Keith Banner, co-founder of Thunder-Sky, Inc., explains the thesis behind the “History Channel: New Art from Old Art” exhibition there:
Thunder-Sky loves to mess with art history every once in a while, and using historically famous art and artists as starting points and inspirations for artists we love and support is a great little strategy to do a smart, silly, and sweet intervention. The artists we are closest to, sometimes referred to as “outsider” or “self-taught,” respond and are influenced just as much by legit art history as much as anything else.
For “History Channel” Thunder-Sky partnered with InsideOut Studio, Hamilton, OH, which “provides an opportunity for artists with disabilities to produce, market, and receive an income from their art,” according to Banner. In addition to some Thunder-Sky regulars, about 15 disabled artists from InsideOut participated in the exhibition.
These artists were asked to riff on works from the canon of art history. Sometimes the artists were simply told the concept, and in other cases, suggestions were made. For example, Banner says, “We left some thick art history books with pictures in Antonio Adams’ studio and he selected and reinterpreted.”
Adams chose Leonard da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the “most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world,” according to John Lichfield, in “The Moving of the Mona Lisa,” published in The Independent just this month.
As he always does in his paintings, Adams used a friend, Jennifer Crowe, for his re-imagined Mona Lisa. Crowe wears blue-tinted sunglasses, has a bobbed hairstyle with a daisy over one ear, and wears a Japanese robe. Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has become lopsided, and the landscape in the distance is imaginary, just as Leonardo’s might have been, the two things that most invoke the masterpiece.
Alicia Jones has also chosen a portrait to reinterpret in her Frieda (sic) (Kahlo). Unlike Adams, she hews closely to an actual painting: Me and My Parrots, a 1941 self-portrait. Jones’s Kahlo wears the same folkloric blouse and is attended by four parrots. The one place Jones deviates is her Kahlo does not have the Mexican artist’s distinctive unibrow.
Emily Brandehoff is attracted to the macabre (check out her Rebirth of Venus portrayed as a zombie) and pays homage to Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, here. It is one of Goya’s Black Paintings, which were painted on the walls of his villa at Quinto del Sordo and later transferred to canvas. The Spaniard’s painting tells the tale of the Roman god Saturn who fearing his children would one day overthrow him simply ate them.
In Brandehoff’s Saturn Snaps into a Slim Jim, the titan clutches the dried sausage snack. This element has the same verticality as Saturn’s offspring in Goya’s painting, and both are clearly phallic. Some speculate that Goya’s rendering of the mythological perpetrator of filicide originally had a partially erect penis, which may have been lost because of the mural’s deterioration, when it was transferred to canvas, or deliberately painted over to avoid offending viewers’ sensibilities when it went on public display.
Moving forward in time, there’s Robert McFate’s After Hopper. Reprising Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, McFate sites the lonely late night scene in a Skyline Chili parlor instead of Phillie’s diner in Greenwich Village. The same characters – two men and a blonde woman – sit at the counter with plates of, at least, three-way chili in front of them. Even though the McFate is a rather faithful rendering of Hopper’s vision, the artist has made the painting his alone by moving the location of the eatery.
Scott Carney looks both forward and back in time, and east to farther East, for his Yellow Submarine (After Hokusai). It’s obviously inspired by Hokusai’s c. 1829-1832 woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, but instead of the three oshiokuri-bune, fast boats that transported live fish from the Izu and Bōsō peninsulas to Edo, which are in peril of being swamped, Carney has substituted a yellow submarine, a reference to the Beatles’ tune and George Dunning’s 1968 British animated film. The wave can’t sink the sub since it can simply dive to escape. It’s a witty way to update the Ukiyo-e print genre that had influenced French and English painters of the second half of the 19th century.
Abstraction has also inspired these Outsider artists. Alphonso Rowe’s Stripes for Morris is an easel-sized homage to Morris Louis, emulating the color field artist’s rather drab “Veil” paintings from 1958-1959. However, Rowe’s painting is more heavily painted than Louis’s signature stained canvases were.
In a couple of cases, artists have changed mediums for amazingly apt re-interpretations of their sources. What could better represent the fragmentation of Picasso’s Cubism than mosaic? Bobbie Jo Robinson has borrowed the image of the sitter, who was Picasso’s young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, in his 1932 Girl Before a Mirror for her own Girl From (emphasis mine) the Mirror.
And there are David Campbell’s fused-glass panels After Mondrian and After Delaunay. His choice of medium is perfect for Robert or Sonia Delaunay’s light-filled Orphic works.
Even Conceptualism elicited a response from these artists: Avril Thurman’s answer to Jenny Holzer. Installed above the entrance door, You Don’t See Me scrolls endlessly across the LED sign. It’s not a Holzer truism, but it is true, as you may not see it until you leave.
“History Channel: New Art from Old Art” is an entertaining, engaging enlightening exhibition. With Thunder-Sky’s limited hours (one-four p. m., Saturday and Sunday), it’s definitely appointment viewing.
–Karen S. Chambers
“History Channel: New Art from Old Art,” Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery, 4753 Hamilton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45223, 513-426-0477, www.raymondthundersky.org Hours: Saturday-Sunday, one-four p. m. or by appointment.