Senghor Reid @ NCA Gallery

A Diabolical Element – Senghor Reid’s exhibition at the National Conference of Artist Gallery

In the hallway outside of NCA Gallery, housed in a vibrant Community Center in Northwest Detroit, you encounter the first wave of Senghor Reid’s solo exhibition Diabolique. The imposing group of large-scale acrylic paintings depict shifting, shimmering surfaces of water in different weather conditions and light. Reid’s dynamic, disquieting treatment of the ever-moving element of water recalls David Hockney’s pool paintings. Both artists weave water as a substance in movements and marks that eerily echo the nature of the element itself- slashes, splotches, dense, doily-like layers of marks that begin to suggest forms even as those forms collapse and drain away before your eyes. Reid’s work evokes Hockney’s, also, in the strange, visually transmitted metaphor presented by both artist’s treatments of this element- that of the complete unknown, the otherworld that mirrors and impacts our own, that lies just beneath the surface.

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Senghor Reid, The Ice Storm 2, 48 X 60, Acrylic on Canvas, 2016

The title of Reid’s exhibition, Diabolique, references the 1955 French film Les Diaboliques, the plot of which revolves around the concealment of a corpse in a body of water. The water swallows the corpse and refuses to yield it up- it appears later, brought uncannily back to life, rising from the waters of a bathtub. The mysterious, treacherous capability of water to give both life and death, to absorb evil only to reveal it later in the most intimate settings, is examined with a plethora of materials and media, through scientific and aesthetic lenses, in Diabolique. True to the origin of its title, the exhibition features a series of self-portraits of the artist washed up on a vaguely tropical shore, an uncanny, amphibious humanoid, his face concealed behind swimming goggles and a gas mask that suggests both survival in a toxic environment and gills. The figure of the artist appears both resurrected and consigned to dwell forever in conditions his body was not designed for.

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Senghor Reid, Freshwater Assassins, 12 X 18″, Digital Print, 2016

This could be seen as the fate of humanity at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century- our surroundings are now rife with invisible, and not so invisible, contaminants that have resulted from our misuse of the natural world. Reid uses the element of water as the aesthetic touchstone of his exploration of those harmful elements, and their insidious presence in our daily lives. The most sinister elements on the periodic table- mercury, cobalt, lead- are carried into our communities and bodies through the vehicle of water. These same elements, like water, are aesthetically beautiful- possessed of a seductive, ever-shifting sheen. That paradox of beauty, vitality, nature and toxicity is presented in every one of Reid’s works, the large-scale water paintings, the smaller water studies executed in oil pastel and paint marker, the sensuous prints on gold and copper paper, the installation of crystalline vintage bottles labeled with the acids and heavy metals they once held.

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Senhor Reid, The Element of Crime Shelves & Apothecary Bottles, 24 X 30, 2016

The shimmer, and Reid’s capture of it in almost every medium imaginable, wreathes an elegant, fragile dialog between art, science and nature in Diabolique. It is the surface of water, which has become so loaded (the Flint water crisis and Detroit’s ongoing scandal of water shut-offs are only two examples of the element’s presence in crises of health, politics, race, and class) with essential and unanswered cultural urgencies. It is the glint of heavy metals, and the faceted surface of glass, containers and transmitters for elements that delight our eyes and leave putrid, invisible traces. It is deep, lurid, sensuous hues that sing of our love of nature as they paradoxically poison our environment. The shimmer conceals the corpse that will, inevitably, rise up from the murky inheritance of our chemical-spewing forbears. The rest of us may not be so lucky- yet, Diabolique seems to suggest, where there’s beauty, there’s hope.

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Senghor Reid, Breaking Waves 4, Paint Marker, 11 X 14″ 2016

 Diabolique,  by Senghor Reid,  at NCA Gallery through October 21, 2016.

 

Energy/Mass @ Wasserman Projects

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Koen Vanmechelen, Installation, Five Exterior Works, 2016

“While the native breeds that descended from the  original chicken (the Red Junglefowl) are evolutionary  dead-ends (being shaped to reflect the typical cultural  characteristics of its community), Vanmechelen’s  cross-breeds are solutions. Many years of  crossbreeding have proven that each successive generation of hybrids is ‘better’. It is more resilient,  it lives longer, is less susceptible to diseases, and it exhibits less aggressive behavior. Genetic diversity is essential, proves the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research  Project(CC®P), which studies the various CCP Hybrids.”-From Koen Vanmechelen’s artist statement/bio, on “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” and “Energy/Mass”

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Koen Vanmechelen, Installation image, Energy/Mass, – All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

