Nicole Gallery: Beautiful ... But is it Art?
Bizarre and controversial work can be hard to look at, but it's easy to write about. Avant-garde artworks are full of ideas and theories, which is easy to put into words. But colorful, uplifting artwork that fits beautifully in the home - that's tough. "Beautiful" isn't written, it's seen.
Maybe it's for that reason that a gallery like Nicole Gallery in River North gets overlooked. Every piece in the large, elegant gallery is pleasing to the eye. All the pieces would work in the home, above the couch, next to the ... (continue)
After World War II, art got so strange, people starting asking the now-famous question - "... but is it art?" And that question went on for decades, and then suddenly everyone just let it go. Urinals-as-sculptures are in the museums and sold at auctions for millions - case closed, it's art.
But without fanfare or press, another question was posed regarding pleasant, non-controversial decorative work - "... but is it [fine] art?" Artisans got the boot. Summer art fairs (the ones on the street with makeshift walls - which even veteran galleries like Rhona Hoffman used to participate in) got lumped into the craft fair ghetto. Figurative work got knocked down a peg - all for the crime of being pretty and non-ambiguous.
Nicole Gallery showcases contemporary Haitian, African, African-American Arts, and Shona Stone Sculputure. The gallery is a testament that brightly-colored artwork contains equal, if not greater, power and meaning. Nicole Smith, in her French/Haitian accent said, "Your newspaper - no one is reading it because it's too depressing. People want something uplifting."
I find myself gravitating to the serpentine stone sculptures made by Nicholas Mukomberanwa, of the Shona tribe in Zimbabwe. Smith talks about the self-taught artist, about his family, how he learned to read at the age of thirty-eight, and the museums in which he's shown. She never mentions President Mugabe, or the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe that's dropped an average almost 30 years in the last couple decades.
Smith shows me around the gallery, telling the success stories of the artists, their training, and their stylistic evolution. She tells the story of how Ifeyinwa Umeike used her paintings to charm the Port Authority to grant her a visa to get out of the Nigeria. And nothing about the circumstances that caused her to leave the country.
Angst isn't always worn on the sleeve; it's not always shown in bleak colors and depressing subject matter. Sometimes beauty is a survival tool, a place in which to escape, a refuge from heartbreak and strife. In my personal experience, I have found that some of the toughest people I've ever met are the last ones to tell their tale of woe. Nicole Gallery, and Nicole herself, holds that same elegance and poise from wall to wall.
So let's not exclude decorative work from contemporary art. Reading between the lines rendered with color and softness, there are tinges of heartbreak, the ordinary is honored because it's not taken for granted. Through study, fine craftsmanship, and survival, these artists have earned their place at the table.