Monday, 25 June 2012

Tacky Trenton?

EYE 95: Roving, curiously, along the Interstate in search of civilized sensations

Tacky Trenton? When my son asked me why I was visiting Trenton (isn’t it, he asked, just like Camden), he displayed a common snootiness that keeps many, perhaps most, art lovers in the Delaware Valley from realizing what a treasure house the New Jersey State Museum was and is. I’m never amazed enough at what I find there. Currently, they’re preening the Acquisitions (some from gifts and some from a special $1.5 million legislative grant last summer) they’ve recently gathered in—in their effort to make the Museum a major center for the study of twentieth century art.

There’s a splendid Ralston Crawford (Whitewashed Barn, 1937) that is less photographic, more painterly than Charles Sheeler in its homage to the barns in Bucks County. And there’s an undated (Speedwell Dam, 1960’s) by a brush wielder new to me, German born Edward Kranich (1826-91).

It’s on the edge of the luminist tradition, but more subdued, Sunday-fineried folks getting ready to ferry over the Delaware from the left bank, where a very gneiss mill house and delectably technical-looking sluice, awaits them, that placid old river running right down the middle. I’d like to see more canvases by this unpretentious painter (and in fact the Museum’s newsy bulletin says there is another one, a gift as well). Oh, take another look in those old Jersey attics, folks.

But the prize to my eyes is Horace Pippin’s salute to black domesticity (The Hoecake, c. 1946). It’s dominated by a cooking woman, bright red stocking cap on her bending head (hoecaking) with a snow white apron on a jet black dress, the red on her head being picked up by folk art throw rugs (red, green, grey) in front of the fireplace where delightful bobbles of red suggest fire, the foreground activity artfully deployed against stylized log cabin interior. Boy, that Horace sure knew how to be na├»ve! As tasty to bite into as the apple of his name.

Trenton talks of these as “minority arts,” but Pippin can no more be limited to the appellation “black artist” than Granma Moses could be diminished as a WASP scene painter.

There’s also a powerful ink on paper by Charles White (Fredrick Douglas, 1947), in which a gigantic figure of the abolitionist dominates a barbed wired enclosure that he is ripping apart, thereby liberating the legion of middle class black men marching forward off the front of the picture plane. A little sexist, perhaps; even ironic, given the one-person families bedeviling the contemporary black community. But powerful nonetheless.

There is also a delectable swatch of James Van Der Zee’s Harlem classic era photos (and a marvelous photo as well by Anthony Barboza, 1980, of the black photo chronicler—as well as a 1976 Barboza of Gordon Parks, whose own work is finely repped by “June Bug”).

I also highly commend the acquisition of Geza de Vegh’s superlative Art Deco “Figure of Woman” plaque, 1935-40: it’s Deco without the Hollywood glitz that tires so quickly; her hair is a soft brown, her skin beige, and green and orange foliage garnish her beauty. All hail to the toilet bowl works at Perth Amboy, where this was fired!

The Ethnology folks don’t have to cower either. I had never seen a “manioc strainer” before today. It’s in a case of Amazon artifacts, a blunt club to stun birds and monkeys, and spears to do in bigger beasts. Because of this context I wrongly inferred it was a quiver. Not so, city slicker. The long thin quiver lookalike made of palm bark strains the prussic acid out of manioc thereby making it edible cassava. Oh how smart were our forebears, if not very forebearing with their weapons.

Princely Princeton: Everybody knows that Princeton is a cornucopia of culture, but not enough people know that the Rare Books Gallery of the Firestone Library year after year unleashed superb small shows on its pampered collegiate public. In this instance, to show off for the attendees of an International Byzantine Congress, Princeton’s busy Byzantines have gathered (mainly from their own collections) a trove to make your mouth water.

Take #24, a weaver’s comb, from Egypt of the tenth to eleventh centuries: an imperial figure (a visiting Byzantinist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whom I pressed into the service of my ignorance could not be sure if it was Constantine or “just” a woman imperially beautiful) flanked by two helicoptering angels fills a tunic whose folks are brilliantly suggested by ten vertical grooves.

Oh, the simplicity of its grandeur. #46 definitely is Constantine, but in the form of a steelyard weight, to be used for measuring according to my companion of the room from Jerusalem—a new art form for me, thereby fulfilling my daily dream of never going to a show that doesn’t display at least one genre entirely new to me.

The Martyrion of Seleucia Pieria is a trove of a different tenor: #14 is a bird deftly incised with an economy that dazzles (the lines were filled in with colors, the better to celebrate its birdishness; #5 is in high relief, the more sophisticated form in vogue after the original site was savaged by an earthquake. Talk about rehabbing. Living and let love. #16 is one of those prestidigitations with a back mirror in this case revealing to those without Clark Kent eyesight a ravishing pair of rosettes and a feathered arrow form—called Fragment of a disc with St. Thekla, from Antioch fifth to sixth centuries.

But is was #198 which captured my heart—an architectural drawing from a survey (1901) by F.A. Norris of a place called Serdjilla, at the scale of 1 cm to 10 meters. It is the glory of this section of architecture that was the great art news for me. Not since I stumbled on the eighth century stone church of St. Lazaire in Larnaca, Cyprus ten years ago, have churches moved me as much.

They are no longer Roman, not yet Romanesque in the European sense, with bulbous domes that bespeak a consanguinity with mosques. Those are churches strong enough in character to make even the proudest pagan like myself kneel in awe. I’d be derelict if I didn’t advise you to savour #166, Coptic textiles from the fifth to seventh centuries. Motheaten, rotting away, but still simply splendid in their affirmation of a jeweled cross. Don’t despair if you can’t get to Princeton. There’s a fine catalog for $15, and a wall-deserving poster for $5.

Some dumb cluck beat me to the only parking space near Firestone, forcing me up Nassau Street so far that I serendipitated into the stately Bainbridge House (158 Nassau) that is very convincingly museumfying itself. Try “Patients and Practitioners: 200 Years of Medicine in Princeton,” a scary but edifying ramble through the old defeated diseases (except for rabies, or hydrophobia, for which Pasteur tried out a vaccine first in 1885), and to control a Princeton epidemic in 1886, there is a marvelous broadside which reads “Whereas many parts of his state numbers of Mad Dogs have made their appearance” one and all are authorized to kill any and all such canines, except ones with secure wire muzzles, or leashed by out-of-towners passing through.

Particularly touching is the sad tale of great writer Jonathan Edwards, newly elected President of the College, succumbing to his vaccination in 1758. He was trying to set a good example!

This essay originally appeared in Art Matters.

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