In the late 18th and early 19th century, upstate New York spawned three utopian religious groups obsessed with sex: two who wanted more of it (the Mormons and the Oneidas Perfectionists) and another who wanted none of it (the Shakers). The latter practiced abstinence. Not surprisingly, they have all but disappeared, but they left a legacy of simply crafted buildings and objects. In addition, they supported equality for the sexes and rallied against income inequality. In The New Yorker in 1970, Janet Malcolm quoted Shaker Elder Frederick back in 1875: ‘The beautiful, as you call it, is absurd and abnormal. It has no business with us. The divine man has no right to waste money on what you would call beauty in his house or his daily life while there are people living in misery.’
Those simple things were the basis of a group show comparing pared-back contemporary art to Shaker design. It was a tricky project. I liked everything in the exhibition, from the Shaker’s wooden dipper held together with wooden pegs, an elegantly geometric wooden chip fork and the woven straw bonnet (all borrowed from the Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon, New York State) to Don Voisine’s and Michelle Grabner’s paintings or Chie Fueki’s hand-quilted paper. The pieces here were almost, but not quite, in dialogue, with the Shaker objects displayed on plinths in the centre of the gallery and the recent work hanging on the walls. Compounding this, pairing old and new without context or history came across as reductive.
The Shakers have often been championed as proto-believers in the dictates of form follows function, just as the early modernists claimed indigenous art as their forebears. Here, we seemed close to such an equation. Instead of showing someone such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles – whose embrace of work, class and equality as artist-in-residence at New York City’s Sanitation Department seems more in keeping with Shaker values – here we were presented with formal concerns: pattern and abstraction.
Because the relationship was purely formal, however, we were forced to do something that’s rare these days. I started to look at things like ‘the mark of the hand’, a phrase I have to put in quotes because even writing it feels like a return to a more conservative era of criticism. Still, the longer I looked at the pieces in the show, the more I saw, and the more was revealed. The stains and the plane marks on a giant bowl made from a single ash tree’s trunk or the scars left on a wooden peg rail became a haunting connection to their history. They’re the marks of use as well as of their makers. Focus on them and something else became apparent. I started to see the contemporary work anew.
It’s unsettling, as a critic today, to write about formalism or marks, but what was moving was the stillness that set in here, examining, say, Grabner’s use of pattern. For her, there’s feminism in abstraction, building it from traditional domestic textiles like gingham. Noticing the small flaws in the Shaker work, I became attuned to the slender pencil lines setting out the fabric’s grid in her paintings. Seth Koen’s wooden rail Ostro (2010), shaped into a dimensional triangle in a corner, or his hooked Pinchpoint (2013) seemed like lost Shaker implements for some forgotten but important activity. Most striking was the juxtaposition of the ash bowl with Nathlie Provosty’s walnut ink drawings. Made on sanded paper that looked burned, her stacked semicircles were the same shade of brown as the bowl. Looking from one to the other, the pencil and plane marks came with a striking clarity that seemed a reward for looking. The beauty was subtle and quiet. Still, something about the show made me wonder: why now? The Shakers get taken up anew every decade or so. What is it that we want from them at this moment? I wish, too, that instead of focusing on the surface, we could look at the real meaning of Shaker values and use those to discuss the issues the sect felt so strongly about: inequality and poverty. In an era where the gap between rich and poor in the US (not to mention New York City) is greater than it’s been since the late 19th century, that seems like the real reason we should be considering the Shakers today.