The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

Mingei: Are You Here?

On View
Pace Gallery
March 7 – April 5, 2014
New York

After a full week of helter-skelter sprints through eye-numbing mounds of maze-like fairs blistering not only my feet but also my admittedly limited ability to grasp the myriad aesthetic sensibilities of artists young, old, and dead, I had a Keatsian moment of Pacific pure serenity when silent, within a Chelsea gallery, I stared at Nicolas Trembley’s perfectly curated show, Mingei: Are You Here? I would like to exercise the ad hoc critic’s prerogative of identifying some outlying decision, mediocre choice, modest object, or other disruption in the Force of the show, but I cannot. In its essence, this intensely installed presentation of 80 works by 30 artists placed in a u-shaped, multi-tiered, and relatively small side gallery within the Pace Empire tonically embodies a refreshing counterpoint to exhibitions over-laden with theory.

Unknown, ink stone for calligraphy and painting, 1850-1890 (Late Edo - Early Meiji), slate 1-3/16" x 9-13/16" x 5-7/8". Photo courtesy Pace Gallery.

While there is, of course, a unifying theme to the show—concisely stated to be the contrasting interplay between the traditional craftsmanship of the Japanese Mingei movement and the practice of contemporary artists—the theme arises out of the objects themselves rather than being superimposed by the curator. In other words, the installation reflects the same sensibility and indeed the same epistemology found in Allen Ginsburg’s observation in Wales Visitation: “What did I notice? Particulars! The vision of the great One is myriad—”

Thus Mr. Trembley—who first presented this show at Pace’s gallery in London, but with fewer artists—allows us the justice of lingering over each object without the gallery space itself being burdened with labels or explanatory materials; of stepping back to see each object in the context of its immediately adjacent neighbors; of expanding our view up from one stepped-tier to another to the wall and then to all three sides of the installation thus to encompass the multiple rhythms of Mingei and its friends and heirs. And there is no set or fixed starting point to the installation.

So, for example, we might start with the modestly-sized ink stone from the Edo –Meijei Period in the late 19th century, purposed for calligraphy, that sits on one of the horizontal platforms in the show and then turn to Trisha Donnelly’s 2013 work, a 7’ by 5’ slab of blue-green stone that dominates one wall. Either could have been a century old; either could have been newly-crafted; both elicit warmth from cold stone; both are disarmingly peaceful and elegant.

N. Dash, Untitled, 2014. Adobe, pigment, acrylic, linen, jute, wood support 51" x 87". Photo courtesy Pace Gallery.

Or we might start with an indigo-dyed cotton textile work from the early or mid-20th century and turn to N. Dash’s linen, acrylic, jute, adobe, and wood wall piece from 2014. Again, neither is “dated” and neither is wholly new; both embrace but at the same time reconfigure ancient materials; and yet both are also sustained by care and simplicity, hallmarks of Mingei practice. To take yet another example—and I am being far from exhaustive, just trying to convey something of the otherwise unconveyable complexity of the installation—we might survey the multitude of ceramic works in the show, ranging from two delicately-glazed, slightly asymmetrical sake containers from the 16th century Momoyama Period, to Bernard Leach’s mid-’50s deep-toned black and brown vase, to Valentin Carron’s two 2013 concrete pots, or to Peter Müller’s 36 porcelain vases designed for Sgrafo Modern’s Korallen Series between 1960 and 1980.

Unknown, Ceramic sake container (funatokkuri), Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603). Bizen ceramic with green natural glaze, 11-13/16" x 11". Photo courtesy Pace London Montgomery Collection.

The idea of juxtaposing “crafted” works or found objects with those of modern or contemporary artists is not itself novel, of course. Just think of the recent, nicely-chosen pairings of Shaker and contemporary materials at Jeff Bailey Gallery. But there the Shaker pieces were always clearly Shaker pieces and the separation of time periods and artistic touch was evident, even though the one might be redolent of the other or enhance and enable our perceptions of the various works. Think also of the Barnes Collection in that light. What is so rare about Mingei: Are You Here? is that the relationships among the scores of disparate types and textures appear to be so seamless; and that the purported distinction between “art” and “craft” dissolves so easily. Sure, Jasper Morrison would not have been fabricating Alessi tin boxes for family kitchens in the 16th century just as the anonymous Momoyama tray-maker wouldn’t have had the tools to construct a plywood chair like that designed by the architect Kenzo Tange in 1957. But that’s not the point—it’s that a respect for the inherent color, texture, and weight of the materials used and a devotion to formal harmony shine through relentlessly in the haptic genius of each artist working at each of these several moments in time.

508 West 25th Street, New York


Michael Straus

Michael Straus is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail, a member of its Advisory board, and Chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues