Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the “Faces of China” exhibition (through Dec. 6)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews the free exhibition “Faces of China, 1981: Photographs by Tom Zetterstrom,” on display at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery through Friday, December 6, 2013. The exhibition will be closed from Tuesday, November 26 through Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

Tom Zetterstrom, "Combing," Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.
Tom Zetterstrom, “Combing,” Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.

In an interview this past August with curator Patrick Dowdey, photographer Tom Zetterstrom spoke about the approach he took to capturing everyday life in China through portraiture—a project for which he was commissioned by the Yale-China Association back in the 1980s, and whose results are now on display for the first time in nearly three decades. Above all, he said, he tried to get as up-close to his subjects as possible, ideally shooting at arm’s length.

“Dangling around my neck were three cameras, so I presented myself as the obvious photographer and not someone who was trying to sneak a shot on the run,” he said. “So I was able to engage with the subject on an individual level, one on one.”

Mr. Zetterstrom’s focus on one-on-one engagement shines through quite powerfully in “Faces of China, 1981,” a collection of photographs now on view at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery. His physical proximity to his subjects makes for portraits that are both intimate and inviting. But by interspersing these portraits with photographs of billboards, religious artwork, and other relics he encountered during his visit to China, Mr. Zetterstrom also steps back far enough to capture a bigger and more complex picture—that of a culture in flux.

In the early 1980s, China was still emerging from the shadows of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In 1981, when Mr. Zetterstrom and members of the Yale-China Association landed in China and started traveling from city to city, the country was moving towards a large-scale transformation, following the path set by Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” policy. As this process unfolded, China became open to foreigners in a way that it hadn’t been for years.  Given this new access, many people were eager to get a closer look: what was China like in the midst of these changes? What were the people like? What kind of effect was the reform having on them?

Mr. Zetterstrom’s photographs (some in black and white, some in color) offer answers to these questions—or at least fragments of answers—in a rich and evocative way. His portraits document people of all ages and occupations, catching snapshots of simple moments from their lives: a woman gathering tea from the countryside, two friends smoking together, a man caught in the middle of eating a popsicle.  A common feature among these portraits is that many of their subjects are looking straight into the lens, creating a line of communication between the subject and the viewer that is almost startlingly direct.

None of the images seem stiff or posed—even though, as Mr. Zetterstrom emphasizes, “these are not candid shots.” The sense of mutual trust between photographer and subject radiates from the page. This rings true with something Mr. Zetterstrom noted in his interview: that he went into this project without any preconceptions about the people he was photographing. As a result, his photographs have a simple and organic quality to them. Though the scenery might be foreign to many Western viewers, the expressions on the subjects’ faces are deeply familiar.

While these portraits are timeless in many ways, the other images interspersed with them—images of advertisements, older socialist art, religious artwork—provide a more concrete time frame, offering information about the historical and cultural crossroads in which these people are living. It would be impossible to draw complete conclusions from these images alone, but they do show China in 1981 as a place where residue of an earlier time remains, even as the society as a whole is taking steps forward.

The photos, arranged in a single row along the periphery of the gallery, are accompanied by only a minimal amount of text: after every five images or so, there is a list of each photo’s title and the location where it was shot. Mr. Zetterstrom reveals additional information about some of the photos in his interview with Mr. Dowdey, but walking from photograph to photograph without this supplementary knowledge is like progressing through a story with some general themes and key details but no fully tangible plot. This works perfectly given the content of some of the photographs—particularly the portraits, where the subjects and scenery speak for themselves. The objects that are showcased—religious artwork, billboards, a mannequin in a storefront—also tell their own stories, but it was difficult to fully discern their significance at first.

A few laps around the exhibition start to reveal more layers of meaning: a photograph of a dilapidated billboard depicting socialist art, for instance, presents a counterpoint to a newer, better-kept billboard showcasing commercial art. Contrasts and discrepancies like these hint at the direction in which Chinese culture was evolving at the time.

Still, for a viewer with minimal knowledge of the historical context of the photographs, more supplementary information might be helpful. The video of Mr. Zetterstrom’s interview is available for viewing in another room at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, so that’s a good place to start. Some transcribed excerpts from this interview are also printed in a pamphlet available in the exhibition room.

