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KINDERHOOK, NY — If Jack Shainman wanted to make a splash in upstate New York with his new space The School, then he achieved that goal, as last Saturday’s opening brought roughly 800 locals and art worlders together in a transformed schoolhouse in the town of 8,500.
The locals were noticeably cooing over the transformation of the former school building, which was flying David Hammons’s “African American Flag” out front and inside boasts 5,000 square feet of exhibition space distributed along four levels of a pristine white interior.
“I used to shoot layups on the basketball court here,” one said. “I can’t believe this used to be our school,” remarked another. “I don’t think our town has ever seen this many people,” someone else chimed in. The mood was festive, and everyone appeared impressed by Cave’s exuberant installation that snaked through narrow galleries into well-lit spaces throughout. There were also smaller installations featuring other Jack Shainman Gallery artists in two small galleries, including works by Michael Snow, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Richard Mosse.
If the site for Shainman’s latest project seems peculiar, it should be noted that the town of Kinderhook has a surprisingly rich history for a place of its size. The area’s human history begins with the Mohican Indians, who lived in the area for millenia. In the 17th century a Dutch settlement formed named “Kinderhoek,” or children’s corner. The town is where the eighth President of the US, Martin Van Buren, was born, and is thought to be the place where Aaron Burr, the third US Vice President, hid after fatally wounding Alexander Hamilton in a duel. The Van Alen House, an 18th-century National Historic Landmark in the area, is thought to be author Washington Irving’s inspiration for the Van Tassel family farm in his classic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” There’s also a legend that the word “okay,” or “OK,” had its origin during Martin Van Buren’s campaign as an abbreviation of “Old Kinderhook,” or “O.K.”
With this fertile history, it’s not hard to see why the gallerist chose this site for exhibitions; many of the artists he exhibits tackle American history in their work. The area is also a crossroads for various cultural institutions, including the nearby Mass MoCA, The Clark Art Institute, The Williams College Museum of Art, the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, Hudson River School artist Frederic Edward Church’s Olana estate, and the future site of the Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York.
While there were numerous Cave Soundsuits and large, circle, sequined pieces installed throughout the space, the artist’s new body of work, which is inspired by turn-of-the-century racist American folk and object design, was a particularly awe-inspiring sight.
Inspired by the “black inflammatory objects,” according to the artist’s statement, that convey societal racism through “the form of a regressive object” that “demoralizes a race through design.” Cave’s new work, his best yet, features his characteristic mix of banal and highly charged objects in the creation of sculptures that invert cultural denigration and become revered objects. That flip-flopping of cultural categories seems to be at the heart of Cave’s art, in which the quotidian is often endowed with new meaning until it becomes an artistic talisman.
Talking to the New York Times in 2009, Cave explained that his first Soundsuit, which was made of twigs, came about in 1992, in response to a flashpoint event. “It was a very hard year for me because of everything that came out of the Rodney King beating,” Cave said. “I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man — as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than.”
That tendency to protect yourself from harm through a barrier of layers echoes in his current work, which often places one of those racist artifacts at the center of a radiating collection of objects. Stereotypical “negro” heads, dolls, or figures stare out at you while birds, beads, and flowers frame the subject.
The role of design as a tool of American white supremacy is a fascinating topic, and in this context, a work like “Sea Sick” (2014) — a black man’s head framed by a cluster of pedestrian paintings of white-sailed ships — transforms the meaning of every gathered object in it. It makes you wonder how much of the history of American design has been whitewashed by the removal of context.
In “Oh Me, Oh My” (2014), a circle of porcelain flowers and birds spring from a black figure’s shoulders as he is cupped in a dark colored hand. The effect is decadent while exposing the ridiculousness of the culture that simultaneously produced all this imagery.
While the Soundsuits themselves are no longer revelatory, though still stunning to behold, this new series offers some more insight into Cave’s aesthetic and its identity-altering power. With these racist objects at the center of each work, the racialized meaning doesn’t disappear but the affect is more historicizing, making the objects feel more emotionally remote from our own time.
The objects, with their stiff facial features and absurd coloring, still have a mysterious power: most contemporary viewers, myself included, are probably baffled by how black Americans must have felt seeing these offensive caricatures in their daily lives. The first racist object that Cave came across, he explains in the wall text, was a ‘spittoon’ shaped like a black person’s head — needless to say, he was shocked. Looking at the objects, it’s hard to figure out if the artist is protecting these anachronistic figures from the world, or protecting us, the viewer, from the evil energy of a civilization that produced them. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably see the vestiges of that society still all around.
Nick Cave’s The School continues at Jack Shainman’s The School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, New York) until mid-August, the gallery said that no closing date has been decided.