As the fall art season arrived in an anything-but-a-blockbuster frame of mind, I found myself captivated by some shows of deceptively modest, distinctly eccentric works. The biggest surprise were the dozen or so exquisitely morbid grisaille dioramas bathed in semi-darkness at the remodeled Parsons New School galleries at Fifth Avenue and West 13th Street. This dystopian rummage-sale universe is the creation of a pair of highly original animators best known for their very short, very strange stop-action films. Timothy and Stephen Quay, reclusive identical twins from Pennsylvania, now living in London, where they hand make their obsessively detailed, miniature architectural fantasies that way out-weird Joseph Cornell and channel Arthur Rackham via Franz Kafka and grim post-war Polish animation.
These compelling, rarely exhibited little assemblages are backdrop for melodramas of secrets and decay; the décor and sets for the Quays’ more than two dozen movies, among them the brilliantly creepy Street of Crocodiles. (A selection of the films was running in the gallery. You also can check them out on YouTube). Out-of-scale scissors, archaic signage, strange puppets and disjointed china dolls inhabit these tiny claustrophobic stages, which, when animated, deliver a unique, memorable brand of Gothic surrealism dripping with entropy, frustration and mystery.
Up on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, the considerably more benign "Tenement Symphony" pairs collages and assemblages by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and collages by John Evans. It’s a kind of visual operetta that embodies the rise and fall of the pre-gentrified East Village scene that in the 1970s careened around Thompson Square Park and the Lower East Side as well as in Hell’s Kitchen when rents were low and drugs were plentiful. (Oh my. What seemed so tough and edgy then seems amazingly innocent now.) While the show includes recent collages and constructions by both veteran artists, the 1970s items project the most spontaneous vitality, cheerfully evoking the rag-tag life of those vanished bohemian enclaves where both artists struggled and flourished.
On the gallery’s back wall Lanigan-Schmidt, always a notable original who you could describe as a Stonewall Rousseau, has turned his flamboyantly embellished lasagna pans made three decades ago into an extravagant grid. It's a dime-store, handmade, stained glass window concocted from glittering tinsel, cellophane, colored foils and sequins from an artist who is a master of turning straw into gold. (I heard that the disposable aluminum pans exactly fitted into the tiny stoves in those tiny old coldwater flats.) The adorable gilded rodents, reminders of the old days, which he conjured out of squashed-up gold foil, now scamper across a gallery shelf also filled with drag-queen lavish tinfoil crowns and glowing chalices, reminding us that the artist’s staunch Catholicism informs his ability to marry reverence and magic with kitsch, camp with optimism.
His colleague John Evans, an old friend of both Ray Johnson and Alice Neel, has earned his insider reputation as a more traditional collage maker akin to Schwitters. For almost 40 years this South Dakota native has taken it upon himself to make "daily collages." The book-page-sized results employ relics and fragments retrieved from life’s little incidents and accidents. He deftly transformed ticket stubs, bits of bills, menus, old prints and magazine ads, stickers, bar coasters, playing cards and cancelled stamps, flyers and other ephemera into meticulously composed elegies encapsulating lost time.
Another variety of romantic innocence, very West Coast, surfaces in Robert Kinmont’s virtually unknown work. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Lucy Lippard classified Kinmont as a conceptual artist just about the time he decided to stop making art, disappear into rural Northern California, raise his children and build his own school, which he called Coyote. By 1978 he had closed the school and moved to Santa Rosa, where he worked as a carpenter for 20 years. This is a guy who meditated, loved the wilderness, and who, like a Zen master, once taught his students about human creativity by cooking breakfast for them over a camp stove set up on the floor of their art school classroom. Though he’s been back in the studio since 2005, basically Kinmont took a 30-year-long break from making art. Rediscovered at age 72, his show at Alexander and Bonin is his first ever solo exhibition.
All Kinmont’s work, old and new, has a resolutely handmade, spiritual feel and an intimate connection with nature. His sculptures play off the notion of a displaced habitat, combining whittled twigs, l logs, boards and wood chips, radiating gentle ruminations, and they are ultimately are slight as art. But his black and white photo pieces are wonderful. 8 Natural Handstands (1967), a series of eight images of the artist standing on his head at different wilderness sites -- cliffs, desert, forest, mountain -- radiate a humble charm that segues to some profound thoughts about balance, man and nature. My Favorite Dirt Roads (1969/2008) is an autobiographical meditation made of 16 11-inch square photos, each of a different peaceful dirt country road stretching straight back into the distance, simultaneously evoking personal memory while suggesting to the viewer adventure and expanded perception. Just About the Right Size (1970/2008) is Kinmont’s little gem of deadpan wit. Here are nine photos of the overall-clad, splendidly hirsute hairy artist holding ordinary objects -- a rock, a bunch of flowers, a milk carton or a board -- indicating that whatever it is, Kinmont is telling us that it’s just right (and that he knew how to riff on Ed Ruscha).
Uptown, the exuberant photographs of another famously innocent spirit, the dependably magical Jacques Henri Lartigue (1896-1986), whose work hardly, if ever, looks stale, is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery. With this first New York exhibition of pictures by this French national treasure in nearly a decade, the gallery scored something of a coup in getting hold of vintage images from the collection of the artist’s widow. (Florette, who died in 2000, left her estate to The Association of des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue, which is supervised by the French Ministry of Culture).
Lartigue first picked up the camera when he was barely six, and had made some of his most iconic images by the time he was ten. He gleefully created a photographic diary, catching his friends and wealthy family unawares or at play in a world that now seems forever young and forever fun -- here they are, still running and jumping, racing homemade soap box cars, building kites, playing tennis, flying gliders and airplanes, ice skating, sashaying across the lawns and smoking cigarettes. Entranced with the new age of speed and motion, he also adored locomotives, auto races and horse racing. Seeing Lartigue’s familiar pictures of various people jumping across puddles and down flights of steps, dogs being flung across brooks, people in hats, beautiful women and a little group inflating a hot air balloon in an apartment courtyard is like running into a happy bunch of old friends.
The exhibition gives us another chance to experience the spontaneity of his vision and his lack of self-consciousness. Lartigue’s freshness is a gust of fresh air, especially when I compare his small black-and-white vintage prints to the ubiquitous, giant digital images now saturating photography shows. These are the effervescent pictures Lartigue pasted into his huge albums, not the blown-up, more standardized reprints of the images produced under license in the 1970s routinely appearing at the photo fairs. Why is it no surprise that Lartigue’s son Dany collected butterflies and is a major patron of the excellent butterfly museum in St. Tropez?
"Dormitorium: Film Decors of the Quay Brothers," July 15-Aug. 4, 2009, at Parsons The New School for Design, Fifth Avenue and West 13th Street, New York, N.Y., and Oct. 24-Dec. 13, 2009, at the Barron and Ellin Gordon Art Gallery, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.
"Tenement Symphony: John Evans and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt," Sept. 10-Oct. 10, 2009, at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, 533 West 23 Street, New York, N.Y.
Robert Kinmont, Sept. 11-Oct. 17, 2009, at Alexander and Bonin, 123 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y.
"Jacques Henry Lartigue, A New Paradise, Vintage and Early Prints from the Collection of Jacques and Florette Lartigue," Sept. 11-Oct. 24, 2009, at Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 East 57 Street, New York, N.Y.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic and historian who lives and works in New York. She can be reached at Aspivy@gmail.com.