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Frye Art Museum Brings The Old, Weird America to Seattle
Cynthia Norton. Dancing Squared, 2004. Aluminum, hardware, electric motors, dresses, wire. 90 x 180 x 180 inches. Courtesy the artist. © Rick Gardner Photography.
SEATTLE, WA.- This fall the Frye Art Museum will present an exhibition exploring the widespread resurgence of folk imagery and mythic history in recent art from the United States. The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art will be presented October 3, 2009 through January 3, 2010. Organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s senior curator, Toby Kamps, the exhibition demonstrates the relevance and appeal of folklore to contemporary artists, as well as its multivalent power to critique our master narratives and reveal overlooked histories. The exhibition borrows its inspiration and title—with the author’s blessing—from music and cultural critic Greil Marcus’s 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. Ninnie), 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 quintessential American characters populating storytelling works that —like all good folklore —creatively combine myth and fact to suggest an alternative national history.

Similar to the Regionalist artists of the 1930s, the artists in this exhibition examine America’s social history—the stories and characters we share to remind ourselves who we are. The exhibition postulates that in a post-9/11 America filled with high emotion and sweeping change, it is natural to look for inspiration in the similarly volatile and mercurial old, weird America of folk history. By giving visual form to archetypal stories and characters from America’s past, the artists included in The Old, Weird America both participate in and reflect upon folklore’s fraught role in the quest for roots, values, and authenticity.

Highlights of the exhibition include: 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) fearlessly satires black origin myths and white racism in outrageous vignettes featuring slave ships, gay master-and-slave 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 Old, Weird America was awarded the prestigious International Art Critics Association’s Best Thematic Museum Show Nationally in 2008. The exhibition travels from its second venue at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, Mass. to the Frye Art Museum for the final presentation.


Frye Art Museum | Seattle | Sam Durant | Barnaby Furnas | Deborah Grant | Matthew Day Jackson | Brad Kahlhamer | Margaret Kilgallen | David McDermott and Peter McGough | Aaron Morse | Cynthia Norton |


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