Review & Photos by Z.G. Burnett
NEW YORK CITY — “Anonymous,” “attributed to,” “in the school of…” Much of an object’s value or academic importance is traditionally tied to its creator, sometimes to the point of overlooking otherwise exceptional works of art because they cannot be linked to a famous name or workshop, often diminishing the dollar figure of its importance. This bias perpetuates the exclusion of female makers, makers of color and others in the margins of society by default, as their work was often considered “inferior” during their own time and continues to be overlooked by more “business-minded” collectors and dealers. Although American folk, vernacular and outsider art specialists have long created monikers for unknown masters, identifying them by an approximate location or a distinctive stylistic “signature,” the question of qui fecit still daunts many in the material culture field.
The Nameless Art + Design Show, which took place January 26-28 in Chelsea’s Caelum Gallery & Event Space, confronts this issue, not by disregarding the significance of attribution, but by celebrating objects and art for themselves and embracing the mystery of their creators.
Half an hour before the show’s preview, a line formed outside the gallery where 25 dealers anxiously awaited potential customers. No one quite knew what to expect; even the elevator operator, carrying on the experience all Chelsea gallery visitors expect, of being secured by double doors, said, “I don’t know what it is — I like it, but is it antiques, is it art?” These operators also served as attendance indicators, saying that they had not seen an event attract such crowds in that building before. The opening night and Saturday tickets sold out in two-hour time slots, and the gallery reached capacity in waves throughout the weekend.
One dealer greeting visitors at the entrance was Susan Weschler of South Road Antiques, Stanfordville, N.Y., whose memory ware teapot attracted much attention. Seemingly “made” for this show, the circa 1902 teapot was encrusted with affixed buttons, pottery shards and other bric-a-brac, including a shell inscribed “Souvenir/New York City.” Weschler said the show was “sensational,” reporting numerous sales such as a silhouette collage of an 1885 African American boy from Wisconsin, a “really wild” clothespin framed vintage photo, an articulated figure on custom stand, a cast iron horse head hitching post, a small tramp art chest, a large parcheesi board and many other smalls. “[I was] proud to be part of a fantastic group of dealers who share a common love of unusual vernacular material, folk art and design,” Weschler shared after Nameless. “And [it was] interesting to see so many younger people excited about the mix of objects.”
Nameless already planted its stake as one of the first shows in recent memory that hosted a majority of customers and dealers under the age of 50, with many visitors being at least half of that age. Phones were out recording all manner of details and finds, posting them across social media via TikTok and Instagram Reels. Attracting this demographic was a major goal of Nameless, according to co-organizers Kate Hackman and Adam Irish, as many younger people do not have the firsthand experience of being in the same space with antiques like this. This was part of the show’s primary aim, which was to remove perceived barriers between the observer and the works of art.
“One of our main objectives was to encourage people to look for themselves and determine inherent value from the object itself,” Hackman said. Featuring only anonymous work created, she continued, “a level playing field.”
“Anonymous work is uniquely situated to be inscrutable via the tools of academia and criticism, forcing one to really look at the object,” Irish added.
This was Hackman’s first in-person show under the banner of her business, Critical Eye Finds, Ipswich, Mass., which she founded about five years ago. Until Nameless, Hackman sold exclusively online through her website and Instagram account, which currently has about 11,000 followers. She brought a collection of works on paper, folk art carvings and a small but striking mid-Nineteenth Century trunk from the Laura Fisher collection. With a standard rectangular form and sturdy iron handles, the wooden trunk showed vibrant green leaves and branches that had been stenciled on in black paint with real examples by a creative past owner. It found a new home during the course of the weekend.
Many works at Nameless were embellished or decorated by untrained hands, and one of the most striking was a discrepancy boot presented by Kevin Duffy of Candler Arts, Atlanta, Ga. Duffy specializes in the “unusual, offbeat, funky [and] old,” and the boot fit each of these adjectives. Made for someone whose leg was shorter than the other, the boot came from a Richmond, Va., collection, and he believed it to have been made around the early Twentieth Century.
Reese Truesdale of Hare and Arrow, Kansas City, Mo., brought a molded leather mask that seemed purpose-made, but was an intentional work of art. With straps for the crown of the head, stitched together like a football, it first appeared as a fetish accessory. Yet the sculpture does not have holes for the eyes and mouth and is stamped with the phrase “I can’t do this” descending down its face. The mask came from a collection in California with a custom wire stand, but Truesdale had no other information about the artist or its provenance.
The human form was, perhaps unsurprisingly, represented in many prominent works throughout the show. An anthropomorphic bench from Holler & Squall, Kingston, N.Y., was faceless as well as nameless, but this is what brought the bench to co-owner Gillette Wing’s attention. “We found it in a [Woodstock, N.Y.] barn, full of stuff,” she shared. “And all I could see was the top of ‘his’ head.” The bench is unsigned, but it reminds Wing of furniture designer Alan Siegel’s chairs. “The turnout was lively and consistent all weekend,” Wing said after the show, and that she and her husband Zak sold more than they anticipated. “Man chair” was not among these items but is back in their home until the next show.