Mr. Zetterstrom’s approach to photography in China was both deliberate and impulsive: he noted in his interview that he was always carefully and thoughtfully observing his surroundings, but when the opportunity for a meaningful photo arose, he was prepared to seize the moment and act on it immediately. This effort translated into photographs that are at once fleeting and timeless—photographs that give immediacy to sweeping cultural shifts, especially when put in conversation with one another.

By piecing together this conversation for us, Mr. Zetterstrom offers a compelling lens through which to view this pivotal era in China’s recent history.  More than thirty years later, given all the transformations China has undergone since those early stages of reform, this lens is more valuable than ever.

Interviews With Alumni Artists: Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04, two of the featured artists in the free exhibition The Alumni Show II, on display in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery through Sunday, December 8, 2013. Both Ms. Herman and Ms. Romano will also be attending the Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception for the exhibition on Saturday, November 2, 2013 from 2pm to 4pm in Zilkha Gallery.

As anyone who has stopped by the Zilkha Gallery in the past few months already knows, the current semester-long exhibition hosts a truly unforgettable body of work.

The Alumni Show II celebrates the artwork of four decades of Wesleyan alumni. The exhibit, arranged by guest curator John Ravenal ’81, P’15, showcases a huge range of media, styles, and subjects—reflecting the infinite number of paths Wesleyan students take after graduating. This Saturday, November 2, 2013, Mr. Ravenal will be joined at 2:30pm by ten of the fifteen artists featured in the exhibition for the show’s Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception, which will last from 2pm to 4pm.  Over the past week, I got a chance to interview a few of these artists.

For the first installment of this interview series, I talked to Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04. Highlights from these interviews are featured below.


Gabriela Herman, "Natural Selection," 2011, archival inkjet print
Gabriela Herman, “Natural Selection,” 2011, archival inkjet print

Gabriela Herman ’03 is a freelance photographer who divides her time between Brooklyn, Martha’s Vineyard, and Brazil. For the collection on display in the exhibition in  Zilkha Gallery, she photographed bloggers sitting alone in dark rooms, with their faces bathed in the glow of their laptop screens. “Passion and inspiration thrive in these dark corners as blogs change the way we interact, literally linking us to one another,” she writes in her artist’s statement. I spoke to her about the inspiration behind her work, what she’s up to now, and the art of storytelling through photography.

What drove you to this particular subject matter?

Well, it was sort of organic, but the first part of it was just something with the lighting and then it developed into the blogger idea. But the first part was just that a friend of mine was at her house, and she was leaning over her bed on her computer, and I just noticed the light from her laptop screen lighting her face—it was just this beautiful light. And I was like, “Oh, my God! Stay right there for one sec.” And I grabbed my camera, which I happened to have over there, and I took three frames, and then I came home and I looked at what I had shot, and I thought, “There’s definitely something really interesting going on here.” So that was definitely the bud of the idea. And that picture used to be in the collection—it got edited out, but it was in there for a while.

So that was the start of the idea. And then I came up with the idea of photographing bloggers in that way, with the light from their laptops being a metaphor for the tunnel, sort of—the light as a tunnel from being alone to this other connected world where we’re all together, online, and using that light source.

All my projects are very personal, and involve things that I’m very tied to. I am very involved online in the blogosphere, I have many blogs, I read and consume tons of blogs, and I think blogs are sort of our go-to center for information these days, and that bloggers can be our curators of information. I wanted to highlight that fact.

How did you go about finding bloggers?

So originally the idea was to shoot one blogger, and then the next blogger was going to be someone that they recommended, so that the photos would all be linked up in the same way that blogs link to other blogs. It didn’t end up being totally linear in that way, but every time I did a shoot of someone, I did get them to recommend a set of people, and so that’s how I found most of the bloggers; it was almost always through the recommendations of other bloggers.

As a blogger yourself, do you see yourself in these photos?

Yeah, I guess in the way that the online blogosphere influences my own photography. I know there are certain photographers who don’t want to look at anyone else’s work, don’t want to be influenced by anyone else, just want to be pure and shoot what comes into their heads, but for me it’s quite the opposite. I take in everything online; I read all the blogs, and every time I’m going through and I’m looking at other people’s work, I get so inspired. You know, it’s not copying what you see, but you just get inspired here and there. I love going to the blogosphere to motivate myself.

So you’ve been blogging for a while?

