For formal purity in three dimensions, it would hard to beat the lineup of equines currently on display at the American Primitive Gallery in New York's SoHo district. About 20 carved and often painted wood figures have been rounded up for "Horses -- Inspired Folk Art." Two-dimensional works by gallery regulars and several other horses in metal are also in the corral.
A white-painted horse from the turn of the century is the show's worthy mascot. Its pared-down shape and carefully placed feet give it a proud bearing, an essential horsiness in action. Probably made as a pull toy around 1900, it costs $12,000. Another stunner is a blocky equine from the 1920s whose complex interplay of carving and black-and-white paint epitomize the sophistication of the Art Deco esthetic. Priced at $1,900, it's already sold.
More realistic is a larger beast almost four feet high, made of pieced wood with a leather saddle. As the price list suggests, it was "probably made for a tack shop or a very lucky kid" ($9,500). Even bigger is a life-size horse of many abstract pieces that was found in an old shipping crate and probably used in a tack shop once it was covered with hide and stuffed. This handsome assemblage will set you back $15,000.
If you prefer something funkier, try the Horse Swing with Abstract Form ($2,800) from Nebraska, ca. 1920-1940s, or a carousel horse from the early 1900s with plenty of crackled paint ($1,800).
Just horses' heads appear on other utilitarian and decorative pieces -- a cane, a wire rug beater and cast-iron hitching post.
A small, splendid yellow-painted horse by the Kentucky carver Edgar Tolson from around 1965-75 ($2,200) is the only piece by a known hand.
All the rest are by anonymous carvers, but that may change. Two of the most exciting pieces are small black-painted horses of a very distinctive pieced, longitudinal construction with prominent hooves. Aarne Anton, the owner of American Primitive, said he's seen similar works by the same hand around the country. Suspecting that whoever made them has made more and primarily for sale rather than for pleasure, he is hot on the trail of the identity of this gifted sculptor.
Several drawings from a series of eight, all a profile view of a single horse in pencil and crayon on cardboard, were found on the walls of a sharecropper's cabin in Conyers, Ga., in the early 1900s. What looks like a curtain surrounds each horse on three sides. Each is slightly different, signed "Beatrice Cantrell," and costs $2,000.
A mixed-media drawing in Caribbean colors by Max Romain, The Lady, The Horse ($1,800), and a surreal acrylic by the self-taught Robert Sholties, Fear of a Powerful Woman, from 1995 ($4,000) help round out a super summer show.
"Horses -- Inspired Folk Art," through Aug. 31 at American Primitive Gallery, 594 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
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Another place to find folk sculpture, non-folk sculpture and a little of practically everything else is the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects." If you haven't seen it yet, don't miss this show crammed with more than 200 treasures on loan from 80 Brooklynites.
Among folk works, the irrepressible Harvey Fierstein has contributed a whole family of carved and painted figures by Lavern Kelley made during 1938-40 and a huge light-bulb filled metallic woman's head that once functioned as a the marquee sign for a vaudeville house in L.A.
The show goes back to ancient times and comes down to the present moment with not one, but two, installations by Brit Damien Hirst. A great carved Mesopotamian ivory figure, Egyptian stone carvings, and a marble Roman head are some of the ancient works. A pre-Columbian burnished red terracotta "Spider" pot from Colima, Mexico, looks like a tarantula to me, but whatever it is, it's wonderful and something I would not want to meet up with if it were real.
Among two-dimensional works, there are a few Old Masters, but a Pontormo of the Madonna and Child with Saint John ca. 1513 is worth studying.
One especially strong area is African art, a specialty of the museum. The institution's curators are surely salivating over a buffalo mask from Burkino Faso and a copper hip mask in the shape of a leopard's head from Nigeria's Royal Benin Court, among many other strong works. And there's equally good material from New Guinea.
A mini-show of Central Asian textiles is spectacular, as is a collection of David Smith drawings accompanied by an important yellow-painted steel abstract tabletop piece from the 1950s, Albany VIIB. Nearby are figures Smith made from everyday items, perhaps the most endearing being a jaunty fellow made from a sardine can -- very Picasso-esque.
Did I mention the Degas pastel, the Robert Morris wall piece of felt from 1970, an exquisite, paper-thin Lucie Rie glazed earthenware vase, the Southern Song incense burner, jewelry from India in gold and gemstones, and the small, miraculously atmospheric watercolor by the American John William Hill, called Grapes on the Vine from 1864?
"A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects," Mar. 2-July 1, 2001, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.
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At Paul Rodgers/ 9W in New York's Chelsea district, a fresh and sassy show called "clench, clutch, flinch" has its share of great sculpture, too. Curated by critic Dominique Nahas, it is said to allude to "psycho-somatic phenomena in contemporary art," whatever that means.
The show offers a chance to see a new kinetic work by Mary Ziegler, an impressive early Tim Hawkinson sculpture, a collage called Augen by Hannah Hoch, some lyrical ink drawings by Henri Michaux and a series of mystical formula drawings by Melvin Way among the 40 pieces in every conceivable medium.
Mary Ziegler's Chartres consists of metal bits pulled into tiny holes arranged in a circle by magnets. These "pilgrims" go skittering in semi-circular bursts, randomly coming to rest before being drawn on their way again. Here's technology served up with panache. The piece is absolutely hypnotic. It's from 1999 and only $7,000.
Not since Tim Hawkinson's big Ace Gallery show has his Fat Head been on view. This pneumatic, clothed stand-in for the artist is from 1993, complete with the artist's then-shaved head. That's $45,000, please.
A video by Monica Castillo has someone putting something in her eye repeatedly. It was instantly upsetting, but is flinching really enough?
Three large, dreamy oils from 2001 combining faces and nude body parts by Dane Hanneline Rogeberg ($10,000 each) hinted at hidden narratives. At least it was pleasant to stare at them for a long time.
Through June 30, 2001 at Paul Rodgers/9W, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y 10011.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.