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“Dutch Seen”: How the New Old Masters Took New York

Napkin, 2009. Hendrik Kerstens

Reviewed by Deborah Hay


    When Henry Hudson, sailing on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, stumbled upon the river that would later bear his name, he opened the way for the Dutch colonization of the island we now call Manhattan. To commemorate the quadricentennial of those events, the Museum of the City of New York, in collaboration with FOAM Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, presents Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered. For this exhibition, contemporary Dutch photographers — some established, others emerging — were invited to create a portrait of New York City today.

        Though Dutch Seen has a thoroughly modern sensibility, many of the show's works recall paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In fact, Hendrik Kerstens' impeccable portraits of his daughter Paola may even remind viewers of Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring, what with that inky dark background, that dramatic "Dutch light" and the subject's serene gaze. These similarities make Kerstens' portraits that much funnier when you realize that the noblewoman's cap on Paola's head is actually a dinner napkin (from her father's favorite Manhattan restaurant) or one of those ubiquitous plastic shopping bags. 

    There's a starkly different feeling in the spectacular work of Misha de Ridder. His haunting landscapes depict the tangled woods and dark waters in and around New York, just as the earliest European explorers might have experienced them.

    Some of the artists in the show studied New Yorkers themselves. Morad Bouchakour's Everyman series warmly captures working-class folks as they linger at lunch counters or coffee bars in the Bronx and Harlem. Danielle van Ark lets us glimpse the city's contemporary art scene: By taking her camera to hundreds of gallery openings, she captured art-lovers of every stripe, from Park Avenue matrons to skateboard-toting youth.

    Erwin Olaf prefers imaginary New Yorkers. For this exhibition, he meticulously constructed tableaux in his Amsterdam studio then staged portraits of a fictional, well-to-do African-American family, circa 1910. The color palette of these unusual images is almost exclusively black.

Untitled Mask 2009 Charlotte Dumas72dpi_large    

Untitled Mask 2009. Charlotte Dumas

    If there is a genetic connection between contemporary Dutch photographers and the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals, it may be most palpable in the work of Charlotte Dumas (above). She has photographed animals throughout her career, and for Dutch Seen she sought out shelter dogs — those too aggressive to remain as pets — in the five boroughs of New York. In each pristine portrait, lit and styled in the tradition of an Old Masters painting, Dumas' dogs are tough yet sad, fierce but undeniably regal.

    Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered is on view until September 13, 2009 at The Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), New York City.

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