Yes. It’s changed, though, because when I first moved to New York, I used to blog a ton about the scene, and I used to go out all the time to gallery openings and to photo events, and I would write up who I ran into that night, and blog about what I saw and that kind of stuff. But now everyone’s moved to Tumblr, and Tumblr’s much more visual and less word or text-driven. Blogging has become much more about posting images and maybe a line or two about the images, and less about text.

What was it like using computer screens as the main source of light for these photographs?

I made [my subjects] turn off all of the lights. That’s not to say there wasn’t outside light from the windows—I couldn’t control that—but the light from the Apple icon makes this beautiful, soft, sort of diffused lighting. It was really easy to do the shoots, because [the lighting] really helped to simplify the factors going into the shoot: all I really needed was the laptop and the person, and I knew going in, 20 minutes in, that I got the shot. It was a very easy, sort of in-and-out kind of shooting.

And was there a lot of post-production work involved as well?

Not really at all. I’ll pump up the blacks and the contrast a little, and take out a couple distracting things here and there, but for the most part, they’re pretty true to what was shot in raw.

Were most of the photos taken in New York?

The majority were in New York, but when I was shooting at times when I was traveling, I would always have reached out to some bloggers. So there is a girl from Boston in there, and there’s one from San Francisco, from when I was out there. When I was in Paris, I happened to find a photo blogger, too.

Any other projects you’re working on right now?

I’m currently working on my next big project, which is portraits of people who are in college or older, who have or were raised by at least one gay parent. It has some audio components—I’m doing audio interviews of the subjects and having them share their stories. I’m talking to people who were raised from birth by a gay parent, or by two gay parents, as well as people who were raised by a mom and a dad and then later had a parent come out. So I’m getting the audio into their stories, and then a portrait of them that somehow relates to the moment when they found out about their parents.

So you really like to convey stories through your photos.

Yeah, it’s much more powerful, and I think people are much more receptive when you have something to say—you know, when I have a story to tell, versus just looking at a pretty picture.

And you work full-time as a photographer?

I’m a full-time freelance photographer. I’ve been very focused on editorial photography, which is for magazines. I’ve literally been traveling right now since August, just on different assignments; I’ve been doing a lot of travel photography for several magazines.

What is your favorite type of scenario to photograph?

My favorite scenario to photograph would be when I can spend two to three days with a person—not just show up for a shoot for two hours, in and out, but spend a few days with someone, and photograph not just them, but also everything around them: what they’re doing, where they’re living, where they’re working. I get to encompass the whole story by hanging out with someone for a couple of days. That’s my favorite kind of work.

Juliana Romano, "Taylor Swift Walking," 2012, oil on linen
Juliana Romano, “Taylor Swift Walking,” 2012, oil on linen

Juliana Romano ’04 is a painter whose love for portrait and figure painting dates back to her time as a Studio Art major at Wesleyan. She now lives in New York, but she also now teaches studio art here at her alma mater. Her work in the exhibition in Zilkha Gallery features portraits of “young women who are noticeably cute or pretty.” Two of her three pieces on display are paintings of Taylor Swift. She writes, “I’m interested in the tension that surrounds this kind of girl, the anxiety about whether or not she will be consumed by her own image.” I talked to her about the creative process behind her artwork, the facial expressions of her subjects, and what it’s like to be back at Wesleyan to teach.

What drove you to pursue this subject matter?

I’ve been painting figures since I was an undergrad at Wesleyan. I used to paint the models who we used in the art classes, but they were professional artist models, and I wanted to pursue a more personal subject matter—but then that was problematic for me in other ways. And so I started trying to bring things that I didn’t think necessarily belonged in an art context into the art context.  I spent a lot of time reading Us Weekly, and tabloids, and fan sites, and so I thought it would be fun to start grafting the space between that kind of fan fiction area and what I designated as art. And that was how I started playing with the pop culture figures. And there are these incredible image archives of all these people. So once I started thinking that Taylor Swift was pretty and would be a fun subject, I was able to find amazing pictures of her—everywhere she goes, she’s photographed. And that became its own kind of element within the work, which I thought was interesting.

And you combine the photographs while you’re painting to form a composite image?

Sometimes I’ll like one thing about one picture and another thing about another, and I’ve practiced enough that I can use multiple sources for one face.

You wrote that your work “brings together portraits of famous and non-famous people in an unsystematic way, creating instability for the viewer.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I’ve found that people often, even if it’s totally just a stray picture of someone I know and whom nobody else would know, people always think it’s somebody famous. It’s like the chicken and the egg: I don’t know which came first, but people always have a sense of familiarity with these subjects.

