Montclair Art Museum opens "Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell"

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Montclair Art Museum opens "Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell"
Maggie Meiners (b. 1972), Skin Deep, 2012. Archival pigment print. Ed. 9 +2AP. Courtesy of the artist.

MONTCLAIR, NJ.- Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell, a new thought-provoking photography exhibition at Montclair Art Museum, reimagines the iconic work of early to mid-century painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell through the lens of modern America. With stunningly vivid detail, Meiners’s carefully constructed photographs turn nostalgia on its head and rework Rockwell’s familiar imagery to address contemporary issues including racism, sexuality, gender roles, and the impact of technology.

In our current environment of social and political unrest, a global pandemic and renewed activism, MAM’s new installations, and supporting discussions, programs, and banners, are particularly relevant and will engage visitors in new ways. The hope is that it will encourage new dialog in the community about how to protect our fragile freedoms and most vulnerable neighbors. The series is on display from February 7 through June 13, 2021.

For almost a century, Norman Rockwell’s works have enjoyed broad popular appeal for their reflection of an idealistic American culture. Rockwell considered himself a storyteller, painting life as he would like it to be. Meiners’s clever, engaging work modernizes Rockwell’s iconic themes, exposing the nature of our current society with an unflinching eye, and encourages viewers to see their world, both past and present, in a new light.

One of Meiners’s most poignant works is Dream Act (2015), which shows a young migrant girl flanked by border patrol officers, a racial slur scrawled on the wall above her head. The composition is identical to Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With (1964), showing six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. marshals to the newly integrated William Franz Elementary School on November 14, 1960.

Rockwell used stage photographs as templates to produce his paintings. This inspired Meiners to revisit Rockwell’s work where the photograph is the final product.

“As a child, I was always intrigued by Norman Rockwell’s prolific cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post,” said Meiners. “[In this series] I examine whether the nostalgia of Rockwell’s original works translates into our rapidly changing lifestyles and his very human tableaux can reflect this moment of time,” the artist adds.

With 18 photographs by Meiners on display side by side three paintings and illustrations from The Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell, museum goers will experience the juxtaposition of these two bodies of work. While the social climate in our country has changed dramatically in the 60 years between Meiners and Rockwell, comparisons of these two bodies of work illustrate that people’s desires and fears often stay the same.

In Rockwell’s The Tattoo Artist (1944), lent by the Brooklyn Museum, a sailor sits down for an update on an old tattoo. Crossed out women’s names trail down his bicep as the tattoo artist adds a new love interest to the list. In Meiners’s reinterpretation of the scene, Skin Deep, a woman replaces the sailor and both men and women are included as her former flames. Embedded in multiple layers of meaning are ideas about the rise of women’s empowerment, growing acceptance of the variety of human sexuality, and the inner life often hidden by respectable, corporate exteriors.

Born and raised in Chicago, Meiners (b. 1972) debuted her series Revisiting Rockwell in 2016 at a solo exhibition at Anne Loucks Gallery in Glencoe, Illinois and it has since traveled to venues nationally and internationally.

“Art can be intimidating, and for many people, Norman Rockwell is a gateway,” said Meiners. “I hope [visitors to the exhibition] will just engage in conversation about the images and their relation to current social issues. Art is a potential platform for change, and I feel I will have done my job if they feel connected.”

Four Freedoms Revisited
In addition to Meiners’s work, the exhibition includes four photographs from the acclaimed “For Freedoms” series, an artist-led platform that investigates how art and artists can help deepen public discourse and political awareness in the United States.

Like Meiners’s work, these photographs will allow visitors to compare multiple contemporary interpretations of Rockwell’s themes. Founded in 2016 by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, along with video artist and activist Eric Gottesman, artist Michelle Woo, and photographer Wyatt Gallery, the “For Freedoms” series re-envisions Rockwell’s 1943 paintings of the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union, reflecting back America’s current cultural complexity and diversity.

On exhibit at MAM are works by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur in collaboration with Gottesman and Gallery. Using different elements from various photo shoots, the artists reinterpreted Rockwell’s classic paintings Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want, and created highly stylized and staged images with a more accurately multicultural and inclusive representation of contemporary America.

Thomas, whose previous projects have examined race, reflects, “At that time in America, it seems what it meant to be American was white Anglo-Saxon, whereas we want to shine a light on the fact that artists’ work is often political and shapes culture and society.” To see more of Hank Willis Thomas’s work, visit his sculpture Ernest and Ruth (2015), on the Museum lawn.

Co-curated by Gail Stavitsky and Alison Van Denend, Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell opened in tandem with New York to New Mexico: New Acquisitions, an exhibition of new MAM works spanning early 20th century to the present.

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