UES Shapolsky Gallery Hangs Painter Russell Connor’s History of Art

By Ashley Chappo | 05/22/2015 2.12pm
Introducing Americans to the art canon.
Are Americans uneducated in art and art history?

According to Anita Shapolsky, owner of the Anita Shapolsky Gallery on the Upper East Side, the answer is a resounding yes.

Even in a city like New York, one of the international art capitals of the world, Ms. Shapolsky sees what she terms a “widespread lack of proficiency” in art and art history among the American public. Americans, she argues, can’t even point out the most famous masters like Manet or Rembrandt and are remiss to identify prominent masterpieces like Guernica or Girl with a Pearl Earring.

To address this shortcoming, Ms. Shapolsky has detoured briefly from her gallery’s specialization in Abstract Expressionism for the presentation of a new exhibit that highlights the art canon and brings together four artists known for studying their predecessors.

The exhibit, entitled Past and Present Perfect, runs through June 13 at the gallery on East 65th St. The focus of gallery is the solo show of Russell Connor, the Whitney Museum’s director of education and a Yale-educated American painter known for his “Master in Pieces” series that juxtapose famous masterpieces and their subjects on a single canvas.

In his painting War and Peace, one of his personal favorites, the artist deals with the theme of war, inspired in 2006 by President George Bush’s war in Iraq. In the painting, Mr. Connor rescued Suzon, the barmaid from Edourd Manet’s last masterpiece, The Bar at the Folie-Bergere, and moved her in front of Picasso’s painting of atrocity, Guernica.

“I called it War and Peace because I thought after all of the crimes I committed, why not steal the title from Mr. Tolstoy,” joked Mr. Connor.

Mr. Connor formerly trained under the Bauhaus master Josef Albers, but he also worked various jobs that for several years led him away from painting. After joining the Whitney Museum of American Art, he began painting again by copying old masters. When he grew tired of that, he turned to appropriation and took up creating new compositions and narratives based on the canon. A self-described “marriage broker” of art, Mr. Connor spends many hours scouring art history textbooks looking for what master works he can combine.

In his series of paintings called The Art Lover series, Mr. Connor adopted the disciple from Caravaggio’s famous painting, The Supper at Emmaus, and took him on a tour of the modern art world.

“This guy is astonished by everything,” said Mr. Connor. “Understandably by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, which he jokingly proposed as a piece of sculpture in an exhibition that turned him down.” The art lover is even seen in several subsequent paintings reacting to the work of Jeff Koons.

While Mr. Connor’s work highlights the canon, the three prominent younger artists, whose work is displayed in the upstairs gallery, are meant to invigorate the crowd. Together, all four will hopefully educate. Rather than reading Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition or heading back to school for an art history degree, Ms. Shapolsky wants her visitors to understand that art history is alive and present, ready to be absorbed and examined.

At an artist talk on Wed. night, Mr. Connor led visitors around the gallery, painting by painting, discussing with a strike of humor the genesis of each work. There were laughs all around as Mr. Connor quipped about his days as the writer and host of a televised gallery talk at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“We have the master downstairs and the accolades upstairs doing their work with different fabrics and materials,” said Ms. Shapolsky about the gallery’s newest exhibition. “There is a very good dichotomy in this exhibit. I think this is a wonderful show for New York.”

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Illustration by Tiffany Fang

‘Past and Present Perfect’ blends modern, classic art by Columbia Daily Spectator

What’s the difference between a Manet and a Goya? Anita Shapolsky Gallery’s show, “Past & Present Perfect,” seeks to capture the lack of proficiency in art history, bringing together four artists of vastly different styles and varying mediums all under the idea of emulating the great masters and creating a new narrative out of something old.

Featured artists include painters Russell Connor and Michael Dominick, sculptor Mark Gibian, and street artist Swoon.

“Young people occasionally call it a ‘mash-up,’” Connor said of his paintings. They place well-known works of art together on the same canvas to generate a new narrative.

Connor began as a student of renowned abstract expressionist Josef Albers. He then went on to discuss art on television from the Boston Museum. Afterward, he chose to depart from abstract expressionism, and instead began to copy from classical master painters.

“I don’t pretend to be able to copy the technique of the masters. I mean, these guys are geniuses. I say the ideal viewing distance from my work is 3,000 miles from the original,” Connor said.

