That an exhibition of contemporary art has been mounted in an antiques gallery specializing in venerable folk art might, in a vacuum, provoke puzzlement in some. But Shelf Life: The Art of Laurene Krasny Brown is perfectly at home in the compact galleries of Olde Hope Antiques, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Brown’s work—which includes collages, assemblages, and bas reliefs—is warm art, as opposed to the cool, conceptual, calculated stuff on view downtown at the Whitney Biennial. As such, rarely has an art show seemed more like an extended family reunion.
Along with her husband, Brown collects folk art with astuteness and brio. She says her own work is much inspired by (as she writes in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue) the qualities intrinsic to the making of folk art: “appreciation for a material, fine craftsmanship, ingenuity, attention to detail, an economy of means.”
Yet there are also deeper, perhaps ineffable, artistic sympathies at play here. Brown’s primary medium is paper, which she cuts, folds, molds, layers, paints upon, threads through, and mixes with other materials. She is, in short, a very hands-on artist, and it is the sense of close engagement with her work that manifests her kinship with craftspeople of the past—many of them women—who wove the baskets, stitched the quilts, and painted the blanket chests that are staples of Olde Hope’s offerings.
The gallery’s principals, Edwin Hild and Patrick Bell, have created engaging tableaux that reveal affinities between Brown’s work and folk pieces based on themes such as technique, pattern, color, and shape. A woven, red-painted splint basket, for example, is paired with Brown’s A Democracy of Domes, an assemblage of little units made of interlocking strips of paper that Brown coaxed into round, vaulted forms. A subtler juxtaposition is that of Game Board: Plugging Away with a Virginia pie safe with decorative perforations.
Brown’s artworks are, of course, new, but don’t feel new. She writes that she is intrigued by “ways an object often ages to advantage,” and that thought informs the exhibition’s title. “What exactly is it about an object that prolongs its usefulness, relevance and longevity—that is, its shelf life? When an aged object is reinterpreted in the present, does that help keep it alive? Is it simply the cherishing of a thing that serves to endow it with special value?” Brown leaves those questions open, for our rumination.
Shelf Life: The Art of Laurene Krasny Brown is on view at Olde Hope Antiques—located at 115 East 72nd Street, New York City—through July 2. • oldehope.com