Everyone has their own ways of coping—the rules we make for ourselves and the rules we entitle ourselves to break, the television we watch, the people we reach out to and those we don’t, the outrages we keep to ourselves and the ones we share. Everyone’s stress is real. For some of us, escape—however temporary—can be a powerful palliative
Last week I received a call from the esteemed communications specialist Philippa Polskin asking if I might assist with something. (For those unfamiliar with Polskin and her staff at Polskin Arts, they have for several decades been the behind-the-scenes strategists, advisors, ribbon-cutters and bullet-dodgers for most of the major museums that have opened a new facility, launched a new initiative and been praised or skewered by both the left and the right.)
While Philippa would never breach the confidentiality of her clients, from my days as a journalist I can only begin to guess at the stress she and her staff have been shouldering these days. They are no doubt working with museums on the front line of cultural catastrophes that will see our values challenged and reinterpreted—and which will inevitably change the course of art as we will publicly experience it.
I had both buried my father and had an appendectomy the week before, so was open to some diversion. And so it happened that I came out of retirement as a former juror on the art school circuit to judge one last competition—a battle of formidable thinkers and resourceful wizards of words: The Second Grand Quarantine Contest.
To keep spirits high while working in isolation, the Polskin team has launched a weekly contest. The challenge was to re-create a favorite work of art utilizing materials in one’s house, inspired by the Getty’s call to recreate works in their collection. With more than 30 submissions, the competition was fierce, and I spent hours reviewing the submissions—and then my choices: the range was so vast and inventive that I believe five different judges could have chosen five very different line-ups.
But, for me, the winner was this version of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943) by Polskin Arts senior vice-president Amanda Domizio. The work is a stunner: the perfect combination of emulation and simulation with both a profound connection to the original and a fresh, straight-faced wit that harkens back to such masters of tragicomedy as Harold Lloyd and Will Farrell. I was struck by the uncanny fusion of Kahlo’s silent suffering and Domizio’s dalliance with deadpan but, perhaps what ultimately gave this work its winning edge was Domizio’s ingenious ad-libbing of the unibrow, which I find joyously mystifying, This simple but powerful ode turned lemons into lemonade.
There were so many inventive submissions, that I broke from the Grand Quarantine Contest rulebook to identify two vice-winners, should the winner not be able to uphold her duties (which, at the time of going to print, seemed to be unspecified).
I’ll single out the submission by Mark Singer, Polskin’s CFO. Hands down, it had the most complexity of art-historically-grounded thought. For his rendition of Gauguin‘s Still Life with Three Puppies (1888) Singer made an art-historical leap by putting a Cézanne-esque tablecloth (composed of a bath towel) into a Gauguin still life, serving as the base of his composition.
But the art historical riffing didn’t end with this. There is a sly postmodern moment at the top of the composition that situates this art-historical hybrid in contemporary thought as well. Upon closer inspection of what appears to be the edge of the floor (the staging ground for Singer’s work), one sees on the actual floor the edges of two real dog bowls—counterpoints to the painted dog bowls in the “painting”, in which the dogs “eat” their cottony stew. It is the perfect fusion of modern pictorial and real-life space. Singer took the instruction to use only what was in his home for the work by portraying his home in this work!
A less able copyist might have been stymied and thrown in the towel, so to speak, by owning only two dogs with which to represent Gauguin’s three puppies. But Singer brings even a Robert Ryman-y moment to this work, with the third dog represented by a white stuffed animal atop the ruffled towel that stands in for the painted tablecloth of the original. What we have here is a real world and a pictorial world, which is also sculptural and photographic. This is nothing less than a reconceptualization of “Dogs Playing Poker”.
Of the three runners-up I was especially impressed with the single-gesture work by Amy Wentz, senior vice-president. How she was able to capture this extraordinary moment, where her cat embodies the same horrific terror as Edvard Munch‘s shocked alien, I will never fully comprehend. Or is that a yawn? Or simply a meow?
And finally, I must acknowledge vice-president Alison Buchbinder‘s excellent rendition of Rogier van der Weyden‘s Portrait of a Lady (c. 1460). The classical poise and resemblance to the original is as striking as the rendering of the lady’s headpiece in toilet paper and bounty towels is inspiring.
A special mention to Jennifer Essen, executive vice-president, whose rendition of Magritte’s The Son of Man (1946) had great panache. I liked the assuredness of the work: she did not feel the need to copy, but rather to emulate the original. There is a special stiffness to her arm but, because there was no way to carry this through and have the painted grapefruit hover in air, Essen simply and daringly held it up. That takes guts.
The awards were granted without knowledge of the rank of the various participants. My observations were ably shared with the Polskin team by Ms Polskin herself and, I must admit, that in all my years of writing and curating, I have never received as many joyous responses as I did from this silly mood-elevator, which the participants and I took seriously as the comic interlude we all needed. What spirit!
My requested fee for judging the contest: a container of Clorox wipes. They have yet to arrive.