Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Closing of the ningyo editions Gallery and Thoughts on the Boston Globe Review

The Closing of ningyo editions’ Gallery Space

Now the Captain he was dying/ But the Captain wasn’t hurt
The silver bars were in my hand/ I pinned them to my shirt.

-Leonard Cohen

I realize my quotations that preceed these entries are becoming increasingly cryptic, but this one feels appropriate, and I leave it to the sapient reader to make heads or tails of it.  And so… It is with with a bang and not a whimper that I announce the closing of the gallery space of ningyo editions.  The original half of the building will remain open – I will be keeping the etching studio and continue to sublet the front space to Drive-by Gallery.  The other half of the building, however, has proven itself too great a burden on many levels.  I originally opened the space with the help of Ed Monovich as a showcase for editions published by ningyo editions (you can read about these prints in this blog’s older entries).  Working with artists under the best circumstances is taxing, and I had the opportunity of working with amazing people and producing, in my estimation, some sublime prints that embody the nature of collaboration.   As satisfying as this was, the amount of labor involved was staggering (for every project I carved the blocks myself; dozens of hours are spent proofing and printing before editioning even begins; and in most cases we blew through tremendous amounts of material (paper, wood, ink, etc) in experimentation to get the desired effect.  Speaking to the last point, it should be noted that this costs a great deal of money.

Sales were dismal.  I remain forever grateful to Fidelity Investments for their purchases, and the occasional private buyer.  However, I don’t mind admitting that there was not a single show that did not prove a financial loss.  Upon closing I sit on reams of inventory (the prints will still be available for purchase, and I will continue to look for homes for all of the work), along with debt incurred.  I freely admit that some of this must speak to my weakness as a dealer, or at least a lack of complete dedication to that task.  It truly is a full-time job, and one I am not cut out for.  The creation and curating of shows is exciting and rewarding, but when it comes to selling I have my shortcomings.  I can only send so many follow-up emails before I feel like a desperate salesman out of Glengary Glen Ross.  I take comfort in the fact that I hear that sales are scarce at most of the small local galleries (even those situated in areas with far more traffic than the suburbs of Watertown).  I suppose misery loves company, and while I am always disheartened and saddened to read of yet another gallery closing its doors, it does take some of the sting out of what I comfortably accept as a failed enterprise.  I have a deeper awe and respect for our Boston gallery owners who continue to make it work through their passion and persistence.  At this point I could easily insert a venomous rant about Boston’s virtually non-existent collector base, or its pitiful dearth of arts writing (so keep it up, Mr. Cook).  However, bitterness is a pointless emotion of which I have disabused myself solely through my decision to close.

I should add finally that the pressure of coming up with intriguing, creative (in short, good) shows every 8 weeks while continuing to create my own work was a conflict to put it mildly.  I have never stopped making new work, but a gallery with a respectable turnover of shows does take time away from other creative pursuits.

“But what will happen to the space?”, the reader screams at their computer.  Fear not, for it is with joy and relief that I announce it will be taken over by the talented, wonderful Wendy Jean Hyde, a fantastic video/photographer and installation artist (and an MFA Traveling Scholar to boot) who will maintain the original format of a studio in back and a gallery in front.  I look forward to what she will do there as I have no doubt it will be a welcome addition to the local gallery scene.

I hope to continue to do occasional curatorial projects at satellite spaces, but I think my days of editioning with any regularity are behind me.  I will miss the wonderful openings and the enriching experience of working with such great talent, and I extend a warm thanks to everyone who attended our exhibitions and parties.  It made the whole experience truly worthwhile, and devoid of any regrets.

And now on to other matters.

The Boston Globe Review of (I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann.

On Wednesday, July 11th, a review of our final exhibit, written by Cate McQuad, appeared in the Boston Globe (at this point few people knew it was the final show).  The day before, the entirety of the Globe’s For the record section on page 2 ran as follows:

“Correction: Because of false information supplied to the Globe, the exhibit “(I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann” at Ningyo Editions, in Watertown, was incorrectly described in several editions of “g” starting June 7 as well as and events listings.  Norma Hoffmann is a fictional character.”

