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One of New York’s great resources is its daunting abundance of commercial galleries, which provide encounters with an endless parade of new and old art forms from around the world. However, during the art market’s slow summer season, at many venues, an avid gallery-goer is often greeted by batches of disparate artworks that have been loosely grouped together according to perfunctory themes in shows whose invisible organizers all seem to sigh, “If you have any questions, we’ll be out in the Hamptons.”
Right now, though, some well-curated antidotes to such throwaway, summertime filler may be found at Cavin-Morris Gallery in Chelsea. There, the wife-and-husband team of veteran dealers, Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, are offering two concurrent, thematic shows, Enflamed (ceramics) and Japan Art Brut (drawings), which they are presenting in a seamlessly integrated fashion. As a result, more’s the pleasure — and more’s the aesthetic provocation, too.
In this two-in-one show, Cavin and Morris have installed works on paper by ten contemporary, self-taught Japanese artists alongside a varied selection of functional-decorative and sculptural objects by an international group of contemporary ceramicists, including, among others, Akihiro Nikaido, Ryutaro Yamada, Sarah Purvey, Eddie Curtis, Melanie Ferguson, Mitch Iburg, Rebecca Buck and Kukuli Velarde.
If one of the most distinctive aspects of the face-to-face experience of any work of art, even one that is not very good (sometimes one must buck up against the irremediably lousy in order to appreciate the sublime), is grasping its inexplicable sense of presence, then a group-show double feature like this one is all seductively effusive aura.
Cavin and Morris have operated a gallery and collected art themselves over the course of a tandem career that has spanned three decades. During that time, Cavin-Morris has become known as a showcase for handmade art objects from indigenous cultures around the world (or what in some places are still called “tribal arts” or “ethnic arts”); works in the related but subtly distinct art brut, outsider and self-taught categories; and contemporary works that reflect strong, singular artistic visions, and in which fine craftsmanship is a visible, essential component.
Informed connoisseurship has long marked Cavin and Morris’s approach to examining and presenting art, never mind that doctrinaire postmodernist critical theory long ago pooh-poohed connoisseurship as merely a form of “festishization” of art objects. (In the case of this gallery’s wide-ranging inventory, the joke is on any pomo stalwart who finds himself combing through its treasures, for among them are numerous, genuine fetish objects made by members of African tribes. Believed by their makers to be imbued with magical powers, such carved-wood or mixed-media items are among the most remarkable creations any culture has ever produced.)
In fact, Morris recalls, “In its first incarnation, our gallery was called ‘Ethnographic Arts, Inc.,’ because we saw self-taught artists from all over the world as part of the ethnography of mankind.” There was not much difference, he explains, “in how we perceived trained or untrained artists.” From the start, Morris says, he and Cavin have been interested in “pushing to the forefront” what he still refers to as “resonances” between genres of art or specific works, no matter where they might come from or who might have produced them.
Morris says, “We began with Haitian art, but for various reasons, that wasn’t enough. Then we found Bert’s book and saw that what he was looking at and thinking about was what we wanted, too. The power we were looking for in art — it was a global energy. It was either in the work, no matter who had made it, or it wasn’t.”
“Bert” was the now-legendary American collector Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. (1929-1998). His book, co-authored with Julia Weissman, was Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists. Published in 1974, it had a big impact on many collectors, curators, and historians in the United States, and not only in the folk art field, which it revolutionized and expanded. As Morris notes, his and Cavin’s discovery of Hemphill’s aesthetic outlook marked a major milestone in their careers as art researchers, collectors, presenters, and sellers.
As I noted in a Hyperallergic article about an American Folk Art Museum exhibition last year, Hemphill was an adventurous collector, curator, and author. His thinking opened new pathways in the understanding of folk art in the US, not only because, in his own practice, he amassed all sorts of objects that more conventional collectors had long overlooked or ignored — a statue of Groucho Marx with a mandolin; a carved head from a Coney Island ball-toss game; a tree limb painted pink to resemble an octopus — but also because, by championing 20th-century makers of the items he favored, he demolished the traditionalist dictum that folk art had to come from the pre-industrial past. As a child, Hemphill collected marbles and duck decoys. As an adult curator, he examined such subjects as tattoo art and the occult. For many American folk art specialists, their field’s history is marked by a period before Hemphill, when needlepoint samplers, rocking chairs, and Chippendale highboys reigned, and a period after Hemphill.
“Bert was an essential catalyst for us,” Cavin recalls. “In 1982, the exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was also a big wake-up call.” That presentation was the first in the U.S. to show the works of non-white, self-taught American art-makers in more of a fine-art and less of a specifically folk-art context. It implicitly called attention to affinities between their creations and those of art-school-trained, mainstream modernist or contemporary artists. Cavin and Morris remember feeling right at home with such expansive ways of thinking about, looking at, and presenting art, which were already guiding their own work as dealers.