While the idea of strict copying might sound boring, Connor is able to put his personality into these pieces. Of switching to this kind of painting, Connor said, “It let me to use a little humor which was missing from my abstract painting.”

“I play with art’s popularity,” Connor said. He works mainly from pieces that would be known to anyone who has taken an introductory art history course, and hopes that viewers will recognize the paintings he uses but think, “There’s something wrong with it.”

However, using mainstream art as a ground for copying has its complications. Art critics often comment on the practice of going to a museum, seeing the most famous piece in the collection, and leaving feeling ‘cultured.’ Charles Baudelaire was particularly known for this mindset.

When asked if he shares this mindset and how he feels about this practice, Connor said, “Apart from Baudelaire’s righteous scorn for superficial art masterpiece worship, there is much to be said for focussing on one work at a time. As Leonardo [da Vinci] told us, ‘Art is a mental thing’ and serious art can reward study of its symbols, its references, and its influences as much as its color and design.”

This thoughtful approach is a rarity in the digital world of fleeting, endless images.

Connor also posed the question: “What would Baudelaire say about the practice of shooting a quick selfie with a ‘mainstreamed’ work instead of spending time with it and asking questions?”

As for the widespread “lack of proficiency in art” Connor says, “We still have difficulty telling a Manet from a Goya. … That gives me a kind of playground where I can work and enjoy myself.”

And he certainly does enjoy himself.

One of the works featured in the show, “Hands Off The Polish Rider,” makes a joke of the attribution issues surrounding the “Polish Rider,” a work typically attributed to Rembrandt. When he heard that Rembrandt’s claim on the piece was being questioned, “I sprang to his defense. … It’s a joke with some serious intent behind it because it has to do with attribution.” Connor made this painting of Rembrandt working on the “Polish Rider,” made up a story of how it was discovered that Rembrandt did indeed make the piece, and even went as far as to publish the story in the New Yorker.

Beyond humor, these works really play with the relationship between the past and the present. In “Playing With The Big Boys,” Connor depicts Picasso at work on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” This is a young Picasso, pictured at about the age he would have been at the time he made Les Demoiselles. “He looks very different from the Picasso we all know,” Connor said.

Connor’s “War and Peace” brings recent history and art history together. He combines Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” and Picasso’s “Guernica,” creating an image of an apathetic looking bartender standing before a gruesome image of war. “She represents us and the idea of going on living happily while around us somewhere else in the world people are dying unnecessarily,” Connor said of the newly contextualized woman in the peace. He made the work after the Bush administration instructed everyone to keep living normally despite the invasion of Iraq.

In his “The Docent” series, Connor employs “Girl With A Pearl Earring” as a museum docent. “Girl With A Pearl Earring” has been called the “Mona Lisa of the North.” This inspired Connor to first introduce “Girl With A Pearl Earring” to the Mona Lisa. From there he placed the “Girl With A Pearl Earring” in galleries around the world. When choosing paintings to place her with, Connor said he said he wanted “what kind of painting might need an explanation.” He then said, “I put her in front of a Kandinsky at the Guggenheim and I’m anxious to hear what she has to say about it but I guess I never will hear.”

“These are really just fantasies about art history possibly with a little wit now and then,” Connor said. These fantasies capture the show’s theme of past and present as he brings works from long ago together in a way that creates a dialogue about contemporary issues.

In Gallery 2 of the show, the other artists also look to their predecessors for inspiration.

Michael Dominick uses oil, molten iron, white-gold leaf, and charred paper to create abstract images. Citing Kant, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Yves Klein, and Pollock to name a few, Dominick relies heavily on randomness to transform “the chaos of experimental foundry practice … into visual poetry.” His work has a psychology to it and seems reminiscent of the automatic writing habits of the surrealists. “I am fostering the creation of art that would not be possible if left solely to rational human cognition.”

Mark Gibian brings together nature and industry with metal sculptures that are “abstract, and evocative of natural forms.” With the help of engineers and architects, Gibian has done large scale works that can be seen around the world. The titles of his works, like “Contrapposto” and “Venus,” carry a sense of historical nostalgia.

Street artist Swoon is interested in the relationship between people and their built environments. She places screen printed and paper cut out portraits on urban buildings. Swoon’s art looks to Indonesian fabric design and German and Japanese woodblock prints for inspiration.

“Past & Present Perfect” runs until June 13 at Anita Shapolsky gallery at 152 East 65th St., New York, NY 10065.

kelsey.ables@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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