The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College (the Tang) is known for its interdisciplinary exhibitions; its top-notch publications; and its bold programming, which aims to engage students, faculty, and visitors in a dialogue about contemporary art. The Tang has a history of receiving, acquiring, and collecting some significant art. Some readers may remember that the Tang received gifts by Jack Shear (in 2015), who donated more than 500 photographs to the museum, and Peter Norton (in 2014), who gave 75 works of contemporary art.
The gift from the computer programmer, philanthropist, and art collector Peter Norton was noted by Skidmore College and Ian Berry, the museum’s Dayton Director, as “transformational,” and by all accounts, it was evidence that the Tang was and is a leader in the university art museum world. Further reinforcing its star status, the museum received an $840,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2016. The purpose of the grant was to boost the museum’s use of its collection to explore issues of identity and race, create new research resources, and enhance public engagement. This project is titled Accelerate: Access and Inclusion at the Tang, or Accelerate for short. In other words, the museum’s collection is an increasingly important and relevant resource, and recent grant funding will help the museum design and implement programs to showcase that fact to the general public.
On August 12, the museum opened a new exhibition of work selected from The Tang Collection, as it is formally called. Other Side: Art, Object, Self, which is thoughtfully curated by Mellon Collections Curator Rebecca McNamara, represents year one of the three-year initiative funded by Mellon. It also features a stunning, large-scale work by the artist Willie Cole – a work that arrived at the museum by way of Norton’s gift.
“Other Side offers space for contemplation,” notes McNamara. “Visitors will interpret work in their own ways,” she says. “We want to provide an opportunity for dialogue, and we want to offer different entry points.” The Tang and McNamara have certainly achieved that objective. Together, the group of work selected for the show all seem to speak to one another, and the exhibition design is well-balanced. Each piece is given room to breathe, but as a whole, the room is bursting with meaning, symbolism, and allusion – the exhibition offers a thousand points for discussion, reflection, and debate.
At the core of it all is an examination of self and identity. “Humans, by nature, are faced with questions of self, and many of us spend our lives constructing our identities, changing them as we grow, as we experience life,” the exhibition text reads.
As noted above, the centerpiece of the show is Willie Cole’s To get to the other side. Cole’s giant 16-foot chessboard is the first thing you see when you approach the gallery, and it demands your attention. With its colorful lawn jockeys and salvaged metal squares, it’s both playful and pointed. Thirty-two cast-concrete black-faced lawn jockeys are positioned on the giant board in battle formation. Cole has recast these statues as Yoruba deities and warriors and embellished the figures with nails, bags, knifes, bottles, and other materials. “Chess is a game of war,” the artist notes on the exhibition label. “To get to the other side is a battlefield.” These jockeys and infused with negative connotations, but when they are manipulated and embellished by the artist, the meaning shifts. To get to the other side, provides an immediate and effective entry into the exhibition’s theme and its exploration of national, cultural and self-identity.
Another exhibition highlight is Yinka Shonibare’s Dorian Gray, which is a sequence of photographs influenced by Oscar Wilde’s novel and the 1945 film adaptation. The large-scale, detailed, cinematic photographs present a compelling narrative, and a re-imaging of Wilde’s story. Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, plays the title role. His presence in these images of Victorian upper-class society adds new layers of complexity to the storyline. Yes, the sequence is about outer beauty vs. moral corruption, but it’s also concerned with a deeper question about cultural identify. What does it mean to be European? What does it mean to be Nigerian? What does it mean to be British-Nigerian? Like To get to the other side, Shonibare’s work begs you to spend some time examining the depth and details. It also forces you to think about the exclusion of some stories in literary and national identities.
Other artists in the exhibition include Lorna Simpson, Beverly Semmes, Flor Garduno, Tim Hawkinson, Michael Joo, Zanele Muholi, Fred Wilson, Barthelemy Toguo, Dario Robleto, and Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Rollins and K.O.S.’s Winterreise (songs XX-XXIV) (after Schubert) presents the score for several songs in Franz Schubert’s famous cycle on 12 panels. The music pages are mounted on linen, and each successive panel is whiter and whiter until the whitewash takes over and the score is no longer visible.
Two additional works that are understated but very powerful are Jamal Cyrus’s Untitled (Threads) and Miguel A. Aragon’s Aplacado (Siete cascos percudidos). Threads offers canvas strips stitched together in a horizontal pattern to represent a document of sorts that is 30 inches by 23 inches. Wax is used to create black patches as if some areas have been redacted. The viewer questions what’s been hidden or removed. Themes of erasure or exclusion or a denial of some sort are common themes throughout the exhibition, and in that way, Threads connects to the other works in a profound way. In Aplacado, Aragon offers an enlarged newspaper image of a corpse in Juarez. The artist has blown the photo up to the point of abstraction – at first glance, you see only shapes and dots and black splotches. The human element is nearly removed, which is perhaps a comment on how the viewer, bombarded by daily images of death and violence, can become desensitized. “The artist rendered the image in a way that you’re not used to seeing with the hope that you’ll talk about the situation,” McNamara notes. Here is another entry point for discussion. Personally, I was struck by the two experiences I had with this image. Close to the work, the image was unrecognizable, abstract, but once I stepped back eight feet or so from the wall, the face, the form, parts of the image become recognizable. This exploration of how distance itself influenced my level of desensitization was fascinating, and I believe that in some ways, it applied to other works in the show as well, just not as explicitly.
Lastly, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler’s Constitution on Tour stands out as one of my favorite pieces in the show. The artists created the work in response to the traveling tour of the Bill of Rights in 1991, which was sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris USA. Two train tracks are attached to the gallery wall. Each holds five model Union Pacific rail cars filled with sandblasted marble pieces with writing on them. As the title describes, that writing is the Constitution of the United States, which was written on a slab of marble (the same marble used in the construction of the Supreme Court building), broken into pieces, and placed in the rail cars. Like a great deal of work in the exhibition, including To get to the other side, Dorian Gray, and Tim Hawkinson’s The Fin Within, there’s a sense of play in the objects and materials, but under the surface, the viewer gains access to something deeper and more meaningful – something in need of continued examination.
If Other Side is any indication of the quality of work to come, we can certainly look forward to what the next two years have in store. The Tang once again has shown us that it’s a unique platform for scholarly work, contemplation, and conversation.
Other Side: Art, Object, Self runs through December 30. Check out The Tang’s website (tang.skidmore.edu) for gallery hours and additional information, including a Curator’s Tour with Rebecca McNamara on August 24.
Photo by Jeremy Lawson, courtesy of The Tang Collection