Saturday, April 28, 2012

Half Seas Over

Kunsthal Amersfoort

Fall 2011


     Half Seas Over
New Genre Scenes
From the Chadwick Vault

Many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip
—Jacob Cats, Moral Emblems

With the Chadwicks’ inclusion in Märklinworld at Kunsthal Amersfoort two elements of the family’s golden age collections will go on view for the first time in the country that was their inspiration: Carousing Chadwicks in a Tavern, a merry company sculpture, and Houtewael Breach, a diorama depicting the 1651 collapse of the St. Antonis dike near Amsterdam.  Like the Genretron (a panoramic model of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting still housed in Chadwick Manor) Houtewael Breach is a large, manipulable sculpture based on the man-made landscape of Holland.  One key difference between these works and the tavern tableau, however, is that the latter was, in part, a personal memento of a trip taken by Torrent Chadwick and Chadwick Dalton to Holland in the 1860s, capturing their descent into peasant garb and raucous inebriation at a local tavern. Following the model of Goethe, who had always done his rowdiest drinking while disguised as a rural laborer, so the Chadwicks, who would certainly have been spotted were it not for their costumes, spent many happy hours of anonymity in a world very much like that depicted in the canvases of Brouwer and van Ostade.  

 Carousing Chadwicks in a Tavern is however more than merely the reminiscence of a single event: it is also a set used by the Chadwicks in their eccentric brand of tableau vivant.  Whereas most nineteenth-century tableaux vivants were based on the shifting facial and bodily expressions of a central dramatic figure, often an attractive woman—like Lady Hamilton in her Greek attitudes—the Chadwicks pursued the ongoing not the discrete, the everyday not the mythic.  The poses they struck in these taverns thus did not reveal interiors or typify psychological states so much as trace temporary atmospheres.  To this end their costumes involved enormous slabs of crusted paint, as it might have appeared in the strokes of their favorite genre painters.  Varying compositions were revealed to viewers by the sudden exposure of light—a gunpowder photographic flash in an otherwise darkened chamber—freezing the revelers in an arranged pose, before collapsing the room into total darkness once again.  This was a world of sheens and glosses uncoupled from character.  

Houtewael Breach, by contrast, was one of the few family dioramas shown to visiting dignitaries—this because (in Chadwick Dalton’s account of the scene) it depicted a technological failure by the rival Dutch nation.  Others in the family certainly felt empathy for the Dutch and valued the scene not as an occasion to gloat about supposed English superiority but as a reminder of nature’s ability to visit sudden chaos even on the best made societies; some Chadwicks even suggested that the diorama was a secret nod to Cornelius van der Chadwijk, the Dutch engineer who emigrated in some haste to the American colonies in the seventeenth century after a series of his dams failed. 

In any case, then, it was not until the hard economic times of 1930s that the two sections were joined, with the consequent suggestion that the drunken carelessness of the family fathers of yore had in fact caused the massive dike break of the Chadwicks’ fortunes.  Now, as the two scenes met in a head-on collision (perhaps for practical purposes of space preservation in the crowded manor?) the free depiction of oblivion in the best manner of the Adriaens—Brouwer and Van Ostade—attached itself to a crass and moralizing purpose.  Looking at it myself, in its mutilated new state, I could feel the horror of the earliest Chadwick collectors of Dutch art, who sought in the masterly paintings of the period not some easily reducible aphorism or example, not some pat iconographic “meaning,” but rather the great and now secular depiction of extended time, of an ongoingness found in the flat spaces of the landscape the Dutch had made, and the dimly lit haylofts into which they retired to drink in the evenings after strolling in that expanse.  

