth between the two, before returning to Toronto in 2006. "In Paris I lived on the rue de Babylone in the seventh arrondissement-it was like slipping into the eighteenth century. I love the fabrics, the painting, the Sèvres porcelain, the interiors, the architecture of the whole period, but especially the clothing, jewelry, and the colors of the Directoire. I have always been drawn to decorative arts-most artists are-we don't work simply in our own time and place."
A constant traveler, Keeley has produced site-specific works around the globe. One of the most unusual-and provocative-resulted from an invitation in 2009 to work at a model housing complex that Mao had created for his workers in Shanghai in 1952. "It may have seemed fabulous at the time, but it is pretty grim today," she says. "Many of the residents are still there-they cannot afford to go anywhere else." She did not want to invade their homes, but across the street was a park with an "odd little teahouse or pavilion by a lake," she recalls. The building was falling apart, the plaster walls pockmarked with cracks. Referencing traditional methods of repairing ceramics by filling and painting, she decided to fill the fissures with gold paint, creating what looks something like an expressionist painting. "The Communist party ended up loving it," she says. "We made small books of photographs of the project and of the people and gave it to many of them-they cried looking at them-though illiterate, they were so proud to see themselves and the work in a book."
There are hazards to drawing on walls if you want to preserve your legacy as an artist, of course: they are hard to display in museums and they are prone to demolition or overpainting. Jonathan Hallam, an art and antiques dealer in Hudson, New York, recalls a wall he commissioned from Keeley in his New York City apartment in the 1990s: "I had always been fascinated by the painted rooms of the mid-century European avant-garde and wanted Shelagh to work in this way-the mural she created was a spiritual and powerful blend of the organic and literary, the perfect backdrop for my pared down modernist sensibility. But I sold the apartment a couple of years later and moved permanently to Columbia County. I often wonder-and regret-what might have happened to it." At the time, Keeley says, it wasn't an issue. "My work is about immediacy, about the moment in time I am creating it."
Even so, she is very pleased that the Abteiberg Museum has sourced a new kind of paper that fuses with the wall, so that the project she is doing there can be removed and preserved. We are hopeful that she will soon return to the Peabody Essex Museum and create a work there that will bring one time and place into another.
NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
The sea is a subject that crosses the mind of Chilean-born, New York-based artist and designer Sebastian Errazuriz often, and on many levels. For starters, it reminds him of his grandfather, who worked all his life for a steamship company in South America and as a weekend hobby built little ship models in a tiny woodworking shop in Santiago. At the other end of the spectrum, Errazuriz thinks about the mystery and infinitude of the sea and of the ideas of life and death and spirituality that go with it-he's even created Boat Coffin, which allows you to sail into the sunset of life on your own terms.
The Boat Coffin's mix of function and philosophy-and a touch of humor-is a hallmark of the work of the thirty-six-year-old Errazuriz, who grew up in Chile and London, where his father, studying for a PhD in art education, often took him to look at and analyze paintings and drawings and other works of art. "In some ways my future was preordained-it's not like I reached a certain age and decided, ‘Gee I think I'll be an artist'-everything was set up already," Errazuriz says. But, in fact, he found that he was as intrigued by objects as by painting and sculpture, and ultimately took a design degree in Santiago and an MFA from New York University.
"In designing objects you have function and aesthetics to consider-like Chippendale designing a chair, for instance-and you have measurable qualities and established techniques for determining success," he says. "But little by little in design I began to miss the elements-psychological, political, existential elements-often found in works of art, but which design has not always accommodated." The Boat Coffin offers both, fully functional yet also intended to make one think about how one might want to die, not hooked up to machines in a hospital bed, but, perhaps, after final goodbyes and thanks to friends and family, waving farewell and motoring out to sea, closing the "hatch," and opening the built-in drain.
The model of the three-masted East Indiaman Friendship in PEM's Maritime Gallery drew Errazuriz's attention immediately. Evoking the nature of so much of the museum's history and collections (and of the less controllable perils of life at sea than his Boat Coffin), the model also reminded him of his grandfather's ship models and the hours he spent with him as a boy, learning to use a chisel, and learning the patience required for all great craftsmanship.
Today, he oversees an eight thousand square foot studio in Brooklyn with five full-time employees and several lucky interns. The range of his output is mind-boggling: a mantelpiece in carved Carrara marble with a tiny wooden figure and backstage setting within the fireplace opening; a Duck Fan featuring a taxidermy duck mounted in a diving position and facing an industrial fan, stealing a smile and reminding the viewer that ducks fly against the wind everyday; or a steel Wing Chaise Lounge inspired by folding butterfly knives-a technical feat of balance and counterbalance. Among so much else, there is also Errazuriz's signature Piano Shelf, a limited edition wallpiece in lengths of eight to twelve feet, made up of hundreds of hand-crafted sections of wood-like piano keys-each regulated individually with a tiny hidden screw so any number can be lowered to create surfaces of varying sizes, with the resulting rectangles of empty space framing whatever is placed on the shelf created. A recent piece is the Kaleidoscope Cabinet, drawn like much of Errazuriz's work from memories of his family, in this case an elderly aunt who always told him he could look but not touch. The walnut cabinet is lined with sections of mirrored glass that, when the doors are open, create a dazzling kaleidoscopic reflection of the objects inside; a peephole in one end and an interior light allow one to look inside even when the doors are closed and locked and to see, but not touch, those precious objects, infinitely multiplied.
