Cabinet Of Curiosity: What Were The Curators Thinking?
Photos by Karl Rabe, courtesy of Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.
By Robert Burke Warren
If you’re a collector — of anything — we have an exhibit for you. Even if you’re of the “no clutter” camp, it’s hard not to be inquisitive about a “cabinet of curiosities.” But this exhibit is no rambling collectibles barn; it’s been seriously curated. In fact, it’s an exhibit that has as much to do with curators as it does the objects. “Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project,” is on view until December 11 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, and what you’ll see really is a curious installation.
Since the era of modern museums, curators have chosen certain artifacts to tell the stories of our world. Who were these deciders? Why did they make certain choices? And what if modern Vassar students explored the basements and storage areas of their school, and unearthed formerly venerated exhibits and “mundane” objects of bygone days? Multi-media artist Mark Dion’s fascinating Universal Collection takes on these questions.
The exhibit, encased in a 23-feet high, 9-feet wide custom-made wood-and-glass cabinet, is the culmination of From the Natural History Museum to Ecotourism: The Collection of Nature, a course Dion co-taught in Spring of 2016 with Vassar Professor of Anthropology Anne Pike-Tay. Students and their teachers procured objects from the museum’s basement – which houses collections dating back to the school’s 1861 founding – as well as closets and forgotten rooms of other campus buildings. Dion then painstakingly arranged the objects in the cabinet and the museum’s atrium.
“The students mined every collection we could think of,” Lehman Loeb co-curator Elizabeth Nogrady says. “We found things we didn’t even know we had. And the students talked about why certain items were used, or not used, in past exhibits, and the political ramifications of those actions.”
Among the strangest objects: a replica of the infamous “Piltdown Man” skull, an anthropological “Missing Link” hoax, now nestled alongside an anteater and a ferret, both stuffed; a collection of beautifully carved fencing handles; a diminutive, Hobbit-sized statue of Matthew Vassar himself, placed beside a Victorian-era dress; a well-worn hockey stick beside a Picasso still-life. Seen together, these objects invite consideration of the circumstances and implications of their accumulation. Put together in certain ways, they tell narratives and question ideas of classification. Resulting impressions are intriguing, and often quite funny.
“The objects aren’t labeled,” says co-curator Mary-Kay Lombino. “That’s important to Mark. If someone doesn’t know what something is, it’s important to him that they talk about what they think it is, and why they think that.”
In a storage area of a science building, a student found something very close to Mark Dion’s personal history: a series of board-game-like psychological tests from the 60s, pictorial challenges in which a person must “correctly” complete a visual story with images on cards. To the modern eye, these tests are clearly biased and questionable, but in their day, they were gospel. When Dion was a child, experts made him submit to these tests and a battery of others. Doctors were trying to figure out what was “wrong” with him. Turns out, he was – and is – dyslexic. He is more image-oriented than writing-oriented. The tests – all but one in Universal Gathering solved “correctly” – are housed in the cabinet near some antique official Vassar crockery and cutlery.
“The tests say something about the history of psychology and the history of education,” says Lombino. “Mark says he’s getting a little bit of revenge on them now.”
In a recent WAMC interview, Dion spoke of his interest in “pre-enlightenment” museums, 16th and 17th century wunderkabinetts. These attractions featured strange objects from around the world, put together in gatherings modern folk wouldn’t imagine. It was, he said, “a radically different kind of expression.” With the founding of Manhattan’s Natural History Museum in 1869, attitudes toward curating and presenting artifacts became more codified – and political – and the wunderkabinetts faded.
For “Universal Collection,” Dion spent countless hours arranging artifacts and objects, in both hierarchical and non-hierarchical groups, spacing nonsensical gatherings among harmonious ones, and striving to let students and museum goers see objects differently, understand stories more visually, and even discover aspects of themselves in the stories they create about what they see. His process, he says, allows unexpected conversations between the items, and between us.
And it may have you looking at your own collections with a different eye.
Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College
124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY
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The Art Of The Ride At Good Gallery In Kent
By Jamie Larson
There’s something captivating about shiny chrome, matte black rubber, the curve of a gas tank or sloping fender. These lines, shapes and textures make up the motorcycles that descend on Kent, Conn. during good weather weekends and are also the muse of photographer Gary Halby. Now a collection of his photographs, from his book The Art of the Ride will be on display in Kent at The Good Gallery.
The images are zoomed in, focused on elements of the bike, rather than the entire machine. The bikes are broken down to their most basic and photogenic characteristics. Some photos border on abstraction but there is something in each photo that captures the power, grit and grace that is unmistakably Motorcycle.
“I’m not a biker. I’m a photographer,” Halby said. “I’ve been a photographer my whole life. The thing that attracts me most (to motorcycles) is their graphic quality. I’m really interested in their reflective quality. The wheels are like from a chariot in Game of Thrones.”
