Kinderhook, N.Y. — How will historians look back on this winter? At a moment when millions of Americans mistook ridiculous demagogues for political visionaries? When repeated mass shootings caused our President to weep in public? When people lived in fear of a middle-eastern death cult intent on battling American forces in a Syrian Armageddon? However it is remembered, no one will imagine that this was a time for complacency or easy answers.
The current show at Jack Shainman’s School in Kinderhook, N.Y. – which is appropriately titled Winter in America – provides a fitting echo of our immediate times. Remarkably though, this is anything but a discouraging exhibition. Shainman admits that its recurrent subjects are “war, intolerance, environmental degradation, fear, gun violence, and alienation,” but the ways in which the artists here address those issues, and make of them something fascinating, is genuinely uplifting.
As exhibitions at The School have demonstrated before, Shainman is committed to art that engages with its social and political contexts, and to promoting our understanding of it. He is also something of an alchemist when it comes to curating. He is able to combine works of art that, though they might appear very different on first sight, are able to speak to one another, and draw out resonances that might have been lost otherwise. Every work in this show relates to everything else.
The first piece to greet you when you enter the building is the monumental Immanence (2015) by the Cuban sculptor Yoan Capote. You might take the huge mask-like head for a quotation from late-classical sculpture, but it turns out to be based upon a 1981 portrait head of Fidel Castro. Intriguingly, it is constructed from old door hinges. It turns out that these hinges come from house doors in Havana that Capote bartered for brand-new hinges that he bought at the outset of his project. The range of references that this introduces into Capote’s portrait of the great revolutionary-dictator is dizzying: hinges are little machines for movement, for opening or closure; doors shut us in or let us out, they confine us or allow our passage into something or somewhere new. Set all of that against the context of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and against what we are beginning to think of as its transition into another era, and the rich poetry of Capote’s piece begins to become obvious.
Contrast this with another highlight of the show (and something of a crowd-pleaser): Tallur L.N.’s Chromathophobia (2012). This comprises a massive granite Buddha that is rendered blind by a huge log that covers its head. Explaining that his title refers to the “fear of money due to worry over mismanagement and loss,” the artist invites you to take a coin from your pocket and hammer it into the log. He tells you to “make a wish and watch it come true in the coming days,” but there is something vaguely unsettling about a work of art that encourages you to give your money away — particularly in a world where art works have become a high value currency in themselves, and even more so as the Buddha is inscribed “MADE IN CHINA” under one thig
h and “MADE IN USA” under the other.
Elsewhere there is Carrie Mae Weems’ video celebration of women’s beauty in all its forms, Gehard Demetz’s frankly unnerving sculptures of children, Shimon Attie’s fragments of poetry photographed at key spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Hank Willis Thomas’s Time can be a Villain or a Friend, a six-foot-high image of Michael Jackson photographed immediately before he embarked on his cosmetic surgery odyssey. There is Annette Lemieux’s image of Gypsy Rose Lee encouraging wealthy New Yorkers to support the British War Relief Society by removing stars from her near-naked body, Richard Mosse’s large-scale photograph of the remains of a mangled and bullet-riddled car in the Iraqi desert, and – of particular local interest – a remarkable journal kept by Kinderhook native Harold van Santvoord (1854-1913).
Van Santvoord was a successful writer and editor in both Albany and New York City, but this private journal filled with illustrated limericks reveals the private man. Many are apparently based upon people that van Santvoord actually knew, and in their complacent racist and sexist attitudes they offer a rather shocking glimpse of post-Civil War New York. We might want to imagine that we live in a different America this winter, but the broad appeal of those above-mentioned demagogues suggests otherwise.