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Show and Tell: Yinka Shonibare

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Approach the James Cohan Gallery from the street next week, and you’ll see an unseasonably icy scene. Reverend on Ice (2005, pictured), an installation in the gallery’s front window by the Nigerian English sculptor Yinka Shonibare, came about after he ran across a reproduction of Sir Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (1784, pictured in inset) during research at the Cooper-Hewitt. “I liked this contradiction between the serious man and the playful gesture,” says the artist. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen another picture of a religious man doing such an activity.”

Shonibare specializes in that kind of unexpected conflation. He’s known for transforming stuffy upper-crust genre scenes into tableaux like these, adding those bright ethnic clothes while subtracting their heads. The 2004 Turner Prize finalist has also guest-curated a show of objects that relate to travel and migration at the Cooper-Hewitt, and created new sculptures on the same theme for “Mobility,” the show at Cohan. “For both exhibitions, I decided to look at travel and movement in a poetic, whimsical way,” Shonibare said by cell phone from the MoMA, where he was inspecting one of his works in the permanent-collection installation on the second floor. Is Shonibare’s dandified minister, gliding like a headless Brian Boitano, a shot at organized religion? “Of course, there’s the relationship between the church and colonialism,” says Shonibare. “But I’m not just a serious artist dealing with serious issues. I’m also concerned with the poetic and the formal, the elegance of the clothes, the poise.”

Mobility by Yinka Shonibare
at the James Cohan Gallery
Through October 29


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