The month-long exhibit, kicking off with an opening reception this Saturday (noon to 7 p.m.) will be unique for a number of reasons, according to gallery owner Tim Good. This will be the first photography-only exhibition in the venue’s six-year history and the subject of those photos will create an interesting atmosphere as Kent’s refined ambience converges with the controlled chaos of a biker rally. Good expects a sizable crowd of bikers to come to the gallery for the opening and throughout the month. He says he’s not completely sure what to expect — and that’s exciting.
“Not only are they really, really good photos,” said Good who, for Saturday’s occasion, will also display a custom motorcycle in the gallery from neighboring Iron Horse Custom Motorcycles. “The work also shows an affinity for Kent and it’s a way to give back to the bikers in a real way.”
Halby, who splits his time between Cornwall and Manhattan, says he was in town one day, three years ago, running errands when he saw the bikes and became fixated on the chrome.
He talks about motorcycles like a nature photographer catching the perfect composition of a sunset. Each image captures not just interesting forms but also a unique moment. This sense is helped by the fact he’s taking his photos out in the wild (on the street). He could take the same photo at the same angle in a studio, but it wouldn’t capture the life and story of the bike the way his method does, picking up the colors of the world around, reflected in the chrome.
“The hardest part is not getting yourself in the reflection,” Halby said, only half joking.
Bikers are a close-knit community and even though Halby doesn’t ride himself, he said he has gotten to know many of those who come to Kent regularly. They are enthusiastic about his project and the reverence he pays the vehicles they love.
“I feel very much a part of the crew.” he said. “I just don’t go 100 miles an hour on back roads with them. I’m a little more conservative than that. There’s a great group I’ve become friendly with. They’re weekend warriors, professionals, with really amazing bikes.”
Good said the well-heeled, bucolic way of life in Kent and that of the bikers are two worlds that don’t just coexist, but overlap. This particular group of bikers, many with significant day jobs and expensive bikes (that are in themselves art objects) ride to Kent to experience the culture. With this exhibit they and their motorcycles are now a part of that culture, framed and proudly displayed on The Good Gallery’s walls.
Listen to Mark Williams, Rural Intelligence publisher, in conversation with photographer Gary Halby and Tim Good of the Good Gallery, as they discuss how the exhibit came about.
13 Railroad Street, Kent, CT
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Seeing Through The Camouflage: Animals On Canvas At HSV
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
If you’ve ever watched a wild-animal nature documentary where a cheetah runs down an antelope for supper, you know why camouflage is central to survival.
“Wild animals have it down,” says artist Susan Merrill. But Merrill’s latest exhibit of animal paintings at Hancock Shaker Village, called “Colors & Camouflage,” explores this primal survival tactic as it relates not to animals in the wild but to barnyard animals.
“Like everyone, I got interested in camouflage by reading How the Leopard Got His Spots,” she says, referring to one of those wonderful illustrated Golden Books from the 1940 and 1950s based on the Rudyard Kipling Just So Stories.
Barnyard animals are always the subject of Merrill’s exhibits that coincide with the opening of the Village and its signature three-week event, Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm, a time when visitors turn out in droves to meet the newborn lambs, goats, chicks, ducks, piglets and calves. Merrill’s previous shows have explored how animals move and cluster, how they eat, and how they “pose.”
While her work elevates and educates visitors, no recent theme brought up more anxiety for the artist than “Colors & Camouflage,” which ratchets up the discussion to serious Darwin-esque levels, leaving both Merrill and her devotees to wonder how barnyard animals — presumably semi-domesticated — protect themselves from predators…or do they even need to?
Merrill initially thought farm animals might be exempt (having fences, farmers and guard dogs to thank). Nevertheless, she thought it a worthy topic for this — her eighth — annual exhibit in the Poultry House Gallery. “The show is fun and colorful and every animal is truly known to Susan,” says Lesley Herzberg, curator at Hancock Shaker Village.
“I looked at many different animals in their field,” Merrill says. “When there was a perceived threat, all of them behaved differently, depending upon their species.” Sheep for instance, would fold themselves into a flock making themselves indistinguishable, while belted cows would subtly turn to make themselves look like tree trunks.
Merrill says other farm animals adapt to their environments. As depicted in her work, several white horses sidled up to the tall white grasses in the back of a pasture to make themselves appear less noticeable when a stranger appeared. In another painting, a brown donkey stands against a dark doorway, while a lighter donkey stands against a white fence.
“These patterns kept repeating themselves. Brown baby ducklings ‘hide’ in a brown mud puddle, and speckled hens hide in plain sight in their multi-toned nests,” she says. “But how could this be possible since these animals don’t get to choose their environment? I realized they simply make do.”
Merrill sorts out the real from the imaginary in these paintings. “I had to go back and re-paint some work to reflect the actual appearance of the animals. The better the camouflage, the harder these paintings are to paint. If you know the answer at the start, however, it’s not really art,” she says. “You have to be ready to jump off the cliff, and always be learning about your subject. In some ways, these are the best paintings I’ve ever done.”
