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Kinderhook Century-Old Limericks Foretell ‘Winter in America’

JS the schoolBy Jamie Larson

Who is Harold Van Santvoord? And why the hell are the 19th-century illustrated limericks from the long dead Kinderhook, New York writer’s journal being presented at one of our region’s premier modern art venues?

Past and present collided in 2006, when the Friends of the Kinderhook Memorial Library volunteered to clean out the old library’s moldy basement. After digging through mildewed histories, they found an old barrister’s cabinet. Inside, protected from decay by the books around it, they found a small marbled notebook titled Limericks, by Van Santvoord.

“Weary Waggles, though down on his uppers, Fills himself up with booze to the scuppers: “Wot breaks down the health, Of them Captains of Wealth, Is not dope, but hard work and late suppers.”

Van Santvoord (1854-1913) is known to local historians as a headstone in the village cemetery, but also as an author, journalist and a member of the Albany Times Union editorial staff. His skill as an illustrator was not an element of record until the discovery of this single — and presumably only — copy of Limericks. The 50 handwritten pages of wry rhymes and expressive caricatures are surprisingly expert. One can’t help but feel that the Friends of the Library have done local history and the artistic narrative of the region a great service.

The one and only copy opened to this: “Some folks knows it all - Say. Great Scott! What swelled heads in the town board we’ve got: But there’s folks -I know such- What knows just as much, As them folks that minks they know a hull lot.”

Flash forward to just a couple of years ago when Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School took over the abandoned Martin Van Buren elementary school in Kinderhook like an invasion of the hyper-relevant modern art body snatchers. Minus the signage and fantastic (yet municipally contentious) sculpture on the front lawn, the school looks as stately as it did when FDR christened its opening in 1930. But inside, the world shifts from what is known and what is historic to a modern art gallery as powerfully captivating as any contemporary museum of comparable size in a major American metropolis.

The current exhibit at The School (open to the public on Saturdays from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.), “Winter in America,” is, simply, phenomenal. The theme that winds through finished and stripped classrooms, hallways and the now-combined cafeteria and gym is described thusly:

“America is in a season of malaise, perpetually struggling with war, intolerance, environmental degradation, fear, gun violence, and alienation, all of which seem to quell optimism and growth.  The works featured in this exhibition express the mood currently experienced in the United States, and reflect the stark landscape, chilly air, and quiet introspection of winter.”

Van Santvoord is in excellent company at The School, on display alongside Andy Warhol, Kambui Olujimi, Michael Snow, Edward S. Curtis, Gerhard Demetz, Phil Frost and many, many more.

“Said a fool poet, Omar Khayyam: “Life’s a fake, and Future’s a sham, With my jug, and a jag, A sure cure for brain fag, I’ll play Love — that old game of flim-flam.”

Shainman has lived in the area for many years and while the inclusion of Limericks in “Winter in America” may seem to cynics like a philanthropic overture to the local community, any thought to that end evaporates upon viewing Limericks in context with the rest of the show.

Winter came early to American history. Van Santvoord’s work selected for the show cuts like an autumn wind, pleasant enough but with a chill becoming harder to ignore. An omen in hindsight, his notebook serves as a prologue to “Winter in America.” The enlarged prints selected show the artist’s humorous but knowing ideas on race and class. There are others in the book that are more genteel, but the ones on display give insight into a post-Civil War era when race, patriotism, war, political divisiveness and fear of the other was as palpable as ever.

There is not yet an official website where you can purchase the prints but if you have further interest in them, Friend of the Library’s Warren Applegate is managing the project and all proceeds from sales of the prints will go toward supporting the library. 

Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School
25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY
(518) 758-1628
Gallery hours: Saturdays from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The Kinderhook Memorial Library
18 Hudson Street, Kinderhook NY
(518) 758-6192
Hours: Closed Mondays
Tuesday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday, 12 – 4 p.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 11/02/15 at 12:27 PM • Permalink