Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America

September 12, 2012 - January 13, 2013



Introduction to the accompanying exhibition Ooh, Shiny!, held September 12, 2012-January 13, 2013


Ooh, Shiny!

American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square

On view September 13, 2012-January 13, 2013



We can't help it. We just like shiny things; they excite the pleasure centers of our brain and inspire feelings of well-being and joy. This reaction may, in fact, be basic to our physiology: we are hardwired to respond to bling. On the most instinctual level, in both the animal and the human kingdoms, shiny is good. Its reflective insulation captures the warmth and healing properties of the sun, its twinkly stars illuminate the night sky. Shininess is tied to visual perception and the ability to see in the dark; it even alerts us to the danger of a slippery road. But most important, it is the glint that identifies water. Shininess is tantamount to survival.

The exhibition Ooh, Shiny! is a gathering of artworks from the museum's collection that glitter, glint, gleam, and glow. They are made of beads, glass, metal, rock, plastic, silk, and spangles and were fashioned for a variety of purposes, whether decorative, ceremonial, or whimsical. They range from needleworks stitched by eighteenth-century schoolgirls to powerful contemporary sculptures intended to conjure up ancestral spirits. Their very shininess denotes a special purpose or a special maker, as shiny stuff is often costly and expressive of wealth. Shiny things indicate the transcendence of an experience from the norm or negotiate boundaries that separate spheres: heaven and earth, earth and water, the living and the dead. None of these artworks is intended for the everyday or the faint of heart.

In some of the works on view the materials are intrinsically shiny, like silk, multi-lens plastics, wire, mirror shards, and glass. In others, the surface must be activated to produce shininess, usually through physical interventions such as piercing, attaching shiny objects, and manipulation of materials. Our attraction to glittery things dates to prehistoric times, when mica was pulverized and used in cave paintings. The gold sequins discovered in King Tut's tomb in1922 started a fashion craze for spangles. Women in ancient cultures -- China, Egypt, and Greece -- painted their faces with iridescent white lead as a sign of beauty. Eighteenth-century artisans ground glass to add pizzazz to trade signs. And today, micro-glitter is mass-produced from sheets of shiny foil or plastic cut into the minutest of particles and used in industries from cosmetics to automobiles.

Shiny things are magical. In myths and fairy tales their dual nature has potent implications for good or evil. Their properties reflect, deflect, appear, and disappear depending upon conditions of light, atmosphere, and materials. Specular highlights define a form providing a sense of tangibility; shimmering light obscures its edges, introducing uncertainty and falseness. Shininess is a double-edged sword; there is no light without darkness. But where there is shininess there is reflection, and like Narcissus gazing into the pool, we fall in love with what we see.

- Stacy C. Hollander, Senior Curator


Ooh, Shiny! is sponsored, in part, by Joyce Berger Cowin, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, by Bloomberg Philanthropies, by the Ford Foundation, and by The David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions.


(above: Howard Finster (1916-2001), Summerville, Georgia, Train, 1983, Wire, aluminum, headlight and bulb, beads, and found objects, 51 3/4 x 86 3/4 x 33 inches. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Elizabeth Ross Johnson, 1985.25.1. Photo by John Parnell, New York)


(above: Gregorio Marzan (1906-1997), Bronx, New York, Portrait Bust, c. 1986, Paint, reflective plastic, and human hair wigs on papier-mâché, 14 x 9 x 4 inches. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Dorothea and Leo Rabkin, 1998.2.2)


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