Jeremy Blake, Winchester (video still, 2002)
The Houston art scene has been receiving a lot of attention lately — in part because former MIT curator Bill Arning is now director of Houston's Contemporary Art Museum. As a native Houstonian, I can say with certainty (and bias) that this is a great thing for both city and Arning. And as fate would have it, the art cosmos has sent a piece of Houston back to New England: the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln is installing a show by Toby Kamps, the CAMH's senior curator and Arning's new colleague. Opening June 6, "THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA: FOLK THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART" will be the largest exhibit in the history of the museum, filling all of its indoor galleries and supporting the myth that everything really is bigger in Texas (and representing H-town like Beyoncé Knowles).
Winner of the prestigious 2008 award for "Best Thematic Museum Show Nationally" from the International Art Critics Association, the exhibit takes its name from the title of the Bob Dylan–centric book by Greil Marcus. Like the book, the artwork explores national folklore in a manner that might suggest a different — and altogether fucked-up — American history. In the case of the show, that history ranges from the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to the dawn of the Space Age in 1957.
"The Old, Weird America" features 18 notable American contemporary artists, among them Matthew Day Jackson (currently on view at MIT's List Visual Art Center) and Kara Walker. In recent years, Walker has been acclaimed for her violent black-cut-paper-silhouette depictions of slave life in the ante-bellum South. Included here will be 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), a video shadow-puppet satire, with racism and myths of black origin set against a backdrop of cotton-ball babies, slave ships, and gay master-and-slave sex.
Sam Durant's 2006 sculptural installation Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006) is based on dioramas from the now closed National Wax Museum in Plymouth. Jeremy Blake's Winchester (2002) combines the artist's "digital paintings" with creepy cowboy shadows and old-school photos of the home of Sarah Winchester, rifle heiress and keeper of the Winchester Mystery House — a "haunted" mansion that was under continuous construction for 38 years. And Eric Beltz's Good Luck Assholes: Thomas Jefferson's Vision of Death (2007) depicts the founding father smoking a pipe, one foot resting on a chopped cord of wood, the drawing inscribed in elegant cursive script with the first three words of the title. Just one more example of the show's endearing and bizarre æsthetic.
The rest of the line-up: Barnaby Furnas, Deborah Grant, Brad Kahlhamer, Margaret Kilgallen, David McDermott, Peter McGough, Aaron Morse, Cynthia Norton, Greta Pratt, David Rathman, Dario Robleto, Allison Smith, and Charlie White.
"THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA: FOLK THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART" | DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 51 Sandy Pond Rd, Lincoln | June 6–September 7 | 781.259.8355 or www.decordova.org