From Gauguin’s Adopted Home, Ornaments of Remote Islanders

091205 article naves From Gauguin’s Adopted Home, Ornaments of Remote IslandersThe 2005-6 art season has begun—but only barely. The notable museum shows—Fra Angelico at the Met, Memling’s Portraits at the Frick and Oscar Bluemner at the Whitney—won’t go on display until next month. Commercial spaces are out of the gate faster. In the next couple of days, many galleries in Chelsea—and, lest we forget, 57th Street and the Upper East Side—will kick off their fall exhibitions. I don’t pretend to know what’s happening in Williamsburg, that slickly groomed den of iniquity having forbidden any person over the age of 25 from entering its precincts; I can only suppose that the perpetually hip have long since assumed the characteristics of legitimate trade and will have something to show for it.

A critic’s mailbox bulges over with invitations this time of year, particularly after the slow months of June and July. Anticipation is the rule. Even the most cynical observer of the scene has to admit that at the start of each new season, the heart beats faster with the vague hope that this time will be different—that the microcosm of the New York Art Scene will converge upon art and not around showbiz, money and ego. My crystal ball, ever the dud, guarantees only a sustained state of puzzlement.

The oddest thing to flit over my transom so far is an invitation for The Ted Williams Memorial Display with Death Mask from the Ben Affleck 2004 World Series Collection. For the first time, we are dutifully informed, a casting has been made of the Baseball Hall of Famer’s head while it rests in its “cryogenically preserved state.” From the photographs, the memorial looks creepy: A copy of Williams’ very dead head sits on a disk in front of a Boston Red Sox jersey. Tucked under the chin is a baseball with his autograph on it. The piece was assembled by someone named Daniel Edwards.

Not being a devotee of America’s national pastime or, for that matter, cryogenics, I’m not sure whether Edwards’ memorial is for real or not. Given that its venue, the First Street Gallery, usually dedicates itself to a rather traditional strain of figurative work, I have to guess that the Williams death mask isn’t a kitschy glorification of mass culture but, in fact, a ghoulishly sincere tribute. That we’re left scratching our heads over an object’s veracity—or its status as art—only indicates how banal is the notion that (pace Andy Warhol) art is what you can get away with. At the very least, Ted Williams should be allowed to rest in peace.

A more substantial consideration of the relationship between art and transience can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the sculpture and decorative works of the Marquesas, seven islands located 800 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s odd that some savvy curator hasn’t already highlighted this part of the world. After all, the Marquesas Islands were the refuge and eventual resting place of the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.

Not that the Marquesans—probable descendants of the Polynesians—require a Western painter to validate their culture. If anything, Gauguin looks increasingly to be the “great, bad painter” that the artist and art critic Patrick Heron made him out to be. It just seems that the quintessential irresponsible artist’s decision to linger in this locale long ago provided an easy rationale for an exhibit of the islanders’ exotic art.

Then again, documentary evidence makes clear the difficulty of presenting Marquesan culture in any kind of depth. It’s no coincidence that the artwork featured on the cover of the accompanying catalog is An Inhabitant of the Island of Nukahiwa, a copperplate engraving by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau—decidedly not a son of Te Henua Te Enata (as its original inhabitants called it). Other drawings by non-native observers are featured as well.

Von Tilenau’s picture depicts a man covered from head to toe with elaborate, tightly knit tattoos. As with other forms of ornamentation, the Marquesans considered tattooing a sacred act. (It also served as a measure of one’s status within the community.) While allowing for a certain amount of license on the part of artists documenting a foreign people, a viewer nonetheless intuits that the intricacy of design and execution typical of Marquesan headdresses, pipe bowls, ear ornaments and war clubs found its fullest realization in living flesh.

I don’t want to suggest that the artifacts of Marquesan culture are negligible—not with objects as beautiful as the elegantly pregnant Lidded Bowl on display. But one can’t help but feel that Adorning the World flits around an aesthetic core that is, by its very nature, temporary.

Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 15, 2006.