I walked into “Energy/Mass,” the current exhibition at Wasserman Projects, wondering about the distinction between art and science. Having only heard and seen a few snippets of information about the artist, Koen Vanmechelen, and his work, the main question I took in with me was, “how is this art?” This question, in light of many of the openings/panel discussions/bar conversations I’ve found myself in lately, has been puzzling me more and more. There’s much talk, these days, of visual art claiming its rightful place in the hierarchy of sciences, and the importance of visual art (and the humanities at large) in unpacking, interpreting, and finding unique insights into such disciplines as history, mathematics, social justice, and hard science. I fully support this idea- at the same time, it opens a new strain of questioning about what, precisely, can be classified as art practice within the practices of science, academic research, and political activism. Where does studio practice end, and interdisciplinary research begin? How does the one inform the other? An intriguing example of the fertile union between science and art, and how studio practice can maintain its autonomy while exploring in other disciplines, can be found in “Energy/Mass.”

As Wasserman gallerist Megan Keeley reminded me while walking me through “Energy/Mass,” the scientific aspect of the show is hardly trafficking in cutting-edge research. The science of “Energy/Mass” is pretty bare-bones, accepted knowledge of biology and genetics- the processes by which organisms (in this case, chickens) reproduce, and the results of introducing new material into an isolated genetic pool. What “Energy/Mass” explores is a lyrical, artistic interpretation of that long-studied process. The work in “Energy/Mass” presents an aesthetic exploration, backed up by intensive research and field practice, of the processes of reproduction, the surprisingly graceful allegory these processes present for social, historical, and artistic practices, and the vital role visual art can assume in the binding and bridging of disciplines- biological, historical, social, political, and aesthetic.

“The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” centers on the breeding of chickens. A large coop inhabited by live chickens dominates the exhibition, and exposes its beating heart. Being serenaded by roosters while wandering through a gallery is an unusual experience that made me wish I could incorporate audio into this review.

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Koen Vanmechelen, Planetary Community Chicken Coop, 2016

Vanmechelen chooses his breeding combinations based upon human-made geographical boundaries. This illuminates the impact of historical nationalism/xenophobia/political activity of humans upon the processes of natural selection and genetic descent. Apparently, we require the flora and fauna within our geographic boundaries to reflect those boundaries as much as our history and politics do. What results, manifested in regional livestock, is, in the context of this body of work, almost numberless distinct breeds of chicken, each iconic of its geographic region.

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Koen Vanmechelen, Unpredictable, CCP, Steel / Bronze, 145 X 75 X 34

Vanmechelen’s “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” is now in its twenty year generation. It has leapt, genetically, from country to country in a migratory pattern that echoes the migrations of humans from one culture to the next on our journey to globalization. The documentation of this fertile chain- from Europe through Asia, Africa, Australia and into the Americas- is displayed in “Energy/Mass” in works encompassing painting, sculpture, and mixed media incorporating taxidermy (all of the physical specimens that find their way into Vanmechelen’s body of work lived long, healthy lives on his incredible farm in Belgium, and died natural deaths prior to their incorporation).

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Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World Taxidermy Chick, Steel, 67 X 39 X 39

These lyrical, aesthetic explorations of the sublime subject of birth and reproduction are backed up with huge, red leather-bound volumes filled with indecipherable genetic codes that strike the layman as obscure, and essentially aesthetic, as the more specifically visual works.

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Koen Vanmechelen, 4 Icon, CCP, UV Print on Gold Leaf, Wood, Steel, 14 X 10 X 1, 2016

This work distills geographic migration- a process which bonds and strengthens- a powerful reminder for us in these strangely xenophobic times. When so much of our political discourse revolves around fear of the other, penetrating our shores, muddying our genetic pool, this work presents a simple, undeniably scientific truth- that cross-breeding, introducing new elements into a long-established system, can only empower.

“Energy/Mass,” A solo exhibition of work by Koen Vanmechelen, is on display at Wasserman Projects through December 17, 2016.

Elizabeth Youngblood @ 9338 Campau

 ” Righted” – A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood – A retrospective work in progres

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Installation

ElizabethYoungblood defines herself first as a craftsman. A quote that describes her trajectory well is a simple one- “I respect making.” The broad range of media she employs- textiles, drawing, basket-weaving, ceramics, wire sculpture- attest to her democratic fealty to a very personal, singular hunt. With Righted- A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood, Youngblood has transformed 9338 Campau’s sprawling Hamtramck gallery space into a hive of activity, presenting her work in an unprecedented format- a retrospective that includes works in progress that Youngblood is developing within the gallery itself. She is taking advantage of the vast amount of space there to both gather her work into one place large enough to give it breathing room, and realize large works on paper that she has long desired to explore but hasn’t had the space, until now, to properly develop. Youngblood’s residency at 9338 Campau feels revolutionary, both for an artist in full command of her powers with a distinguished career in the bag already, and for an explorer who makes the most of every space she is given for her work to take center stage.

