TO THE FATHER of a four-year-old embroiled in the scramble for public pre-K slots, the idea of traveling two hours out of the city on a moist but still promising Sunday morning to attend an exhibition opening at a school felt distinctly masochistic. Should I be packing medical forms and trip disclaimers? A lunch box filled with nutritious, peanut-free snacks? The press bus waiting outside Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, into which we were shepherded by a knot of clipboard-wielding PR peeps, did little to dispel the feeling that this was to be an excursion with a nostalgically pedagogical cast. Had the popular kids really gathered conspiratorially at the back? And was the driver really playing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundlessly on the vehicle’s suspended monitors?
Fortunately, once we arrived at Shainman’s Kinderhook, New York, outpost, such anxieties were largely dispelled. The School is splendid indeed, a flawless, light-filled, 30,000-square-foot minimuseum that since 2014 has inhabited a 1929 federal-revival building that once served as Martin Van Buren High School. Sensitively converted by the late Spanish architect Antonio Jiménez Torrecillas and set in five acres of rolling lawn, it aims to take its place among a phalanx of other upstate-region beacons that includes the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and, at some future date, the Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson. Today, the venue was hosting four solo exhibitions, by Pierre Dorion, Hayv Kahraman, Richard Mosse, and Garnett Puett, and the extended area’s great and good had gathered for an afternoon garden party that suggested a food-truck takeover of an East Hampton manse.
Shainman and helpers showed us around and three of the four artists took turns introducing their relative practices. Puett was the first and most compelling of these, if only for the irresistible fascination of his process—a fourth-generation beekeeper, he drafts thousands of the beleaguered insects to help build wax “apisculptures” that he preserves and displays under glass. A couple of the works also feature live bees at work, in one instance commuting from the building’s exterior via a long, clear tube. I quizzed Puett—who has the bluff manner and actual knowledge of a genuine specialist—on his charges’ current population woes and came away somewhat reassured (in short, it is all Monsanto’s fault, but the damage may yet be reversible if they can stand to dial back the toxins a bit). Shainman’s take on Puett’s method? “He’s collaborating with thirty thousand bees that all get along in harmony. They’re all women, but they never fight!”
Next up was Mosse, who was showing lush, eerie, and often very large color photographs taken in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the former palaces of Saddam Hussein. A soft-spoken Irish New Yorker, he put me in mind of a buff Ardal O’Hanlon. Finally, Canadian painter Pierre Dorion narrated—with characteristic precision but at some length—a set of flawlessly rendered canvases based on photographs of the School’s interior. But by this time, those food trucks were gathering and as the sun streamed in, we streamed out to offload the pair of tickets that came with our tote bags. As an off-the-leash terrier just barely held itself back from attacking my smokehouse burger, I clocked a few known names—artists Jason Middlebrook, Barkley Hendricks, and Brad Kahlhamer, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, and “Peggy Guggenheim of the Internet” Jiajia Fei—among a great number of contented-looking locals. In the words of Kin Hubbard, “a bee is never as busy as it seems; it’s just that it can’t buzz any slower.”