UMCA Presents CoBrA Art Movement's Contemporary Relevancy
By Emma Hayward '16 | Thursday, November 17, 2016
Emma Hayward '16
Thursday, November 17, 2016
From September 15, 2016 to November 20, 2016 the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst presents an exhibition entitled The Human Animals: The Art of Cobra, on view simultaneously with Cobra: Contemporary Legacy, displaying artwork from the CoBrA art movement and contemporary artists, on loan from the Golda and Mayer Marks Collection at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. Featuring interdisciplinary work from post-WWII artists like Asger Jorn, Pierre Alechinsky, and Karel Appel, this provocative display of color and passion points to the rich history and influential themes of the CoBrA art movement, which hold an almost tactile significance both in the time of the artists and, increasingly, today.
Based in and named for the three primary locations within the movement—Copenhagen, Brussels, & Amsterdam—CoBrA really traces back to Paris, 1948, in the midst of an avant-garde art movement, and in rejection to other movements happening at the time and prior—particularly movements to do both with naturalism and pure abstraction, straddling the line between internal experience and material reality. The unique time period in which Cobra art emerged--post-World War II--points to shifting, conflicting, and tumultuous conceptions of self and reality in the wake of a war felt so terrifyingly close to those artists involved.
But how did Cobra get to UMass? Curator and professor of modern and contemporary art Karen Kurczynski explains: “I worked on the show with the NSU art museum in Fort Lauderdale, so the historical show, which is Human Animals: The Art of Cobra, all comes from the NSU Art museum with a few additional works from Smith College,” she noted, “but that was already under the planning process when I realized we had a gap at the university art museum here and were able to show it, so it was really lucky for me that I was able to bring it here to share with my students, my colleagues, my community.”
Sometimes appearing simple and formless at first, the work on display is no doubt provocative; the emotion seems to lift right off the canvas (or pages or clay or boogie boards, in some cases). The amazing thing about the pieces exhibited in the Cobra display at UMass are the incredible variety of mediums--you’ll find painted poetics, sculptures formed from clay and metal, masks, booklets, and more. Of particular interest is the center exhibition: The Poet's Cage. A re-working of the original piece displayed in the landmark 1949 Amsterdam exhibition, this black, open-frame structure asserts the contemporary relevance of CoBrA, featuring visual and written art both in and outside the Cage, with quotes along the sides and interior, as well as an opportunity to write your own thoughts on sticky notes placed directly on the display. Read as an indictment of the disciplinary categories that seek to divide and compartmentalize scholarship and thought, the Poet's Cage calls for a dissolution of borders and “cages”. Scattered along the outside walls of this piece sits other artwork marked by bright colors, wild lines, and mixed mediums, each calling on us to reimagine what we consider art and by what criteria we deem it so.
CoBrA artists flip order on its head, ascribing value to things so frequently devalued in western society: emotion, imagination, myth, and the internal experience. These elements are embodied by the almost impulsive brushstrokes, mixed mediums, vibrant colors, and designs thrown on top of one another in wild disarray. Cobra artists maintain that authenticity comes from within—the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the representation of the experience. “A painting is not a composition of color and line,” CoBrA artist Constant has said, “but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being, or all of these things together.”
These themes and ideas are particularly salient today. In a time period sometimes deemed “the information age” for its advances in technology that places an entire universe of knowledge at our fingertips, and particularly within the confines of academia at UMass, we are inundated with claims to authenticity, legitimacy, expertise. CoBrA defies all of this. This artwork, immediately approachable, reminds us of the value of broad appeal, harkening back to notions of aestheticism (aka: art for art's sake) while simultaneously dodging those pitfalls of hierarchy and “professionalism” that ascribe value and legitimacy to some at the expense of others (and which typically ascribe these values along lines of race, gender, sex, class, and disability).
It is with this in mind that Kurczynski notes Human Animals can be walked into, by anyone, at anytime: no advance knowledge needed. The UMCA is an underutilized resource, she says, and she most wants people coming into the museum; if you don't like it, fine, that's an also important reaction—walk out and lose nothing. It’s free. There is no absolute art, and opening up this world to all can only serve to enrich us.
In questioning legitimacy, Cobra reveals a distinctly anti-imperial, anti-colonial bent. Its pieces, sometimes considered “primitive” for their focus on childlike techniques and designs, critique the concept of “primitivism,” interrogating what notions of the primitive suggest when we associate them with non-western (and often colonially dominated) cultures. Unsurprisingly, this critique still holds up, and even more so in the wake of U.S. military operations in the name of anti-terrorism, and much of the 2016 election rhetoric that casts so starkly the “other” as foreign, as immigrants, as the poor—as inherently "less" the than the “advanced” (read: mainstream white middle-class) United States. The Cobra movement worked hard to produce, almost unthinkingly, a politic that rejects the “other” as the “other.”
Instead, the Cobra movement captures the art of the human in an effort to universalize, collectivize, and honor that internal depth and experience each of us carries. It blurs the line between self/other, us/them, and human/animal, broadly speaking to a politics that denies borders and domination and instead celebrates a universal personhood worthy of honoring—a radical statement amongst today’s political forces.
The Human Animals: The Art of CoBrA exhibit runs until November 20, 2016, and the UMCA is open from Tuesday to Friday, 11:00 am to 4:30 pm, and on weekends, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.