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The Fruiting Tree: Reflect & Remix at the Walters

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How have artists responded, over the centuries and across oceans, to each other’s work? What shapes can artistic inspiration and influence take—and can works that seem causally unrelated sometimes resonate, when considered in relation to each other?

Reflect & Remix: Art Inspiring Artists (at the Walters Art Museum through September 8) offers a visually enjoyable, if conceptually breezy, exploration of such questions. Certainly, it’s an excitingly diverse show. Featuring more than sixty pieces that are drawn from each of the museum’s collection areas, it includes a wide range of media and an energizing admixture of historical and contemporary works.

Monet’s 1872 “Springtime” hangs near an open 16th-century book of hours, and recent acquisitions shine brightly next to objects purchased more than a century ago by Henry Walters. As you move through the galleries, it’s easy to sense the pleasure that the show’s curators, Lynley Anne Herbert and Earl Martin, took in uncovering cross-departmental connections and pondering formal and material relationships.

 

Reflect & Remix at The Walters, installation image

But the show is also characterized by a rather casual approach to its own central topics. For what it’s worth, the concept of artistic inspiration was examined by Plato and Nietzsche, and art historians such as Julius Schlosser, Michael Baxandall, and Reiko Tomii have thoughtfully explored the subject of artistic influence.

Similarly, the notions of artistic affinity and resonance have both generated extensive and productive critiques over the past few decades. Reflect & Remix, however, seems largely uninterested in grappling with such precedents or complexities. Instead, it relies upon a series of broad truisms (“Art inspires artists to imagine”) and unresolved rhetorical questions (“Is this an example of appreciation and celebration? Or could it be cultural appropriation?”) in raising, but not pretending to resolve, such issues. This is a show more interested in open-ended gestures than in nuanced argument.

Approach it in a lighthearted mood, though, and there’s lots to admire. At the very least, it opens with a bang. A small Renaissance stained glass panel depicting Saint Andrew and a donor is dwarfed by Kehinde Wiley’s 2014 “Saint Amelie,” which is also made of stained glass—but depicts a haloed young Black man, resplendent in white Converse sneakers and a zippered vest.

For more than twenty years, Wiley has been exploring and critiquing the history of Western art, using it as a vast sourcebook while also drawing attention to its exclusionary whiteness. Here, both his model’s pose—which is based on the stance of a saint in a painting by Ingres—and his use of stained glass call upon the viewer to see Black maleness as holy. (It is currently unclear whether Wiley’s recent accusations of sexual assault by multiple men will have an impact on his career and the meaning of his work.)

Saint Andrew and a Donor, 1520-40, (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)
Kehinde Wiley’s Saint Amelie, 2014 (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)
Valeri Timofeev, champagne flute, 1993 (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum).

Meaningfully, the juxtaposition of the two stained glass panels also casts each in a new and fascinating light. The fur lining of the sixteenth-century donor reads differently when considered in relation to a contemporary hoodie and sheepskin collar, and Andrew’s cross nudges us to look for a comparable tool of martyrdom in Wiley’s image. Even relatively minor details—the senses of space and the background patterns in each window—read differently when viewed relationally. In short, it’s an electrifying pairing that allows us to re-see, in rewarding and surprising ways, each of the works.

Several nearby groupings point to other forms that artistic inspiration can take. Three lovely glass vessels made by the Murano-based Salviati & Co. are paired with earlier examples whose forms likely inspired the Venetian designers. Three works featuring masks point to the enduring popularity, across time, of certain motifs. And a fascinating display of several pieces featuring enamel decoration offers a window into how contemporary makers both learn from and build on historical precedents. A remarkable champagne flute made in 1993 by Valeri Timofeev, for instance, implies an awareness of earlier methods of manufacture—but his daring use of colored glass and surprising textures yield a tactile richness and an innovative playfulness.

A few steps away, two exhibits foreground works by contemporary artists of color seeking to forge correctives to historical examples of omission and violence. A sleek porcelain vessel (2018) by the celebrated potter and social activist Roberto Lugo is a disarmingly frank response to a kitschy Sèvres product made in 1764. Both works take the shape of boats. But where the French piece bears a trivial scene of fish packing on its side, Lugo’s carries a reproduction of the grim 1808 schematic drawing of a slave ship: a blunt reminder of the forced labor that underlay the creation of empires.

Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Potpourri Vase, 1764 (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)
Roberto Lugo, Slave Ship Potpourri Boat, 2018 (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)
Reflect and Remix featuring works by Roberto Lugo
Reflect & Remix at The Walters featuring reproduction Byzantine mosaics and a ceramic installation by Herb Massie

Nearby, a sprawling 2018 installation by Herb Massie, a Baltimore-based artist and teacher, alludes to the often overlooked history of Sybby Grant, an enslaved cook who lived and worked at nearby 1 West Mount Vernon Place in the mid-1800s. In partnership with Jubilee Arts, Massey led members of the community in making more than 200 ceramic plates that speak to aspects of Grant’s life, and to African-American history more generally.