The invitation from Kunsthal Amersfoort to exhibit the piece again, then, filled Blachly and me with the hope that we could now finally restore the piece to its initial and obviously preferable state.   Blachly had even begun inquiries with the rest of the team at Amann Conservation, who had recommended a series of period substances to plug up the holes that had been bored between the dike break and tavern scenes.  We were therefore not prepared for our first conversation with museum officials: “No, no—we want the piece exactly as it is—we’re planning to run a model train through the middle of it, right through the barrel—a nice transition, don’t you think?” said Robbert Roos, chief curator of KADE.  It was some moments before I could form words.  The first that sprung to mind were the incantatory Dutch curses documented in Washington Irving’s History of New York: dieven—schobbejaken—deugenieten—twist-zoekeren—oozen-schalken—blaes-kaeken.

But if I met this indignity head on, those whose cause I was supporting would actually suffer more: just then at another of their many financial tipping points, the Chadwicks had expressed more than their usual concern that we wrap up the negotiation with the museum soon and without complications.  And so I swallowed hard: “What gauge is the train?”
I didn’t hear a word Robbert was saying.  My mind had now filled with the droning sounds of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” with its moderne graphic design surfaces on top of which the choreographed exotic dancers whirled against the gentle plash of the boat.  I remembered the Dutch section, with three children popping out of tulips against a backdrop of windmills.  I remembered the monorails I had taken at “futuristic” world fairs and theme parks in the 1970s, how they could be used, like boats, to visit the past: of revolutionary war generals, lusty pirates, and even medieval knights.  Happily though, real pirates or knights did not have to witness their historical representations in theme parks.  It was bad enough, later that night, to watch a YouTube video of Johnny Depp, trying his best to seem upbeat on a new Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland (“that’s excellent”), then gazing at his full-size mobile figurine, lurching up from a barrel to stare him in the face (“it’s a little more than spooky”).  The Chadwicks would not have been so polite upon seeing their visages wrenched from the privacy of the manor and turned into a whistle stop on a filmed model train itinerary, so that a stranger’s passage through their stay in Holland might take its place along any number of other virtual trips on real or digital trains. 
I was cursing Disney again the next afternoon as Blachly and I waded through Times Square, on an errand from our studio on 39th street.  Not that I looked for the entrance to Footlocker, Swatch, Planet Hollywood or Forever 21, but it occurred to me that the unanticipated effect of transforming the square’s facades entirely into advertising screens was that it became difficult to know where to enter many of these virtual stores.  An elf stranded on a desert island celebrated the joys of Pepsi.  One building over was another such elf.  Then Santa.  All were alone, except for their pacifying soft drinks.  Captured in still photographs, the North Pole toymakers were thus trapped not merely in the alien tropics, but in a remote technological regime, scoffed at by all the square’s LED surfaces.  I didn’t have the heart to mention the train to Chadwick Dalton III on our next visit to the manor.  I had merely asked if, perhaps, this time we could simply exhibit the original model from the manor rather than being forced to construct yet another reproduction of a Chadwick original.    But Dalton’s remark had put the matter to rest with his typically acerbic economy: “What part of priceless don’t you understand, Mr. Shaw?”   And so Blachly and I were on our way to an old time hobby shop on 45th street.  

