Venus Over Manhattan has created an exhibition of works, that on the surface, seem quite the juxtaposition. Visitors find works by Alexander Calder situated right next to totems and figures from Vanuatu, a Pacific nation of around 80 islands, in ‘Calder Crags and Vanuatu Totems from the Collection of Wayne Heathcote.’ However, upon closer inspection, the combination becomes natural and calls upon the link between the two art worlds at hand created by Calder himself.
In 1974, Calder created a series of standing mobiles, dubbed Crags. Like many of the works synonymous with Calder, bright, primary-coloured pieces of metal gently counterbalance each other, but unlike most of the mobiles, which are suspended in the air, these mobiles are grounded. They extrude from large black metal formations that resemble craggy rock formations. Each kinetic mobiles balances peacefully in the valleys of the crags. Originally shown at the Perls Galleries in New York, the Crags are a synopsis of Calder’s overarching themes: ‘marrying the weighty permanence of his bold constructions with the agile beauty of his suspended shapes.’ The exhibition also features two of Calder’s geometric totems that remind viewers of Calder’s stabiles. They also create a more to-the-point connection between the Crags and the Vanuatu Totems.
Amongst the Crags are more than 20 Vanuatu Totems on display at Venus Over Manhattan. They are striking works created on the islands of Ambrym, Banks, and Malekula and are all from the collection of Wayne Heathcote. Heathcote acquired the works in the 1970s with the assistance of Nicolai Michoutouchkine, founder of the Museum of Oceanic Art in Port Vila, Vanuatu. At the centre of the totems are two fern figures that are notably different, in size and style, from their counterparts. Some of the works utilize ‘curvilinear forms and bright sections of hand-painted color,’ representing the styles often found in Ambrym. Another group focuses on geometric figures, most common to thank Banks Island, while a third group, representative of Malekula, combine earth and vegetable matter to create over-modelled, fully-rendered figures. Though the islands of Vanuatu offer an incredible amount of diversity, with more than 100 different languages spoken among a population of only about 250,000, the Vanuatu people are brought together through Kastom, a social, political, and religious structure. The totems they create act as temporary dwellings for spirits and are integral to their society.
The link between the Calder Crags and Vanuatu Totems is not simply the totem-style works by Calder but more relative to the ‘circulation of ethnographic objects’ at the time and the impact they had on Surrealists and others. Calder, like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, collected a number of works by African and Oceanic works and drew inspiration from there at various points in his career. Often times, Calder displayed such works he collected alongside his own works in his home. So, Venus Over Manhattan took a page from Calder’s book bringing the unlikely pairing back.
‘Calder Crags and Vanuatu Totems from the Collection of Wayne Heathcote’ is currently on view at Venus Over Manhattan in New York City until June 8th.