"Humans are so much more complex than simple matters of aesthetics and practicality," Errazuriz says. "I am always seeking to create designs that reflect these complexities. At the same time, I try to create pieces that are atemporal, not of any time, in hopes that they will have future lifetimes...like antiques." A visit to Errazuriz's website (meetsebastian.com), or to the Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York, which represents him, offers the chance to see the many ways he is doing so.
NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
María Magdalena Campos-Pons
María Magdalena Campos-Pons will not be painted into a corner, framed, cast in brass, or otherwise confined. Her work is Protean and also provisional. She might appear to the accompaniment of Yoruba chants, carrying a birdcage on her head, her face powdered white, her dress an amalgam of cultures as she did in the Piazza San Marco during an electrifying moment at the Venice Biennale last spring, or she may disappear behind an installation of vertical spears each resting on an African stool and impaling disks of cast glass and palm sugar as in her installation at the Tufts Art Gallery in Boston this past fall. Perhaps she will reemerge elsewhere in a photograph or a video. Each of her constructions or performances is a question, an approximation, a moment in her long journey to account for her mixed Chinese, African, and Spanish heritage and to carry it forward from her native Cuba to Boston, where she is on the faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. None is definitive.
"I see things hiding in places that other people don't see," Campos-Pons says. "I see the theater in things and the narrative that draws them together." Even the armorial porcelain plates lining the vitrines in the Bartlett Gallery at PEM suggest stories to her. "Circle, circle, circle," she says looking at them. "I love the sustained repetition but there are stories in them too. They are full of the people who touched them-the makers, the servers, the users." When Daisy Wang, curator of Chinese and East Asian Art at PEM, brought out a portable Buddhist shrine to the goddess Guanyin, Campos-Pons was enthralled by its intimacy. Her imagination prompted her to reach back to a time when this small reliquary, almost like a purse, had been the portable home for an entire tradition and set of beliefs. "It is sustenance," she says of the little shrine, "it contains the energy and power that kept someone who carried it going." Asked what keeps her going, Campos-Pons replies that curiosity, hunger, and a sense of duty all play a part in helping her do exactly what the shrine must have done for its original owner.
She and her husband, musician Neil Leonard, who is her frequent collaborator, were also drawn to Yin Yu Tang, the two-hundred-year-old Chinese house that PEM brought over and re-erected in 2003. For Campos-Pons the house links the Chinese and African parts of her heritage in a particularly appealing way. "People of African heritage were stripped of a sense of place, of dwellings, when they crossed the Atlantic as slaves. In a way, entering the house is a paradigm of my journey reconnecting elements of the past."
Campos-Pons finds the FreePort exhibitions at PEM compatible with her approach to her work. "What Trevor Smith is doing is looking at tradition with artists and allowing them to construct a way of engaging with it in the present." The challenge, she says, is to do this without making work that in any sense seems ethnographic. "We are here with antiquity. How do we look at it with a new eye," she asks knowing that her answers to that dilemma will be many and varied.
"What you can't say you can't whistle either," the Wittgensteinians say, laying down the limits of rational discourse. Somehow in his almost four decades as a musician and frequent collaborator with visual artists Neil Leonard has called the philosophers' axiom into question. Along with multimedia artists such as his wife María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Tony Oursler, he has made a specialty of expressing the seemingly inexpressible.
Leonard grew up in the Philadelphia area interested in both art and music and he came of age without making strict distinctions between the two. After attending the New England Conservatory of Music he settled on the definition of himself as a musician, a sax player to be specific, and is now a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he heads the department of Electronic Production and Design. Computers, electronic music, film, traditional jazz, the spoken word all play their part in the work of a man who does not make hierarchical distinctions between disciplines, modes of expression, or most particularly past and present. No wonder that a formative influence on him was the multisensory, visionary jazz musician Sun Ra whose solar Arkestra of costumed musicians, dancers, singers, and intergalactic kookiness rattled the jazz scene in Philadelphia and New York during the 1960s and 1970s. "I thought he was normal," Leonard recalls.
In 1988 he met Campos-Pons, who was then an exchange student from Cuba. She asked him to do the music for her ten-minute film Rite of Initiation, something he was uniquely qualified to do having been to Cuba and having a longstanding passion for Cuban music. Thus began their personal and professional collaboration.
At the Venice Biennale last June Leonard composed the music for Campos-Pons's performance. Inside the pavilion he reworked the street cries of Cuban vendors into sound collages and added to them interviews with ordinary Cubans. Fifty-five monitors and eighteen speakers, some of them installed in the dozens of birdcages, by all accounts it was an extraordinary experience.
Hearing art, seeing music, this is second nature to Leonard, who seized on a seventeenth-century Japanese helmet at PEM that reminded him of a horn. He could almost hear the music it would make, just as he can envision the sound piece he and Campos-Pons might create based on their visit to the museum's Yin Yu Tang house. If you spend a little time with these two you can almost hear it too.