In 2014, the New York gallerist Jack Shainman received an unexpected call from an old acquaintance. On the line was Paa Joe, a Ghanaian craftsman who, as it happened, had received an unusual commission from Shainman’s late business partner, Claude Simard, 10 years earlier.
“When are you picking up your coffins?” Joe asked. Shainman’s response: “Oh shit.” He then began considering how exactly to transport 11 coffins fashioned after 15th-century castles from Africa to New York.
Those pieces are now on view in “The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a two-part show running concurrently at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea and the School, a former elementary school in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Kinderhook that Shainman transformed into a 30,000-square-foot exhibition space in 2014. (The show in the city runs through August 25, and the upstate one continues into January.)
Drawing on the traditional Ghanaian custom known as abebuu adekai, Joe’s hollow wooden structures might be seen as vessels tasked with ferrying the dead in the afterlife. Traditionally reserved for the realm of chiefs and priests, so-called “fantasy coffins” of the kind Joe designs are usually made to resemble a favored object from the life of the deceased, like a Mercedes-Benz or a Nike sneaker. The coffins that came to New York were instead fashioned to evoke castles along Ghana’s Gold Coast that were long ago used as holding pens for slaves before they were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in brutal conditions.
Joe has created his pieces for decades, and while they has been shown in numerous art venues, including the British Museum in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where it featured in the 1989 show “Les Magiciens de la terre,” he still typically makes coffins that will be used for their normal function.
“Paa Joe was really excited to do these because usually his work gets buried right after he finishes and he never sees it again,” Shainman said. Upon meeting Joe during one of his semi-regular collecting sojourns and admiring his artistry, Simard gave Joe the idea to make coffins in the form of castles. For Shainman, this represented a true collaboration between the artist and Simard, and in that spirit he decided to incorporate works by other artists in “The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Walking through the exhibition several weeks ago, Shainman worked his way over to The Vocation of Saint Luis Gonzaga, a 16th-century painting by the Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco. Gonzaga was a Spanish prince and heir to the throne who renounced his birthright to become the first Jesuit priest—a moment captured in the painting’s representation of a newly-anointed holy man basking in a heavenly glow beset with cherubs. Pacheco, for his part, wrote a book that called for elevating the role of the artist in society—an aim for a higher purpose that resonates with Gonzaga and Joe as well. “Part of the show,” Shainman said, “is about how man wants to better himself and transcend the mundane.” He added that we can “use art to achieve this other level, the way we use work as a form of contemplation.”
Beside the Pacheco work hangs Beverly Fishman’s Untitled (ADHD/Opioid Cocktail), 2016, a shaped painting on wood that mimics the geometric patterning and bright orange and purple hues of typical store-bought drug capsules. The stark juxtaposition of the Fishman—which reflects on more modern modes of seeking out altered states—beside a grinning Gonzaga is a fine example of a trick this exhibition manages again and again: drawing together artists that are separated by centuries but contemplating the nature of transcendence in related ways.
There is also El Anatsui’s monumental Gravity and Grace (2010), one of the more colorful woven bottle-cap tapestries by the artist, presiding over his fellow countryman’s coffins in the main atrium of the School. And there is fine arrangement in another room of various antique African and Asian wooden masks used for ritual and decoration, a photograph of Nan Goldin shrouded in shadow, titled Self Portrait at Age 18 (1970), and Paul Anthony Smith’s Giant Steps (2016), which presents an enlarged photograph of a woman in the midst of a carnival parade, distorted by an etching technique typical of the young New York-based artist.
The expansive display—the result of a sui generis collaboration between a fervent collector from North America and a coffin craftsman from Ghana—evinces a deep love for collecting art, and it embodies, in Shainman’s words, “man’s quest for wanting to better ourselves for achievements, for spirituality, for questions, answers, and a kind of greatness.”