On Oct. 3, the Frye Art Museum opens an extensive exhibition in which 18 contemporary artists offer modern interpretations and depictions of the stories that define our culture.
Ah! The sacrosanct American past — the first Thanksgiving, Washington’s cherry tree, Abe’s honesty, and the cowboy’s Wild West. These are the stories that mix history and myth, and in doing so, reinforce our American identity.
On Saturday, the Frye Art Museum opens an extensive exhibition in which 18 contemporary artists offer modern interpretations and depictions of the stories that define our culture.
These artists remind us that folklore carries forward the past that we want to remember and leaves out those aspects we’d rather forget.
As Robin Held, Frye’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, says, “There’s critical thinking here, but not in a finger-pointing way. It’s a loving look at all the contradictions that come into play when we think about what it means to be an American in the 21st century.”
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Jeremy Blake in his video “Winchester” (2002) provides a modern take on cowboy folklore. His work has little in common with the glorified images of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Blake’s video unites his own color-saturated abstractions with photographs of Sarah Winchester’s labyrinthine mansion — constructed with bizarre dead ends and stairs to nowhere so that she might escape from the ghosts of all those killed by her family’s guns.
Sam Durant’s two-part, rotating diorama provides harsh evidence of the difference between folklore and fact. One side shows a Pequot Indian teaching a Pilgrim how to grow corn, thus setting the stage for the first Thanksgiving. The complementary side shows Myles Standish killing an Indian. According to a 1624 document, Standish led a raiding party to destroy the local Pequot village, and organized a day of Thanksgiving afterward.
Eric Beltz, in graphite portraits, positions Washington, Jefferson and Franklin in a state where idealism unravels. Barnaby Furnas’ paintings of Lincoln, John Brown and Civil War battles have the luminescence and explosive effect of modern-day video games or Tarantino films. Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes are outrageous but compelling depictions of the antebellum South.
We can’t dismiss the myths of our past, but we can understand how they are interpreted through time and how they serve our common culture.
As a complement to “The Old, Weird America … ” which was curated at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Frye is also presenting an exhibition of works from its own collection that exemplify the manner in which American artists of the last century broke away from the traditions of Europe to create a distinctive American art suitable to their times.
Nancy Worssam: firstname.lastname@example.org