The Easel

2nd March 2021

A searing, all-star art show explores Black grief from the civil rights era to now

A group show in New York, curated by the stellar Okwui Enwezor, considers racism in the US. Given the complexity of that issue, there is no single message, political or otherwise. Instead, the show is a meditation on grief in the face of anti-Black violence, an emotion that is private and “profoundly destabilizing”.  “An emblematic show” says the writer, combining “deep cultural tradition with a sense of immediate cultural crisis”.

When a museum feels like home

An ode to New York’s Frick Collection and its riches. Frick, “insatiable”, was buying when European aristocrats were skint. He didn’t buy in depth, just “the simply superb—fantastic icing on not much cake”. In just one drawing room “two portraits by Titian, two by Holbein, and a Bellini … a potent El Greco, Holbein’s “Sir Thomas More” and “Thomas Cromwell”. But no nudes – Frick wanted dignity, “laundering the machinations of his avarice”.

Harvest of Nature

Nettle has called some of her images “visual autobiography”, and you can see why. Layered, collaged images, made before Photoshop, tell stories about “family, motherhood, place”. Her determination to juggle an art career with the roles of wife and mother have given her career a fragmentary character. That has not stopped her “alternative photographic processes” being recognized as expanding photography’s vocabulary, especially its ability to convey mood.

Folk art gets a proper pedestal at the MFA

Folk art is a more polite term than ‘outsider art’ but carries the same message – art that is “less”. A Boston museum is holding a dedicated exhibition, something of a “mea culpa” given its large holdings of these works. The art on show is a “rich terrain”. Some works are not signed, a problem for a market that only imparts value where there is a “brand”. Art outside the mainstream is confusing but “interesting … folk art is real, messy and maddeningly broad.”

23rd February 2021

The self as cipher: Salman Toor’s narrative paintings

New artists like Toor can struggle for recognition if (older) critics can’t describe a context for their work. This essay is a good example of how it can be done. The rise of “autobiography and memoir [in art] has likely been encouraged by social media. The “self” is formed through social constructs of gender, sexuality, and race. Being perceived by someone can be both liberating—to see an idea of you through someone else—but also really narrowing and debilitating.”

Why the Art World Is Embracing Craft

A 1969 survey show on American crafts “rebooted” respect for the handmade. A similar survey show, with new names, (review) has opened in celebration of that earlier event. It comes when craft is resurgent, especially in ceramics and fibre art. One piece of beadwork “communicates a nearly religious quality—a quality of wonder. Handwork provides a firm anchor … it gives us something to believe in. Art needs craft, and badly”

Ansel Adams: the politics of natural space

For a time, Ansel Adams was America’s most acclaimed photographer. What exactly was his aesthetic achievement? His images of pristine, majestic nature were not pathbreaking and nor were his technical achievements. Perhaps he was tapping into the Romantics idea of the wilderness as a “metaphor for heroic aspirations.” If so, the untouched frontier is now lost to us, making Adams images just “artifacts of a lost contentment.”