I couldn’t ask for better advertising, though I counted only one mention in the g section.  I’m not sure if I am running into copyright issues here, but I reprint the review below in a truncated version, with the addition of my own commentary in parenthesis:

‘Artist’ was gallery creation

“Printmaker David Curcio (am I to be forever saddled with this classification?), who runs the print studio and gallery Ningyo Editions, sent out notice in the spring of an upcoming show, “(I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann.’’ The artist, it said, lived in Concord and died in 1905…

“When I e-mailed Curcio that I planned to stop by, he wrote back that in fact, Hoffmann didn’t exist. He had found old, anonymous drawings in an antique store, and thrown himself into creating the artist, writing about her life…

“I was miffed” (italics mine).  “I had singled out the exhibit for a Globe listing of gallery-show recommendations based on Curcio’s elaborate story… without knowing it was all fiction.

“In the art world, taking on aliases and shifting identities is trendy” (as it has been for a century or so), “and Curcio has essentially made a contemporary conceptual art piece from a handful of amateur drawings…

“…The works, handsomely mounted against dark gray walls, are unaccomplished but poignant” (this is exactly why I chose to show them).

“’The more I wrote, the essay took on a life of its own, and I came to believe in this person and her struggles,’ Curcio told me. He then decided, he added, “to present the show as a mock documentary.'” (NB: I referred to the mock documentaries of Christopher Guest and many others, stressing that while the show could be viewed this way, it was exactly how I did not want to present it.)

“At the show’s opening, Curcio says he told viewers the true back story of his work” (I did), “and he says he has been forthcoming with people who have called inquiring whether a new outsider artist… has been discovered. The work is not good enough for that classification” (while I readily acknowledge that it wouldn’t be considered a major discovery even if the artist were real, in my own estimation it is thoroughly captivating stuff – “poignant”, even). “… But the tale is thorough, effective, and sad.” (I appreciate this last bit, for it is the story I set out to achieve.)

“On Monday, the gallery added a disclaimer to the exhibit description online,” (it’s still up on the website) “noting that Hoffmann’s story is ‘completely fabricated.’” (I did this as a compromise for Cate’s editor who, perhaps upon perceiving a deliberate ruse which I had little or no interest in addressing, was at this point hesitant about printing the review at all.)


In all I was satisfied with the review in that it was ultimately complimentary, despite a somewhat scolding overtone (possibly indicating some embarrassment at not inquiring more about the show beforehand?).  But I was disappointed in Cate’s failure to address the rich history of aliases, invented artists and manipulated imagery presented as real and without explanation or disclaimers.  From Marcel Duchamp to Peter Garfield (whose “Harsh Realities” photo series of 1998 presented fake miniature houses as real and were described as such in a New York Times review), deception has always been artistic license.

Of course, outright fraud is something else altogether, which is why I was diligent in explaining the invented back story to any and all visitors to the gallery or email inquiries about the work.  Under no circumstances would I sell a piece to anyone without revealing the truth behind the work.  Cate told me more than once that the newspaper world is very different from the art world (confirming what I had long suspected).  Her point, however, was that the show had appeared in the listings section a few weeks before and was presented as true – and in fairness to her, why would she question it?  Is such fact-checking the job of a reviewer for a simple listing?  The answer to this is not obvious.  What is clear is that her editor was very displeased at the prospect of the Globe having listed the show without knowing the full story, and that some readers may see the paper’s credibility as compromised for this reason (though I don’t flatter myself that this type of deception would make even a baby step towards damaging the reputation of a major newspaper).  At the risk of sounding disingenuous, I had no intention of messing with anyone’s head (including Cate’s) and sending them off believing the story, much less outright lying.  I sympathized with her conundrum, and with apologies for any awkwardness this caused her in the newsroom, explained to her the two very different artistic natures of the show.  The first being the work itself, and the second its fictitious presentation.

