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Everything Old Is Renewed Again at the Walters Art Museum

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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 20-26

“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own,” author Chinua Achebe told the Paris Review in 1994. This philosophy is currently manifested at the Walters Art Museum, where a significant historic collection is benefitting from the energetic presence of new works by contemporary artists. 

How do you render the fears and hopes of today from the vast sea of far-away history that defines prized ancient holdings? How do you redouble attendance in any type of art museum? Some have chosen to promote the spectacle of oversized family-friendly sculptural installations—both old and new—in high-traffic public outdoor garden park spaces. But bigger isn’t always better and it surely turns frigid out there in the winter. 

So, many others—from New York’s noted Frick Collection to the distinguished Walters Art Museum in Baltimore—have taken the on-trending route of transhistorical curation to create stimulating shows engaging in unexpected dialogue among works across comprehensive swaths of time, perennial themes, and in virtually every medium. 

At the Walters, works from contemporary artists Linling Lu and Tsedaye Makonnen are juxtaposed across from older pieces from the permanent collection in the exhibitions Across Asia: Arts of Asia and the Islamic World and Ethiopia at the Crossroads, respectively. A monumental 21st century stained glass window from Kehinde Wiley is also installed among longtime favorites in the Medieval galleries of the museum.

These new pieces not only connect to the older works by their physical proximity but also were often consciously created to reference components of the many art canons that they simultaneously confer with (or break from) to shake up common narratives about culture and art.

 

Linling Lu, Agitated Meditation, No.12, 2015, mixed media on shaped stretcher, 67” diameter
Chinese Artist, Jar with Climbing Floral Designs, 1690-1710, porcelain with underglaze blue, approximately 18”x9”

Linling Lu’s vibrant tapestry of found patterned fabrics, “Agitated Meditation, No.12,” stretched in a perfect circle under glass, floats off of the wall—beckoning the viewer into the intricate patchwork of silky hot pinks, purples, yellows, burgundies, and blacks.

Upon reading the object placard, I learned that the artist was inspired by “crazy quilting,” which is a practice that embraces the lives, places, and cultural history of the past through the use of fabrics that recall the memory of their initial use—from bed skirt remnants to street-celebration costumes. [Read BmoreArt’s recent review of the Elizabeth Talford Scott retrospective, celebrating a local pioneer of the movement.]

For Lu, now a Baltimorean, those textiles draw from her personal history in the Guizhou province of Western China and the challenged lives of ethnic minorities, such as the Miao. It’s an eye-catching work, though different from her signature day-glow, neo-geo, concentric circle paintings. It suggests that its creation served as the site of meditation implied in the title, like the geometric mandala diagrams used in Buddhist practices. Hung among families of enduringly popular pieces and recent acquisitions—from classic blue and white porcelain early Qing Dynasty vases to a newly restored rare 19th-century Thai pulpit—Lu’s work jumps ship but, instead of a mutiny, offers a beautiful mutation and streamlining of tradition. 

The Across Asia show—which encompasses the entire 4th floor of the museum—connects the evolution of craft and fine art practices over centuries, lengthy trade routes, and rich cultural exchanges.

That commutation likely enabled, for example, the ongoing transference and reemergence of the ubiquitous eight-pointed star motif that represents everything from Buddhist worldly attachment escape paths to the Islamic Khatim seal of the prophets. You don’t have to look too carefully to identify formal reiterations, emblematic continuity, and transformations from piece to piece, period to period. 

 

Tsedaye Makonnen, Senait & Nahom | The Peacemaker & The Comforter, 2019, acrylic mirror, LED lights, hardboard
Greek Artist, Altar Cross, 18th century, boxwood, silver, pearls, emerald, and amber
Viewing the vast Walters collection again, with its resonant new works, is a clarion reminder that all art was once contemporary art.
Stephen Wozniak

Tsedaye Makonnen plays many overlapping roles in this life: as a mother, an artist, a curator, a performer, and also a doula—trained to provide physical and emotional support for expectant parents before, during, and after birth. Born in the US, she is also the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants.