I noticed that the women in these paintings have pretty neutral and interiorized expressions on their faces.

I always work with this really neutral expression. I think it’s probably a mirror of my own “concentration” face, that sense of meditation that happens when I’m working. I’m not having an ecstatic, hyperbolic moment—maybe if I was, that would come out in it—but I like that: it gives them a sense of interiority. And I’ve talked about that even since I was an undergrad; I remember [Professor of Art] Tula Telfair talking about that with me. When I had my first body of work, the first time I saw a bunch of my paintings of people together, I was really surprised by the really strong effect that I had that they were, all together, looking out of the canvas. I think if you look at the actual pictures that I work from, you might not get that sense as strongly. So I don’t know where it comes from.

How much time do you typically spend working on a painting?

I don’t spend a lot of time; usually a couple of days of about five hour sessions. But with these ones that are in the show, you can see—the one that’s of Taylor Swift in a sweater was made in one day, in a couple hours, but the one of her walking in the white dress took probably about a week. You can see the difference in the material—the hair took a really, really long time because I had to keep letting it dry, and the face took a really long time, but the one on the right was super fast.

What’s it like to be back at Wesleyan to teach?

I mean, it’s the best. It’s so great. I love my classes, I love my students, and it’s just so fun to be back. It’s such a special place.

After taking studio art classes here, it must be strange to suddenly be the one teaching.

It’s not weird. Being a student is so closely linked to being a teacher. It’s just a really easy transition. It’s funny, because when I came back for my five-year reunion, I hadn’t been back in a long time, and then my ten-year reunion is coming up this year, and that’s a really different feeling. That first gap was really crazy, and now I’m much more used to it. It doesn’t feel like ten years. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s the truth.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 talks to Alahna Watson ’13 about the Thesis Art Exhibition (Reception on May 25)

Saturday, May 25 will be last chance to check out the 2013 Thesis Art Exhibition in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. The special Reunion & Commencement gallery hours are from 10am to 5pm. And there will be a reception from 2pm to 4pm, with remarks at 2:45pm. The exhibition, which features the Class of 2013’s thesis students in the Department of Art and Art History’s Art Studio Program, offers a compelling window into the hard work and technical prowess that went into each thesis project. The exhibition is curated by Professor of Art Tula Telfair, and is co-sponsored by University Relations.

Last month, the seniors’ work was on rotation in the Zilkha Gallery: each week, five or six seniors displayed larger showcases of their work. For the year-end showcase, each senior has a smaller amount of work on display.  Each piece of art stands on its own as a testament to the artist’s creativity and longstanding devotion to their work. When placed all together in this single space, though, these pieces come into conversation with each other in interesting and surprising ways.

It’s hard to wrap your head around the sheer variety in media and subject matter in this showcase—in one area of the exhibit, photographs of celebrity impersonators occupy the same corridor as a huge sculpture of a chicken leg that’s coated in corn flakes.

alahna-watsonI got a chance to speak to a few seniors about the artwork they have on display in the gallery. One of the people I caught up with was Alahna Watson ’13, the artist behind the aforementioned chicken leg. Her thesis, which reflects on her experiences growing up in the south, incorporates lots of different media—including watercolor paintings, computer print-outs, and sculpture. She spoke about her creative process, the inspiration behind her work, and how it feels to have her art on display.

Why did you choose the subject and medium that you did? What was the motivation behind it?

My subject matter stems from my time growing up in southern Georgia. While I was there, I never really felt like I fit in in my small, rural, insular town, and I often struggled to articulate the feeling of being an outsider in the place that I called home. I think coming to Wesleyan and meeting people from all different backgrounds, taking sociology and art classes, and, of course, talking about my life story with my friends until 5am, has finally helped me pinpoint and address the issues of class, race, and “outsiderness” that I wasn’t sure how to talk about before.

When it came time to do a thesis, there was never really a question of what I wanted to do it on. I think that doing a studio art thesis is about finding something that is unique to your own experience or viewpoint and being able to share that with a wide audience. My experiences in the south have shaped my identity so much that it was bound to come out in some form or another. I was lucky that the drawing concentration is so open in terms of media. My exhibition included sculptures, computer-based print-outs, and watercolor paintings, and they were all under the umbrella of “drawing.” I was glad that my ideas didn’t have to be limited to just 2D expression.

