Photo Essays

Where Folk and Fine Art Meet

Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Gift of Mrs. John A. Benton. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Gift of Mrs. John A. Benton. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. (All images courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art)

What did John Frederick Kensett, a 19th-century artist who was part of the Hudson River School, have in common with Thomas Matteson, a blanket chest-maker from Vermont?

According to the brochure for an intriguing new show about material culture at Williams College of Art, “[Kensett] portrayed American wilderness as both symbol and resource, depicting the taming of forested land as an indicator of manifest destiny. [Matteson’s] blanket chests, made from local timber, are products of this process … ”

The idea that “fine” and “folk” art result from the same culture and so carry similar impulses drives Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding — most which have never been exhibited before. They include decorative and utilitarian objects like 18th-century needlework samplers and scrimshaw corset busks (whalebone corset stiffeners that seamen bestowed on their brides), as well as paintings by academically trained and untrained artists.

Among the artists featured in the show, the worlds of folk and fine art converge most directly in the work of Joseph Cornell. “There is a craft element about his boxes, roughly made with found objects,” curator Kevin M. Murphy told Hyperallergic via email. “Like many of the folk portraitists, Cornell was at once of the art world of his time and apart from it … [his works] seem more remote than work by his contemporaries somehow, even though he is using everyday objects and images from popular culture.” Murphy explained that the same holds true for one mid-19th century stenciled drawing of two puppies by an anonymous artist; it’s based on a well-known color lithograph from which the artist traced the dogs.

The question of whether such works should be displayed in museums together or separately underpins the show and its curation. To explore the answer, Murphy divided the works into three galleries. In the first, he exhibited a collection of folk objects in chronological order, grouping them together according to their utilitarian functions. In the next two, he arranged folk works and objects alongside art by traditionally schooled artists. A group of art history students at the college are currently studying the subject, and the exhibition will be reinstalled in early November to reflect their own research.

“The incredible range and quality of the Fielding’s collection make possible multiple curatorial strategies,” Murphy explained in the press release. “We wanted to explore the sympathies and antiphonies that occur if we displayed works across time and media.”

Take a look at some images from the show.

John Frederick Kensett, "Lake George," 1853, oil on canvas. (Gift of Mrs. John W. Field in memory of her husband)
“‘Lake George’ (1853) by John Frederick Kensett and the surreal watercolor and stencil of the two puppies (below) show two artists glorifying the American landscape.” curator Kevin M. Murphy said. “For Kensett, his concern is a idealized, tamed wilderness.”
The painting by Kensett and the surreal watercolor and stencil of the two puppies show two artists glorifying the American landscape. For Kensett, his concern is a idealized, tamed wilderness. For the unknown artist of the puppy painting, the combination of the giant, but carefully fenced in, dogs, large spray of flowers, and mill building in the background continues the idea of mastery over nature — and with the mill, harnessing it for economic purposes," Murphy said. (From the collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, photo by Arthur Evans)
“For the unknown artist of the puppy painting, the combination of the giant, but carefully fenced in, dogs, large spray of flowers, and mill building in the background continues the idea of mastery over nature — and with the mill, harnessing it for economic purposes,” Murphy explained. (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Samuel Miller, Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn, ca. 1840, oil on canvas. The collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding.
“The detail, color and pattern in ‘Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn’ (ca. 1840) by Samuel Miller is full of detail, color and pattern, reflecting the equally rich material culture of rural America during the 19th century, which extended to furniture and textiles, as well as paintings themselves,” Murphy said. “[Osborn] died shortly after Miller painted her, so what was a portrait of a carefree girl on the cusp of adolescence became a memorial.”
Sheldon Peck, Little Girl in a Windsor Arm Chair, ca. 1827–32, oil on panel. The Collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding.
In Sheldon Peck’s “Little Girl in a Windsor Arm Chair,” painted between 1827 and 1832, the “tripartite organic design on the girl’s hem is matched by a similar pattern on the fancy Windsor chair,” Murphy said.
Installation view (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of “Material Friction” at Williams College Museum of Art  (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of “Material Culture” at Williams College Museum of Art (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, continues at the http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Material-Friction-HOME.jpg (15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Ste 2, Williamstown, Massachusetts) until November 2.

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