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Animal/Vegetable/Mineral: Exhibition explores three recurring themes of American art
Willard Leroy Metcalf, Kalmia, 1905. Oil on Canvas, 34 x 34 in. Florence Griswold Museum.

OLD LYME, CONN.- From June 8 through September 23, 2013 the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, hosts Animal/Vegetable/Mineral: An Artist’s Guide to the World. Including some of the best-known works from the Museum’s permanent collection displayed alongside recent works by contemporary artists, the exhibition takes both its name and organizing principle from a children’s game that presumes the whole of the world can be neatly divided into three categories—the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral.

Artists use many tools to understand, document, and describe the world around them. Animal/Vegetable/Mineral explores the unexpected dialogues that can occur among eclectic works of art that use very different tools to ask similar questions about the character of their subjects, the ordering of the natural world, and the material qualities of things. The exhibition takes its inspiration from Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities in its installation, grouping the 105 works according to the three themes, and highlights the different ways that American artists explored similar ideas as styles changed. With key works from the Museum’s permanent collection hanging alongside lesser-known gems, Animal/Vegetable/Mineral encourages visitors to take a fresh look at familiar art. The addition of work by contemporary artists Sascha Braunig, Allison Maletz, and the team of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick demonstrates ways artists continue to investigate questions fundamental to art making.

The earliest works in the exhibition, rural portraits by itinerant painters Ralph Earl, John Brewster, and Ammi Phillips, take the same subject that cosmopolitan academic painters Robert Vonnoh and Frank Vincent DuMond would explore a century later. When Ammi Phillips rendered the pristine lace and embroidered textiles of Katherine Hickok’s finery in his c. 1825 portrait of her, he used clear lines to achieve painstaking detail. When Robert Vonnoh painted John Severinus Conway, his fellow American classmate in Paris, in 1883, he used broad strokes and dramatic shadows to give his friend a fiery intensity. If Phillips gave his sitter character in what she wore, painting a portrait of rural refinement, Vonnoh gave his sitter character by suggesting his vibrant personal presence, painting an energetic portrait of a dynamic personality.

The iconic impressionist paintings of Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf are seen next to earlier landscape paintings by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church to convey how stylistic changes led to very different paintings of similar settings. Where Church saw a landscape full of history and drama in his 1846 painting The Charter Oak at Hartford, Metcalf used a modern style to freeze a momentary impression of a light and color in his 1911 New Hampshire painting Thawing Brook (Winter Shadows).

Artists have also used radically different tools to examine the essential material qualities of their work, whether in paintings that explore the immediate environments and tools of their studios, or in abstract compositions that eschew images to study the relationship between pigment and ground. John Haberle’s c. 1890 trompe l'oeil still-life painting The Clay Pipe uses intense precision to toy with the limits of representation, tricking a viewer into seeing a pipe instead of paint. Anni Albers’ 1972 lithograph Fox I employs sophisticated interactions of form and color in an abstract composition to investigate how the eye perceives pattern and unity.

Animal/Vegetable/Mineral includes recent work by contemporary artists offering a fresh perspective on these perennial themes. “From the days of the art colony in the early twentieth century, Old Lyme has a long tradition of cultivating new ideas in a historic setting,” writes exhibition curator Ben Colman, Assistant Curator of the Florence Griswold Museum. “We are thrilled to preserve that legacy in Animal/Vegetable/Mineral with an exciting group of recent works.” Allison Maletz, based in New York, creates monumentally scaled watercolor paintings that use images found in family snapshots to study the history of her subjects. Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, photographers and installation artists working as a team in New York’s Hudson Valley, recreate the mythical figure of the Greenman to invoke pre-modern ideas about the order of the natural world. Portland, ME, painter Sascha Braunig’s works meditate on the junction of abstract and representational painting by projecting crisp geometric patterns over figural still lifes that recall the precision of Baroque painting.

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