The non-synchronous whirring of two fans provided a diffuse electornica soundtrack as we descended the stairs into the Red Caboose.  The basement room was wedged, floor to ceiling, with old cardboard model boxes that seemed to have been printed decades ago, and often far away: in Germany or Holland, in Switzerland or Austria or Japan.  Small packages of painted figures were glued directly to the wall: a cardinal performing a benediction, farmers digging, 1940s families with their luggage—fleeing a site of devastation in the war?  Evergreens hung in tight plastic bags next to fruit trees with red apples, and an array of ground covers.  We could discern little logic in the overall organization.  And the monosyllabic remarks from the man behind the front counter—Alan, we later learned—offered no help.   Nothing seemed to have changed down here since 1972.  It was a closed world of model enthusiasts—not seeking to expand, popularize or reach out to potential converts who might wander down from the street.  After some time we discovered that a concentration of ships had washed up in the back left corner.  Frances—a wiry Chinese man in his late 50s—priced boxes in the last row.  One gauge, or 1/32nd scale, is a somewhat exotic proposition among model makers: too large to store in quantity, it must be seen mostly through the rare example, from which one extrapolates, calls a warehouse in Ohio or Bavaria, and hopes that the box will contain something similar to what one saw in the showroom.  Much more common to find HO, the scale I remembered from my own childhood.  Blachly explained to Frances that he didn’t need a polished perfect ship, but merely a wreck.  Frances pointed us to several options, and discoursed on their pros and cons.  Then, doubling back a moment later, he offered that by burning plastic and blowing a fan one could make the work appear singed.   
“When you’re pasting on the boxes, Frances, you can go all the way to the corner, don’t worry about covering a little bit of the writing.  Frances, I’ve told you this before, it’s important to get all of them in a row.”  “Okay, okay, I’ll do it that way Alan,” was Frances’s mild response.  This system of hot glue gunning in the models was perhaps unique to the Red Caboose.  And though Frances seemed to have worked in this quiet pocket of model-making utopia for time immemorial, still he had not mastered the system to Alan’s satisfaction.  Frances picked up a plastic container and handed it to Alan.  “I saw this back here, not sure what it belongs with.”  “That’s not good, Frances, that’s not good.  Where did you find that?  Well, the package is broken.  And Frances, you know this means someone stole what was inside and left this on the floor.”  Alan wore dual magnifying glasses in a green visor, now pushed up onto the large bald spot in the middle of his head, now snatched down over his eyes as a checklist of model prices or a magazine article required his attention.  We approached about a price.  “Frances, I’ve told you this before about the glue gun—you have to fit them all on the rack without leaving so much space—you can put some glue on the corner of the box, it’ll come off, or if it doesn’t it doesn’t matter, Frances, but I don’t know what you’re thinking when you’re putting up those boxes.”  “Well, okay, I’ll try with a little less spacing.”  

“It’s $39,” Alan told us about a small ripped plastic bag containing some unpainted Preiser figure fragments. We passed, but soon found other prizes.  As these made their way into our pile, Alan became more voluble.  He checked price guides.  He discoursed on the parts-makers.  And then, “Since I can tell you’re both model makers,” he fell to the topic of rapid prototyping: the use of three-dimensional images as the basis for models fabricated by digital machines.  He showed us a favorite example that involved patches of grass and a small cracked wooden doorway on a rural shack.  It was rather remarkable.  At this point we asked him if he’d seen Otherworldly, the current show on models at the Museum of Art and Design in New York.  His face lit up: “No, not yet, but I’m going to,” he said, reaching for a Times review of the exhibition that he had on the counter next to him, tucked in a clear plastic sleeve.  “Actually, you know, we’re in that show,” Blachly offered.  Alan’s eyes opened wide: chilliness, grudging acknowledgement and now outright enthusiasm. “I have to call Bob.  I can’t believe it.  Here write your names on this paper.  Bob’s gonna be amazed, he told me about the show.”  We had become rapid prototypes of model-making royalty.  With the mention of Märklinworld, Alan was now discoursing gleefully on the minutiae of the company’s history, and our possible roles in the exhibition.   Neither of us breathed a word about the Chadwicks.  They had had enough attention.  Enough praise.  It was a rare occurrence indeed for us to be commended for our work in the airless, cramped studio, sweating over the replicas of the family’s dioramas—while they hunted foxes, drank unobtainable brandies, and commissioned new curios for which they had no means (or intention) of paying.
            Back at the studio I cut out and glued together Van Goyenesque burlap lined cardboard huts—the tops of which would be visible above the inundation.  Blachly lathed sculptamold onto blue foam landscape contours.  We would be back in Holland for the first time since our fateful research trip of 2007, during which we’d uncovered new materials about Cornelius van der Chadwick, and also, in our spare time, developed a project about recent nautical architecture—Contemporary Sterns.  The Dutch trip had been a turning point, in a sense: immersed daily in landscape and genre scenes, it had impressed upon us the need for the reconstruction of the Chadwicks’ Genretron with its halcyon Hobbema groves, its quiet Van Goyen riverscape, and its brooding Van der Neer town on the ice nocturne.  The Chadwicks would of course have insisted, then as now, on the absolute difference between sculptures based on landscape painting, and model train sets, where industry and nature are reduced to their most readily legible caricatures.  But was the connection so ridiculous?  I remember Chadwick Dalton’s expression of rage and revulsion when a young relative—a boy of 9 years old—was unlucky enough, visiting the family manor with his parents, to compare the Genretron to his Märklin train set.  As important as we felt these differences to be, still, afterward Blachly and I were unable to resist referring to Dalton III privately as the Genretron’s “engineer”—the striped-cap-wearing authority who presides over his peaceful miniature domain.  

