Howard Skrill explores absence with absurdity in Fairfield University exhibit ‘Monumental Follies’

Brooklyn-based artist Howard Skrill has long been fascinated with memory erasure and the absurdity of public monuments. Since 2012, he’s been painting them, mostly en plein air, sitting outdoors in front of statues, capturing them on paper or canvas. As an exhibition of nearly 40 drawings and paintings was being prepared at the Fairfield University Art Museum this spring, several things happened.

The pandemic hit, forcing the museum to change gears from presenting a gallery exhibition where the viewers could engage with the artworks in person to a virtual exhibition, a first for the museum. “Howard Skrill: Monumental Follies,” on view via the museum’s website, looks at public monuments as art and efforts by their creators to preserve a memory or an idea that in some cases no longer resonates with society mores.

Also this spring in the wake of the George Floyd case amid renewed cries for racial justice, many public monuments were subject to vandalism or removal. In a case of history repeating itself, this is eerily similar to the debate on statues and monuments in 2017 after the Charlottesville civil rights rally. This exhibition looks at not just the monuments but also their place in time and their absences when all that remains is the empty plinth upon which a monument once stood.

The exhibition artworks came out of a larger series Skrill named the Anna Pierrepont series after a member of the esteemed New York City family. After his father died, he began visiting him regularly at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he noted Anna’s monument and mausoleum falling into ruins. This further sparked his explorations of the idea behind a monument’s creation where a person takes pains to preserve a memory. “Even when you try to maintain memory of something, memory will slip away,” he said.

Culture can radically shift, as it is now, and Skrill explained the thing with public monuments that he finds very evocative is that “say you were a man in 1890 and you are a person of influence and decide that you want to build a monument. You are being extraordinarily bold because you are saying to the world: ‘Hey, I have this idea right now. It seems right to me and I’m going to preserve that idea so that generation after generation will confront this monument and then they’re going to love it forever’.”

While he didn’t set out to get into politics, art leads the way — as it has always done — and Skrill was caught up in the present, painting monuments that were being vandalized or even removed. Much like academy artists honed their skills by painting antique statues, Skrill just enjoys the monuments and bearing witness to them but finds much absurdity about their very nature. “The very act of the statues being present in the first place is so absurd and there is absurdity in their removals,” he said.

Carey M. Weber, the museum’s executive director, said the impetus for the exhibition was that she loved Skrill’s beautiful work and his technique. The timing of current events and the exhibition’s launch being so fortuitous stunned her and the curators as the exhibit had been in the works for two years. The 3-D virtual exhibition uses Kunstmatrix software and allows the viewer freedom to visit works in any order in the virtual gallery or take a guided tour. An audio tour is also available.

The exhibition turned into an opportunity to spark a public conversation as there are many factors to be taken into consideration when looking at some of the less clear-cut monument decisions for whether a monument should stay or should go. “For the most part, the ones in the show that have been removed, I think are completely justified,” she said. Long a fan of Skrill’s work, she said she was excited to put on this show. “This exhibition is a great conversation starter — that’s why I wanted to do it.”

Weber noted the Teddy Roosevelt statue in front of New York’s Museum of Natural History was the subject of hot debate in 2017 by the mayoral monuments commission. Groups called for its removal but it stayed. The museum even mounted a focus exhibition to put its issues into context. Three years later, the statue of Roosevelt who sits atop a horse, flanked by an Native American man and an African man, is now being removed, decried for its racism and colonialism. “ I think it’s the right decision that it is being removed but it is an important artwork by a known artist,” she said. “Monuments are sculpture and sculpture is art so that there is that whole other side of the question. In some cases. it’s a very knee-jerk reaction.”

Weber wonders what happens to removed art, noting some have been placed in cemeteries, others bought by private collectors. “There are so many aspects to this conversation and this moment,” she said, adding that the exhibition “is a great way to put this moment in context and look at it together.”

On Oct. 8, Dr. Harriet Senie will give a talk “Memorials Today: New Subjects, New Forms, and the Public Process.” She will unpack the complex and often bureaucratic processes underlying how the decisions that shape the memorials occupying real estate in public spaces are made.

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