The New York Times
ART & DESIGN | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK
Contemporary Art Steams Up the Hudson
Not your mother’s house tour: This summer has brought a bounty of artwork to Catskill, Hudson, Cold Spring and beyond
By NANCY PRINCENTHAL
AUG. 24, 2017
CATSKILL, N.Y. — Marveling at oak galls, the glossy little tree growths that have been used since antiquity to produce a rich red ink, the artist Kiki Smith observed recently: “There’s a tremendous generosity in nature. There are so many gifts there, for free.” She added that it was “like SoHo in the ’70s, when there was all this industrial stuff lying around on Canal Street.”
For the last eight years, Ms. Smith, who has a gift for spotting expressive wealth in overlooked resources, whether they’re urban or rural, material or psychological, has been living nearly full time in Catskill, a couple of hours’ drive north of New York City.
She is not alone. Many artists, squeezed by relentless increases in real estate prices, are heading to these hills. So are exhibition venues. Since the Dia Art Foundation opened its Beacon branch in an old factory in 2003, both nonprofit and commercial art spaces have proliferated in the Hudson Valley. This summer has summoned a bounty of artwork to Catskill, Hudson, Cold Spring and beyond. Here is what I sampled recently.
I started at the 1815 residence of the Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, in Catskill (it sits just across the river from Olana, a popular Moorish Victorian house built by his successor Frederic Church). Ms. Smith’s home, part of which dates to 1690, is a short walk from Cole’s, and a few of his landscapes — reproductions are now on view — feature small renderings of it. So it made perfect sense that the Cole curator, Kate Menconeri, invited Ms. Smith to place work in and around the historic site for its second annual open house exhibition. Most of the work was made since her move upstate; none has been shown to better advantage.
Ms. Smith’s sympathies have long traveled in the border zones between the applied and the fine arts — she has twice previously integrated her work with historic homes and their furnishings, once in Venice and once in Krefeld, Germany. Glimpsed on entry at the Cole house is “Congregation,” a tapestry in a stairwell picturing a nude girl sitting demurely on a downed tree. A rain of twigs and branches streams from her eyes and fractures the surface, which is dotted with woodland creatures. (Like the other tapestries here, it was woven, with stunning subtlety, by the studio Magnolia Editions.) Ms. Smith lost 150 trees in Hurricane Irene. She says her backyard looked like a giant had been playing pickup sticks. Here, the debris creates a forbidding kind of radiance.
“Singer,” a cast-aluminum sculpture shown in a spare room on the ground floor, portrays a girl standing at attention and proffering a bouquet of silk flowers. The bouquet is wired to one hand; the other hand is rigidly raised. Ms. Smith said she was thinking of the little girl in Picasso’s bullfight images who holds out an appeasing bunch of flowers, and of Elie Nadelman’s folk-art-inspired sculptures. But the most evocative connection Ms. Smith named was to the early-19th-century liturgical tradition of shape-note singing, in which congregants chant, forcefully — it is more shout than song — hymns notated with simple geometric shapes. The raised arm of Ms. Smith’s singer echoes the tradition’s stern gesture for marking a beat. The girl’s expression, too, is stern: hers is a chastening innocence. One feels a connection to Cole’s vision of the American landscape, a Romantic construction to be sure, but less keyed to operatic drama than that of the Hudson River School’s next generation.
On a landing are several etchings, one of a handsome turkey and the others of crystals. Cole, like Ms. Smith, was a rock collector, and his collection is on view in an adjacent room. In Cole’s bedroom is a digital print, from an iPhone photo of Ms. Smith hanging her head upside down over a sofa; her flowing hair is overdrawn in white ink to suggest the nearby Kaaterskill Falls. Two aluminum chairs leaning into each other echo the lone outdoor sculpture: two upturned aluminum chairs, a pair of birds perched on one, suspended from a walnut tree.
In the sitting room are “Tiller,” a bronze sculpture of a maple sapling springing from a tree stump, and another bronze, “Phantom,” of a single stem issuing from a downed limb: death generating life. Nearby is Ms. Smith’s crystal sculpture of dandelions under a bell jar. If things get a little precious here, and again in the nursery, where Ms. Smith has fashioned covers for a crib and a bed and stocked them with cloth dolls, such moments are few.
Ms. Smith is still best known for her early, harrowing portrayals of human bodies, but she has long favored nature’s bounty. Skeptics have dismissed this turn as sentimental, a term that has become a dirty word for tenderness. In any case her fairy-tale characters — wolves and girls, bats and fawns — are wired in all of us, deep and dark, and Ms. Smith does their complexity full justice. Now 63, she began her career in the late 1970s as a member of Colab, a lively collaborative group that contested the premium on individual mastery, and she remains fundamentally committed to its ethic. Nothing in this installation was achieved in one go, by one hand. Working by choice with skilled artisans, Ms. Smith looks outward — to nature, to history, to a community of makers — with illuminating acuity.
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