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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Imitating the Primitive Art

primitive artphoto Michael Oliver /courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery 
A Songye-style Kifwebe mask (late 19th/early 20th century) from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A lively new gallery show takes its inspiration from a MoMA exhibit that made primitivism taboo for 20 years, David Cohen writes.

BY DAVID COHEN, January 4, 2007 found at: 

Whatever you do with "primitive" art will get you in trouble, and putting the word in quotes won't help.

Value a totem pole, mask, or "fetish" (there we go again with the quote marks) as an essay in pure form and you will be accused of cultural imperialism. Provide anthropological context, however, and you are just as likely to incite ire for applying different standards to non-Western and Western culture.

In 1984, William Rubin mounted a fiercely controversial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled "‘Primitivism' in 20th Century Art" that explored affinities between modern art and the "tribal." Artists from Gauguin and Picasso to Pollock and Smithson were juxtaposed with artifacts from Africa, Polynesia, and the Americas that could be demonstrated to have influenced them.

Some critics went bananas over the hubris of consigning half the population of the planet to a nebulous, ahistorical, decontextualized category of "the other." Far from opening floodgates of thinking and research, the MoMA show made primitivism taboo for 20 years.

Now, an exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery reopens the file. "Primitivism Revisited: After the End of an Idea" — curated by 18 graduate students of Susan Vogel, professor of African Art at Columbia University and founder and former director of the Museum for African Art — adds a lively twist to the issue of how we think about African art. But it is just as likely to exasperate as earlier explorers of this intellectual "dark continent."

Conceptually, this show likes to have its cake and eat it. Like the term "postmodern," the subtitle "After the End of an Idea" entitles users to the benefits of a category they profess to have moved beyond. The show brings together examples of African art from private collections with the work of selected contemporary artists, most of them white and none of them active in Africa. It pairs them under headings such as "Manufacturing Authenticity" and "Imagining Another."

In some instances, the contemporary artists are consciously at play with African forms and ideas, but generally the affinities are the gift of the curators. (Each subsection is the work of a pair of students). Ironically, this approach based on content is more intuitive and whimsical than Rubin's fastidiously historical approach had been, even though MoMA was criticized for its formalism.

Key moments in the history of the idea of Primitivism are presented as wall signage, arranged anticlockwise, from the foundation of the British Museum in 1753 to the opening earlier this year of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. It touches on events such as Picasso's visit to the Trocadéro when he was working on the "Demoiselles d'Avignon" in 1907, the publication of Robert Goldwater's book "Primitivism and Modern Art," and the opening of Rubin's exhibition. Amid fine carvings as diverse culturally as an Ethiopian cutting board, a Baule-style spirit wife from the Ivory Coast, a Songye mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and objects from Gabon and Malawi hangs "The Velocity of Drops: Dispensary " (2003). This is a sequence of four photographs by Christine Borland, in which are shown splayed watermelons dropped in various rooms of a Victorian gothic palace.

Nestling up to Ms. Borland's piece are David Doris's journalistic photographs of a Yoruba assemblage ritual known as Ààlè that puts together incongruous objects (eggs and chilies, a palm frond and seapods) as warnings to protect valuables from thieving spirits. The implication, perhaps, is that those of us enjoying the eclectic display of African carvings are such spirits ourselves.

Carolee Schneemann's 1975 performance "Interior Scroll" is represented in a hallway by the typed scroll the naked artist extracted from her vagina and read to the audience, as well as photographic documentation of the event. A primitive act by many standards, the work is included, the wall text implies, to drive home how inscrutable these artifacts (photos, scroll) would be without background knowledge.

Similarly, in the section titled "A Different Affinity," a set of "pillows" in Obsidian quartz by Marina Abramovic from 1994 are presented next to Zulu and Tsonga headrests. The curatorial text contends that Ms. Abramovic's piece requires explanation as surely as the African works. Whatever their formal, sculptural qualities, the quartz headrests derive their value from use — the artist says she believes "sympathetic magic" arises from the materials — as surely as the African ones. The section is compromised by Robert Mapplethorpe's "Grace Jones" (1984), in which the performer was painted in "tribal" stripes by Keith Haring: The cultural context was pretty obvious, and an explanation is hardly an excuse.

At times, for all their critical theory smarts, the curators trade in highly clichéd notions of the primitive. Take their inclusion of Young British Artist Sarah Lucas's "Nude #1" (1999), in which a cheap table is "dressed" in a vest and knickers, into which are inserted a toilet brush and coconuts as sexual signifiers. There is little formal wit in the piece: Its prurience and banality are not so much primitive means to erotic expression as ends in themselves, meant to signal Ms. Lucas's status as an art-world bad girl. It would be downright offensive to think that African art is needed as a context or precedent for this prank.

This show has moments when, for all the high-blown language of the wall texts, it seems as if the curators are preparing an introduction to Western art for an African audience. "Imagining Another" finds contemporary company for a pair of Baule spirit spouses from the Ivory Coast. These fetishes relate to a belief that when we are born we leave a doppelgänger in another world whose spirit requires appeasement not to haunt us. They are placed with various instances of art about desired but distant others: Elizabeth Peyton's "Piotr" (2003), a langorous, very large (for her) male portrait at 7 feet wide; Thomas Ruff's deliberately blurred, oversized photograph of a pornographic picture; one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's piles of candy that generally commemorate lost friends, and a little John Currin painting, "Tropical Hospital" (1998), of a medic ogling a big-busted nurse.

Choosing the Baule spirit spouse as the connector of such disparate contemporary images has, in its humanistic, slightly fey way, a romantic charm. It's as if to say that aesthetically, as genetically, we are all Africans.

Until January 27 (528 W. 29th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-239-1181).


primitivism revisited





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