Calder Crags + Vanuatu Totems from the Collection of Wayne Heathcote
April 25 – June 8, 2019
By WM Staff, May 2019
In a contemporary art gallery, it’s not often that Calder takes a backseat to ethnographic artwork but Venus Over Manhattan never fails to turn things on their head. Their latest exhibition, Calder Crags and Vanuatu Totems from the Collection of Wayne Heathcote, on view until June 8, 2019, presents a towering group of historical Vanuatu sculptures from the Ambrym, Banks, and Malekula islands alongside a suite of large-scale standing mobiles and crags by Alexander Calder.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, the magnitude, weight, and soul of the Vanuatu figures transform the space into an enigmatic forest, offering an intuitive insight into the livelihood of Vanuatu people without a need for fully articulation or explanation.
The Vanuatu figures on view hail exclusively from the collection of Wayne Heathcote, a leading collector and dealer of Oceanic art. Heathcote acquired the collection in the early 1970s through Nicolai Michoutouchkine, founder of Museum of Oceanic Art in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after having served as a field policeman on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.
Carved from the trunks of fern trees, the totems are public monuments associated with grade rituals, initiations involving the hierarchical social structure of the region, through which members of the community advance their status during life and in the realm of the dead.
A core of the group comprises two sets of fervent fern figures, notable for their distinct stylistic differences. The larger group, made from uprooted tree trunks, feature curvilinear heads with circular eyes, a long nose, and a crescent shaped mouth. A set of more detailed masks and puppets also accompany this selection. Made from softwood ad hand-painted in bright sections of color, their ceremonial use was more comedic in intent.
The second group, which features a more geometric approach to figuration, is unique to the Banks Islands, located at the northern end of the archipelago. These rare sculptures are more deeply cut with sharp-edged ridges and approach total abstraction.
A third group of smaller objects, typified by fully rendered figures over-modeled with a mixture of earth and vegetable matter, represent figuration from Malekula, the archipelago’s second largest island. Meant to serve as a representation of the deceased, the skulls of men were covered with this organic compound and then mounted on bodies of fern wood and bamboo adorned with beaded armlets and the tusks of sacrificed pigs.
While the impact of tribal art on modernism has been widely visually explored, the Calder mobiles in this instance are peppered throughout the exhibition as airy visual juxtapositions rather than positioning them as homogenous in context. While comparisons between the circulation of ethnographic objects and the Western avant-garde can definitely be drawn, this exhibition provides a larger context to consider the methodologies and unfettered customs unique to Vanuatu sculptural forms. WM