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.
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.