What was your creative process like?

It’s interesting that most of the stuff people saw in the final show was really only created in the last month or two before it went up. My adviser, Assistant Professor of Art Julia Randall, really stresses the importance of making “throw-away” drawings in order to get all of our ideas out and boil them down until only the good ones are left. There are a bunch of completely finished pictures and projects that never made the final cut. I would get an idea for a drawing in the shower or during lunch, spend days creating the piece, have it torn apart in a critique, end up throwing it away, and then return to the idea again, in a different form, weeks later.

How did it feel to be working on one huge project for such an extended period of time?

It was both exhausting and completely rewarding. Looking at some of the drawings I made in October or even over winter break is kind of like reading your diary entries from middle school—cringe-worthy. When you sit with the same idea for that long it morphs and develops and it really becomes a part of you. There was a time when I couldn’t go to Price Chopper without wondering if I could use the old food wrappers blowing around in the parking lot for a drawing. You start to see everything through the lense of your thesis. I think that’s what makes the final product so rich—you really have considered your idea from every angle. That being said, having so much time to think about the same thing leaves a lot of room for self-doubt. There were definitely times at 4am when I had drawn until my hand was numb that I started panicking, asking, “Do I even have a thesis? Are these ideas even cohesive? Who am I?!”

What was it like reflecting on your own background and experiences through this artistic lens?

I think one of the big things that I came to appreciate from doing a studio art thesis was that I always had to consider how my ideas would come across to people who weren’t familiar with me, my background, or my work. In talking about people, customs, and culture from a specific place I had to always make sure that I wasn’t being too judgmental or careless in my representations and opinions. I think having to constantly check in with myself and pinpoint exactly what I wanted to express made me reflect on my own background in an almost scientific way. By the end of the process I felt pretty detached from a lot of the personal experiences I have lived through because I was analyzing them so much.  But I think a certain level of detachment was good because it helped me put a lot of really personal stuff on display for hundreds of people to see without feeling embarrassed.

What’s it like to have your work up on display now?

It’s interesting that for the group exhibition people only get to see one piece from your final show. My giant fried chicken leg was the piece chosen, and I think a lot of its meaning is lost because it’s out of its original context. Of course it takes on new meaning because of the other people’s work that is displayed around it, and I think maybe people will pay more attention to its design and materiality now that it’s a stand-alone sculpture rather than a statement inside a bigger narrative. It’s a little weird having only one piece on display when the rest of my year-long project is rolled up in storage. That chicken leg is almost like a relic.

What do you hope visitors will get out of observing your work?

Like I said, I think a lot of the chicken leg’s original context is lost now that it’s by itself, but I hope people still find it startling, humorous, and maybe even a little uncomfortable. Fried chicken has a lot of problematic connotations in our society, which I hopefully touched on in my exhibition. By blowing it up to human-size and forcing you walk around it, I hope that, even by itself, it sparks some dialogue.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews “Andrew Raftery: Open House” (through Dec. 9)

Rebecca Seidel attends “Andrew Raftery: Open House,” an exhibition presented by the Davison Art Center, through Sunday, December 9, 2012.

Andrew Raftery (American, born 1962), Open House: Scene One, 2008. Engraving. Courtesy of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York.

There is only a week left to visit Andrew Raftery: Open House, a five-part series of printed engravings and related work by contemporary artist Andrew Raftery.  Nobody should miss the opportunity to get lost in the boundless details and rich content of Mr. Raftery’s work.

In the five engravings on display, Mr. Raftery illustrates several rooms in a house that is on the real estate market, allowing us an inside view as potential buyers examine the place.  Together, the engravings constitute a single place and moment, viewed from varied perspectives.  Meticulously executed, these scenes offer a compelling snapshot of an upper-middle class American household.  They also explore a familiar interaction—that between realtors and buyers—in an intriguingly non-verbal way.

The figures in the prints are lifelike and dynamic, the architecture precisely proportioned.  It’s almost impossible to comprehend the years of thought, planning, and meticulous preparatory work that Mr. Raftery put into these engravings—the endeavor spanned six years, culminating in 2008.  But spend some time at the gallery, and you will begin to understand and appreciate the depth of his focus.

