Last weekend the Frye Art Museum opened a trifecta of exhibitions—three new shows driven by overlapping ideas about art and communities. The first is a labor of love by museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker showcasing the work of Russian-American émigré artist Nicolai Fechin. The other two are inspired by the first published work of James Joyce, a collection of 36 poems called Chamber Music.
The Frye’s new deputy director, Scott Lawrimore, made his curatorial debut with the Joyce-inspired shows. For 36 Chambers, he and Frye staff matched works from the museum’s founding collection with Joyce’s poems. For Chamber Music, he invited 36 local artists to make new work in response to recorded music based on the same set of poems. Between them, Lawrimore says, you can see the “inspirational echo between generations.”
Stylistically, the two Chambers could not be more different—one is exclusively portraits and landscapes in oil paint, the other is almost entirely abstract in a wide variety of media. But their overlapping conceit prompts interesting questions about the way art evolves over the years, shaped by the community that surrounds it. Even Joyce’s text stirs this idea: Published in 1907, the formal lyricism of Chamber Music is a fry cry from the groundbreaking Ulysses, published 15 years later.
The paintings included in 36 Chambers, many of which are contemporaneous to Joyce’s poems, look traditional to today’s audience. But their beauty and energy still command attention. (I’d be happy to watch the waves crash in Soren Emil Carlsen’s “Surf Breaking” every day for the rest of my life.) Even if you don’t know what made them innovative in their time, these paintings maintain a freshness that makes the exhibition enjoyable. And Lawrimore’s involvement of the Frye’s staff in his curatorial selection process lends credo to the idea of the “citizen curator” while presenting a crowd-sourced look at the collection’s greatest hits. (To the Frye fans out there, yes, the infamous ducks are included.)
All of the new work by local artists is hung in the Frye’s largest gallery. The pieces surround an enormous gossip chair, custom made for this show and big enough to seat more than 20 people. The chair includes a cubby for each of the 36 artists—and in them are assortments of art books and zines that help to put each artist in the context of the community that surrounds him. The participating artists come from many slices of the local art scene—different ages, different mediums, different aesthetics—and all of them are active art promoters and organizers in addition to being artists.
Only a few of the pieces stopped me in my tracks. DK Pan’s “Time Is Memory (I Would in that Sweet Bosom Be)” whispered simple truth in all-white debossed paper and Rafael Soldi’s untitled, monochromatic print just barely revealed the outline of a man’s head facing away, as if endlessly looking into the image himself. But each of the works in this show is interesting, if not arresting, and hung together in this gallery they emphasize the spirit of this time and place—which the gossip chair all but insists you sit down and talk about.
And while you’re at it, there is Fechin to consider. Fechin—a contemporary of Joyce—was a Russian artist who won the adoration of American collectors and emigrated to the United States to flee hardships after the Russian Revolution. The Frye owns one of his masterpieces, Lady in Pink (Portrait of Natalia Podbelskaya)—a gorgeous, shimmering work that inspired Birnie Danzker to curate this exhibition of 55 paintings and drawings, more than half of which are on loan from elsewhere. The pieces are each remarkable for their movement, which Birnie Danzker aptly calls realism “dissolving into pure abstraction.” Many of the paintings depict other artists from Fechin community in an era roiling with change and innovation. They, too, capture the spirit of their age.
Chamber Music and 36 Chambers are on view at the Frye Art Museum through May 5. Nicolai Fechin is on view through May 19.
Pictured above: Lady in Pink (Portrait of Natalia Podbelskaya) by Nicolai Fechin, 1912. Oil on canvas. 45 1/2 x 35 in. Frye Art Museum, 1990.005.