This spring the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston will present The Old, Weird America, the first museum exhibition to explore the widespread resurgence of folk imagery and mythic history in recent art from the United States. Organized by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston senior curator Toby Kamps, the exhibition illustrates the relevance and appeal of folklore to contemporary artists, as well as the genre’s power to illuminate ingrained cultural forces and overlooked histories. The exhibition borrows its inspiration and title—with the author’s blessing—from music and cultural critic Greil Marcus’ 1997 book of the same title examining the influence of folk music on Bob Dylan and The Band’s seminal album, The Basement Tapes.
The Old, Weird America will feature eighteen artists who explore native, idiomatic, and communal subjects from America’s past: Eric Beltz, Jeremy Blake, Sam Durant, Barnaby Furnas, Deborah Grant, Matthew Day Jackson, Brad Kahlhamer, Margaret Kilgallen, David McDermott and Peter McGough, Aaron Morse, Cynthia Norton (a.k.a. Ninny), Greta Pratt, David Rathman, Dario Robleto, Allison Smith, Kara Walker, and Charlie White. Covering the period from the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to the beginning of the Space Age in 1957, their representational paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, installations, and videos reconsider important legends and figures in United States history. Indians, Pilgrims, Founding Fathers, cowboys, Civil War widows, bobby soxers, and Depression-style drifters are among the Ur-American characters populating storytelling works that —like all good folklore —recklessly combine myth and fact to suggest an alternative national history.
During times of change and social stress, cultures look to their master narratives. For example, in the United States, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and other artists in the Regionalist movement of the 1930s and 40s rejected abstract, European Modernism and turned their attention to depicting rural and domestic life in realist styles, in part as a reaction against the horrors of that continent’s First World War. Similarly, says exhibition curator Kamps, “in this post-9/11 America of high-emotion and sweeping change, artists naturally look for inspiration in the forgotten and unresolved relics of our nation, the volatile and mercurial old, weird America of folk history.”
To be included in the exhibition are renowned works, such as: Kara Walker’s animated, Balinese-style shadow-puppet video, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), a fearless satire of black origin myths and white racism in outrageous vignettes featuring slave ships, gay master-andslave sex, and dancing cotton-boll babies; Sam Durant’s sculptural installation Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006) restages two amateurish dioramas from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum in Massachusetts juxtaposing two radically different versions of how the Jamestown Colony came to celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621; Margaret Kilgallen’s installation Main Drag (2001) depicts, in a playful, cartoon-like style, a low-rent town of the imagination inhabited by surfers, hobos, juvenile delinquents, and dames in beehive hairdos; Barnaby Furnas’s paintings and watercolors express the chaos and confusion of battle, and works on view such as John Brown (2005) feature glowing blood, explosions, and tracer bullets as well as representations of time-lapse movement reminiscent of film and videogame special effects; Jeremy Blake’s digitally composed video Winchester (2002), inspired by the labyrinth-like house of rifle heiress Sarah Winchester, morphs vintage photographs of the house, mysterious cowboy shadows, and Blake’s own abstract “digital paintings” to create a lush, engulfing image of a uniquely American form of madness.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a 162-page, full-illustration catalog published by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that will provide the cultural and historical context for the artworks. The publication will include essays by Kamps, the show’s curator; Colleen Sheehy, Director of Education at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and art historian at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and Michael Duncan, a critic and curator based in Los Angeles. It will also contain reproductions of the exhibited work, as well as biographical and bibliographical information on each artist.