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ESSAYS

Camille Bombois

NAIVE VISIONS/ART NOUVEAU AND EXPRESSIONISM/SUE COE: THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Summer, with its comparatively slow pace, provides a congenial opportunity to review the recent past and anticipate the future. With the art world in a state of flux for the last months, such a moment of calm reflection is particularly welcome this year. Few in the art business would contend that the season just ended was a "good" one, but most would agree that the ongoing price adjustments are both necessary and ultimately beneficial. Less frequently noted is the fact that the recent run-up in art prices was so short lived and essentially ill-founded that the current period of correction cannot even properly be termed a downturn. If in many areas prices have reverted to the levels of the mid 1980s, one would do well to remember that those were good, solid years, and that what occurred subsequently was largely fueled by misguided speculation and excessive leveraging. Pretend that the late 1980s never happened, and the present market seems remarkably sane and sound. Best of all, collecting is once again accessible to those with less than limitless means, and art can once again take precedence over money.

 

In this spirit of renewal and back-to-basics realism, the Galerie St. Etienne has decided this year to present a variation on its customary summer survey. Rather than focusing on a single theme, our presentation has been conceived as three concise exhibitions, incorporating three distinct strains of the gallery's interests. The Naive Vision (including works by Camille Bombois, John Kane, Grandma Moses, Louis Vivin and others) is a return to a genre that, though traditionally part of the gallery's domain, has lately been noticeably absent from our walls. More familiar to our regular visitors will be Art Nouveau & Expressionism, which traces the interrelationship between turn-of-the-century graphic design and the Expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and their German colleagues. Echoing the social concerns of such artists as Käthe Kollwitz, John Heartfield and George Grosz is Sue Coe's Road to the White House, a new series of works documenting the 1992 presidential campaign.

 

The contributions of nonacademic art to modernism periodically demand reassessment, and it appears that a new wave of revisionism is currently rising. Much attention has lately been accorded so-called "Outsider Art": art created by the mentally ill and other marginal members of society, whose work is usually shaped by an idiosyncratic psychotic or religious vision, rather than by more self-conscious aesthetic considerations. The Galerie St. Etienne, by contrast, has always been more interested in the work of painters who, though denied access to formal training, nonetheless deliberately pursue their craft and attempt purposefully (albeit piecemeal) to absorb whatever pictorial matter is available to them. Both strands of naive art are equally valid and important to the broader development of modernism, but the work of artists such as John Kane and Grandma Moses evinces more varied content and a more complex development than does that of the "Outsiders," who are necessarily limited by the mandate of their initial propelling mission.

 

Just as folk and naive art provided early modernists with an alternative to staid academicism, so too did the nascent avant-garde find inspiration in the lowly graphic arts. At first glance, it may be difficult to see a connection between the sumptuous, decorative posters of turn-of-the century Austria and Germany and the jarring abrasiveness of Expressionism. However, the highly charged lines and bright, emotive colors of Art Nouveau exerted a formative influence on many young Expressionists. The most direct evolutionary passage is that linking Egon Schiele to his mentor Gustav Klimt, but similar strains may be detected in such diverse artists as Oskar Kokoschka and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Art Nouveau facilitated a freedom from conventional realism that opened up a broad array of aesthetic possibilities. Yet as Expressionism absorbed other influences, most notably Fauvism and Cubism, its Art Nouveau roots gradually became obscured. Nor did the realist impulse ever die out entirely. Especially in the years following World War I, it provided an essential foundation for the social critiques of such artists as Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz and Otto Dix.

 

Realism is also central to the socio-political commentary of Sue Coe, who in certain respects has more in common with her Expressionist predecessors than with her present-day contemporaries. Her latest series of works examines in detail the American economic and political climate--of particular relevance in this election year. This is the largest group of conceptually unified drawings that Coe has created since her widely acclaimed Porkopolis series, and it expands greatly upon the stylistic developments presaged in that earlier body of work. The Road to the White House is an evocative mix of overtly political pieces editorializing on the major issues of the moment, and meticulously crafted depictions of society's numerous victims. The latter are as quiet as the former are strident, mirroring the stark contrast separating the realities of American poverty from the glib sound-bites and headlines that those in power use to remain in power.

 

The United States is clearly in a transitional phase, with far-reaching ramifications for every segment of society. Such upheaval naturally effects the art world, but art is also capable of responding to (and perhaps even influencing) contemporaneous historical events. Certainly the art shown by the Galerie St. Etienne has always--because of its Expressionistic roots--tended to be socially engaged. The present exhibition deals with issues both timely and timeless, and in this respect hopes to offer a basis for reassessment and progress.