Sidestepping Quaintness

As a child I recall poking through the barn on my grandparents’ farm listening for ghosts and looking for artifacts with stories.  The vast, still air in the shadowy space carried the smells of tractor exhaust, moldering wood and rock, of long gone hay and grain, and animals who had snuck in and made the barn home.  It was the chaotic archive of antiquated farm equipment and saved materials.

On the same farm there is a stone chapel, converted in the early 20th century from an 18th century sheep shed.  This too filled my young imagination as I touched the masonry and rang the woeful bell.

There is a vacuum left by the absence of intended use in these dormant places.  The potential energy is palpable, like someone holding their breath.  They possess two very separate intensities as vessels for labor and spirit but both are muted by the passing of time.

Bucks County is host to many evocative buildings like these.  Mills, barns and schoolhouses that have endured into an age that has very different needs and interests from the society of their day.  In this modern context they become something different.  They are touchstones to remember our history, or more likely to imagine a history — and even more likely, to imagine a present.  Such charming relics are transportive, taking us to an imagined place of agrarian simplicity that seems more connected with the earth, more tactile and more virtuous.  This is the unusual value of quaintness.  Quaintness is a tricky thing because it is essentially turning history into fable and fable into an ideal.  As an ideal, quaintness is a soothing lie with the potential for both inspiration and delusion.

The hazard of painting and exhibiting under the delusions of quaintness is losing objectivity and being dismissed by an audience who has not fallen under the spell.  The prejudice towards such work is that it relies too heavily on those rustic charms and does not advance as art, like someone gone flabby eating too much rich dessert and getting little exercise.  These concerns are real and too often the old mill shows are packed with pretty snoozers who get by on lavish gold frames and saccharine promises.  But fear of this country-minded complacency fuels the notion that to be serious is to be urban and to be urban is to be free of the past.

The gallery experience that has become standard is a white cube intended to give clean objectivity in which work can be shown.  But the notion that a clean white wall is indifferent is just as much an illusion as the quaintness of old buildings.  There are relationships between artwork and its surroundings, no matter what the context, and if the work is strong enough the relationships will be interesting.

In March I was caught off guard seeing a spectacular exhibition of Derek Bernstein’s at the Prallsville Mill.  Derek works with a sincere intensity that chases form and color through a picture, leaving in his wake a tension between the surface and the illusion of space. His subject is the Bucks County landscape and interiors, but the experience of painting overrides any seduction of quaintness so his perspective remains fresh and true.  His exhibition didn’t rely on the quaint beauty of the mill to set the tone for his work but rather found a relationship with his environment that spoke to the intensity of the building’s original purpose and construction.  The show gave me hope that spaces laden with flavors of the past can exhibit work that is contemporary with either benefitting from the juxtaposition.  A space with character and the evidence of history needn’t be dismissed as quaint if the artwork can communicate with its design in an interesting manner.

Derek and I have become fast friends and have conspired to We have reimagined the chapel and barn on my family’s farm as spaces to produce a grand exhibition.  In addition to Derek and myself, I’ve invited seven other artists whose works, I believe, have the sophistication and poetry to command such dynamic spaces.  Each of us has our own idiosyncratic voice but we are unified by a sincerity of personal artistic pursuit.  The other painters are Celia Reisman, Alvaro Altamar, Christopher Tietjen, Tom Walton, and David Fertig.  We are joined by the wood sculptor Matthew Merwin and photographer David Graham.

After several months’ preparation the barn and chapel have been cleared out and the gloom dispelled with gallery lighting.  That pent up breath of potential has been released and they are experiencing a new life.  The mysteries I experienced in them as a child are now mingling with the mysteries of art. Relationships are crackling with intrigue between the materials and designs of art and context.  Modern and historic voices are in a vibrant conversation.

Published in the Bucks County Herald 10/4/12

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