Friday, August 27, 2010

The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present

photo by Agustin Casasola, 1910

“The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present”*
The DuSable Museum, through Nov. 14

Returning to Chicago following a nationwide tour that began four years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, this didactic exhibit might be considered a commendable promotion of ethnic harmony between African American and Hispanic populations. Using photographs, reproductions of art from the colonial era, and contemporary arts and crafts, the exhibition documents the African presence in Mexico over the past five centuries. But, unfortunately, this exhibit is less about African culture than about identifiable African facial features. As Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post has noted “And so the exhibition becomes a game: Find the African identity. This puts the viewer in the strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of looking for blackness in the faces of strangers, in images of people who would not necessarily consider their African descent of much importance, but who would, in this country, be labeled "black.”” But is that really a game we want to continue playing? And what is really the benefit of presenting a one-sided historical argument, including, for example, many pieces by the prominent African –American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett just because she happened to move to Mexico ? While the other contemporary arts and crafts on display don’t seem to rise above either the folkloric happy-talk of the paintings by Aydee Rodriguez Lopez or the angry bombast of the woodcuts by Mario Guzman Oliveres. ( Where, again, the primary connection to Africa is skin tone and other facial features.) Like the Dusable Museum’s animatronic Harold Washington, this exhibit seems mostly to have been targeted at school children. But shouldn’t even school children be encouraged to take both history and art a bit more seriously?

National Self-Portrait Show at 33 Collective Gallery

Adam Bock

6th Annual National Self-Portrait Exhibition, through August 16, 33 Collective Gallery

Self absorption has got to be a prerequisite for becoming an artist in our day and age, so why not kick-start some careers by posting an invitation on the internet and to art schools around the country, for an exhibit of self portraits. Sergio Gomez of 33 Collective Gallery has been doing this for six years now. All of the submissions are posted on his website, and every year a curator is chosen to select about 50 pieces for display in his gallery, tucked away in back of the Zhao B. Art Center in Bridgeport. The results are wacky, fun, challenging, dreadful, and sometimes surprising. The guest curator for this year’s show was Tami Miller, from the Krasl Art Center in St Joseph, Michigan. As she notes, she was looking for “a diversity of visual languages, mediums, and forms”. But the classical realists, as well as the followers of any non-modern tradition are noticeably absent. And nowhere can be found the image of an artist who has presented him/her self as relaxed, erudite, or sophisticated. Today’s emerging artists are more likely to depict themselves as desperate, determined, dangerous, angry, goofy, or bored – and definitely with attitude. Of special note is the work of recent Northwestern graduate, Jason John, who was selected for a gallery award, and who has that old-fashioned ability to make a convincing representation with brushes instead of pixels. Every year a few paintings get sold and the artists pay a submission fee, so the gallery does receive some compensation for the effort. But this should probably considered ongoing research rather than a commercial project. How do the brave, bright young people who want to be artists today see themselves? And will the character of the self images change over the many years that Sergio will continue to run this project? It’s all on the internet , so take a look for yourself.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

19th C. tile

text from the "Survey of Persian Art"

The 10th C. bowl
pictured and discussed above

I may have gotten a bit carried away by this project,
writing four reviews
none of which the editor
saw fit to publish.

Was the show too modest?
Was my reaction too immoderate?


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art
Art Institute, through Oct. 3

The most important thing about this exhibit is its diminutive size, reflecting the relative insignificance that Persian, and indeed all Islamic, art has had in the history of the Art Institute of Chicago, in sharp contrast, say, to its interest in the arts of Japan. Back in 1925, Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965), a former Berkeley professor of Aesthetics who became something of an aesthetic activist, began his spectacular career in Persian art by lecturing the soon-to-be crowned founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and his court about the glories of 2500 years of Persian civilization.

 The new regime locked onto this as a source for a new, secular, nationalistic pride, and Pope’s lecture was immediately translated and distributed to schools throughout the kingdom. Within a year, there was a revival of Persian architecture and handicrafts, and five years later, the Shah managed to  end  the monopoly which France had been enjoying over Iranian archaeology. Thus one could credit Arthur Pope with the priceless collection of ancient Persian artifacts that was soon unearthed by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Pope also exploited his extensive contacts with bureaucrats as well as dealers to serve as a commission buyer of antiquities for several American museums, including the Art Institute, for which he held title of “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” for the next ten years.

 But judging from the minimal size and quality of this exhibition, most of his effort went elsewhere, including the mounting of blockbuster Persian shows in London, New York, and Leningrad, the founding of his “Asia Institute” in New York, and the publication of his 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art”. All done by a man who could not read Farsi, had no degrees in art history, and had to earn or beg for the necessary funding. The one bright spot in this disappointing exhibition (which features not a single miniature painting or carpet) is the curator’s emphasis on Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) work, which Pope had mostly neglected, possibly for political reasons. But any exhibit is better than none, and incredibly enough, the A.I.C. has never had a special exhibit of Persian art, beyond just the collections of one or two individuals. Much credit should go to the current director’s special emphasis on encyclopedic world art and maximizing the display of the museum’s own collection. But this is an area of that collection which has been sadly neglected.


