Artists and Curators Remember Amy Winehouse in Two Companion Shows
On one wall in the main gallery of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), which, along with its companion show “You Know I’m No Good,” is open until November 1st, is a line that Winehouse included in an application essay for a reputable arts high school in London: “mostly I have this dream to be very famous.” Reading it, I shuddered a little. Obviously, her achievement of this dream is what makes such a retrospective possible, and popular. But Winehouse’s fame is accountable, in a very concrete way, for the fact that this exhibition is also an elegy.
“A Family Portrait,” which coincides with the general release of a documentary film about Winehouse, Amy, collects a variety of materials related to the singer and her family. It also includes video and audio performances of Winehouse singing, memorabilia from her tours and musical career, books and records from her personal collection, and a few of her terrific outfits. This paraphernalia, in the tradition of “Celebrities—they’re just like us!,” show us the singer’s intimate predilections for art and fashion. Her music collection of jazz vocalists reinforces the obvious debt her work owes to African-American music, while her spectacular costumes reflect ’60s Americana, from Betty Page pin-up to girl group style.
Next door, “You Know I’m No Good,” assembled by CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin, shows the work of three artists who respond to Winehouse’s legacy. On view are drawings from sculptor Rachel Harrison, a mural by Jason Jägel, and paintings by Bay Area artist Jennie Ottinger. Harrison contributes large drawings of Winehouse made just after her death. These, rendered with colored pencil on paper, depict the singer adjacent to canonical Modernists: Picasso, Stein, de Kooning. Ottinger’s paintings, of Winehouse-esque figures and female African-American singers, have been assembled as part of a stop-motion animation video Ottinger is currently developing.
While Winehouse’s star shone far brighter in her native UK, in the U.S. she was practically as well-known for loving drugs and booze as she was for any song, including her biggest hit “Rehab.” Yet the sad and damaged parts of Winehouse’s story are barely legible in the exhibition. If it weren’t for the dramatic absence of the subject herself, it would be hard to know that anybody had even died. Rather, the greatness of her voice and the depth of her commitment to her craft are the focus of “A Family Portrait.” This thrust is understandable given that, despite the ironic and devastating loss of Winehouse to alcohol poisoning, even “Rehab” isn’t a sad song. It is too stubbornly catchy, too joyful in its refusal, and far too evocative of a fairly sweet if benign moment in 2007 pop music to provoke tears.
In addition to the story of Winehouse’s art, the show’s other major emphasis is on her Jewishness. While the singer didn’t seem to have placed undue emphasis on her relationship to Jewishness or Judaism, her brother and family have taken great efforts to interpret her art in the context of her family and their traditions. Winehouse’s extended family featured many jazz musicians, and the family tree painted on the museum’s wall indicates a deeper and richer heritage, tracing itself back several generations to Belarus. The exhibition also includes cookbooks and other heirlooms of Winehouse’s Jewish roots.
And yet as we know, Winehouse’s music was also related to another great tradition—African-American soul and R&B. That relationship is certainly embedded in “A Family Portrait.” LP covers from Winehouse’s collection, including records by Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughn, are framed upon the wall. Rarely in the exhibition, however, is the relationship of Winehouse’s production to the great African-American tradition she cites and recites addressed.
Only in the wall text for Ottinger’s mixed-media piece Mouth to Mouth: Pieces from an Animation about Cultural Appropriation (2015) does the show explicitly problematize Amy Winehouse’s art in reference to African-American musicians. Ottinger writes, “I wanted to underline that as amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation she did.” Chief curator Renny Pritikin echoes Ottinger’s statement, “I’m particularly interested in the friction between the sweet early family story and the complex responses of the three visual artists who all see her in the context of a historical figure, a woman artist among men in a racialized world.”
And yet, perhaps a critical and nuanced reading of Winehouse and her work isn’t the intention of “A Family Portrait” at all. Perhaps it is really the “family” that is meant to be represented here—not Winehouse’s scandalous behavior and tragically young death, or her complicity in a long tradition of white soul singers iterating African-American forms, but another story altogether. As Winehouse’s brother puts it in the entrance to the show, Winehouse was “simply a little Jewish kid from North London.” That’s the story this show above all wants to tell. It does so with love and pathos.