Her work alludes to the complex plight of the Black existential condition. Her installation on view within the Walters’ level-three Medieval galleries, “Senait & Nahom | The Peacemaker & The Comforter,” pays direct homage to those who have gravely suffered from law enforcement brutality—including numerous African women who sought refugee status, specifically the mother named in the title and her own son, co-named, who died in a European detention center. 

Featuring several inner-lit rectilinear mirrored towers, the piece is installed across from ancient works echoing themes of sacrifice. They also share formal patterned elements like those in her work, such as a Greek 18th-century silver jeweled altar cross. Makonnen’s “Senait & Nahom” seeks to address woeful wrongs and name those lost, who often fall through the cracks of justice.

It is an example of Makonnen-as-healer, too, providing solace for all—family, friends, and simply those who sympathize—who have survived the casualties’ passage. While the glass reflects our faces and bodies, asking us our roles as mourners and, perhaps, even saviors of future lives with our personal actions, it also reflects the longer history of pre-modern works nearby that seek similar solace and mercy from higher powers in languages closer to ours than we may expect.

 

Kehinde Wiley, “Saint Amelie,” 2014, hand-painted stained glass, mounted on lightbox with aluminum frame
French Artist, Stained Glass Window with Ancestor of Christ, ca. 1200, vitreous paint on colored glass

Close by Makonnen’s work is that of art star Kehinde Wiley, best known for his majestic, foliage-set official painting of President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Now on view following its recent acquisition by the Walters, Wiley’s angelic, stained-glass portrait, Saint Amelie, from 2014, hangs among numerous ancient artifacts in the museum’s hallowed space.

In contrast to—yet also in harmony with—Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 19th-century stained-glass work of the same title, Wiley’s glasswork portrays a young, serene Black man of today, rather than the eighth-century Christian saint. Instead of robes and sandals, his saint, Kern Alexander, wears Converse sneakers, cuffed jeans and a hoodie—typical garb of any ordinary city man the world over. Wiley’s work asks for a moment of pause to absorb and pay respect to such men who have maintained strength in the face of unremitting discrimination, inhumanity and—in many cases—violent premature death. Keyed to a color palette of rustic reds, Victorian greens and mired gold often found in African nation flags, Wiley also alludes to the rich cultural heritage of those regions, the roots of his subjects.

The artist has said his works are commentaries that critique and celebrate history but can also be “mysterious and snarky” with the potential to “change the world.” By looking back to the past and rewriting time-honored, culturally inculcated artistic formats with subjects of the present, Wiley gets to compare the original value of those early works, their reinforced importance—right or wrong—over time, and the paradigm shift that gives them their value today.

I asked a few art museum professionals about their experience in the decision-making process to acquire and display newer works with largely historical collections. Some spoke of urgent institutional protocols, while all agreed about the need to address the cohesion and discord of art across cultures, as well as redress wrongs of the underrepresented.  

A spokesperson for the Walters Art Museum explained that the museum “prioritizes acquisitions that bring new representation and new voices into the collection and that provide opportunities to create new juxtapositions and narratives.”

While some art institutions have been following the American Alliance of Museums’ landmark Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion strategic plan set forth 2017, many found time to more profoundly change their programming when the 2020 pandemic shuttered museum doors across the country. The Walters collecting directive and subsequent donor gifts began to include more contemporary works, as well as lesser-seen historic works of significance, such as an 18th-century painting by the biracial Baltimore-based portraitist Joshua Johnson.

From the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, Chief Curator Elsa Smithgall spoke about that museum’s longstanding policy to show older works along with contemporary ones.

“There have been many changes in museum operations and policy since 2020, and a lot of reckoning around social justice and—now especially—warfare issues. Founder Duncan Phillips wasn’t shy about his focus to show the richness and diversity of American art alongside work from French, German, or Japanese artists. The world has become even more global because of the Internet and virtual communications, so that distances and differences no longer feel so great,” Smithgall explained.