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

As Japanese born curator, Dr. Yuka Kadoi, has noted “ the AIC's Islamic art collection is not so well-known, compared with MET, Freer/Sackler, and LACMA, for instance, but Pope's involvement in the museum collection development is quite unique”

So this exhibit has more historical text than Persian miniatures or carpets up on its walls. (indeed, it has no miniatures or carpets at all,). And the point which that text would like to make is that a “new survey of Persian Art” should give greater emphasis to the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) than Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965) had done back when he was the first (and only) “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” at the Art Institute (1925-1935). Which point is well taken since Pope was personally connected to the military leader who ended the Qajar dynasty to become Shah Reza Pahlavi, and Pahlavi’s son would eventually invite Pope and his wife to live in Shiraz and bury them in a magnificent mausoleum. But the Qajar work on display in this exhibit hardly recommends itself for special attention, though, come to think of it, none of earlier ceramics in the exhibit can compare with the Plotnick collection that was on display at the AIC in 2007. So why is the museum’s collection so modest when Pope must have given it so many good opportunities? Or more importantly, why has the museum never followed Pope’s example and gathered together a blockbuster exhibit of Persian art from museums and private collections around the world? There is no doubt that this exhibit raises many interesting questions about the politics and morality of archeology and the international antiquities market in the early 20th Century. It was an “Indiana Jones” kind of world, and Pope had to stare down his share of angry Mullahs, competing archeologists, rioting crowds, and desert bandits while driving on camel-track roads and flying in death-trap airplanes. But there’s not really very much worth seeing, and not even a single one of Pope’s 10,000 photographs that he made to document the great mosques and palaces of Iran. And that would have concerned an aesthete (and designer) like Arthur Upham Pope much more than it apparently concerns the kind of art scholarship being practiced today.

Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

One of the primary functions of an encyclopedic art museum, like the Art Institute of Chicago, is to promote respect and admiration for cultures other than our own, a function that is especially important when international conflicts arise that tend to demonize perceived opponents. So much credit has to be given to any exhibit that focuses on Islamic art. But the A.I.C.’s permanent collection of Islamic art is so modest that it would hardly qualify as even an ethnographic display at the Field Museum of Natural History. No wonder, that when it was decided to give that permanent collection a special exhibit in Regenstein Hall, it was also decided to focus attention on the man responsible for beginning it, Arthur Upham Pope, rather than the collection itself. Pope (1881-1965) remains something of a super-star in Iranian art history, primarily for his 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art” that he and his wife organized in the 1930’s. He also was closely connected to the Pahlavi dynasty that seized control of Iran in 1925, and effectively opened the country up for American archeologists and museums. In his hey-day, he claimed, without dispute, that he had the first right of refusal for 80% of every Persian antiquity that entered the market. So the Art Institute seems to have wisely appointed him the “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” from 1925-1935. Except that it does not appear that the museum bought much art from him, including any of the 10,000 photographs that he took to document Islamic architecture. Nor, are subsequent acquisitions very impressive, even if they include some pieces from the Qajar Dynasty(1794-1925) which Pope might have rejected out of respect for his patrons, the Pahlavis, who overthrew it. So this is possibly not the best collection to accompany an examination of “The aesthetic criteria that Pope, his wife, and his contemporary colleagues established for the assessing the importance of cultural remains from Modern Iran, Western Afghanistan etc”, which is, purportedly, the purpose of this exhibition. And above all his other scholarly, diplomatic, academic, and business ventures, Pope was an aesthete/designer who, according to another leading scholar, Cary Welch, “experienced works of art more than he studied them”. So this modest exhibit is hardly a fitting tribute to either him or the world of Islamic art. Those interested in the fascinating life and times of Arthur Upham Pope are encouraged to read “Surveyors of Persian Art” by Jay Gluck and Noel Silver. And those interested in seeing Persian art, are encouraged to fly to New York.


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art
Art Institute, through Oct. 3

Dr. Yuka Kadoi, the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago, was given a stiff challenge for the first exhibit that she would ever curate in a major museum: how to celebrate the re-installation of the museum’s rather modest collection of Islamic art. How can a curator highlight a collection that doesn’t have any highlights? Her solution was to focus on Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965), whose 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art” made him an icon in the field back in the 1930’s, a period when he also was serving as “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” at the Art Institute. But how can you tell the story of such an incredible, controversial, and unlikely scholar in the limited text that can be mounted on the wall of a gallery? Pope began his career as a professor of aesthetics at Berkley. And since he never got a PHD, that position must have relied upon his extraordinary ability as a lecturer. As a former director of the Met once said “I know of no man who could so quickly talk one into – or out of a thing” He was fired from the university when he divorced his wife to run off with one of his brightest students, Phyllis Ackerman (who would also become a noted art historian as his assistant). And so began his career that included consulting on the purchase of antique carpets, designing hotels, mounting photographic expeditions throughout Iran, compiling scholarship, founding the Asia Institute in NYC, and eventually being honored by the last Shah of Iran with a magnificent mausoleum in Isfahan. Controversies include accusations that he was working with dealers and that he was unconcerned with the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities. You can’t tell such a story in 1000 words. So this exhibition comes up short. But it does have some interesting aspects, including the display of an ornamented bowl side-by-side with the explanatory page from Pope’s “Survey”, and the display of several pieces from the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) which Pope possibly had neglected since he had such strong connection to the Pahlavi dynasty that overthrew it. It is the role of an encyclopedic art museum, to enable the public to respect and appreciate other cultures, and unfortunately Chicago has not assembled a good collection of Islamic art. But perhaps this exhibit will highlight that fact and draw more attention, and funding, to that meeting that need.