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The Chelsea gallerist Jack Shainman boasts a roster that stands out amid the often homogeneous New York art scene: largely nonwhite, with a strong collective zeal for interrogating racial and political history. It was Shainman who for twenty-five years patiently shepherded the career of visionary Black painter Kerry James Marshall, consecrated by last year’s triumphant Met Breuer retrospective. Nick Cave, El Anatsui, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are among the gallery’s stars, making it a player not just in the market, but in expanding and decolonizing the canon.
This season, Shainman has organized a museum-scale exhibition at The School, his upstate annex in Kinderhook, that proposes an even more fundamental challenge: to our habits of viewing. In “The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness,” works by contemporary artists Shainman represents and by others he admires mix with selections from his private collection — built with Claude Simard, the gallery’s co-founder, who died in 2014 — from Spanish baroque to minimalism to African statuary. Walls or whole rooms display works of disparate origin and technique nonetheless linked by some formal, thematic, or emotional quality. Shainman invited a few artists — Toyin Ojih Odutola, Titus Kaphar, Becky Suss, Carlos Vega — to make work in reply to specific items in the collection; these call-and-response pairings are presented as well.
“In contemporary art we’re so used to the way we look at things, sometimes it’s hard for people to look at the old art,” Shainman said on a recent day at The School. “I like putting things together that are normally not seen together.” Since opening the Federal Revival space, a former elementary school, in 2014, he has presented his artists at grand scale: Cave in 2014, Anatsui in 2015, four simultaneous solo shows last year. This time the main voice is his own — less as gallerist, more as collector and curator. “Part of it is about juxtapositions,” he said. “And part is about the joy of collecting art and living with art.”
There’s a lot to take in. Three custom coffins by Ghanaian artist Paa Joe sit in the main space; they give the show its name and moral center. Paa Joe’s clients often order caskets shaped like animals or luxury items; these, however, are models of forts where colonizers ran the slave trade, from a set that Simard commissioned. Above them is Anatsui’s Gravity and Grace, a magisterial 36-foot sculpture of bottle caps and copper wire. Across is a wall-size work by painter Nina Chanel Abney that depicts square, stylized Black protesters and colorful placards on a bright-yellow background. The works form an axis, jaunty beauty from somber themes. But others surround them: Mossi and Lobi carvings; charcoal studies by Marshall; an eighteenth-century Coronation of Saint Gertrude; twentieth-century paintings by Paterson Ewen, Claude Tousignant, and Deborah Remington that share prominent circle shapes. They complicate the panorama, and open fresh paths for the eye.
The juxtapositions unfold over three floors, shuffling 199 works per Shainman’s insight and whimsy. (Another 56 are in a tight-packed Manhattan offshoot of the exhibition, with a shorter run.) Three portraits share a kindred expression; one is by Harlem Renaissance artist Beauford Delaney, one a Max Beckmann woodcut, one a self-portrait by Central African Republic-based photographer Samuel Fosso. Three recent works — a painting of a pumpkin by John Morra, a mandala-like sculpture by Ross Rudel, a crime scene photograph by Deborah Luster — line up with a Rajasthani drawing: All focus the eye on a circular motif. One wall is hung with two dozen items including African masks, Indian statuettes, and photographs by Aaron Siskind, Nan Goldin, Jimmy De Sana.
“It’s an exuberant experience,” says conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, who has shown with Shainman all his career. That feeling flows from Shainman himself, who brims with enthusiasm as he takes visitors around. The Virgin of the Silence, a seventeenth-century work attributed to Juan Sánchez Cotán, is next to a dark, dense monochrome by Milton Resnick. “I find her so beautiful, and Jesus is so happy and sleeping like a baby,” Shainman remarked. “I put Resnick there because for me, his pieces are sublime and spiritual.” The same room has urns from Niger, a cloth painting of Krishna and his consorts, a mirror self-portrait by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Afro Goddess Looking Forward, a recent, rhinestone-studded painting by Mickalene Thomas. “I borrowed this from Mickalene,” Shainman said, “because I wanted a powerful woman of color presiding over this room.”
“The Coffins…” is nearly overwhelming, but in a sense it needs to be. The experience carries a political charge by scrambling the visitor’s categories. “It may seem like there’s a lot packed in, but there are so many intricate patterns and connections,” says Ojih Odutola, who first exhibited at the gallery in 2011 and has a solo at the Whitney this fall. “The experience is of seeing the voices of disparate artists on the same plane, on equal footing.”
The call-and-response pairs, scattered around the show, put this ethos into practice. Ojih Odutola chose San Andrés, a sixteenth-century painting attributed to the Master of Becerril. Her response, The Apostle (Jiji ewa), shares its form and scale; but in lieu of the male saint, with his air of doctrinal certainty, she has a Black woman with an expression of doubt. “To place these two figures together I hoped would spark a dialogue about power and certainty,” Ojih Odutola says. Kaphar and Vega both selected Spanish-baroque pieces. Suss, whose signature is still, flat-perspective interiors, picked an Indian miniature; she made In Memoriam (for Emily) to honor a friend who gave her a similar piece, which she reproduces, now even smaller, within her painting.
Also lurking in “The Coffins…” is the deepest juxtaposition: that of life and death. As Shainman put it, “As you experience friends and colleagues dying, you start thinking of your own mortality and this idea of life cycles.” Appropriately, The School houses a small shrine to Simard, who was Shainman’s life partner for many years and remained his business partner after that; the show also features work from Barkley L. Hendricks and Malick Sidibé, whom Shainman represented and who passed away recently. And, of course, Paa Joe’s coffins engage death directly; their slave-fort theme speaks to spirits separated from bodies in trauma, and unfinished accountings.
At The School that day, a cloud traversed Shainman’s expression but passed quickly. Raised in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts, he has made his own cyclical connection to the land that shaped him. “Every time I come here, I can’t believe we did it,” he said. “I’m still enjoying that joy.”
Among the area’s art destinations, The School eludes category. For now, that’s liberating. “It honors the work in a very different way,” says Hank Willis Thomas, who likes the place so much that he held his wedding there. “I don’t know what the plan is long term, but there’s so much to give.”
“The Coffins of Paa Joe and The Pursuit of Happiness” continues at The School, Kinderhook, New York, through New Year’s (open Saturdays only); and at Jack Shainman Gallery, 524 West 24th Street, through August 25. Info: jackshainman.com.