Scott Filar and Joy O’Shell of American Huckleberry, Knoxville, Tenn., brought a Twentieth Century scarecrow, dressed in clothes that dated from the 1930s to the 1950s. The scarecrow came from the collection of an artist in southeastern Tennessee, who preserved it in her home as a textile sculpture. Filar showed that the scarecrow could be taken apart, giving the head, torso and legs their own separate artistic quality. Devoted readers may remember Huckleberry Antiques’ sequin-embroidered Jesus portrait from last June’s Antiques at Rhinebeck, which sold at Nameless shortly before we spoke with Filar; he was glad to sell it, but sad to see it go.
Other objects that once served a specific purpose took on an abstract quality. In the context of a Chelsea gallery, antiques and vintage works became aligned with contemporary art, despite many of these offerings being over a century old. One example was an Art Deco cast iron door handle painted gold, placed on the table of Somewhere, Someplace in a way that it resembled a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi (Romanian, 1876-1957). From a Los Angeles collection, proprietor John Radtke, who enigmatically gives his business location as the “Southwest,” explained that the handle was from the actor John Barrymore’s collection, who may have painted it himself. One of this business’s thrills for Radtke is discovering these “fine, obscure” antiques that are connected with possible names, but can also stand on their own as works of art.
Madison Santos, Ridgewood, Queens, N.Y., brought another such piece. Placed on a platform in his booth was a multitiered wooden shelf with beveled edges and curved slats, details that were not necessary for keeping its wares secured, but that the craftsperson still took the time to create. The shelf came from a defunct grocery store in Atlanta, Ga., which was owned by and served the city’s African American community. Santos posited that the shelf was used for different sizes of shopping bags, but without exactly knowing its original function, he listed it as “grocery store storage.”
The centerpiece of Eric Oglander’s space had an almost unmistakeable purpose, but unlike the door handle and the shelf, he did not know who created it or why. Even giving it a name is somewhat tricky. Appearing like a prop from a Baz Luhrmann film, the mounted, glowing cruciform was both a tape deck and speaker set, table lamp and sculpture for worship, with a microphone jack and holders for cassettes on its top surface. Drawn in by its interior-lit cross, which turned on and off with a pull chain on the side, the viewer could find more details the longer one looked: the braided and painted trim that lined the lamp, the operational 1970s radio in its base. Oglander, also from Ridgewood, Queens, named his business “things,” which suits the surreal quality of many items in his stock.
Trévon Warren and Zack Allen of Portmanteau New York, New York City, brought two other crowd favorites, a pair of tramp art and matchstick heart lamps that were offered separately. Warren and Allen described opening night as “a whirlwind in the best way possible!” Visitors mirrored their playful stock with curiosity and conversation. “The collective energy from the exhibiting galleries along with the crowd was so inspiring,” they continued. “So many guests came through the doors excited to see and experience the inaugural presentation and many left with unique treasures.”
Not all of the art was strictly nameless, but even signed works of art were only small remainders of an otherwise unknown life. One bizarre painting in the booth of Joshua Lowenfels and Stephen Powers, New York City, was a prime example. The canvas showed a woman crawling out of a latrine pit, holding a flowering branch, after a tree fell on the outhouse she was occupying and knocked it over. A lamp and the windows from a nearby house light the scene, while a cartoonishly happy squirrel looks on from the prone trunk. Inscribed with the surname “Ginsberg,” all Lowenfels could say about the late artist was that he was from San Francisco, and this was one of seven paintings found in his apartment. The complex iconography in each of these strange scenes is destined to remain a mystery, compelling the viewer to engage with the painting and create their own narrative.
Despite the distance between these makers and the viewers, the humanity of these artifacts is what connects each work of art in the Nameless show. Irish’s booth contained a knot-tied jacket that exemplified this, having been made by a prisoner for his daughter in 1943. According to a note found with the jacket, J.V. Allen made the garment for his daughter, Jolene Gibson, while incarcerated at Huntsville Prison, Texas. As needles were prohibited to inmates, Allen painstakingly hand knotted the jacket, even creating a belt and adding tassels. Already an unusual piece of clothing, it’s the scrap of a story behind it that is particularly touching, perhaps because that is all we can know about these people.
On paper, Nameless was an incredible success for a first-time show. Dealers were astonished at the steady influx of customers who were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and overall quite unlike those they encounter at other art and antiques shows. However, Irish insisted that we express the show’s failure on two points. The first is that there was little participation from the “old guard” Americana dealers, whose businesses he believes need to be more accessible in order to survive through the next generation of dealers and collectors. The second point is that the show was conducted in Chelsea which, although a focal point for contemporary art, is “a black hole of privilege” that only those who attended the show could regularly access. Irish credits the commodification of art and antiques with this exclusivity, prohibiting potential customers from interacting with these amazing remainders of history.
“Experience [with works of art] is the key, and the market has disabled or devalued that experience,” he said. “We’re entering a time in which a cross section of experienced and new participants is crucial for the survival, not only of antiques as a business, but of the antiques themselves.”
The Nameless Art + Design Show is now accepting exhibitor applications for its next event, date and location to be determined. This event was sponsored by The Magazine Antiques and partnered by Public!Sale. For information, www.namelessartshow.com.