The social value of studying art history is dubious, but there are two basic arguments that people tend to make it its favor: (1) It teaches you in some vague way to look at visual culture more carefully, making you a more discerning, critical viewer, or (2) It gives you a more concrete understanding of the past that may have transferable value to the present; at the very least, it provides cocktail fodder. Rarely, of course, does the discipline actually pursue these two goals. There are usually two other, more vital issues involved: beauty and money.
It was a joy, then, to walk into Triple Candie’s new Harlem space and find a clever, concise exhibition that attempts to tackle both those bigger goals and pleasurable realities. Directors Shelley Bancroft and Peter Nesbett have purchased and hung nine floral still life paintings produced in China and sold at the El Mundo department in Harlem for the show. “Clearly, they must be copies of historic paintings,” they initially thought, they admit in the press release. The rigorous investigation they mounted, detailed on placards hung alongside the works, reveals that their backgrounds were not so straightforward.
Saying much more will ruin the surprises that their research uncovered. (If you first want to find out in person, stop here.) We learn that at least two of the paintings were based on an eighteenth century Jan van Huysum. Some of the other works, though, remained unidentified, even after consulting outside experts. Are they based on forgotten or stolen paintings, art that has slipping out of the historical record, or are these Chinese designers playing with the form and conjuring their own, original still lifes? Do the Chinese factory artists view Dutch still life as a supreme marker of taste, or do they believe that Westerners, particularly those in the working and lower middle class who would be shopping at El Mundo, view them this way? (They are sort of classy.)
The questions just keep getting weirder. Delving into the past and returning with curious, incomplete answers, Bancroft and Nesbett highlight the contingency and levels of mediation inherent in all art and art history. Everything you’ve bought to hang on your walls begins to look a little less familiar, a bit uncanny.