The furor that greeted the exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984 has been a disincentive ever since to the pairing of modern and “tribal” art. Juxtapositions of “western” modernists and their “sources” aroused charges of neo-colonialism from some detractors. What’s different at the Merton D. Simpson Gallery, with their long running show, Parallel Lines, is that the shoe is on other foot—or at least there is a shoe for each foot. Here is a gallery that specializes in African and Oceanic art and is super-sensitive to the cultural context and original use of the objects it presents. Guest curator Donna Harkavy has brought together four racially diverse contemporary artists and prime examples from their stock of extra-European artifacts with what appear equally weighted, twin intentions: to ground the contemporaries in something really old and remind us of the living quality of indigenous arts. As much as there is a collective, inherited feel to the crafting strategies of the contemporary artists there is a made-yesterday quality to the “classics” with which they are paired, whether an Ethiopian butcher’s block, a Dogon lock or, pictured here with works by Willie Cole and Bettina Blohm, a Mossi Antelope Dance Mask from Burkina Faso. The other two contemporaries are Joan Witek and Carol Hepper, and with all the artists the curator seems to be proposing found affinity rather than acknowledged source. What makes the company cohere in a democratic, non-patronizing fashion is the sheer liveliness and freshness of shared forms. DAVID COHEN
Left to right: Willie Cole, Procession, 2006, scorched plywood; Mossi Antelope Dance Mask, Burkina Faso, eood and pigment; Bettina Blohm, Diagram in White, 2014, oil on linen.
On view through September 19 at 38 West 28th Street, Fifth Floor, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, New York City, (212) 686-6735