At Large  July 31, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

This Summer Show Marries Buzzy Artists with Newport Heritage

Courtesy of The Christian Levett Collection

Elizabeth Colomba, The Wheel of Fortune, 2023 Oil on canvas  

Newport, Rhode Island is a city renowned for its breathtaking coastal beauty and extravagant, richly historied Gilded-Age architecture. The mansions, locally referred to as “cottages,” have long served as a testament to the city’s grandeur and enduring cultural significance. When art writer Dodie Kazanjian, who is based in New York City but was born and raised in Newport, thought about how to contribute to her hometown’s historic art scene, she told Art & Object that she turned to her relationships with contemporary artists—as a long-time contributing editor at Vogue and as the founding director of Gallery Met at the Metropolitan Opera she had quite a few.

With this foundation, she began to stage exhibitions that explore overlooked tropes in art history, what she calls “dusty old genres,” from the full-length portrait, to the still life, to the landscape. And thus, Art & Newport was born. Since 2017, Kazanjian has put on free exhibitions and events inspired by and situated within local institutions in the city, using Newport's natural landscape and its history as a place for contemporary art and artists. 

Wikimedia Commons

Vernon House exterior, Newport, RI

This summer, Art & Newport has organized “Games, Gamblers & Cartomancers: The New Cardsharps,” curated by Kazanjian and curator Alison M. Gingeras. The exhibition brings together seventeen buzzy contemporary artists—including Cecily Brown, Rashid Johnson, Sanya Kantarovsky, and John Currin—to revisit the trope of cardplay. It is set in Newport’s Vernon House, a colonial-era home that once served as the headquarters of Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French forces stationed in Newport during the American Revolution. This exhibition marks the first time the home is open to the public. 

The idea came to Kazanjian when she tried to meet an old friend who was busy at her bridge club. “I began to hear about other groups that did it regularly, and then thought: the card players, it’s a Newport story,” said Kazanjian. “And it’s a genre that people haven’t looked at closely.” 

“Card play is really part of the social fabric of Newport, said Gingeras, who has served as curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in a conversation with Art & Object. “From today going back to the Gilded Age of the 19th century.”

Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Katja Seib, The fool, 2023. Glazed English porcelain and acrylic 

When thinking about card-play in art history, the most iconic example is Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps (c. 1594). It’s a split-second drama: while a wealthy boy looks at his cards, an older man peers over the shoulder of the dupe to signal to his accomplice, the cardsharp, who reaches behind his back to grab extra cards. For Caravaggio, card play is all about psychological insight, three figures bound together by a common drama where each has their own important part to play. On curating a show that takes on this theme in a contemporary way, Gingeras said, “The common humanity of card games has been an interesting lens through which to ask artists to revisit in this narrative scene and the practice of playing.” 

The works in the exhibition carry these ideas into new territories where playing cards or divination decks take on constant yet current issues, from isolation and community, to desires and impulses, to the notion of play itself. With almost all the works on view commissioned specially for this exhibition, it’s clear that this concept inspired unique and varied approaches, giving light to new connections and perhaps further scholarship on the subject of cardplay. 

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 2
Tom Powel

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 2. Featuring work by Rashid Johnson, Rob Pruitt, and Walter Robinson.

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 1
Tom Powel

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 1, Featuring John Currin, TEMPESTARII, 2023, oil on canvas.

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 3
Tom Powel

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Room 3, featuring work by Katie Stout, Austin Eddy, and Sanya Kantarovsky.

Katja Seib reasserts the female gaze in two large canvases and glazed porcelain works made for the show, transforming history’s all-male cast into a community of glamorous, gambling women. Seib’s work is in conversation with Elizabeth Colomba’s The Wheel of Fortune, an almost life-sized portrait depicting Fortuna, goddess of fortune and personification of luck, as a powerful Black woman standing in an ornate room that reflects the site of the painting’s display at the opulent Vernon House. 

Hanging over a fireplace in a red-walled room is the first work commissioned and the last installed: John Currin’s Tempestarii. A small canvas with a big attitude, the painting features three witches in lingerie playing cards as a means of forecasting and thus controlling the weather. It was inspired by the work of Hans Baldung Grien, the German Renaissance artist who had a fascination with sorcery and witchcraft.

Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Katja Seib, Madame X and Madame Y, 2023 Oil, acrylic and pencil on canvas 

Other artists took inspiration from kitschy, zoological themes such as Rob Pruitt, who swapped out Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s famed series of anthropomorphized Dogs Playing Poker for his signature glitter pandas seated around a poker table. In the same yellow room, Walter Robinson used AI to revisit the singerie, a popular Rococo genre of monkeys imitating humans. 

At the center of the room is a collaborative piece of artist-made furniture with a table by Rashid Johnson using his signature Shea Butter and tire stools featuring the faces of pandas by Rob Pruitt. Artist and designer Katie Stout’s playful bronze card-table and chairs, titled “Frank,” grace another room. Though normally exhibitions have signs to not touch the art, this show invites the opposite. “That’s the thing: please touch!” said Kazanjian. In an effort to activate the space and encourage spontaneous card games among visitors, the furniture, here, is meant to be used.

Bridging art with the surrounding architecture is Francesco Clemente's Tarot Series, 2008-11, a set of seventy-eight watercolors on paper that are carefully hung throughout the house, like a deck of cards that has been gracefully scattered. Debuting the entire series for the first time, these works reinterpret the entire Tarot card cycle, complete with portraits of his friends and artists who make up the Major and Minor Tarot arcana. 

Tom Powel

Art & Newport, The New Cardsharps, Stairway featuring work by Francesco Clemente and Room 3 featuring work by Katie Stout

Art & Newport secured Vernon House through a collaboration with the Newport Restoration Foundation, whose mission is to preserve early housing stock in Newport, including 18th century colonial homes such as this one. 

“The Vernon House is the oldest colonial structure still standing in Newport,” said Gingeras. “It was acquired a few years ago by the Foundation, which was founded by Doris Duke.” It has become the perfect venue for such a show, and thanks to the Foundation, it will be open to the public for future exhibitions and events. 

“This particular house is so rich and peculiar because of its age and architecture,” Gingeras continued. “It’s spooky. They opened some of the walls and found original building material, and one wall even had hair and bones in it. There’s a lot of charged interesting history. And you can feel it when you’re in the space, with the double-edged theme of cardplay: from the parlor game to the more metaphysical spirituality of the Tarot.”

It seems that everyone has a relationship to cards, making this an exhibition that can not only teach us something new about past and contemporary art, but also make everyone feel welcomed and involved. 

“It’s not just a Newport story, but it’s a global one,” said Kazanjian. “It’s a story that cuts across all times and classes. Anybody can enter into a card game, and it can be as high or as low as you want. Everybody knows cards at some level.”

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