In addition to showcasing the engravings themselves, the exhibit guides viewers through Mr. Raftery’s preparatory process.  There are over 50 working drawings on display alongside the five engravings.  Among these samples, we see pen-and-ink architectural studies, nude and clothed sketches of the figures who appear in the engravings, and ink-wash tone studies of those same figures.  Mr. Raftery also constructed scale models of the rooms, studying the proportions of both the rooms themselves and the people wandering through them.  These models reveal the astounding thoroughness of Mr. Raftery’s creative process.  They also give you a sense that he enjoyed the challenge of bringing this house and the people in it to life through such exhaustive planning.

The display of all these stages of preparation showcases not only Mr. Raftery’s concern with detail and precision, but also his deftness and versatility as an artist.  The preliminary drawings are masterful works of art themselves.

The exhibit is designed so that for each scene, you have to walk through all the preliminary work before arriving at the final product.   As I walked around the perimeter of the exhibit, I found myself getting anxious to arrive at the published scenes so that I would better understand the context of the preliminary drawings.  While this was a confusing experience at times, the setup was certainly effective in paralleling Mr. Raftery’s process of creation.  It made me appreciate more thoroughly the amount of preparation and thought that went into the final five prints.

In these scenes, the thoroughness of Mr. Raftery’s work extends down to the most minute details.  The engravings feature identifiable brand-name housewares and appliances, such as a Michael Graves/Alessi kettle in the kitchen.  The house’s walls feature known works of art, including Robert Maplethorpe’s “Orchid” and David Hockne’s “Paper Pools.”  Mr. Raftery even gives himself a shout-out, displaying one of his own works of art in the master bedroom.  These details reveal a lot about the homeowners—although interestingly, the homeowners themselves never appear. The house is on display both to the prospective buyers and to us as viewers—and where the house-hoppers see tasteful décor and good architecture, we see reflections of upper-middle class America and consumer culture.  Our voyeuristic vantage point allows us to see a bigger picture, in addition to appreciating the tiny details.  Despite the narrow scope of its subject matter—or perhaps because of it—this exhibit digs deep into a subset of American culture.

The figures in the engravings, while rather generic in their features and physiques, evoke clear sentiments with their body language—feelings of curiosity, uncertainty, and satisfaction all radiate from the paper.  People of all ages walk through the open house: in the first scene, we see a realtor handing something to an older couple in the living room, while a younger couple enters the room from the back.  Other scenes include babies and small children.  The interactions between realtor and buyer, between the old and the young, infuse these engravings with vital energy.  We can see how much thought Mr. Raftery put into these figures through his exhaustive preparatory drawings, a great number of which appear alongside the final engravings.  His studies of form and shadow and position pay off tremendously.

Despite the thoroughness of the engravings, and despite the specificity of so many details, much remains unseen in this open house.  We don’t know the context in which the house is being sold, or the background of the potential buyers.  Questions of family dynamics and cultural climate come into play.  Mr. Raftery infuses a fairly commonplace setting with boundless questions, layering all the exquisite details with pockets of uncertainty and room for speculation.

Mr. Raftery draws inspiration from Claude Mellan, a 17th-century engraver who formed images and evoked tone using parallel lines of varying densities.  This influence manifests itself overwhelmingly in Open House: the images we see are composites of dizzying numbers of parallel lines. Mr. Raftery executes this engraving style perfectly.

In a recent interview at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he resides on the faculty, Mr. Raftery said regarding Open House, “I like this idea that we can look at spaces and kind of read them. I thought the layers of history that are embodied in my style would relate to the layers of history that were embodied in this subject.” This certainly rings true in the exhibit. The form and subject not only compliment one another perfectly—they also enhance one another in unexpected ways.  Engraving is often considered a dated art form, but Raftery’s implementation of formal engraving techniques—especially his use of hatched lines for tone—help him capture a familiar snapshot of modern culture in a realistic and timeless way.

As the preparatory drawings and models make clear, this exhibit is as much about the final products of Mr. Raftery’s work as the meticulous effort that went into it.  To emphasize this, one feature of the exhibit is a video of Mr. Raftery explaining and demonstrating the process of engraving.  He showed how he uses a tool called a burin, with a rounded handle and a sharp steel shaft, to engrave images onto a copper plate.  He also guides us through the process of transferring the work from engraved metal to printed paper.  This explanatory portion is located at the end of the exhibit, immediately following the fifth and final scene. The video enhanced my appreciation of the art of engraving, and of the prodigious skill it requires.  I felt exhausted just thinking about the level of concentration that this type of printmaking requires, but Mr. Raftery displays a genuine delight in the entire process.

