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HUDSON, NY — River Crossings, the recently opened show up at the historic Thomas Cole House and Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s architectural ode to Orientalism, over-promises and under-delivers. Promoted as a homecoming of sorts for contemporary American art, the exhibition asserts a genealogical line between such blue-chip artists as Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Maya Lin, Martin Puryear, and Elizabeth Murray, as well as lesser-known ones, and the art practices and ethics of the pioneers of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole and Frederick Church. Unfortunately, as installed, the show often highlights little more than lead curator Stephen Hannock‘s own preferences in painting and sculpture, and leaves you hungry for further insight into why Cole and Church and their work matter.
Some works on view — like Jerry Gretzinger’s “Jerry’s Map” (1963–present), Angie Keefer’s collaborative installations, and Valerie Hegarty’s triumphant triad of painting, sculpture, and installation — do win you over. They perfectly balance their own objecthood with their relationship to their context and audience, and they yield only a little to the lazy metaphoric tropes that the show’s curators throw at them. Those works, the fantastic views of the Hudson Valley, and the rolling pastures of Olana are worth the price of admission.
But first, a bit about the concept behind the show: the expression “Hudson River School” was considered an epithet until US artists in the 1970s began to conjoin their practices with environmental activism and land art became an established practice. Artists and art historians began to recuperate older traditions that they thought pointed to their present moment — practices that fundamentally placed painting, production, and commerce in touch with the stewardship of nature, the environment, and localism. The Hudson River School is actually an artifact of a process of art historical retrieval begun in the 1970s; its connection to the contemporary scene is simply that of a concept that anachronistically categorizes a type of image making in vogue in the late 19th century.
Thomas Cole was an English émigré and painter inspired by the Romantic transcendentalism then in fashion in the Northeast. Frederick Church, Cole’s most famous student and the owner/builder/occupant of Olana, was the Dash Snow of his time, though he lived a more fruitful life. Cole and Church would likely be surprised to hear that they were founders of any great tradition. Of course, they weren’t privy to whatever reclamation of their careers came later, and within Church’s lifetime both his and Cole’s work were derided by younger artists focused on more modern concerns. If contemporary art has come home here, it’s done so following some circuitous, unpaved road, and there have been bears along the way. And so the idea of a direct genealogy of art practices rings hollow, unless you adopt a looser approach. That’s the real meat of the show: the looser, more conceptual and ideological genealogy that connects Cole’s and Church’s practices to contemporary concerns.
I started my visit at Olana, but I suggest you begin at the Cole House: this way you can start with the supposed kickoff of American art and end up on Olana’s pristine grounds. Most of the works at the Cole House look like things that might outfit an exceedingly well-decorated home; a series of early Cindy Shermans reads like Ikea pictures. And there are far too many pieces that riff on Cole’s “The Oxbow” (1836). But there are some invasive works that overtake the space and initiate an encounter with Cole’s ideas, starting in the East Parlor, where collaborative pieces by artists Angie Keefer, Kara Hamilton, and Kianja Strobert that riff on Cole’s material and scientific experiments are installed. Keefer’s video “Fountain” (2014) is the real star here. It employs data from Commodities Futures Indexes to control the speed and direction of a rear projection of the Niagara Falls. Lit only by natural light, placed in near darkness, the piece points to the ways in which big data has come to stand in for the real. It’s the most perfect work in the whole show.
Up the staircase you’ve got Kiki Smith’s “Wolf with Birds III” (2010), a sculpture in bronze and gold leaf that contrasts a dark, rough-hewn wolf with delicately sculpted white birds, offering the first nigh-racialized work in the show, which is the better for it. Up slightly further, on the second-floor hallway, Jerry Gretzinger’s “Jerry’s Maps” is a room-sized installation of map drawings of imagined cityscapes rendered in pencil, paint, and collage, tiled on every inch of wall space. Turn your back to the wall while inside the room and you’ve got a delectable bite of art: a wolf creeping up the stairs to catch its prey happily traversing the landscape of Gretzinger’s imagination.
As a group the second floor contains some real knockouts, though it also raises some troubling questions. The Sitting Room contains a number of abstract works: an untitled series by Thomas Nozkowski, five in all, and a little Elizabeth Murray, “Untitled (After Golden Delicious) II” (1972), on either side of Sienna Shields’s “Untitled 2010,” a work in paint and paper collaged on canvas. Together they connect landscape painting to painterly abstraction — for instance, in the way Murray’s work looks like a blow-up of an inch of color from one of Thomas Hart Benton’s large works, and how the form, red cutting through delicious swathes of gold, recalls Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here’s that connection to the Second Great Awakening that fueled so much of Cole’s passion.
Step past the sitting room into the compact North Room and there’s a lovely Romare Bearden. “Prelude to Farewell” (1981), a signature mixed-media collage, is a late work; it’s spectacularly large and anchors the room, so that every other piece fights to contend with its afterglow. That’s a shame, because the other works could have used some space to breath. Rashaad Newsome’s “King of Queens” (2012), a mixed-media portrait in collaged paper outfitted with an ornate custom frame, and Kianja Strobert’s untitled work on paper would have been winners on most any other wall, next to most any other work, but secured together and near the Bearden they suffer for their own riches. And, yes, given the cruelties of American history and the politics of this pressing moment, it’s probably a bad idea to segregate nearly all the work by African American artists in one tiny room.
You shouldn’t leave, however, until you’ve spent some time in Cole’s bedroom. There, Charles LeDray’s “Village People” (2014–15) is installed high on the wall in an undulating line around the room. Consisting of hand-made miniature “trucker” caps that refer to local businesses and community and religious centers, the work represents the groups that now make up thriving Hudson, and if nothing else testifies to LeDray’s delicate craft and patience.
Maybe I responded well to a good deal of the work at the Cole House because Olana was such a disappointment. With the single exception of Valerie Haggerty’s witty installation of woodpeckers pecking the life out of a painting by Church — rendered in Styrofoam and seemingly finished with both abandon and care — every piece got swallowed whole by the somber light of Olana’s mahogany and cedar corridors. The building is a terrible place to show art, and not just because it’s dark: it’s so taken up by Church’s own paintings and his collection of work by others that contemporary art sticks out like so many neon daubs of acrylic on lacquered canvas next to sub-par Rembrandts. Martin Puryear’s “Question” (2010), all twisting, soft, sinewy planes, stands silent on an old carpet in the foyer at the bottom of a cordoned-off set of stairs. Puryear’s work is often activated by the clash of its wood with cement surroundings, and the carpet here kills it. A Chuck Close tapestry, “Self Portrait (Yellow Raincoat)” (2013), hangs limply up the stairs from Puryear’s piece and reminds you that you’re still in the home of a rich guy with questionable taste.
It’s disappointing that River Crossings does little to recover the context of Cole’s and Church’s practice and the close ties between them. You could imagine each one of the contemporary works on view here remade and installed elsewhere, for some other infertile, recuperative project for some other chastised and forgotten school of artists and friends.
Perhaps my greatest disappointment: there was no ferry to get across the Hudson. The show’s title promises a river crossing, and through that I expect one would get to share some part of Cole’s and Church’s journey. Instead, all we get is a short trip across a shaky pedestrian bridge that connects the two homes and stories only by being there.
River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home continues at Olana Historic Site (5720 Route 9G, Hudson, New York) and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (218 Spring Street, Catskill, New York) through November 1.