A cursory glance around the gallery—a tastefully restored, turn-of-the-century dry cleaning establishment—offers no aesthetic frisson. Open packing crates used to ship art are strewn about seemingly at random. Tools for mounting exhibitions litter the floor: a drill, hammer, and nails. Next to a ladder, two slender tree trunks stand against a wall, crookedly supporting a brightly hued print. The cover of one crate is lifted to reveal an almost indistinguishable, shadowy gray image. Visually unexciting, this display nonetheless carried out a multi-pronged spoof, tackling societal biases, narcissism—artistic and otherwise—and an art world inverted into a business.
Learning that the angled print set high against the wall was by Mildred Thompson began to unravel the allusions. An African American who escaped racial prejudice and sexism by living in Germany for several decades, Thompson never enjoyed the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Only now, after a posthumous one-person show at New York’s Galerie Lelong & Co., is her work becoming appreciated. Her “pain,” as she termed it, derived not only from her rejection by the art community, but also from America’s denigration of blacks—symbolized here by the tree trunks and ladder, which served as instruments of lynching, especially in the South. The tar on the moisture-proof paper lining the crates adds another reference, hinting at the Uncle Remus stories that celebrated “Tar Baby” and reinforced stereotypes.
The half-opened crate revealed a second telling symbolic nexus, disclosing a slate-hued rectangle of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Joseph Beuys, the self-styled shaman of contemporary art. In a well-known performance, Beuys, his face smeared with gold dust reflective of his exalted status as an artist- magus, strutted around a gallery holding a dead hare while explaining the exhibited works, whose esoteric meaning—in his opinion—was beyond the grasp of a dense and ignorant public. Here, bending down to peer at Beuys’s portrait, viewers see only their own reflection, echoing Socrates’s injunction: know thyself. The exhibition opening doubled this poke at human vanity with a fellow sitting in the back of the gallery mindlessly banging away at a drum, his face covered by a mask imprinted with Trump’s scowling features.
Beyond Dadaesque political potshots, Unsealed and Delivered: Portrait of a Collector also engaged in a good-hearted laying bare of an art gallery’s diurnal activities. Packing, unpacking, shipping, mounting shows, and taking them down were all acknowledged—the drudge side of a realm often considered glamorous.
A felicitous collaboration of filmmaker Bruce Checefsky and gallerist Wesley Cochran, Unsealed offered satire on several levels. One was indictment of cultural prejudice, another held vain folly, both artistic and political, up for laughter, and a third was just fun. One is reminded of Mark Twain’s astute observation: “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
—Dorothy M. Joiner