Artworks reflecting dreams and memories are focus of show at Florence Griswold Museum
During the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of people talked about dreams — both the literal ones they experienced during those troubled and troubling days and the symbolic ones they had for our collective future.
Those ideas helped inspire a new exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme titled “Dreams and Memories.”
Museum curator Amy Kurtz Lansing says that dreams serve as metaphors for “exploring the unknown and the creative, and speaking to a moment like the one we felt we were in, in which big change feels possible.”
“Dreams and Memories” explores various aspects of those two titular elements, particularly the part they play in artistic creativity and in American society. It highlights several themes, ranging from reverie to social action to the American Dream. The exhibition is organized by Lansing, with associate curator Jennifer Stettler and with assistance from intern Emma Flaherty.
At one point early in the planning, a person questioned whether memories should be part of the show’s focus.
“But the more you read about these things, (the more you realize) they are very interconnected, that dreams and creativity are driven by our experiences,” Lansing says.
The show treats the notions of dreams and memories broadly. And, because dreams and memories are linked neurologically, organizers wanted to mention that aspect in the wall text.
They pulled works from the museum’s permanent collection that would help articulate concepts around dreams and memories but that would also show the ways that artists engaged with dreams and memories.
“Some of those choices were much more obvious, like in the section on nostalgia … The nature of artists coming to Old Lyme, for example, at the turn of 20th century, that was a bit of a nostalgic project for them, coming to a place they felt was of the past and a place of memory,” Lansing says.
New on view
The exhibition boasts almost 20 artworks that are new to the Flo Gris collection.
Winfred Rembert’s “Cotton Pickers” is one of those recent acquisitions, and it features striking colors and tooled leather — leatherwork that the artist learned to do when he was in prison. Rembert was incarcerated after he took part in a 1965 civil rights protest in Georgia when he was 19. He was jailed and escaped briefly in 1967, was almost murdered by a lynch mob, and was imprisoned for seven additional years. He served on prison-labor chain gangs before finally being freed in 1974.
Lansing says she feels that Rembert’s “Cotton Pickers” “speaks almost more than anything else in the show to the way dreams are this creative driver for artists and for human beings. Rembert was somebody who was plagued by this brutal experience he had growing up under Jim Crow; he’s brutalized and imprisoned. The leather working technique that he learned in jail is something he was able to turn back to once he came to Connecticut as a way of working through (the trauma), of making images that helped him stave off these nightmares that he was having about all that he had been through. Art for him was kind of a therapeutic endeavor.”
Rembert, who lived in New Haven, died in 2021 at age 75, but an autobiography he had been working on with Erin I. Kelly won the Pulitzer Prize for biography last year. It’s called “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of Jim Crow South.”
Reflecting on identity and memory
Another new acquisition on view is Glenn Ligon’s series “Runaways,” created in 1993. In it, Ligon, who is Black, considers antebellum newspaper ads of slave owners looking for runaway slaves but substitutes himself as the missing figure. The original ads focused mostly on the person’s physical traits. Ligon asked his friends to describe him for these pieces, and they delved into his personality, not just his physicality.
The pieces “really make us reflect on identity and American memory,” Lansing says.
Surrealism and Warhol
Lansing says that Flo Gris’s collection has not been strong in terms of Surrealism, but there are two new works by Varujan Boghosian. Lansing says they are very “open-ended in the way that they combine objects and encourage viewers to respond to them.”
One is a wooden hat mold with metal nails. It’s a Surrealist object that, according to the exhibition text, prompts viewers’ imaginations “to consider the placement of things in unusual or uncomfortable scenarios. In the 1930s, many Surrealist artists turned to their subconscious for inspiration and began combining objects in ways that challenged reason, which could be playful or menacing. In this piece, Boghosian’s placement of nails on a ‘head’ may conjure feelings of fear, discomfort, or pain. In another sense, the nails take on the quality of hair, or recall global traditions of tattoo and piercing.”
Also included in the exhibition: a work by Leo Jensen, who did the sculptures of the frogs for the now-famous bridge in Willimantic. It’s the pop artist’s mixed-media piece “Make Way for Yesterday,” which is a Surreal take on memory.
Appearing in the American Dream section of the show is Andy Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot,” which is from a portfolio of prints done in the 1960s called “X + X (Ten Works by Ten Painters)” that the Wadsworth Atheneum published. This exhibition marks the first time something from that portfolio has been shown at Flo Gris, which acquired the print in 2019.
Warhol based the print on a 1963 photograph by Charles Moore of police attacking non-violent demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, who were protesting segregation.
“Warhol adjusted the source image, focusing on the Black man besieged by police dogs, but also reversing and blurring the composition. Those changes downplay the immediacy of the crackdown, perhaps acknowledging that the cruelty depicted went beyond this incident. To highlight that history, Warhol titled the print ‘Race Riot,’ a term typically applied to white violence against Blacks,” the exhibition text states.
Two large portraits in the first gallery are also recent acquisitions. One features a bride in her wedding dress and is titled “Margaret Daisy Gerow (Mrs. A. Phimister Proctor), Portrait in Wedding Dress.” Robert W. Vonnoh painted this in 1893 as Margaret “Mody” Daisy Gerow was preparing to wed sculptor A. Phimister Proctor.
Gerow was an artist, too, and the exhibition text notes, “Like many women of her time, Gerow would set aside her own art career to support Proctor’s work as a leading sculptor of animals, traveling with him to Paris not long after this portrait was painted.” In eras including this one, “women were encouraged to dream of marriage and motherhood as ultimate aspirations.”
Another portrait shows a mother and daughter sewing in John Christen Johansen’s “In the Sewing Room.”
“It reflects on this kind of intergenerational transmission of knowledge, the way that memories get passed down in a family,” Lansing says.
The themes of dreams and memories allowed Flo Gris to display next to each other very different artworks from the museum’s collection.
“Those juxtapositions can be really interesting to people, and just like dreams draw from everywhere and have a kind of eclecticism to them, we thought that having the show reflect that kind of eclecticism is really appropriate to the topic,” Lansing says.