Merrill grew up on a farm in Maryland, where her love of animals began, but she is, without a doubt, Berkshires aristocracy. Once married to Jarvis Rockwell (Norman’s son) and a long-time resident of Stockbridge, Merrill taught art to children for many years while herself a single mother, and had time to paint only two or three works a year. Merrill and her current husband, fellow artist Carl Sprague, the Oscar-nominated designer for major movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, have two almost-grown children. “He’s always my right-hand man when hanging a show,” she says.
Colors & Camouflage runs through May 22.
Hancock Shaker Village
Located at the junction of Routes 41 and 20, Pittsfield, MA
Open every day from 10 a.m. -4 p.m, starting April 16.
Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm runs through May 8.
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Georgia O’Keeffe Is In The Room At The Rockwell Museum
By Lisa Green
Photo by Jack T. Douglas. Courtesy Jack T. Douglas / Colleen Webster. All rights reserved.
On Saturday, Feb. 13, visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. will encounter not only “The Four Freedoms” and “Golden Rule,” but also Georgia O’Keeffe. In person.
(Cue record scratch.)
Don’t worry — it won’t be her ghost roaming the galleries. It will be Colleen Webster, a college professor who presents one-woman shows as a living history performance. In “Georgia O’Keeffe: Portrait of the Artist,” Webster presents the twentieth century painter authentically — in O’Keeffe’s voice and dress — along with a projected show of photos and artwork.
Webster portrays other famous women as well, including Frida Kahlo and Emily Dickinson. The English professor at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, who also is a published writer, began the Living History performances about 18 years ago when she dressed as Kahlo for a discussion of the film Frida. The club members encouraged her to bring Frida and other women of note to audiences, a la Chautauqua lectures. She already had an intense interest in O’Keeffe.
“I knew I had to go to Washington in 1988 to see the centennial show of Georgia O’Keeffe at the National Gallery,” Webster says. “She was really significant for me.”
O’Keeffe, she says, is the most difficult of her presentations. “Because she lived so long, there are a lot of paintings and life events to memorize.” Her research wasn’t just done once, either. O’Keeffe’s letters to her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, were released in 2011, and it’s in the letters that Webster gleaned the most insights.
Webster takes questions — in character — throughout the performance, then afterwards leads a discussion, both in character and, finally, as herself. The question that most comes up after the O’Keeffe and Kahlo presentations comes from women who want to know: why did these artists stay with their husbands?
The O’Keeffe program is just one of the events in the Rockwell Museum’s “Meet the Artists” performance series, which it has been offering for a while.
“They’re a way to bring in other audiences that might not otherwise come to the museum,” says Tom Daly, curator of education. “Someone might not have an intrinsic interest in Norman Rockwell, but might in other almost mythical figures,” he says, naming FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Lincoln-Douglas debates as previous interactive performances.
Next up is “Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait by the Postman Roulin” on Saturday, March 12, enacted by Ted Zalewski. Refreshments are included after each presentation. And on Saturday, so is the answer to that question of why O’Keeffe and Kahlo stayed with their difficult but brilliant husbands.
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IS183 Art School Inspires Date Night Creativity
By Lisa Green
Whenever I’m out photographing people at events we’re covering for Rural Intelligence, I feel like a dinosaur with a camera. Except for the pros who might also be there with their multiple lenses and impressive equipment, I’m the only one still using an old-fashioned standalone camera (a point-and shoot, but still). Cellphone cameras have cornered the market, which is what makes tomorrow’s Smartphone Photography class a smart way to spend a Friday evening.
It’s the first Arts Night Out of 2016 from IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, which for the past year has been offering one-off art project sessions one Friday a month, each focusing on a different discipline.
“Our goal was to have a regularly scheduled and easy way to experiment with a new media,” says the community art school’s director, Hope Sullivan. “People can enjoy an evening and see if it’s something they want to do at home or take a class.”
Classes are taught by IS183’s impressive faculty and upcoming evenings will be devoted to clay, collage, metal work, book arts, and tintype portraiture.
Sullivan says the Arts Night Out sessions have drawn participants from all over the region. The school’s location in Stockbridge is easy to get to, and there have been groups of friends signing up, sometimes turning the class into a potluck-and-art party.
Photo courtesy of IS183.
In the Smartphone class, instructor Thad Kubis will have participants taking photos, then using the advanced menus most mobile cameras offer. He’ll also give tips from making easy improvements (removing red-eye, for example) to archiving images and publishing professional-looking shots. Other camera-related Arts Night Out classes being planned will concentrate on composition and additional photographic proficiencies on the ubiquitous device.
“It’s an easy and fun way to get the creative juices flowing,” says Sullivan.
Just remember to charge up your cellphone before class.
Smartphone Photography at Arts Night Out
Friday, Jan. 8, 7-9 p.m.
$35 ($30 for members); 21+ BYOB
IS183 Arts School of the Berkshires
13 Willard Hill Road, Stockbridge, MA