With Open House, Mr. Raftery showcases his exceptional skills as both an artist and an observer of life’s everyday intricacies.  In the process, he breathes new life into an age-old art form, offering a lesson in the virtues of focus and precision.

Don’t miss Andrew Raftery: Open House at the Davison Art Center, open through Sunday, December 9, 2012.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” (through Dec. 7)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima,” an exhibition presented at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery through December 7, 2012.

Imura Tatsushi, age 9, Children’s Day on May 5, 1947

There is something magical about children’s art, something that beckons us closer.  Maybe it’s the uninhibited way that kids tend to put their lives on paper, with earnest lines and splashes of color.  Maybe looking at the art of children evokes nostalgia for us, memories of a purer time in our lives.  The pictures on display at “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” have all these charms, but they also hold their own as visually stunning pieces of art.  Above all, though, it’s the backstory of the exhibition that makes it so compelling.

In 1947, Japan was still reeling from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To aid in the relief effort, the children of the All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. sent a huge amount of art supplies overseas to the Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima.  Using those supplies, the children there produced a vibrant collection of artwork.  They drew and painted scenes from their neighborhoods, and captured moments from traditional Japanese festivities.  The children of Honkawa Elementary School sent a box of nearly 50 of their drawings back to the All Souls Church as an expression of gratitude for the art supplies.

After the initial excitement of the exchange died down, the pictures were stored in a church vault and forgotten for about 50 years. But in 1996, the box was rediscovered.  A new wave of interest surrounded the artwork, some of which began the journey back to Honkawa Elementary School in 2007.

A 2011 documentary, Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard, tracked down some of the artists, now in their late 70s.  These people recount memories of war-torn Japan and discuss the paths their lives have taken.  The film chronicles their reactions as they are reunited with their former classmates and with their artwork.

At Wesleyan’s Mansfield Freeman Center, you’ll find a display of some of the original pieces of art, thoughtfully arranged by curator Patrick Dowdey.  There are works by children ages 7 to 12, done in crayons, markers, watercolors, paper cutouts, and more.  There are a few samples of Japanese calligraphy as well, phrases about nature, Japanese culture, and life in general.  The art is grouped according to subject matter.

Looking at the artwork alone, you would never guess that all this positive creative energy arose out of a place still recovering from war, a city totally ravaged by the atomic bomb.  Barely any of the pictures show evidence of destruction, nor do they illustrate feelings of despair.  In fact, most of the artwork is contagiously cheerful, depicting snapshots of life at school and in bustling neighborhoods.

There are only a few pictures that hint at any sort of struggle. In an intriguing twist, a piece of calligraphy accompanying those pictures reads, “America, Our Friend.”

The art bursts with color, evoking senses of depth and movement.  It’s spontaneous and free.  But even beyond illustrating the natural energy of children’s creativity, the artwork on display here showcases unmistakable talent—skills way beyond these children’s years.  Within this relatively small sampling, we find incredibly intricate displays of architecture and storefronts, serene landscapes of rivers and clouds, figures and faces that glow with life.

The individual pieces in this exhibit tell stories of their own—stories of Japanese culture, of natural wonders, of life as a child.  But as a whole, “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” tells an unforgettable story of compassion across borders and hope in the wake of a disaster.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews Lana Wilson ’05, curator of the “Performance Now” Film Series (Oct. 25 & Nov. 15)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 sits down with Lana Wilson ’05, curator of the “Performance Now” film series, presented in conjunction with the Zilkha Gallery exhibition focusing on performance art (on display through December 9, 2012).

The Performance Now exhibition at the Zilkha Gallery merits multiple visits – there’s just so much to experience and absorb.  Performance art naturally exists only in the moment it is created, but this exhibit does an excellent job of immortalizing the performances it displays.   Curated by Roselee Goldberg, Performance Now will be on view until December 9, so you still have time to head over and browse the exhibit yourself.

Meryl Streep in Laurie Simmons’s “The Music of Regret” (2005)

To further enhance your appreciation of performance art, the exhibition extends into a three-part film series at the Powell Family Cinema.  The first set of films – two films featuring French conceptual dance – were screened on September 20.  The next set, featuring films by Danish artist Jesper Just, will be screened this Thursday, October 25.  The final group of films, showcasing recent works by Daria Martin and Laurie Simmons, will air on November 15.  Admission to these films is free.