She recalls reactions to a “high-contrast” installation: “We showed a folk art painting by Horace Pippin with a new hi-tech light work installation by Leo Villareal, and many viewers resonate with these diverse work mixtures, while others are sometimes baffled.” So, exhibition staff often create context for viewers with descriptive object placards, audio guides or special cell phone apps.

Many museums, such as the Phillips, increasingly receive grants from sources like the Terra Foundation for American Arts to create “a more inclusive model to bring forward underrepresented aspects of our history,” Smithgall said.

RISD Museum of Art Curator Emerita Jan Howard points out that the current move to mix and match old, new and different artworks has a longer history than we might imagine. The early 1990s saw a revitalized focus on critical theory that supported interest in multiculturalism. “The first time I can remember being involved in a project that juxtaposed contemporary and historical works was at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where I worked with curator George Ciscle and his MICA graduate students on the 1999 exhibition Joyce Scott: Kickin’ It with the Old Masters,” Howard said. “It was such a privilege to walk the galleries with Joyce and see the collection through her eyes, for she had selected works across time and cultures to place in dialogue with her own art.”

 

Joyce J. Scott, Kickin' It with the Old Masters at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Painting and Sculpture storage recreated for the RISD Museum installation of Raid the Icebox.

The Contemporary organized shows at various venues including the Walters Art Museum, “and most famously,” Howard recalled fondly, “with Fred Wilson for the Maryland Historical Society presentation Mining the Museum in 1992.” Alongside this updating trend in the breadth and fairness of the art historical record is, Howard said, “the incredibly inspiring new research on early art that’s providing greater context while also uncovering neglected stories.” A case in point was the recent show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe 1400–1800

Dominic Molon, Interim Chief Curator, and Richard Brown Baker, Curator of Contemporary Art, at the RISD Museum of Art, contributed his experiences in direct acquisitions and exhibitions of contemporary works shown with historic collections. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s landmark exhibition Raid the Icebox at the RISD Museum in 1970, Molon recently invited renowned artists, from Simone Leigh to Nicole Eisenman, to work with new purchases and older works. For Molon, and other proactive curators, shows like Icebox, “demonstrated how the past informs the present and how artists and museums are invested in critically examining the way social, racial, political and economic authority has shaped our understanding of culture–and has determined what we value and why.

The placement of contemporary works beside works from the broader history of art functions as more than an opportunity to show how artists are inspired by the past, but also how they can encourage us to ask difficult questions about what has determined our present experience and how we might reconsider the order of things in the future.”

In 2019, Molon acquired Huma Bhabha’s “Ghost” (2008), which, he said, “bears a strong resemblance to much of the Roman antique sculpture in our classical galleries,” and now is permanently on view at RISD as utilized in the Icebox show. 

I find it a positive initiative, which, in addition to acquiring the Wiley work, the Walters is also showing the art of greater Baltimore’s local artists Lu and Makonnen and recently purchased a piece by another Baltimorean artist, Herbert Masse, a “long-treasured gem,” according to the Walters’ director Julia Marciari-Alexander. Such interest shows a leading cultural institution’s support for its own art community, one that has always existed but most often outside of the museum’s sightline—thankfully no longer.

Viewing the vast Walters collection again, with its resonant new works, is a clarion reminder that all art was once contemporary art. As we encourage the mingling of old and new, it becomes clear that many strong works of art are eternal—offering a core kernel of value, a fingertip touch to humanity—surviving and outshining the elusive thing we call time.

The mounting trend of art institutions in the United States to mix permanent collection classics with new artworks is an important ongoing evolutionary action that many curators have embraced with vigor, purpose and sympathy. While they have held power to tell selective slices of cultural history, the world has called upon them to reevaluate their holdings, their understanding and the full spectrum of audiences they serve—and that, ultimately, give them life.

 

The Walters Art Museum
600 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
Wednesday—Sunday: 10 a.m.—5 p.m.
Thursday: 1–8 p.m.
Monday—Tuesday: Closed
Telephone: 410-547-9000
Website: https://art.thewalters.org/   

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