A few days after I sent out the press release and show announcement containing a link to my previous blog entry which contains the biographical essay on Hoffmann, I was contacted by a man named Frank Tosto.  Frank had the good fortune of  discovering a truly remarkable trove of sublime drawings of farm houses by an itinerant 19th century artist named Fritz Vogt.  The website contains a biography of the artist (of whom little is known), along with images of his known extant works.  As the artist’s primary champion, collector and lender of his work, Frank also published a beautiful book on Vogt.  In the email, Frank expressed his excitement at the “discovery” of the “Hoffmann” drawings, and I was naturally compelled to set the record straight.  In response, Frank wrote: “Regarding your invented life, I have always felt that a person’s life is far less interesting than what they leave…”  This was the most concise assessment of the Hoffmann dilemma I had heard, for is it not the work upon which we ultimately focus and that outlives the creator and their story?  Or does an artist’s biography inevitably color the way in which we look at their work (I remember John Berger’s observation in Ways of Seeing that we see Van Gogh’s Field of Crows in a different light when we learn that the canvas was completed minutes before the artist shot himself in the head).  This product vs. history vs. biographical conundrum falls solely upon each individual viewer.  For my part, the process of inventing an artist based upon found work and laboring over a biography involving both research and pure fiction was a (majorly) therapeutic endeavor that forever takes precedence over any passing confusion, perceived deception, or miffed-ness on the part of a viewer.  While I am tremendously grateful to Cate for taking the time to visit the show, to struggle with the concept from a journalistic standpoint, and to write and print a review, the fact remains that we ultimately do our art for ourselves.  To this end, it is our responsibility to  present it with the surest, most powerful force we can muster.

You are gone but (finally) not forgotten, Ms. Hoffmann

Breaking News: An 11th Hour Update and Discovery

On Friday July 13th I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Korzenik, who dropped by the gallery to see the show.  The author of Objects of American Art Education (Huntington Library Press, 2004), Diana was certain that many of these drawings are earlier than my fiction places them – closer to the mid 19th century than the turn of the century.  More importantly, she recognized them as drawing exercises copied from drawing cards, small cards made by professional artists during the 19th century for the purpose of teaching fledgling art students how to draw by means of assiduous copying.  It had been initially posited by the antique dealer from which I bought the work that they may have been from a drawing class, done by “women of means” who could afford private or group lessons and who may have traveled abroad to render buildings and ruins on site (this phenomenon was discussed in my original essay on Hoffmann and her exclusion from this ilk due to her low social standing).  However, after spending some time researching drawing cards, it became clear by the style, subject matter, and by certain compositional elements (straight lines framing the drawing to allow for margins; the grouping of isolated architectural details three to four on a sheet) that the drawings of “Norma Hoffmann” were almost certainly done as such exercises.  (While I have come almost come to believe in this woman who never existed, I will occasionally find myself using apologetic quotes around her name in this section of serious inquiry into the work’s true origins.)

Shown below are two examples of drawing cards, made by the Boston artist and educator B.F. Nutting (1803 – 1887) during the 1840s.  The second example I juxtapose with a drawing by “Hoffmann” and should allay any doubts as to the source of most or all of the work comprising the current and final exhibition at ningyo editions’ gallery,

Drawing Card by B.F. Nutting (1848)

One of the “Large Drawings” of Hoffmann featuring the above-mentioned vignette compositional presentation.

Instructional drawing card by Nutting done in the 1840 featuring the same vignette compositional presentation.

And so we can finally end on a note of genuine investigation into what, to my eyes, will forever remain mysterious and enigmatic creations by an artist who, to my heart, most certainly lived and breathed at some time in some form.


Filed under: News, Reviews, , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Sorry to hear you are closing but I understand the reasons. Enjoyed your spirited response to the Globe.

  2. […] for the gallery space, Curcio writes: “It will be taken over by the talented, wonderful Wendy Jean Hyde, a fantastic […]

  3. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but
    your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later. All the best

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