Dysfunction on display

  • Emmett Donlon, “Self Portrait as the Clown Asleep, Perhaps” Courtesy

  • Heather Morgan, “Gone are the Nights of Swinging from the Stars”

  • The exhibit installed at the Kimball Jenkins Estate and School of Art.

  • The exhibit installed at the Kimball Jenkins Estate and School of Art.

For The Monitor
Published: 11/23/2021 4:41:28 PM

Kimball Jenkins — in the newest chapter of its revitalization of late — is teaming up with gallery Kelley Stelling Contemporary to jointly present “The Dysfunction of Social Practice” at the estate. The show features five New Hampshire artists who each take over a room in the historic mansion. Paintings, ceramics, assemblages, and even a performance art piece (involving mice) are featured in this multi-dimensional show. As the title signals, it is an art show born out of the anxieties but also silver-linings of a global pandemic — a time of significant isolation which eroded social practice as we know it into an unrecognizable state — but was also a cocoon of creativity for these artists while many of us hunkered down at home.

Emmett Donlon of Concord, fresh out of art school, often executes monumental works, some so large they wouldn’t fit in his basement studio when he moved back home. His work is rooted in the edgy portrait-art traditions of Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, and Luc Tuymans. His subjects: a wide-eyed First Daughter Amy Carter holding a cat, superstar skateboarder Tony Hawk as a twenty-something with that iconic shock of blond hair, and various portraits of self and others as clowns, thrill with their slightly awry reality. A double self-portrait as a sleeping clown, 14 feet wide, is the flagship work in the show. The clown is a rich psychological subject as it can evoke both pleasure and terror — especially at such an in-your-face scale. Chipper Ronald MacDonald versus Stephen King’s murderous Pennywise. Donlon has also hand-sewn and built an elaborate “Mouse Circus,” which featured acrobatic feats by his pet mice on the night of the opening.

Heather Morgan, a Brooklyn to Somersworth transplant, continues the theme of zeroing-in on discomforting edges of life in her thrashed and slashed paintings of strong women where the literal knife-like strokes of the brush are viscerally intense. The canvases have the subtle tension of Willem De Kooning’s abstract Women series from the 1950s but are also tethered in the realm of representation just enough, and in that way, are coincidentally evocative of Elaine De Kooning’s paintings (Willem’s wife and creative equal). Elaine’s seated portraits of President John Kennedy and artist Fairfield Porter and others are close analogs to Morgan’s work which often depicts seated subjects, including herself. Morgan’s figures are presented in a similar state of extreme tautness, as if the chair is just barely containing the women’s energy within the flatness of the two-dimensional plane. The densely-packed presentation of so many of Morgan’s works at once in this show has an almost fun-house mirror feel to it, with all the joy and strangeness that manner of distortion evokes.

Goffstown resident Zach DeWitt’s colorful abstractions have the depth and feeling of landscapes — the loose brushwork and spare and deliberate compositional choices are richly-layered and ephemeral. They are a fascinating counterpoint to the artist’s commission-work which is representational, mostly of family pets. There are all the gauzy and productive bands of color of a Helen Frankenthaler painting, but the asymmetries and controlled chaos of the afore-mentioned Willem De Kooning’s later-life paintings are present in these works and are what make them sing.

Meghan Samson of Barrington’s ceramic work is primitivistic and primal at once. Like the brutally organic paintings of Jean Dubuffet come to life, the faces and grimaces and laughter and sometimes strange appendages (or lack thereof) of these edgy totems made from earth bring a certain pleasing jaggedness to the fore. The softness of human flesh is reduced to the emotionally hard and elemental forms that lie beneath the surface of the human. Her strong massing and working and marking of the clay is frenetic at times but also calculated to maximum effect.

Dublin-based artist Rosemary Mack’s assemblages of doll parts into madcap scenes are startlingly pleasing if not a little frightening at points — like Donlon’s clowns, there is a duality of response in a given viewer’s consciousness, rooted most assuredly in childhood exposures to humanoid toys that either went well, or off the rails. Her vignettes — like dioramas that could be orchestrated by director David Lynch of Twin Peaks fame — are equal parts Barbie and Chucky, and the friction between these poles makes the viewer linger and puzzle a little longer over what she is telling us through bits of harmless (we hope) plastic and glue.

Collectively, these works capture the social anxieties of our “new normal,” to use that overused but useful phrase. When art openings and galleries all but shut down as cultural casualties of a global pandemic — some never to revive — this show promises to be a large part of the slow but steady return of the New Hampshire art scene.

The “Dysfunction of Social Practice” opened Nov. 20 at Kimball Jenkins, 266 N. Main St., Concord. It runs through Jan. 14. An evening of experiential dance associated with the exhibit will be held Dec. 2. at 5:30 p.m.

Jay Surdukowski is a trustee of the Currier Museum of Art.

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