The Brant Foundation is an airy private art museum situated amidst pristine polo fields in Greenwich, Connecticut, owned by publishing magnate and major league art collector Peter Brant and directed by his daughter, Allison Brant. The art world in-crowd flocks to its twice-yearly openings, which are typically in celebration of solo exhibitions starring artists featured in and widely associated with the family’s extensive collection, like Dan Colen, Julian Schnabel, Nate Lowman, and Karen Kilimnik. But when a show of work by the late installation artist Jason Rhoades that was planned for this spring had to be postponed until November, artist and curator Sadie Laska stepped in with a massive group show starring a diverse range of artists including Alex Bag, Nina Chanel Abney, Lizzi Bougatsos, William N. Copley, and Thornton Dial that’s shaking things up.
“Animal Farm,” which runs through October 1, is a patchworked portrait of American art over the past several decades that emphasizes the often surprising formal, thematic, and personal connections between the artists involved. Best of all, it’s equal parts amusing and socially conscious, and during a time when many of us can’t seem to decide whether we need respite from the never-ending cycle of disturbing current events or to watch them unfold obsessively, this delicate balance is crucial.
“When I was invited to do the show, it was right after Trump had been inaugurated and I had just gotten back from the Women’s March on Washington,” Laska recalls, speaking via phone. “So it was kind of this idea of thinking about a show that would be centered on a theme that would be broad, but fit into a lot of conversations happening right now about women’s right and civil rights. ‘Animal Farm’ gave me a lot of things to play around with. I also though it could be fun, using a lot of animals in the show.”
Indeed, there are many references to America’s complex history with the treatment of women and minorities. One of the most striking examples comes from Henry Taylor, a Los Angeles-based painter whose three paintings show a side of America that couldn’t be farther removed from the institution’s serene, monied surroundings. Government Cheese is a portrait of Taylor’s brother, a Vietnam veteran, based on his mugshot. In it, he holds a hunk of the processed, bright yellow cheese given to welfare recipients and stares directly at the viewer. In “You really gonna pay me to sit” says the panhandler, which hangs nearby, Taylor depicts a panhandler that he met outside a McDonald’s. He asked the man how much he would typically make panhandling over the next several hours and offered to pay him that amount to sit for a portrait. The title comes from the man’s continued, understandably anxious questioning as to whether he was really going to pay him such a sum of money to just sit (he did, of course).
These are some of the most harrowing works in the show, and they’re much more obviously politically charged than the institution’s typical fare — a welcome departure during a time when it feels like museums and galleries have a responsibility to let art speak loudly. Other artists take a slightly less head-on approach, like Bougatsos, whose mesmerizing print The King’s Virgin holds a story that’s far greater than what meets the eye. Seemingly a simple black-and-white photograph of a nun with a cigarette superimposed on her lips, it actually depicts Dolores Hart, a one-time Hollywood actress — the first to kiss Elvis on screen — who gave it all up at the age of 24 for life as a nun. Described by the artist as “an homage to the working class,” the image also speaks to the very limited identities society allows women to embody.
In addition to deftly mixing moods, genres, and generations, Laska has managed to make each room feel like its own mini-exhibition. It’s a lofty goal that ultimately makes trawling the two-story space somewhat exhausting — by the end, it’s easy to feel like you’ve just seen about four different shows, with all of the mental fatigue that comes from that kind of undertaking.
“When we got to start installing the show, it became really evident that we had micro shows within the show,” Laska says. “The downstairs gallery functioned as a place with a lot of figurative paintings and social commentary. The two-story room to me felt really locked together, it was this moment about material and abstraction. There’s sort of an accidental nature to the way a lot of those works are made. That room really locked into place for me. Everything in there felt like it’s own little show. And then upstairs felt very Pop and Post-Pop.”
The two-story room is filled appropriately with the kinds of oversized canvases that many independent institutions would struggle to find physical space for, including an explosion of sunset-inspired colors and collage by Chris Martin that you’d need a stepladder to fully examine, and Thornton Dial’s We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, a frenetic composition made of a material that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be good old American denim.
This is also the room where you’ll find Agathe Snow’s Coucou, a dangling sculpture made from a tree trunk, found bicycle parts, and stress balls made of latex and sand and manipulated to resemble animals. Despite being created especially for the exhibition, the sculpture is part of a new series in which Snow very carefully — and somewhat ironically — affixes the squishy stress relievers to sharp, hard materials like metal and wood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Coucou is yet another election-inspired artwork.
If the lower level is provocative and timely, the sunlit gallery upstairs is brighter and easier to process — a palate cleanser, if you will, full of familiar names and iconography. Katherine Bernhardt’s portrait of the iconic Pink Panther is rendered in paint so Day-Glo bright you’ll want to keep your sunglasses on to look at it. It’s bookended by two large homages to Mickey Mouse, one by Keith Haring, the other by Joyce Pensato. But even this room isn’t without hints of subversiveness: Nina Chanel Abney’s Si, Mister deftly addresses the politics of race and gender, two vintage Kenny Scharf paintings subtly mock the empty promises of 1950s suburbia, and Haring’s Mickey — well, he just so happens to be holding his own mickey, a fact that has occasionally proven tricky to navigate for visiting school groups.
Throughout, “Animal Farm” stays true to its name: it’s rambunctious, multifarious, and never not entertaining. With so much to focus on, what you ultimately take away from it may be a kind of Rorschach test for how you feel about the current state of America. It’s impossible for every work in a show this big to stick with you, and it’s worth paying attention to what does.