Whitehot Magazine

Gabriele Grones at SARAHCROWN

Cedar, 2023, oil on canvas, installation dimensions 24 x 64 in.


By LUISA CALDWELL February 13, 2024

Sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, and cedar are the four sacred plants that Gabriele Grones explores in his solo exhibition, "Sacred Connections," at Sarah Crown Gallery. These plants, particularly sacred to Northeastern Native American cultures, are interpreted through twenty-seven intimately small oil paintings. Grones’ meticulously scaled reproductions depict various historical artifacts and objects and images exploring the symbolism of these four plants across diverse cultures. The plants are arranged and juxtaposed separately, highlighting their cultural significance and symbolism. From this presentation, one is to understand that some sacred beliefs are held universally by humankind throughout time and place.

The exhibition draws imagery from the types of anthropological objects found in encyclopedic museums, with much of Grones’ research credited to The Metropolitan Museum in New York City, where the majority of the objects are housed.

Represented with nineteen paintings, the grouping of cedar-based images is particularly absorbing due to their diverse origins and historical contexts. They span cultures and timeframes, from a painted cedar wood shabti funerary figurine dating from the New Kingdom Dynasty (c. 1390-1352 BC) in Egypt to a polychrome Portrait Mask (1977-78) credited to North American Haida artist Robert Davidson. Among other cultures presented in the cedar group include other Northwest Indigenous peoples, ancients Greece, the Edo period Japan, and Renaissance Italy.

All objects and their histories are described in detail in a beautifully designed digital catalogue. The explanations are critical for understanding the concept behind the exhibition. For instance, without explanation, it may not be immediately evident that the Haida masks are carved from cedar, or that Fra Angelico's fresco from San Marco Convent in Florence, Italy, includes a cedar tree in its background. The more compelling imagery is derived from the original two-dimensional work, which extends to the edges of the canvases for an entire surface composition, as seen in the recreation of one of the earliest surviving photographs (1851-1855) by Ernest Benecke documenting non-Western civilizations, depicting a Cedar of Lebanon in present-day Lebanon.

The sculptural objects are floated on a monochrome ground most likely painted from photographs. These floated objects, depicted with removed exactitude, are presented much like scientific botanical renderings of a sole specimen isolated within the frame. There is also a replica of an authentic botanical drawing of tobacco by Carl J. Kleingrothe from 1885-1900, a beautiful composition in triptych form.

As many objects are credited to the Metropolitan Museum, I decided to make a trip there to find as many of them as possible. I found a few, including the shabti from Egypt (cedar), a Minoan ceramic shard (sweetgrass), and a German cast bronze mortar (sage). A tobacco snuff jar led me to the far reaches of the Asian Wing to a three-room mezzanine I did not know existed. It became an adventure reminiscent of my favorite childhood book set in The Met, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. Konigsburg.

Most items, particularly those of Northwestern Indigenous origin, were not on view due to the renovation of the Oceanic Wing. I pondered the possibility of these masks not going back on view because of ongoing repatriation efforts, especially of sacred objects, which are less and less on view in museums. For example, the Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art repatriated artifacts stolen from religious sites to Nepal in 2022, and there is the recent indefinite closure of the Eastern Woodlands and the Great Plains Native American Halls at The American Museum of Natural History.

Considering the evolving landscape of cultural awareness and repatriation efforts in museums, one might wonder how artists like Grones will navigate these changes in their future work. While I appreciate this highly researched exhibition, it would have been interesting to see the artist choose some of his own sacred objects. Perhaps the tiny cedar balls that deter moths, a sage-scented energy cleansing candle available on Amazon for $13.99, or even the ubiquitous vape pen as a conceptual stretch for the tobacco plant.

On view January 19 through March 2, 2024WM



Luisa Caldwell

Luisa Caldwell is an artist working and living between NYC and Italy. Known for large scale public art works, with recent installations at Hancher Auditorium at University of Iowa using 17,000 found and collected candy wrappers. Permanent projects include commissions from NYC Percent for Art and NYC MTA Art& Design. Autumn of 2019 Caldwell has residencies through CEC Back Apartment Residency in St. Petersburg, Russia and Guild House at Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY.

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