What to see in New York: Curator Phillip March Jones on shows up now [posted 12/10/18]

“You know it when you see it.”

“Roadside Attraction”
through February 7, 2019
Self-Taught Genius Gallery

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams” ***NOW CLOSED***
through January 1, 2019
Museum of Modern Art

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”
through April 23, 2019
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

“Paa Joe: Gates of No Return”
through February 24, 2019
American Folk Art Museum

“Katya Tepper: Hysteric Signs” ***NOW CLOSED***
through December 15, 2018
White Columns

“Jason Benson: Minuterie Is a Dying Cock” ***NOW CLOSED***
through December 16, 2018

I was just out at the American Folk Art Museum’s Collections and Education Center in Long Island City, which is where they keep their archives and permanent collection. It’s also where they have a second exhibition space, the Self-Taught Genius Gallery, the idea of which is to activate AFAM’s permanent collection.

Its current show, “Roadside Attraction,” includes nineteenth-century trade signs and circus banners, but also works by twentieth-century self-taught Southern artists, from Howard Finster and Calvin and Ruby Black, who presided over roadside attractions, to creators like Mary T. Smith, and Lonnie Holley, who made yard shows and environments. The show is not large, but every piece on view, like the Mary T. Smith painting, and the train from Finster’s Paradise Garden, is one of the better works by that artist I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never been, the gallery is a real discovery.

Calvin and Ruby Black, Possum Trot Figures: Helen, Blond Girl, and Genny, 1953–1969, paint on redwood and pine with fabric and tin, various dimensions. Photo by Gavin Ashworth. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.

I’ve gone to see the Bodys Isek Kingelez retrospective at MoMA twice. It’s incredible. Working in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Kingelez, who died in 2015, made models of imaginary buildings and cities that reflected his dreams of a better world. The mix in his work between homely found materials and objects and a universal, utopian vision really knocks me out.

Bodys Isek Kingelez, Belle Hollandaise, 1991, paper, paperboard, and other various materials, 21 5/8 × 31 11/16 × 22 1/16 inches. Collection Groninger Museum. Photograph by Marten de Leeuw.

It’s hard to believe that the Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim is the first major show of this Swedish modernist’s work in the U.S. The raw power of her paintings is extraordinary. You get a little bit of Rothko, and a little bit of Melvin Way—big geometric abstractions that hum with color and annotated drawings, a combination of art and science that’s really compelling.

Klint (1862–1944) is being hailed as pioneer of abstraction, but I think that anyone who makes the argument that abstraction was invented in the twentieth century in Europe, or anywhere else, has a very canonical view of art history. When I look at Klint’s work I think of Indian tantric paintings. Early in her career, Klint believed she was visually translating messages from spirit guides, and she created 193 paintings over her lifetime that she imagined installed in a temple in the shape of a spiral. Her description of the structure, which was never built, sounds uncannily like the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, and indeed the work and the building are in real dialogue.

Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood (Grupp IV, De tio största, nr 7, Mannaåldern), 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 124 x 92 ½ inches. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

At their Lincoln Square gallery, the Folk Art Museum has mounted an exhibition of work by Ghanaian coffin maker Paa Joe. Ghanaian coffin building is a relatively recent tradition, having only been around since the 1950s, and it’s one of the more interesting art forms in the world today. In it, an artisan might create a coffin shaped like a stethoscope for a heart surgeon or a giant red snapper for a fisherman. The coffins are usually indicative of the deceased’s profession, but they might also reflect a particular character trait.

Paa Joe is a master craftsman of the form, but this show is not of his coffins. Rather, it consists of works he built on commission for the late Claude Simard, co-founder of Jack Shainman gallery. The pieces are large-scale, painted-wood models of forts along West Africa’s Gold Coast that housed enslaved Africans bound for the New World between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Like his coffins, Paa Joe’s fort sculptures are closely associated with death—none who passed through these “slave castles” would return, and untold numbers of them would perish on the voyage across the Atlantic.

Paa Joe, [Fort] Gross-Friedrichsburg – Princestown. 1683 Brandenburg, 1717-24 Ahanta, 1724 Neths, 1872 Britain, 2004–2005 and 2017, emele wood and enamel, 40 x 100 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo copyright © Paa Joe, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
I’ve always loved the work of Georgia-based artist Katya Tepper, who currently has a show at White Columns. As a Southerner, I look at her wall reliefs as extensions of a landscape—with its billboards and such—and a way of making art that’s familiar to me. You know it when you see it.

Katya Tepper, Gaping Candle Tripod, 2018, industrial felt, caulk, epoxy, beeswax, soy wax, lavender petals, candle wicks, found bricks, plastic bags, eggshells, polyester film, cloth and dyed cloth, dyed felt, plaster, foam, nylon from an inflatable pool, nitrile medical gloves, wood, and hardware, 106 x 81 x 10 inches. Photo: Marc Tatti. Courtesy of the artist and White Columns, New York.
Jason Benson, Shock Portal, 2018, mosaic, pastel, and resin on wood panel, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bodega, New York.

Jason Benson’s work at Bodega is familiar for the same reasons. Benson makes wall pieces, filled with images of fantastical beings, which combine painting and mosaic.  Looking a them, I couldn’t help but think of vernacular artists who have also worked with mosaic—Simon Rodia in Los Angeles, Isaiah Zagar in Philadelphia, and Raymond Isadore in France, among them. I found the work discomforting, but I ended up looking at it for a long time.

Phillip March Jones is an artist, writer, and curator based in New York City. In 2009, he founded Institute 193, a non-profit contemporary art space and publisher in Lexington, Kentucky. Jones later served as the inaugural director of Atlanta’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation. He is currently curator-at-large for Institute 193 (New York/Lexington).