In time, Morris, who over the years has written and published numerous essays based on his research findings and still actively shares such information on his Facebook page, developed a theory about the conceptual place where a real artist’s art and ideas, as well as his or her creative soul, are rooted. He calls it an artist’s “homeground.” It is at once a cultural, social, tradition-nourished, spiritual-psychic platform, or foundation. (If this were a discussion of grape-growing and wine-making instead of art, it might be a particular wine’s terroir.)
Cavin and Morris look for evidence of “homeground” in the artworks they come across and consider acquiring for themselves or their gallery. It’s something, they seem to suggest, other viewers also can instinctively feel.
Morris observes, “Homeground represents the core cultural base of an artist’s intentionality. His or her culture provides a language, and the artist arranges the words of that language in an individual or idiosyncratic manner. Consider, for example, the ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ [a conception of time and a system of totemistic symbols] that is the homeground of Australian Aboriginal art, or the ethos of the African diaspora, which forms the homeground of African-American vernacular artists.”
Morris cites the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet, who championed the work of visionary, self-taught art-makers, and in the 1940s dubbed it “art brut” (French for “raw art”). Morris notes that “Dubuffet never came to grips” with a notion like “homeground.” He says, “The artists he mostly promoted had a European cultural homeground, but it was never referred to as such, because the Western cultural hegemony that informed and shaped it was never questioned.”
Still, Morris adds that “every work made by a self-taught artist” refers to his or her own “homeground”; it inevitably emerges, that is, from its own particular social-cultural context. At the next stage of its elaboration, Morris’s theory heats up. By extension, he explains, “When the language [of an artist’s particular homeground] is merely used traditionally, what results is often just folk art.” For, after all, by definition, the production of folk art involves the re-creation, however modestly or broadly interpreted, of certain well-established, generations-old, familiar forms.
By contrast, Morris says, “When an iconoclastic artist starts to speak to his or her culture and twist its language to create his or her own literature, then it becomes something we want to explore, study, and admire.” He adds, “Shari and I have a rule about buying or showing art, which is that whichever one of us says yes to a particular piece always wins, because one of us might see something in it the other one does not.” As these unabashed connoisseurs’ summer shows demonstrate, it’s that sense of adventure that has led to some of their intrepid art prospecting’s most resonant rewards.
Japan Art Brut features works on paper by ten self-taught artists. Among the mostly abstract drawings on view are Tae Takubo’s marker-pen images of irregularly shaped, brightly colored blobs that seem to pulse with the bubbling, gurgling energy of splitting cells; Akinori Yoshida and Hiroe Kittaka’s ink-on-paper clusters of modified kanji (the borrowed Chinese characters with which Japanese is written); and Yuichi Saito’s wiry clouds of colored-ink lines swirling against white grounds. Also from Japan, the pen, pencil and colored ink drawings of the artist M’onma have been one of Cavin-Morris’s big discoveries of recent years. In this sixty-something draftsman’s dense compositions, filigrees of fine lines create multiple layers of overlapping, random patterns, through which the faces of clowns, phantom-like deities or half-human, half-animal figures appear.
Nearby and in sight of these drawings, set atop plain white pedestals of varying heights, sit such works as Purvey’s “October — Landscape Series” (2013), whose crusty, finger-shaped surface echoes the visual texture of one of Yoshida’s kanji compositions; raku-style cups, bowls and sake bottles by Iburg, Yamada, Nikaido and Curtis; Ferguson’s gutsy stoneware vessels that resemble giant nuts and sometimes incorporate thick, spiky lips; and the Peruvian Velarde’s plump, squatting female figures, which exude the spirit of ancient, pre-Columbian pottery. They do so with a contemporary twist, for they allude to a modern woman’s self-awareness of her body, along with her struggles, aspirations and grief. Installed next to Saito’s wispy drawings, Simcha Even-Chen’s curlicue ribbons of black-and-white, so-called naked raku, look like big licorice strips; their forms reverberate in a call-and-response with the energy of the Japanese draftsman’s abstractions.
“To listen to words, to read them, is, consciously or not, to reach out for context, for placement in a meaningful whole,” the literary critic George Steiner wrote in Errata, his 1997 memoir. Similarly, Cavin-Morris’s double-feature exhibition invites, if not encourages, viewers to discover and savor their own affinities among the many and varied works of art on display, to traverse the conceptual borders of their respective “homegrounds” and even to recognize and appreciate a common, if unnamable place, where all art is born.