The abstract and the real
GREENWICH — The gaze of a seated figure challenges the viewer, a dress strap slips from the subject’s shoulder. The pattern of the figure’s dress contrasts with those suggesting a wall, a chair, a head scarf.
“It’s texturally interesting,” said Jenny Harris of “Boudoir,” by Ellen Gordon.
“Right off the bat, it’s playing with both realism and abstractionism. I find this figure ambiguous: Who is she? Is it a she?”
The work is one of 160 Harris — a curatorial assistant for the Museum of Modern Art — sifted through as she judged which 60 to hang and which eight to award prizes in the Greenwich Art Society’s annual member show.
For years, the society has invited high-caliber curators — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMa, the Whitney, Guggenheim, Jewish and Katonah museums — to serve as jurors for its member shows.
This year’s exhibit, “Parallel Visions: Abstraction and Realism,” opened this week in Greenwich Library’s Flinn Gallery, sponsored by U.S. Trust. Anna Patalano, director of the Greenwich Art Society, secured the U.S. Trust backing after the discovery of a painting by Childe Hassan, one of the society’s founding members, in its private collection.
“I don’t work that frequently with contemporary artists, so there’s something refreshing about seeing all this new work, how liberated it is and diverse in terms of approach,” said Harris.
She has worked for the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMa since 2013 and held the position of curatorial assistant since 2015. Before New York, Harris was the Liliane Pingoud Soriano Curatorial Fellow at the Musée du Louvre, Paris and earned her bachelor’s of arts from Wellesley College.
While she regularly participates in conversations over acquisitions at MoMa, often marked by months of pondering and researching, Harris said she rarely gets to inventory diverse, contemporary work all in one moment.
“It doesn’t have the same weightiness that a work at a museum has, where there’s a pressure to fit into a specific conversation,” she said. “Here there’s more freedom to enter where your interests lie.”
Patalano, who teaches many of the artists who submitted work, said an outsider’s perspective is crucial to maintaining objectivity. Were she to judge a member show, biases would slant her choices even if she made a conscious effort to reject them, she said.
Eight artists received prizes at an opening reception Thursday, in the form of cash and gift certificates — ranging from $100-$500 — including Gordon.
Artists submitted their work earlier in the week. Greenwich Art Society Intern Angelina Medina watched as Harris deliberately surveyed the works propped against walls or arranged on tables, benches and the floor, pausing to sit by and sometimes tag certain pieces for inclusion in the show.
Medina tip-toed behind, preserving the aura of quiet as she removed and reconfigured pieces.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “You can’t be in someone’s mind. You have to wait around and see if you’re thinking the same thing, and holding back your comments and questions because this is her job, this is her space to think and tag everything.”
Harris walked to a painting of a girl swimming. Still water and light distort the figure’s skin and features but her body retains its shape.
“I was taken with this one,” she said. She pointed to a variation on the painting before her by the same artist, this one using water bubbles to further abstract the figure. She decided to keep both to encompass opposite ends of the abstraction spectrum.
At MoMa, Harris attends to administrative work in addition to acquiring pieces. The possibility of thinking about art and artists, rather than emails and contracts, excited her.
“It’s nice to see what people are interested in in 2018,” she said. “What is speaking to artists now?”
She crossed the gallery to a grainy depiction of La Croix cans and Fiji water bottles, achieved by tiny pink, yellow, orange and blue dots. The work blends a millennial subject matter with a more-than-century-old technique called pointillism, developed by French post-impressionist painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
“Anything that brings the past to the present is interesting to me,” she said.
She relied on instinct when choosing from multiple submissions by a single artist. In one case, she reviewed two works recreating reality: a painting of a cabinet, which used the canvas’ dimensionality to suggest an unhinged door, and a vase of flowers.
She said the door interested her more than the flowers, especially in the context of a show exploring abstraction and realism.
“What I want is that the categories themselves dissolve a little bit,” she said. “I really want a lot of the tactile-ness of some of this to come through, the choices of medium … There’s so many ways of engaging with this theme. I hope people embrace an openness.”
Harris has family from Fairfield County, and her grandmother was involved in her local art scene; the connection made curating this long-running show exciting. The gig, new to her, made her consider the ways contemporary artists engage with the institution of art.
“Sometimes, we get a painting from an artist who came to the museum as a child looking at paintings by Picasso, and that’s meaningful,” she said. “How does the institution itself generate creative impulses in the community?”
The exhibit, and the body of contemporary art housed within, encouraged her and she hopes the exhibit inspires viewers, she said.
“Art isn’t great art when it gets hung in a museum,” she said. “It’s the way people live.”
Jenny Harris will return Aug. 9 to speak with artists from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The talk is open to the public. The Greenwich Art Society’s “Parallel Visions: Abstraction and Realism” will run in the Flinn Gallery through Aug. 16.