A conversation with Gagosian director Antwaun Sargent at Frieze London 2021 unpacking his exhibition exploring the dimensions of space within the context of the African diaspora.
New Canaan, Connecticut
Object & Thing at the Noyes House
by Drew Zeiba
The New Canaan, Connecticut, home Eliot Noyes built for his family in 1955 is at once brazenly modern and earthy, atavistic almost. Though perhaps less famous than other ‘Moderns’ in this New England town that, idiosyncratically, is haven to dozens of them like Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House, it remains a distinct study in inventing a new kind of domestic life. At the base of a hill and framed by lanky pine trees and an idyllic stream, the house is unusual: two spaces unconnected and split over a courtyard, with entrances on either end, almost more frames than doorways. Normally closed to the public—it’s still at times lived in by the Noyes family—this autumn the radical home was opened up in a presentation by the design fair Object & Thing, along with the galleries Blum & Poe and Mendes Wood DM, appropriately dubbed At The Noyes House.
In the words of Abby Bangser, who founded Object & Thing and curated At the Noyes House with architect Rafael de Cárdenas and the aforementioned galleries, the building is “a real time capsule.” It contains original, worn furnishings like rare Sergio Rodrigues chairs, and features tacked up family photos — perhaps still added to when Noyes’s children come to spend the night. Despite fitting in more than 80 works by 34 artists and designers, the exhibition layout feels almost unplotted, intentionally so, with objects placed in reference to how the family lived with art and design. A 2.4m Alma Allen bronze stands in the courtyard spot where Alexander Calder’s Black Beast II (1957), which the family donated to MoMA, once stood; paintings and works on paper by artists including Rubem Valentim, Yoshitomo Nara, and Mimi Lauter are mounted on walls where other works have been removed; Lynda Benglis sculptures and contemporary vessels stand in for where the family’s vases and objets d’art once rested. (Though some interventions were more subtle; the curators pulled each book from its shelf, dusted them, and placed them back exactly as they were, for example).
In addition to the Allen bronze, the courtyard hosts other site-specific works, such as Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s untitled shimmery curtain, which de Cárdenas noted became an Instagram blockbuster. With green aluminum chains and a wobbly red laser-cut steel aperture, it’s a contemporary revamp of the beaded curtain that rethinks the home’s relationship to its landscape by creating new boundaries and new portals, serving as at once a passage, a barrier, and a frame. Inspired by original furniture that Eliot’s son Fred Noyes kept at the home, as well as Black Beast II, the New York–based duo Green River Project created custom outdoor chairs and a table in black-painted pine. With the furnture’s heavy-set forms and shimmery coats of marine paint, which, according to Aaron Aujla who runs Green River Project with Ben Bloomstein, had its “final coat put on a few hours before dropping [the furniture] off,” the comparison to the steel creature is easy to see. Thinking sculpturally also conjured for them Tony Smith’s hulking geometric steel sculpture Source (1967), a work they’d been obsessing over since 2012. “It felt like some end to a conversation we had started years ago,” Aujla said of the Noyes House furnishings, adding that he and Bloomstein “like to think of the four chairs and table as five parts to a whole: An immovable beast or entrance to a cave like the Courbet painting that inspired Smith.”
History’s twisted reworking is a recurring theme. On a table in the study is a 2019 Philippe Malouin nylon landline phone, boxy and primary blue, besides one of Noyes’s most notable designs, the once-ubiquitous IBM Selectric typewriter. It’s a funny juxtaposition, Malouin’s ultracontemporary take on what’s now a practically outmoded device besides an antique-seeming tool that once signaled the height of technological modernity. The exhibition is loaded with such timewarps: Vintage Guatemalan huipil garments adorn the cushions of Daniel Valero’s Patél chairs while nearby Megumi Arai’s hand-dyed bedspread stitches together found fabrics, referencing the Japanese boro tradition of peasants making and re-making patchwork garments.
North Carolina–based artist Jim McDowell, who along with Arai is contributed to the show by design gallery Tiwa Select, radically revamps historical forms for the present with his ‘face jugs’. Styled after earthenware vessels once made by enslaved and newly-freed people of African descent in the Americas—including by his own four-times great aunt Evangeline—the jugs are thought to have been used variously for funerary, grave marking, and spiritually protective purposes. For years, McDowell pointed out, the jugs were appropriated as a vernacular Southern ‘folk art’ by white people, something he witnessed first hand as the only Black person in a ceramics class in 1980. McDowell reclaims this agentic form. “These face jugs speak of a larger implication beyond the form of this vessel,” he said. “They tell stories; they evoke emotions that have long been locked up; they unleash what has been locked up inside them and what has been locked up inside me.”
About two decades ago, while working on the face jugs McDowell discovered the story of a man known as ‘Slave Potter Dave’, who could read and write and engraved his stoneware with messages now lost to time. “In the face of adversity and under the risk of severe punishment, this slave potter created jugs with rebellious sayings on them,” McDowell noted. His vessels bear writing too, with quotes from thinkers and leaders “presenting us with knowledge to live a better life,” including Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou, along with contemporary messages like ‘BLM’, ‘LOVE TRUMPS HATE’, and ‘SILENCE IS BETRAYAL’ on their backs. “The jugs,” McDowell explained, “speak for me and for my ancestors.” Along with the words they carry, their potency derives in part from their contorted faces that attract and repel. While historically such objects might have warded off devilish spirits, today they invoke and reject presences no less evil: “I make no excuse for the horror that I portray in my jugs. They are ugly because slavery is ugly. In order for us to move forward into a better future we must face the past no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.”
In the study, some of McDowell’s sculptural jugs—including the virtuosic and haunting Door of No Return, which features figures set into a stage-like void within the amphora—share a credenza with Masaomi Yasunaga’s otherworldly, abstract Tokeru Utsuwa, or Melting Vessels. These amalgamations of bits of clay suspended like found stones in layers upon layers of pure glaze cohere into something like archaeological artifacts dredged from the ocean long after humans have disappeared, sort of beautiful last testaments of the anthropocene. Perhaps, in this house of glass and stone, a living marker to its mid-century moment, tucked away on forested land, nothing could be more appropriate: hand-crafted ruins, indices of deep legacies and deep-times, of humanity’s lasting impact on the earth and one another, reminders that though things always change, one can’t escape the resonance of history.
At The Noyes House: Blum & Poe, Mendes Wood DM and Object & Thing is on show through November 28th, 2020.
All further viewing slots are currently booked, so take a virtual tour below.
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