Asked to qualify her vast body of work into a single context, she explains how one branch of her exploration leads, maintaining conceptual consistency, from one medium to the next. Youngblood’s devotion to mastering the strengths of every material that passes through her hands, and the joy she takes in immersing herself in the process of finessing each one, gently, into her lexicon, is doubly striking in the context of Righted, where one can view long-culminated works alongside raw, vulnerable works in progress. The very presence of the works in progress casts Youngblood’s retrospective work in an unusual light- as open-ended, questioning works in progress themselves. This impression suits Youngblood’s whole-hearted focus on process as a studio practice- allowing the current of her concept to carry her from medium to medium, presenting each work as a direct flowering from the clues unlocked, and the questions raised, in the last.

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Woven Black Piece, 1992-93 All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

Talking with Youngblood about her work reveals the ultimate unimportance of form in her studio practice. This came as a surprise in light of the striking formal continuity I made out in her work- indeed, it was the first thing that enabled me to pass cohesively from one piece to the next, given what different media she ropes in. This formal consistency, it turns out, is Youngblood’s soul pattern, a template on which she explores such concepts as the dogged devotion of craftsmanship, the solitary joy of wreathing visions out of tactility, and the construction of planes out of lines.

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Elizabeth Youngblood,Untitled, 1995

Youngblood’s artistic chronology mirrors her bodies of work. Trained as a graphic designer, she has worked in that profession, on and off, since her tenure as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She is quick to point out, rightly, the subtle craft demanded by graphic design. Between her design work, her teaching career, her years spent in New York, and interludes in craft-oriented industries such as bar-tending, she has snatched pockets of time to hone her planar exploration in various media at artist residencies such as Haystack and Penland School of Crafts. Her travels have pulled a variety of media into her exploration- her vision remains remarkably consistent as she applies it to different traditions of making. She emphasizes the importance of material and craft as a conduit toward greater understanding of place, such as North Carolina and its history as a hub of furniture craft (the baskets on display in Righted were created at Penland, inspired by the materials and methods of furniture-making.)

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Twin Baskets, 1999

This breath of Place, in turn, enriches Youngblood’s exploration of process as a path toward distillation of an artifact of conceptual, rather than utilitarian or formal value. Youngblood speaks with quiet admiration of the traditions of crafting she has been privileged to explore, and how they have added their own regional, historical voices to her practice.

As she continues to explore, chasing her vision of planes built of carful, joyous repetition, Youngblood pulls traditional craft forms, seemingly effortlessly, into a body of work that maintains an astonishing formal trajectory, presenting razor-sharp meditations on process in various media encased, almost like home-jarred preserves, within an all-encompassing, monolithic form. The form, seductive and enigmatic as it is, is no more than a ground for her process. Asked her opinions on the tension between fine art and craft, high and low art, she expresses less interest in that argument than in the status of media as “women’s work” versus “men’s work.” The large-scaled drawings Youngblood is developing during her tenure at 9338 Campau are an exploration into a quicker, more decisive way of making that has historically been associated with the bodies and thought processes of men.

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Large Drawing 1, 2016

“Men’s work” as Youngblood describes it, seems less a political appropriation on her part than a desire to master yet another craft- one she, for the moment, has the physical space to pursue. Spending time with Youngblood in her studio is a lesson in veneration for processes that unite, rather than polarize, the complex history of making as it indexes various times, places, social demographics, races, and genders. To sum up, Youngblood respects making, and, though she is acutely aware of the cultural associations that come with each material she ropes into her vision, her devotion to process and skill-building manage, miraculously, to shed the oppressive political discourse that has hung around craft for decades and present it, unilaterally, as a vast conduit for exploration of an artist’s conceptual vision. Youngblood’s is a true Twenty First Century studio practice- and she’s earned it.

Righted- A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood has percolated at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, MI throughout the last breaths of summer. A public reception of her work will be held on Saturday, 9/24/2016 from 7-10 pm.

9338 Campau

Sensuous Memento @ the River House Arts

Mori Megan Biddle, Amber Cowan, Jessica Jane Julius, & Sharyn O’Mara – Hush.ex Exhibition at River House Arts, Toledo, Ohio

There are exciting things happening at the Toledo Art Museum, the University of Toledo, and the gestating organization that will soon be on everyone’s radar, Contemporary Art Toledo, this September. Contemporary Art Toledo, the brainchild of Brian Carpenter (lecturer and gallery director at the University of Toledo) and Paula Baldoni (director of River House Arts Space) is currently based in the gorgeous River House Arts Gallery in downtown Toledo. Hush.ex features the work of four artists whose common thread begins with the historically and regionally loaded medium of glass.

