“Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863)”
through October 14, 2018
American Folk Art Museum
“Chaim Soutine: Flesh”
through September 16, 2018
“Airless Spaces: Justine Kurland & Bruce Kurland”
through August 31, 2018
“Frances Stark: Teen O.P.E.R.A (Teen Orchestra Plays, Everyone Read Along)”
Through August 10, 2018
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
The Folk Art Museum has a beautiful show of scientific illustrations by the 19th-century artist Orra White Hitchcock. Her husband taught botany, anatomy, zoology, and geology, and Orra, who was well versed in the natural sciences, was very involved in his work. In addition to exquisite botanical studies, she created large-scale watercolor paintings on cotton of dinosaur skeletons, mollusks, and geological strata as wall charts for her husband’s classes. Some of the more diagrammatic works are quite abstract—almost mystical. They remind me of the nonobjective paintings made fifty years later by the Swedish painter and Theosophist Hilma af Klint. The Hitchcocks, who were deeply religious, lived at a time when American Protestants struggled to reconcile their faith with the enormous advances being made in science. The couple was very much in love, as we see from the memorabilia included in the show. Orra wasn’t just a helpmate to her husband; he definitely considered her a full partner in their enterprise.
There is more painting from life in the extraordinary Chaim Soutine show at the Jewish Museum. Don’t miss it! It spans the years between 1919 and Soutine’s death in 1943 and centers on the artist’s nature morte paintings of butchered animals. In contrast to Hitchcock’s empirical works, Soutine’s paintings came out of childhood trauma: the horror of the pogroms in his native Russia, and his memories of seeing animals slaughtered according to Jewish law, which dictates they be killed by having their throats cut. The animals and fowl in the paintings seem to be captured at the exact moment of their death. And while I am certainly not religious, there is something transcendental about the works—a light emanates from some of the subjects, as in Renaissance paintings of the Ascension. In one work a turkey hanging upside down with its wings splayed resembles an angel. It’s an incredible painting, and an incredible exhibition.
I really loved the show at Higher Pictures, which pairs photographs by Justine Kurland with small, sometimes extremely odd, still-life paintings by Justine’s father, Bruce Kurland. Bruce also painted meat—in one painting, a strip of bacon is draped over a flowering branch; in another, supermarket packages of raw steak are piled in a ceramic bowl. There is also a quiet rendering of a clamshell that calls to mind Hitchcock’s depictions of the same thing. The photographs, which are gorgeous, are recent black-and-white, 4-by-5-inch contact prints, taken since Justine sold her van and stopped taking her road-trip pictures. Many are self-portraits, alone or with lovers. Some are of animals, pregnant or post-hysterectomy. Others are interiors shot in her mother’s house, a few with her father’s work in them. One is a study of a handmade chair and table, a painting by Bruce of Justine’s mother hanging on the wall behind them. Both of Justine’s parents were artists; she has bohemianism ingrained in her.
Let me end with Francis Stark’s show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. I live not far from the gallery, and I’ve been stopping in frequently to let The Magic Flute wash over me. The installation is superb. Through music played by a youth orchestra and audible throughout the building, signage, and videos and paintings of titles, visitors are immersed in Mozart’s opera without once hearing a voice or seeing a player on stage. Maybe that’s another kind of drawing from life.
Former co-owner of the Murray Guy gallery, which operated in Chelsea from 1998 to 2017, Janice Guy is a photographer. A book of her self-portraits from the late 1970s is forthcoming from Hunters Point Press.