28 September 2020

Sheila Goloborotko: Janaina, A Yoruba Goddess

 "In Rio de Janeiro 

they go at midnight

 to welcome the new year.

Fresh in white garments

bearing white candles

they assemble by the sea.

To toss old year's errors

griefs and mistakes

into the accepting waves.

Begin again afresh and new

when the year turns to become

green again and young."

 - from "To Become Green Again" by Lorna Goodison, Kingston, Jamaica

Janaina is a goddess whose origins are in the Yoruba religion of West Africa. The Yoruba people believe in Ashe, the energy that animates all living things and unites the human with the divine.  In Goloborotko's rendering she takes the form of a mermaid wearing a star crown and surrounded by clam shells, a latter-day Botticelli Venus, perhaps. Clasped in her right hand is a shell fan and in her left she holds a sword. A goddess of both beauty and power.

Brought over to the Caribbean and South America by slaves, Janaina has been represented as a sea spirit  celebrated at various times of the year in different places. For example, in Rio de Janeiro people dress all in white and gather on the beach to welcome the New Year, setting off fireworks and throwing white flowers and other offerings into the sea in the hope that Janaina grant their wishes for the coming year. Some offerings are even sent to sea in tiny wooden boats.

Sheila Golobortko is a Brazilian artist who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and she is also the founder and director of the Goloborotko Studio in Brooklyn, where she makes prints and conducts print-making workshops.

Image: Sheila Golobborotko - Janaina, 1992, color viscosity, intaglio and colored ink on lightly textures wove paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

22 September 2020

Lady Of The Beasts: Nancy Spero

"I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it." - Nancy Spero

Spero believed that archetypes, exemplified in the goddesses of mythology, reverberate through our contemporary lives. In 1969 when women were fed up with the assumptopn of male superiority by men in artists' coalitions, they broke away to form W.A.R. (Woman Artists in Revolution) Nancy Spero was there. The feminist movement of the 1970s inspired Spero to explore female sexuality, suffering, and heroism. Her celebrations of life from the ancient world to the present re-figured the representation of women in art. Spero's task was nothing less than writing women back into history through art.

Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, wildlife, and nature, making her the most venerated goddess of rural people. As the protector of young girls, she represented chastity. Artemis was also a Maenad, a female follower of Dionysius, god of wine and drunkenness.  Maenads could be recognized by their animal-skin clothing and by their frenzied, demented dancing.

Spero borrowed her Artemis from a 5th century BCE kylix, a decorated drinking cup.  She holds an animal in her left hand and in her right she grasps a thyrsus, a tall walking stick or staff, traditionally made of fennel and garlanded with ivy. The earliest surviving image of Artemis is an archaic Greek Potnia Theron ("Queen of the Beasts") We can easily imagine such an image on a wall, perhaps an antique fresco, so it comes as no surprise that Spero would begin making works that scroll off the paper  onto the wall.

"Dear Lucy, The enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be crushed.  Love, Nancy" - a letter from Nancy Spero to Lucy Lippard

"Dear Nancy, the enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be upended by envy." - Martha Rosler to Nancy Spero

"I suppose I felt doomed to be an artist ear;y on, because of the way I drew all over the margins of my textbook." - Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was an American artist known for confronting injustices in her work, believing "the personal and the political are indistinguishable." She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and after graduating in 1949, she trained for five years in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and  at Atelier Andre Lhote,  already focused on painting the human form. After returning stateside, Spero married fellow artist Leon Golub; the two would collaborate throughout their careers and shared a commitment to new expressions of human forms.  In the 1960s, Spero changed her medium from canvas to paper. Spero was a founding member of A.I.R.,(Artists in Residence), the first cooperative women's gallery in SoHo.

Image: Nancy Spero - Artemis, 1989,  hand-printing and hand-printed collage on paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.

11 September 2020

Fred Wilson: Beautiful Trouble At The Museum

"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them" - Fred Wilson

I. An installation artist who shakes up traditional museum presentations, an archaeologist who digs into museum archives to uncover previously untold stories, Fred Wilson is an artist with a mission. To call him a conceptual artist barely scratches the surface of his work. When Wilson speaks of remembrance he intends to remind viewers that museums collect in order to recollect. Wilson is, in his own description, "African, Native American, European, and Amerindian." 

