By PAUL LASTER, August 2023
Bringing its 1930s-era building into contemporary times, Guild Hall unveiled the first phase of its newly renovated facility, which is being overseen by Peter Pennoyer Architects, with a summer schedule of fresh shows and innovative programming.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine Guild Hall’s capabilities and offer artists, audiences and the next generation an exceptional environment,” said Andrea Grover, Guild Hall Executive Director.
Expanding its galleries and public spaces while enhancing its education center, administrative offices and communal gardens while adding a coffee bar, the East Hampton art center reopened in July with a solo show of photography, collages and projections by Jamaican-American artist Renée Cox. In August, the cultural hub added a monumental LED artwork accompanied by a soundscape and artist-designed furniture by light art whizz Leo Villareal.
“Renee Cox: A Proof of Being”, curated by Monique Long, a New York-based independent curator and writer, starts with a selection of the artist’s best-known photographs, dating back to 1992. Flipping the script on traditional religious pictures, she Cox three self-portraits from her groundbreaking Yo Mama series, including her versions of Mary holding a baby child (one where she stands nude in stilettos and the other in a colorful tribal outfit) and another with the artist as Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietà, sorrowfully holding the limp body of a nude black man.
Taking another famous Michelangelo sculpture as the point of departure for a large-scale photograph, Cox portrays a nude black male with a big afro haircut crowning his head as David, while claiming a different past, as he proudly displays a copy of Cheikh Anta Diop's classic publication, The African Origin of Civilization, high in his hand. And while appropriating Édouard Manet’s celebrated Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe in her massive color photo Cousins at Pussy Pond, Cox poses as the female nude with two scantily dressed black warriors (20 years before a similar depiction of powerful Africans in the film Black Panther) along a river bank.
The second part of the show highlights the artists more recent photographic collages, consisting of hundreds of cut-up images of black nudes woven into symbolic, large-scale web-like pictures, which have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer, and her room-size projections of similarly cut-up figures in continuous, hypnotic motion. The surprising thing in this survey show, however, was the absence of the artist’s most provocative work, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, which depicts Cox as a nude Jesus at the center of her Black disciples. When the 1996 giant color photo was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani railed against it, calling for a commission to set ''decency standards'' to keep such work out of museums that receive public money.
Fresh of solo shows at Pace Gallery in New York and Geneva, Leo Villareal presents a new, wall-size LED artwork, titled Celestial Garden, with an audio soundtrack, which can be viewed from furniture designed by the artist. Programmed with custom software, abstract forms float in digital space to create a fascinating immersive experience. Part of a new series of wall-based sculptures that employ diffused light to generate pulsating hues of radiant colors, the piece simulates celestial visions, which are being digitally cultivated by Villareal, like a horticulturist working a patch of land.
Complementing its visual arts presentations, the multidisciplinary institution has successfully continued its cultural programming with talks with architecture critic Paul Goldberger and architect Charles Renfro, a recital with Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa, contemporary dance performances with Jose Sebastian and Hamptons Dance Project, a conversation between Carmela Ciuraru and Katie Couric on the best books of 2023 and Florence Fabricant’s conversations with culinary celebrities, while also hosting its annual Summer Gala to celebrate the improved building and grounds.
And, after two years of renovations, the 84th installment of the Guild Hall Members Exhibition, which started in 1938, will be on view from October to January. A tradition that goes back to the early days of East End’s artist colony, the show has presented work by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Alfonso Ossorio, James Brooks, Charlotte Park, Jeff Muhs, Bastienne Schmidt and many more.
Renee Cox: A Proof of Being remains on view until September 4, while Leo Villareal: Celestial Garden runs through October 16. WM
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
view all articles from this author