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River House Arts, Hush-ex, Installation, All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

Once upon a time, glass production was a massive industry in Toledo. Its status as a serious craft has passed out of our cultural consciousness, much as other craft-oriented industries that once anchored Midwestern economies have shifted locus or become altogether obsolete. Toledo, however, has preserved its status as “The Glass City” through a symbiotic relationship between industry, education, and fine art that has guided glass craft through industrial decline, out of factories and into studios, ultimately accumulating an incredible collection of glass art (initially through the patronage of Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey, founders of both Owens Corning Glass Manufacturing and the Toledo Museum).

The artists of Hush.ex (all of whom teach in the Glass Program at Tyler School of Art, Temple University) engage with the historicity and mundanity of this medium that permeates our lives at almost every moment without making its presence felt. The work illuminates that very mundanity, and uses it to begin a dialog about the things we touch, use, and interact with daily, and how quietly loaded with history, both emotional and indexical, this slippery, medium-bridging material is.

Glass is a substance that we live with and touch frequently as part of our daily life. We open windows, handle drinking glasses and plates, navigate touchscreens. We know what glass feels like. And, if you’ve ever been a child surreptitiously handling a weighty, faceted objet de art or a precious piece of porcelain, you know that glass feels good. It’s a crafted substance that invites direct interaction in every way. It’s almost an extension of our bodies, and it’s certainly played a major role, historically, in preserving our experiences in sensuous, precious, yet powerful cartouches. The artists featured in Hush.ex tap directly into that sensuous, indexical role glass possesses (to a maddening degree- I’ve never felt a stronger desire to touch works of art in an exhibition).

Amber Cowan’s turgid glass sculptures channel both mid-century gewgaws and the horror vacui principle of nature to craft strangely familiar, subversively scaled vessels and wall pieces that burst with an uncanny appropriation of organic growth and mind-numbing decorative beauty. Her works bear such titles as “Wedding Compote with Thorny Vine,” and “Candle Stick.”

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Amber Cowan, Rosette Milk & Ivory flame worked pressed & sheet glass, mixed-media

The works of Jessica Jane Julius dialog with mundane objects of a very different order- the ephemeral static and digital flickerings that glass bears into our environment via television and smartphone screens. The buzzy surfaces and odd static/dynamic quality of her installations speak to the mercurial loyalties of glass, as an almost magical medium between our reality and pure, abstracted information.

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Jessica Jane Julius, Extruded hot pulled & kiln cast glass, metal – 2016

The theme of glass as a vessel for memory brought uncannily into real space is most directly engaged by Sharyn O’Mara, whose pressed glass burnout drawings most directly reference Nineteenth Century memento mori keepsakes. Such objects were meant to preserve a physical trace of a deceased loved one available for viewing through impenetrable glass. Through an intense process of compressing objects between panes of glass and firing them into carbonized fossils, O’Amara has preserved, among other keepsakes, tufts of hair from beloved dogs that caramelize in their pressed glass coffins into delicate, snowflake-like strata of tangled tendrils that reference lovely, closely observed charcoal drawings.

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Sharyn Omara, Botanical 4-carbon burnout drawing on glass, 2016

Megan Biddle’s sculptures also invoke drawing, taken off the wall into three dimensional collisions of line and material. Again, there is a reference to preservation and enclosure here- her home appliance scaled sculpture “Converge” occupies a corner of the gallery like an old-timey television set, transmitting a quiet meditation on converging, geometric lines rather than moving bites of information.

The overarching theme of preservation of historical, beloved objects and memories within this medium that feels simultaneously earthy and ephemeral, tactile and fragile, inviting and forbidding to touch.

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Jessica Jane Julius, Static puddle hot pulled & kiln fused glass, 2016

Hush.ex coalesces into an incredible synesthesia of memory, digital ephemera, and physical preservation all encompassed, like Snow White, in a sensual and impenetrable glass coffin. There’s much potential for touchstones of communication in this medium that feels simultaneously earthy and ephemeral, tactile and fragile, inviting and forbidding to touch.

It’s the rare medium that straddles craft, fine art, and daily life on such equal footing. Hush.ex both awakens the viewer to sensual beauty, and stands as a reminder that such beauty is all around, within grasp, at all times.

