Conversations are unfashionable these days, mostly replaced with brawling, tweeted insults, and the occasional grand jury investigation. Abstract thinking, the ability to detect patterns and draw relationships between ideas, is similarly unpopular these days, leading to accusations of elitism and snowflakiness.
This is why this summer's exhibition of selections from the Cornell's permanent collection is a relief and a joy. In Conversations: Selections From the Permanent Collection, the contemporary artwork indeed speaks with some of the Cornell's classical pieces in the Clive Gallery. In the Zollo Lakeview Gallery, there's Abstract Selections From the Permanent Collection, featuring a beautiful Richard Serra, a Sam Gilliam and some strong midcentury abstracts. The give-and-take between the pieces is an unusual model of decorum and taste.
In Conversations, the objects range from ancient to modern. A most striking combination presents itself immediately: a carved Roman sarcophagus berthed next to some rather grim street art by Miami artist Purvis Young. He created work from scrap parts found in garbage cans, and his signature style detailed the rough sidewalk life in Overtown. Here we see a mixed-media vertical panel decorated with expressive rows of urban figures. The carved stone figures on the Roman work, from a certain distance, eerily echo Young's. Men and women kneel, touch, grasp and hold each other, togas flying with their energy and movement. The two pieces, old and new, converse about humanity across the millennia.
Around the corner in the Zollo, exquisite little gems like Doris Leeper's "Split Square Triangle VII" (1973) hover in precise geometry, in tête-à-tête with the rich fuzzy blobs of Felrath Hines' "Mirage." Between the two, the once-intense dialogue between rival factions of Abstract Expressionism are writ in miniature. If these masters of minimalism are in serious conversation, they cannot help but overhear Rina Bannerjee's sculpture around the corner, in the front of the museum.
First shown last year, it sings an operatic aria in its title: "Her Captivity Was Once Someone's Treasure and Even Pleasure but She Blew and Flew Away Took Root Which Grew, We Knew This Was Like No Other Feather, a Third Kind of Bird That Perched on Vine Intertwined Was Neither Native Nor Her Queens Daughters." Whew. It needs some space by itself, and sits in splendiferous beauty in the Nelson Tower.
Back in the Clive, the viewer threads through a delightful mix of classical European portraits, dour ladies and men. They are revealed to be damn colonialists all, in contrast with the art dominating the rear wall: "Comrades," a large three-panel painting by Meleko Mokgosi, a Botswana artist. Village life in southern Africa includes a man, arms folded, listening; a couple contemplating a lawnmower; a cabinet in a house – the reality of today's Africa as opposed to idealistic dreams of democracy.
Rarely do museums place classical and contemporary art together, but here, it works. The dialogue between the old and the new is well-curated. Conversation between two opposing viewpoints, at least in art, yields insight and gives one hope that there could still be a way out of this mess.