What happens when you insert contemporary works of art into pre-modern, or even prehistoric, collections of art? Grayson Perry grappled with such a project several years ago, when he was granted free access to explore the storerooms of the British Museum in search of works of art by unknown artists throughout history that could respond, so to speak, to Perry’s own work. Contemporary interventions into historical collections have become almost commonplace for some institutions seeking to draw younger audiences and inject some vitality into their inventories, in the form of new connections and resonances across centuries. Take, for example, the Asian Art Museum’s 2012 exhibition “Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past,” which juxtaposed Asian artworks, ancient and new, or the recent exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” at the Metropolitan.
This impulse to draw a thread between the artwork of disparate ages and continents was at the core of the practices of two internationally renowned collectors, Merton D. Simpson and Allan Stone, whose relationship and shared concerns are honored in an exhibition at Merton D. Simpson Gallery, “Simpson & Stone: A Special Selection of African & Oceanic Art from the Allan Stone Collection.” Alongside African ceremonial masks and Oceanic figures from the extensive collection of the late Stone—who was as voracious an advocate and collector of the Abstract Expressionist artists such as Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, as he was of tribal art—are works by contemporary artists El Anatsui, Eve Bailey, Gregory Michael Carter, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, Charlee Swanson, Joan Thorne, Lucia Hinojosa, and Merton D. Simpson himself.
In the gallery, Igbo masks perch adjacent to Bailey’s detailed line drawings, which resemble complex networks or cross-sections of sinewy limbs, contrasting with the simplified forms of the tribal works on view, while also reinforcing the elongated neck of a wooden figure close by. Swanson’s materially rich glass, steel, and fabric compositions invoke modernist abstraction—creating a ground of lines and geometry against which Stone’s fabulous African and Oceanic sculptures are reconfigured, their curvilinear shapes announcing themselves more readily, and their smooth wooden finish drawing the eye. Lahlou’s provocative juxtaposition of photographic images conjures ideas of sexuality, religion, and taboo—uncomfortable bedfellows by any standard—inviting viewers to contemplate the belief systems, as well as the national and gender stereotypes, that so often come into clashing contact when cultures intersect.
Perhaps most significantly, this melding of artists from divergent geographies and periods in history, mirrors the inclusive approach of Simpson and Stone, whose propensity was to look not for divisive binaries, but for evidence of influence and cultural contact between artworks, in awareness that it was these that imbue art with one of its greatest sources of vitality.
Installation images courtesy of Merton D. Simpson Gallery.
“Simpson & Stone: A Special Selection of African & Oceanic Art from the Allan Stone Collection” is on view at Merton D. Simpson Gallery, New York, May 17–July 28, 2014.