Art in Review
Published: July 6, 2007
IT’S ALL SPIRITUAL
Art From Tribal Cultures
Betty Cuningham Gallery
541 West 25th Street, Chelsea
Through July 27
For its summer group show, Cuningham Gallery has set aside contemporary art in favor of what looks like a telescoped version of last spring’s Tribal and Textile Arts Fair. In this case all of the work, whether for sale or on loan for the occasion, has been selected by a single New York dealer, Alan Steele. Installed in natural light in a white-box space, it adds up to a forceful ensemble. Chelsea doesn’t often offer such sights — old art that looks considerably fresher than a lot of new art — and it could use more.
And the show could use some focus. The “tribal cultures” represented are from all over the map: Africa, Oceania, Asia and North and South America. The work encompasses a broad range of materials and meanings. But instead of using function or place of origin as an organizing principle, Mr. Steele goes for the vaguer categories of formal affinity and all-purpose spirituality.
General physical resemblance is sufficient reason for displaying a Nepalese shrine figure, an Easter Island ancestor figure and a carved Tlingit dagger together: all are small, slender, vertical and figurative. And spirituality, whatever its meaning, is accepted as a natural bond between visually and culturally disparate things: between, say, a classic Fang reliquary figure from Gabon, looking like a muscle-bound baby, and a Mimbres bowl from New Mexico, its suave abstract designs like millennium-old Art Deco; or between a Taoist ritual mask shrouded in strips of calligraphy-covered rice paper and a swatch of Tahitian mulberry bark cloth ornamented with delicate nature images.
Was the Polynesian cloth made to be worn on the body or hung on the wall? What ritual purpose did the Chinese mask serve, and what does the writing on the paper mean? Does “spiritual” mean the same thing when applied to these two objects or to a Fiji war club or an Ethiopian carving platter?
The show’s response to all of this is in its title and is symptomatic of an outdated approach to exhibiting non-Western art. This approach has made a comeback in the hazy, lazy Postmodernist — which is to say Modernist — 2000s: no context, no explanations; just beauty, our way.
But do we still need to be persuaded of the beauty and spirituality of “tribal” art? No. Do we still need to learn why “tribal” and “spiritual” are spurious categories, and how the objects defined by them turn the modern Western concept of art itself on its head? Yes.
I urge you to visit “It’s All Spiritual” for its extreme beauties, and I encourage you to bring the questions the show doesn’t ask.