Massie’s installation is polyvocal, muscular, and enthusiastically inclusive. Its placement next to two early 20th-century Murano glass mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, however, is confusing and arguably ungenerous. Do the curators really expect the communal efforts of untrained Baltimore citizens to hold their own in relation to the tight professionalism of studio-made mosaics? Perhaps, though, one could argue for a meaningful thematic connection. For, much as the Byzantine mosaics originally stood in the chancel of a church, suggesting the virtual participation of the distant king and queen, Massie’s piece testifies to an absent presence while taking its place in a tradition of commemoration.

In any event, other highlights await. A sublime bowl made by Tsuruka Yoshitaka in 2012 employs slips in ways that would have been notionally familiar to earlier Japanese ceramists, but that also displays an elegant grasp of the principles of modern abstraction. A 15th-century Tibetan mandala, painted in glue tempera and featuring an astonishing level of detail, holds its own in the presence of a recent abstraction by Anil Revri. And while the placement of Ingres’ “Reclining Venus” (1822) near Hans Schuler’s sculpture of a nereid reclining on a wave feels a bit obvious, Schuler’s remarkable carving abilities reward in full: studying his work is like attending a master class in the varied handling of marble.

Along the way, there are also a few interactive elements. Audio stations offer thoughts from three of the featured contemporary artists (Wiley comes across as crisp and polished in his analysis of history as a material, while Jessy DeSantis’ discussion of ethnocide via a local podcast feels more raw and informal).

Magnifying glasses facilitate a closer study of several pieces, including a breathtakingly tiny 1952 printing of the Lord’s Prayer in seven languages—which was said to be, when issued, the smallest book in the world. You may find yourself wishing that you could hold that microscopic text to test its apparent weightlessness, but perhaps you’ll be partly mollified by a reproduction of a Japanese woodblock, whose vigorous contours reward curious fingertips.

Installation view, with Hans Schuler’s Nereid Reclining on a Wave in foreground (photo by Kerr Houston)

Notably, several of the interactive elements also anticipate younger viewers. Near Roberto Lugo’s pictorial “Frederick Douglass Food Stamp Jar,” 2018, a wall text and two low-hung mirrors encourage children to think about how it might feel to see themselves depicted in such a context. Elsewhere, broad prompts (“What do you think it means to ‘belong’ in an art museum?”) aim to spark self-reflection of a more abstract sort.

To that end, too, the show also includes an activity table and a suggestion that visitors sketch a response to one of a number of works in the show on stock cards. Anyone, of course, can do so, but the brightest entries hanging from the wall were clearly drawn by youthful hands.

Also notable is the way in which unexpected links and connections begin to emerge, in a manner that reinforces and extends the premise of the show. Take that marble sculpture by Schuler, for instance. Study its surfaces, which are variously sleek, swirling and aqueous, and its coloration: a ghastly white. Now turn around and check out the Aztec maize deity across the gallery. Here, the rough volcanic stone is darker, coarser, and more friable—yielding an entirely different vision of a divine being. The curators may or may not have intended such a comparison, but it’s surely a tribute to their show that one begins to think, in progressing through the gallery, in terms of reflections and resonances.

Installation view, with Aztec Maize Deity and Jessy DeSantis’ Cintli, Corn, Maíz visible (photo by Kerr Houston)

The show ends in a way that’s both entertaining and telling. A large reproduction of a 2012 mural shows Harlem Park students offering their version of the ideal city represented in a celebrated Renaissance painting. Wonderfully, the lapidary original gives way to a much livelier scene in which figures strut, vamp, and flirt; a sculpture on a column is replaced by a bird munching happily on fruit sprouting from a tree.

Recalling an earlier wall text, we might be momentarily tempted to ask if this, too, could be called cultural appropriation. But the sheer sweetness of the image dissolves the force of such a question as soon as it’s asked. Theories pale in the bright light of unabashed enthusiasm.

And in that sense, this show might be said to take a sort of stand. Certainly, some aspects of this exhibition are erudite, and many of the wall texts seem to assume adult viewers as they allude offhandedly to Ottoman ceramic traditions or the sexism associated with the academic tradition. But the curators seem generally uninterested in offering a rigorous account of influence, or in seriously engaging with academics who have voiced reservations about inspiration and resonance as concepts (James Elkins, we’re looking at you!).

Instead, the goals here are inclusivity and a kindling of a casual respect for the importance of artistic connections of various sorts. Resisting the thorniness of contemporary theory, this show offers instead a lighthearted sense of possibility. A fruit tree, you might say, in the midst of a busy city.

Header Image: Installation view, with Kehinde Wiley’s Saint Amelie in foreground (photo by Kerr Houston)

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