There are a handful of stellar institutions that one might plan to visit for a weekend away from the summer heat of New York City. The newest, and one of the most impressive is The School in Kinderhook, New York. Kinderhook is a picturesque town just north of Hudson, which itself is an established attraction for New York City dwellers looking for gourmet food, an eclectic variety of antiques, and a vibrant gallery scene.
The School was converted by architect Antonio Jiménez Torrecillas from the stately, albeit abandoned and foreclosed, Martin van Buren High School into a unique and beautiful exhibition space. The main gallery is a converted gymnasium with an awe-inspiring, cathedral-like presence. Around this space is a wraparound walkway where individual works maintain a certain uncanny intimacy with the viewer. Throughout the building there are a few more "finished" viewing spaces as well as a number of rooms in different states of decay for use as installation sites. These are outstanding. In total, the well-known New York City gallerist Jack Shainman has generously created a bright, new, and exceptional 30,000-square-foot museum level art institution that promises years of momentous exhibitions.
The current, inaugural exhibition showcases the work of all around creative genius Nick Cave. It centers on Cave’s well known Soundsuits that replicate the size and shape of the artist’s own body. The suits are adorned with everything from multi-chromed popsicle sticks, pot holders, pipe cleaners, and porcelain and plastic figurines to stuffed animals and sideshow statuary. As a result, this colorful, mind-blowing menagerie of freestanding forms has a super-real presence in our hearts and minds. They defy reason—and at times gravity—while extending the persona of the individual wearer to such a degree as to make them part of a free association continuum of otherworldly time travel.
Nick Cave, Installation view; © Photo by Jeremy Lawson / Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Then there are the other sculptures that Cave creates as potent individual statements. The Soundsuits conceal “race, gender, and class, forcing the viewer to look without judgment” as the artist states. In comparison, the other sculptures and assemblages more directly confront racially based injustices. As with the Soundsuits, Cave employs any object or means to get his point across in these unsettling and insightful works. In one release the artist notes, “It all started when I found a container at a flea market shaped like the head of a black person. The description read ‘Spittoon.’ I was shocked. This led me to begin collecting this extreme category of black inflammatory objects, carefully noting the way they were described and the places they were found.”
You cannot look at these sculptures without feeling the artist’s pain and resentment with regard to racism and hatred. One major piece of this type, Property (2014), is displayed in the aptly named Principle’s Office space. It consists of a long row of antique box molds containing a variety of curiously connected objects stretched across the gallery floor before a lawn statue of a barefoot, black servant, who stares blankly into space. One wonders, if our subject could only figure out the obscure puzzle before him, could he wind his way to freedom from the constraints and oppressions of his day? Perched atop a combination of odd platforms, he stands in front of a nest of ceramic birds in all sizes and colors, held together with soldered steel branches and long strands of beads. It calls to mind a connection between animal sacrifice and the breaking down of one’s spirit as the weight of the situation becomes evident.
In Classroom 2 there are three more poignant works. Two contain offensive, sambo-type effigies of young boys sitting atop stacked high-chairs. They too are set against a backdrop of nesting birds, only here it serves more as a playhouse or cover from a world filled with humiliation and suffering. Cave has an innate ability to soften the blow just enough so visitors can be lured in with open minds and light hearts.
Nick Cave, Sea Sick, 2014, mixed media, 96 x 72 x 10 1/2 inches; Photo by Jeremy Lawson / Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Classroom 1 holds four works that are a far less intricate, allowing the message to be perceived more immediately and at a far greater distance from the work. Sea Sick (2014) in particular caught my attention as it directly contrasts the adoration expressed for the classic, albeit kitschy, "big ship" painting against the unyielding agony experienced by shackled slaves traveling just below the deck.
The four large-format, multi-level and multi-faceted wall assemblages that hang in the Main Gallery and the two tondi comprising stitched together found sequined garments project more whimsy than wallop, however they are no less commanding of the space they inhabit.
This comprehensive exhibition by one of today's most important contemporary artists is a powerful debut for Jack Shainman's new gallery.
(Image on top: Nick Cave, Installation view; © Photo by Jeremy Lawson / Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)