Hush.ex is on view at River House Arts in Toledo, Ohio, September 15 through October 31, 2016

River House Arts

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Treasures from the Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink at The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Installation – Connoisseurs Legacy 2016 All images Courtesy of the Michigan Museum of Art

“Our bodies love metaphors because they join our bodies to our soul rather than abandoning them to a soulless state. The ancient alchemists called this body-soul state “the subtle body.” They believed that the deeper we go into “the subtle body,” the greater the soul treasures it contains.”    -Marion Woodman, from The Maiden King

In a recent review, I speculated that museums and galleries have become depositories for objects we currently don’t know what to do with- that seem to have lost their vital place in culture-building. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” a delicately curated selection of works from the private collection of Nesta and Walter Spink, provides a stark counterpoint to that idea- it speaks of the vital place works of art still have in the private lives of people who shape, and are shaped by, the lives of these works in the outer world.

The Spinks have been collecting works of art since the 1950’s, the early days of their long marriage and the gestation period of their respective paths of scholarship. Nesta specialized in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century prints and drawings, and would become one of America’s foremost experts on James McNeill Whistler, compiling, during her years as curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the most comprehensive catalog raisonne of Whistler’s prints ever written. Walter took as his subject the vast Buddhist shrine and monastery at Ajanta, India, and continues to advance his radical theory of the site’s history and development in an ongoing series of books about the caves. At age eighty-eight, he still spends several months a year in Ajanta.

The Spink’s collection is important, because it offers a unique opportunity to view great works of art from vastly different time periods, cultures and traditions side by side in one gallery. The collection, consisting mainly of works on paper from various traditions, punctuated by gems of religious sculpture, lovingly wrought textiles and charming decorative objects, testifies powerfully to the role graphic art (printmaking, illustration, stylized genre painting) plays across all cultures as a distillation of our human story into a universal, uniformly legible narrative.

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Milkmaid Manika Offering Curds to Jagannatha and Balabhadra on Horses Composed of Human Figures, India, Orissa, Puri School early 20th Century, opaque watercolor and lacquer on cot

The artists represented, from anonymous Mughal miniature painters and regional Indian folk artists to J. M. Whistler to Paul Klee and Andy Warhol, are all, “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” clarifies, driven by the same passion- to translate lived experience into a visual language that brings the body a bit closer to the soul. This, according to the psychologist Marion Woodman, is the purpose of metaphor- literally a “carrying over” of tangible life from this plane onto the subtler plane of our interior selves. Seen in this context, the diverse work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” sheds linear chronology, aesthetic movements, and regional traditions and unites in breath-taking waves of visual metaphor- allegorical dreams brought into the light.

Image 2 Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

One of my favorite things about graphic art is its ability to both describe and subvert space- the void we move through and fill with our objects and ideas. The line that weaves through all the work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” the line that describes first and foremost, defines each century and tradition even as it unifies them. One gets the dynamic, jazzed-up line of the Twentieth Century as transcribed by Max Ernst and Paul Klee a hair before it leaps back into foursquare reality and forms a can of Campbell’s soup, appropriated as Art and autographed by Andy Warhol.

Image 3 Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Reel this line backward in time, and it grows, across America, Europe and Asia, more disciplined, hushed, and devoted to the sublime, describing fragments of statuary and architecture from Ancient Rome in two brilliantly mind-bending etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi that collapse space into an orderly grid of venerable objects floating on Enlightenment illumination. Leap across the gallery to a group of contemporary Mughal miniature paintings, and the same hushed veneration is there- describing the indescribable in a different way. The unearthly jewel tones and dream-like minglings of people and animals- many-armed deities astride tigers and giant pigeons- have the same spiritual devotion to beauty as their French and Italian comrades.

Image 4 Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

The line meanders and condenses from the Warhol soup can back to a taut, potent carving of Christ crucified and back again to sensuous Jain statuary which draws on traditional Hindu sculpture to capture the ecstasy of spiritual union.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” is also important because it exemplifies collecting for the best possible reasons. The works of art on display reflect the insight of the individuals who fell in love with each piece and fitted it in with the rest without an agenda, a rigid vision, or focus on material gain. It’s a reminder, as well, of the vital contribution private curation makes to the Humanities- Nesta and Walter understand the ensoulling power of these objects, and the instruction they can offer us about ourselves and our cultural inheritance. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” suggests a continuous loop of visual language that cross-pollinates and subtly alters itself and its context with each change in perspective, each newly discovered visual rhyme that spans continents. This privately curated collection highlights the similarities, more than the differences, between works we are trained to view as vastly different from one another.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy: The Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink” is on view at The University of Michigan Museum of Art from June 18 through September 25, 2016.

University of Michigan Art Museum