ICA’s first salon brings out massive crowd for lecture and discussion

Did you make it to ICA’s first Salon the other night? I was expecting, well, something Gertrude Stein-salon-like, with a group of people, maybe a discussion leader, sitting around, maybe a table. But no, this salon, whose topic was imagery and whose guest speakers included three painters, Dona Nelson, Scott Olson and R.H. Quaytman, was more like a panel discussion with slides, in the auditorium, with an SRO audience of maybe 130 people who sat or stood facing the stage.

Charline Von Heyl, installation shot of two works at ICA

When I got over my shock that this salon was really a lecture I grabbed my corner of wall and got ready to hear what the speakers had to say.

First up, Claudia Gould, out-going Director of ICA, welcomed everyone and announced that this was her last public program at ICA. Gould then got quiet, for what seemed like more than a 3-count and said, “I’m tearing up, something I never expected.” More silence as time passed and she struggled with her emotions finally giving up and fluttering away from the podium and back to her front row seat. People clapped. And Alex Klein, the Institute’s new Program Director, quickly stepped in, asking for another round of applause for Gould, who has done so much for ICA and would be missed.

Scott Olson, image from “A Conversation with Scott Olson”

The three painters on tap — all makers of abstract or non-representational imagery — were there as an ancillary to the Charline Von Heyl exhibit in ICA’s downstairs gallery, an exhibit of non-representational paintings, prints and drawings, all heavily-worked and imbued with the artist’s love of process.

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Chapter 12: iamb, 2008, oil, silkscreen and gesso on wood 32 3/8 x 20″ Photo courtesy of Whitney Museum website. Collection of Laura Belgray and Steven Eckler; courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery, NY. Photo by John Berens. 

The first painters then stepped through slides of their works, talking mostly about their process a lot and about the substance of what they’re doing a little. Scott Olson talked about working small and preparing his rabbit skin glue and powdered pigment grounds and then putting his abstract imagery on top of his small works. R.H. Quaytman, (she’s a woman in case you’re wondering) talked about her paintings, which she said also start out with rabbit skin glue and pigments. She calls her paintings chapters and she is also a writer. And she is very much about showing her paintings in book form (literally, if I understood), and sometimes in galleries, with specially-created walls that come at the viewer like pages of an open book.

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Dona Nelson, Okie Dokie, front 2008 83×79 inches, cheesecloth and acrylic mediums on canvas. photo from artist’s website

Last up was Dona Nelson, who presented herself as a searcher, constantly trying to find her way through paint, water washes, canvas and stretchers, to some place where the canvas and stretchers were the important elements — the support, the infrastructure, the base matter usually considered mundane and useful but not important as content. Nelson talked about abstract art as a murky place where things happen, imagery exists, but it’s all a big and seductive mystery in the end. But before she showed even one slide of her works she played a clip from a John Cassavetes movie about a mobster who runsa strip club. She thought the movie had a lot of allegiance with abstract art. There’s action, confusion, ambiguity and a lot of deep, dark passages that are quite mysterious.

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Dona Nelson, Okie Dokie, back, 2008 83×79 inches, cheesecloth and acrylic mediums on canvas. photo from artist’s website

Nelson posed such a dramatic contrast to the previous two speakers it was like a tornado came in the room, looking not to do damage but to take charge, shake things up, and lead thoughts in a different direction.

She showed slides of her double-sided works, that are also very much about the process, but about something almost primally-human — the search for the grid; the infrastructure; the amazing architecture of stuff that holds things together. By leap of imagination, these works are about the world and the human search for invisible structures that lie behind what we see, what we use, who we are. They may not look like it but Nelson’s paintings are deeply spiritual and the painter herself is clearly on a journey.

Dona Nelson, double-sided painting, shown at Thomas Erben gallery, 2009. Sometimes she puts the paintings on milk crates to make them free-standing

At this point, about an hour into the program, I had to leave for family obligations so I don’t know whether the night transformed into a salon after all, with open discussion and a quickly-moving stream of words and ideas floating through the participants. I hope it did. Maybe the salon happened when the drinks and snacks rolled out and people had mini-salons with their friends to talk about what they had heard. There are plenty more salons scheduled. They all sound great and I will give them a pass on the slightly sideways program title since the program itself was excellent.