            Where, then, did that leave Houtewael Breach?  In what sense did a dike break, a scene of muddy chaos, represent control?  Could one claim that, as a detailed, three-dimensional view of a historic catastrophe, the dike break was—no matter the Chadwicks’ conscious attitude toward the Dutch—a memorial and even a redemptive fantasy?  A memorial simply in fleshing out or embodying this event—in making it real; a redemptive fantasy in casting our attention toward its underlying physical causes: knowing these, a viewer might imaginatively correct them, might fill the breach, and transform the scene of undifferentiated sludge into a pleasant landscape in which sea has once again been separate from land. 
According to the Chadwicks, the answer was simply … no.  Approached increasingly by institutions that wanted to show Houtewael Breach in exhibitions on recent natural disasters, the Chadwicks refused.  They hated topicality.  The first such invitation had followed directly on the heels of Katrina, but the Chadwicks had felt that the atmosphere of generalized pathos would detract from a careful examination of the model itself: viewers would be too quick to lump and analogize.  Despite the financial pressures at the manor, it had been difficult to get the family to agree to show the work in Amersfoort.  Then, just as we were finishing the preparation, Hurricane Irene struck, rendering the poor diorama topical once again.  The Chadwicks were irate!   But Blachly and I suggested that with global warming these storms were likely to increase rather than decrease, and so showing Houtewael Breach now was a better proposition than waiting until art discourse was simply dominated by discussion of floods, and a range of inferior dioramas had already begun to satisfying the public’s demand for three-dimensional representations of water-borne catastrophes. 

As we whittled and carved, we couldn’t resist comparing the diorama to the television coverage of the hurricane.  On t. v., the knowledge was frustratingly partial: almost invariably the on-the-spot reporter was positioned at what was supposed to be a crucial scene in the hurricane’s path, but which looked indistinguishable from the others.  Diagonal rain pelted his slicker.  His slight grimace and hunched posture registered some generically “hostile environment.”  Behind him was a fallen tree, broken power lines, or a swollen river.  None of it actually looked like anything.  There was no satisfying detail, let alone a broad, reliable picture.  The overview’s poor substitute was the generic digital image of the swirling storm as a blue and red vortex moving across a throbbing green map, familiar from nightly news broadcasts: here we just saw the outlines of North Carolina or New York; Connecticut or New Jersey.  What did we really know, for instance, about the rage of the Passaic River, the new landscape it was creating?
Blachly in particular became concerned about the representation of his threatened childhood home.  If New Jersey was going to bend to Irene—if the Passaic River of William Carlos Williams and Robert Smithson was going to divide Paterson in two—then surely the rain-pelted field reporter stationed by a generic downed tree was not the appropriate “witness.”  Where were the new Jan van Goyens of New Jersey’s undifferentiated mud expanse?  Where was the entropic sight mode that could match Irene’s frightening vigor?  “The seventeenth-century Dutch wouldn’t have let their disaster coverage devolve to that,” Blachly burst out at one point.  But I cautioned silenced on this issue, knowing that such expressions would be taken as unseemly. 

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