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The show within the show


The question du jour is simply this: When does an accumulation become a collection?

That question comes to mind at every gallery opening I attend, whether museum, commercial gallery or student-related senior show. Is the body of work presented cohesive? And the question is just as valid for a one-person exhibit or group showing themed by medium or subject. Proposing an answer is always the task of my first round of viewing.

It must also be a question on the mind of employers reviewing the resume-portfolio of a prospective employee–say, for an architecture graduate in this recent economic downturn. [One of the best in recent memory was done by Jeremiah Johnson, a 2009 graduate who found a good position a few months ago. You should look at Design Heap, his blog here at posterous, a friggin’ paradigm of cohesion.] I haven’t put together anything even remotely akin to a portfolio in decades, so I can’t claim my own work–verbal and non-verbal–to have the cohesion I hope to see in others.

Come visit my house some time and tell me if the stuff that hangs on the walls–the art that I’ve accumulated since I was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in 1964–has achieved the status of collection. Whether the work is my own product or acquired from others, that question is even more problematic, my objectivity clearly being called into question.

And now I must appraise the cohesion of the Tennant Memorial Gallery, the emerging collection of art from Agincourt that will be “a show within the show” in October 2012: more than forty works in various media that I’ve acquired from diverse sources, pretending to be a public collection from the gallery of a small Iowa town.

The most recent acquisition probably reveals a bit of how my mind works (when it does) and how successful that “collection” may be.


This nine-by-twelve oil on cardboard is untitled, unsigned, undated. But I hope it is also not unworthy. Why I acquired it at all is the greater mystery, since it is certainly not a pleasant or easy subject, nor does it fit with any other work in the proposed mini-exhibition. Three Pilgrim-clad characters carry a stretcher bearing a golem-like figure in a snowy winter landscape. Lit only by the moon and a hand-held lantern, they pause in the grim task at hand. The composition, admirable; the technique, both quick and sure. There is no laboring the point: this brief study could easily have become a larger, more detailed studio work of considerable merit. I am no art historian, so the date might be anywhere during the last 125 years, but the “school” suggests Howard Pyle, Brandwine, and the estimable Wyeth clan. The subject matter is surely theirs, precisely the sort of illustration that might have enhanced a short story by Washington Irving. [I should be so lucky as to have acquired a Pyle or Wyeth by accident!]

My success in cohering this small anonymous work with others in the show-within-the-show will depend upon its story, the narrative integration of this painting with the nature of the place where it resides and the collection of which it purports to be a part. My initial thoughts are few:

  • Could this painting have any connection with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693? Their 400th anniversary was acknowledged a few years ago with a remarkable landscape competition that you should see. This small study might have been related to the 300th or 350th anniversary.
  • I also wonder how it might connect with more recent commentary on Salem–say Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” for example, which is as much a comment on Salem as it is on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt begun in April 1954. I recall seeing those televised hearings on my family’s first television set and being very frightened by them, as a child of nine.

I’ve tentatively titled this painting “Night Court” as a comment on those and other historical witch hunts, as well as contemporary quests for any whose values are out of alignment with our own–say a presidential candidate who seeks to investigate the anti-American values of the sitting president.

Leave it to me to make something political out of this. Though that is something that Art has often done more succinctly than any other medium.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sort of Edvard Munch like, He’s one of my favorites.

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