Art Reaches for the Stars at Williams
Like many of us, Elizabeth Rooklidge’s fate, it seems, was written in the stars. A second year art history graduate student at Williams College, Rooklidge, who made her way east from Southern California, found her muse in the vaults of Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA’s) permanent collection last February when she stumbled upon Kiki Smith’s “Nuit,” a bronze and mohair sculptural representation of the Egyptian sky goddess who leans over Geb, the Earth God (also her brother/husband). Having only seen the iconic work in art reference books, Rooklidge could not believe her luck when she finally came face-to-face with the dangling hands and feet, and star-laden threads of a sculpture she’d been admiring for years. That’s when the celestial wheel began to turn.
“I’d never seen the work, and so when they told me it was in the permanent collection here, I thought ‘I can’t believe we have that,’” Rooklidge says. “It’s such an inspirational work and Smith is an artist I’ve always admired. She uses the female body as an object to convey issues of pain, but also power. And she’s actually a lapsed Catholic but retains much of the visceral visual imagination that has marked Catholic imagery throughout its history, and that got me thinking about how different cultures explore the universe through various traditions and mediums – science, philosophy, religion, art.”
The result of the young student’s pondering and high-minded curiosity has culminated in her curatorial debut. Cosmologies, which opened at WCMA in September and runs through December 16, is an expansive study of the universe and its mysteries. The exhibit stands at the intersection of science, metaphysics, philosophy, and religion; seeing all of these points through the human lens and the notion that we are but a speck (albeit, an integral one) in the vast wilderness of the cosmos. Lithographs, linocuts, doctored photographs, screenprints, sculpture, assemblage, and oil paints — all from the museum’s permanent collection — converge to create a largely monochromatic display dotted with occasional vibrant colors, such as June Wayne‘s lucid “Debristream,” Duane Michals’ print from “The Indomitable Spirit Portfolio” (above), and Lynn Chadwick’s bold and bright Moon Series (1965). One of the highlights of the exhibit is Wallace Berman’s “Radio/ Aether” (1974), a series of eight black-and-white lithographs (each divided into four images) that depict a human hand holding a small transistor radio that frames various pictures – flowers, Buddha statues, horses, a lucky rabbit’s foot, a human skeleton, even the Pope — each laden with symbolism. And to add yet more meaning and mystery, each image is inscribed with Hebrew lettering, the translations of which are deliberately unclear.
“Berman is just now approaching the recognition that he very much deserves,” Rooklidge says gazing wistfully at the series. “He’s drawing on images of mass media sources, combined with his studies of the Kabbalah and his relationship with many Beat artists of the time. What you get is an intense image infused with a concept of the spiritual. I’m still trying to determine what it all means.”
Berman is not the only perpetuater of mystery represented in the exhibit. His visually straight-forward (yet philosophically ambiguous) lithographs are in stark contrast with another Cosmologies superstar. Abstract impressionist Adolph Gottlieb’s screenprint “Black Field” (1972) is straight out of the Freudian free-association handbook. A thick gray-green circle hovers above a smudgy-edged white cloud (or, at least, it can be interpreted as a cloud), both set starkly against a black backdrop of thick paint. According to Rooklidge, this work is an extension of Gottlieb’s Burst series (1958-1967), in which he expanded his canvas considerably and did away with the horizon line, often favoring black and red as the color motif for his vertical stacks of definitive shapes.
“There are certainly overly literal ways to read into the work. But I think in Gottlieb’s case, this piece shows his frustration with the inability to express the horrors of WWII, which he lived through,” Rooklidge says. “But it also shows the inability to express the vastness of the universe. And the human place within that vastness. It’s all so weighted. So huge. So unknown.”
Rather than be consistently overwhelmed by the universe and its symbolic implications for humankind (whew!), Joseph Cornell (right), Gottlieb’s contemporary, decided to think, as he normally did, inside the box. Literally. Cornell utilized the art of assemblage to create “Sun Box” (1956), an adorable (yet philosophically arranged) celestial diorama containing paper star charts, a white pipe, brass loops, a small golden ball, and galvanized nails. A small cut-out of a friendly sun (a trademark of Cornell’s work) sits at the center of the tiny scene. In this context, the sun is ethereal and mesmerizing. However, in their original context, Cornell’s signature suns, according to Rooklidge, were cut from the labels of Il Sole Antipasto cans, that were collected in bulk by John Willenbecher, a dutiful helper and art student to the master of miniature.
“Aside from the antipasto labels, [Cornell] collected star charts and old maps of the stars which we know now to be incredibly inaccurate,” Rooklidge says peering into the miniature case. “But that wasn’t the point for Cornell. He was a creator of visual poetry. He was worried that scientific sources might inhibit his imagination. There are so many interpretations and ideas surrounding this subject, it just shows how fertile an exhibition like this can be.” —Nichole Dupont
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