Fred Wilson's SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not at the Hood Museum in 2008 asked the question: what does it mean to be viewed from the outside by those who impose their interpretation rather than extend understanding?  In the photograph above we see  busts on pedestals, originally created for an anthropological exhibit at the 1904 St' Louis World's Fair.  At the time, it was called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - an overtly expansionist declaration of intent.  A prominent and popular display was "The University of Man." It included temporary villages of peoples from around the world, along with life-cast models of the inhabitants that were taken and shared among scientists of the day as an encyclopedia of  racial "types"  

These are the busts that Wilson renamed,  shrouding the derogatory labels with cloths (Onondaga, Sioux, Kongo Bakuba, Pygmy, Negrito, Tagalog, etc.) in  heavy cloth. His captions honor their individual humanity:  "I have a family, "  "Somebody knows me - but not you," "The ancestors remember me."  When I think about this transformation I recall the unease I experience looking at figures painted by Paul Gauguin during his years in Tahiti.  There is no glimmer of feeling, no sense that the models were open to him or that he even recognized the chasm between artist and subject.

The figure at right in the photograph above, Ota Benga (1883-1916), was a 23 year old member of the Mbuti people from the Congo who  was purchased from slave traders by American missionary Samuel Verner  to inhabit the anthropology exhibit at the 1904 exposition. Later Benga was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an orangutan.  A committee from the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference  protested his treatment and eventually Benga was transferred to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. But Benga wanted to go home to Africa so depressed and  stymied by the outbreak of WWI, he committed suicide.

II. Daniel Webster's position is an outsize one in relation to Dartmouth College where the exhibition SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not! took place. Founded in 1769 as a college to educate Native Americans, Dartmouth soon moved away from that ideal.  In the meantime the school had founded a museum known as Dartmouth College Museum in 1772, making what would eventually be renamed the Hood Museum once of the oldest in the nation.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the son of a farmer, graduated from Dartmouth in 1801 and enjoyed a long career as a lawyer, statesman, and orator.  When Webster won a major case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 that guaranteed the right of the college to remain private and free of government interference, its museum  became a repository of for all sorts of Webster memorabilia. But then in 1850, while sieving as U.S. Secretary of State, Webster brokered the Missouri Compromise, that extended the reach of slavery into the western territories.  Fred Wilson made multiple uses of paintings and artifacts to construct his alternative narrative of the museum's collection with regard to Webster's legacy.  His touch is deft, surgically precise. He shows rather than tells; like a prestidigitator, he can make visible what has been hidden in plain sight.

Wilson evokes Charles Wilson Peale's American Museum in Philadelphia,  considered to be the first museum in the United States, collected memorial portraits and all manner of curiosities. But Wilson opposes Peale's anodyne project with Francisco Goya's Disasters of War, a series that reveals the monsters that trouble the dreams of reason in the Age of Enlightenment. He confronts viewers again and again with the barbaric underside of civilization.

Fred Wilson channels Peale's showmanship in his  allusions to Ripley's Believe It Or Not!  Robert Leroy Ripley's was a self-taught artists who received an honorary degree from Dartmouth in 1939, prompting him to donate items from his Odditorium to its museum.  Ripley made his audience decide the  truth of his visual displays, weighing the scale in his day was the "scientific' concept of the "primitive" as a human category.

III.  At the time of the publication of The Voices of Silence in 1965, a famous photograph of Andre Malraux appeared in Paris Match, the author stands over an array of images spread out around him on the floor.  Its title was  "Museum Without Walls." He believed this demonstrated the unity of human experience, a belief congenial to the cosmopolitan European white male.  Malraux, dissatisfied with the museum's dependence on portable objects, lamented that "Napoleon's victories did not enable him the bring the Sistine to the Louvre."   Of course, some have argued that, for instance, the Elgin Marbles, were never intended to be portable and yet they were removed from Greece and now reside (contentiously) in the  British Museum.   In contrast to Malraux, Fred Wilson was photographed lying on the floor among pictures of Daniel Webster, not the figure of Olympian detachment but one immersed in a contentious history. 

Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx (1954), attended Music & Art High School, and received a BFA in Fie Art from SUNY Purchase.  To support himself at college Wilson worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum. Wilson's first major installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society, placed unlikely objects together to reveal overlooked viewpoints on the colonization, slavery, and abolition in the state.  He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and in 2008 he became a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

For further reading:

Fred Wilson: SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD: Believe It Or Not! by Barbara Thompson, et al,  Hanover, University Press of New England: 2006.

Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus, Santa Monica, RAM Publications: 2011


1. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of life casts, 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.

2. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of "The Immortal Daniel Webster", 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.

3. Francisco Goya - "They May Be Of Another Race" from The Disasters of War, circa 1810-1820, etching, drypoint, burnisher on wove paper, National Museum of Western Arts, Tokyo.

03 September 2020

Seraphine de Senlis: Art as an Ecstatic Confession

"I realized that if, subsequently, I encouraged Seraphine de Senlis, it was not for the primitive or surrealist character of he paintings but because she belonged to the great immortals who go beyond the framework of a movement or a school." - Wilhelm Uhde

Who is this French woman whose still life paintings are so distinctive? Flowers that shine like stars,  a potpourri of realistic elements and ornamental fancies. Whatever the blue and white spotted flowers in this still life are meant to represent, they are an inspired touch.  Perhaps, like Seraphine's other paintings, they were inspired by the stained glass windows in the local cathedral. Most include a section in the lower quarter of a different order from the rest of the picture, an area where herbs or darker leaves suggest the subterranean. Seraphine's arrangements are often unexpected, not carefully arranged floral displays so much as maps of a labyrinthine thought process composed with paint brush in hand. That said,  I am not suggesting that her method was like automatic writing.

Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) lived a life permeated by sadness while painting images filled with joy and beauty.. Despite innumerable hardships, she taught herself to paint, finding inspiration in her Catholic faith. Seraphine mixed her own colors, mixing Ripolin, the first commercially available enamel paint, and whitewash. When finances allowed, she switched to  using varnish. Her first paintings were made on wood in 1906 and usually have a matte appearance.  Remarkably, this completely self-taught artist left works that present few conservation issues.  She began each painting by engraving her signature with a knife.  

Painted by candlelight in the evenings after the work day was done, her work was known only to to small circle until, in 1912, a German collector, Wilhelm Uhde first saw her work.  Uhde was an  early supporter of Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau so his encouragement and support of  Seraphine's work is the reason that we know her work. Forced to return to Germany by the outbreak of WWI Uhde was delighted to reconnect with Seraphine in 1927.  An exhibition he sponsored brought financial success to Seraphine for the first time in her life but it was to be short-lived.  The Depression intervened and Seraphine's emotional state, always fragile, collapsed into mental illness. Confined to an asylum in 1932, she lived there  until her death ten years later

Seraphine Louis had been orphaned at age seven; her mother died on Seraphine's first birthday, followed by her father six years later.  The young girl worked as a shepherdess and then as a domestic for an order of nuns at the convent of the Charity of Providence in Clermont-sur-Oise (1882-1902). Later she found work for local families in nearby Senlis and it was there that she began to paint and found a sponsor.

Like her contemporary Camille Claudel, Seraphine died of hunger while  in a hospital under German occupation.  Her medical file at the Senlis hospital noted that she "picks grass to eat at night and also eats garbage."  Seraphine suffered from breast cancer as well as psychosis.  She died alone and friendless, buoyed, one hopes, by a strong religious faith that had led her to art.

In 2008 Marcel Prevost directed Seraphine,  a film biography which won numerous awards for its sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the artist played by Belgian actor Yolande Moreauwho also appeared in the Agnes Varda film Vagabond.

Paintings by Seraphine Louis are in the collections of the Musee Maillol in Paris and the Charlotte-Zander Museum in Bonningheim, Germany.  There is a gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Parris where her works are displayed alongside those of Henri Rousseau, challenging the modernistic dogma that belittles such art as exotic or primitive.

Image: Seraphine Louis - Fleurs (Flowers), circa 1927, oil on panel, Museum of Art & Archaeology, Senlis, France.