I got a chance to interview Lana Wilson, the curator of this film series, about what viewers should expect from the screenings.  Lana, a 2005 Wesleyan graduate, had a lot to say about her film selections for Performance Now. She gives some helpful context for the French films that aired in September – films that offered quite a memorable experience for viewers, as you know if you were there. Above all, Lana is excited to air the remaining installments of the series.  She will be at the cinema to introduce the Jesper Just films this Thursday. You can read our discussion below:

Why did you select the films that you did?  What about them made them especially relevant to the Performance Now exhibition?

I selected these films to accompany the Performance Now exhibition because I think they represent a very small sample of some of the most exciting performance films made by artists in the last decade. These screenings include both filmed documentation of performances, and films that have a lot to do with live performance, but are specifically made for the camera, because I think that both types of work are important. It’s a film series, but it’s about live performance, so I wanted to include samples of different places in the spectrum between the two.

All of the work being shown is also by artists who have been a part of the Performa biennials, including the first-ever Performa Commission (Jesper Just’s True Love Is Yet to Come, from 2005). But the artists themselves all come out of slightly different contexts – Jerome Bel and Boris Charmatz are choreographers, for example, while Laurie Simmons is a photographer and visual artist.

What kind of viewing experience should we expect from the upcoming two screenings? Anything to look out for in particular?

I was so thrilled to have the chance to program films for the one of the beautiful screens in Wesleyan’s Center for Film Studies. I wanted to take advantage of that opportunity by showcasing works that are visually gorgeous, and made at a scale that would make sense to show in a large cinema, rather than on small monitors in a gallery. I also wanted the programs to be made for the audience to sit through from start to finish, with their attention fully engaged. So none of these screenings are dry conceptual events – each program is visually lush and – at least in my opinion! – will be very exciting to watch on a big screen.

The two French films screened on September 20 differed aesthetically in some pretty stark ways.  Do you think there are any common threads between them?

It’s true – both of those films are very different aesthetically. But they are both made by choreographers who come–in very different ways – out of traditions of the Judson Dance Theater, and both artists are now seen as key figures in the wave of “conceptual choreography” that emerged in France in the 1990s.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Judson Dance Theater was a loose coalition of artists, choreographers, and musicians who had a series of performances at New York’s Judson Church in the early 1960s that radically broke with the conventions of concert dance. The dances created by this group, which would later be called “post-modern,” reduced the medium to its most essential elements, discarding drama and expressionism in favor of pedestrian movement, repetitive structures, and improvisation, and rejecting the notion of the artist or performer as virtuoso in favor of what they thought of as more “democratic” dance.

In contrast, the performance documentation of Bel’s Veronique Doisneau, 2004, reduces aesthetic concerns to a bare minimum, instead throwing its concept into high relief. In September 2004, Paris Opera Ballet dancer Veronique Doisneau, age forty-one, is about to retire after over twenty years of dancing in the background as a member of the corps de ballet. On the final night of her career, she at long last appears alone on stage, in front of an enormous audience in the Paris Opera House. Dressed in rehearsal clothes, and wearing a headset microphone, Doisneau calmly tells the story of her life in dance—her low-ranking position in the hierarchy of the ballet company, the injury that almost ruined her career when she was twenty, even the amount of her monthly wages. She then performs excerpts from several pieces, including a variation from La Bayadere, with no music other than her own soft singing and counting; a segment from the lead role in Giselle, a part that Doisneau says she wishes she could have danced (earlier, she speculates, “I don’t think I was talented enough”); and a portion of the corps de ballet part from Swan Lake, in which Doisneau stands perfectly motionless in various poses while the stars dance in center stage. Watching Doisneau perform her life’s history as a dancer, with all its attendant joy and frustration, shows the audience things they had never noticed before. Like the work of the Judson artists, it reveals the assumptions underlying dance, bringing them into the open to re-construct them in an entirely new way. It is one of my favorite performances of all time.

Boris Charmatz & Dimitri Chamblas–“Les Disparates” (1994)

In France in the 1990s, a wave of new choreographers emerged that was both reacting to the highly theatrical French dance of the 1980s, and inspired by Judson. Les Disparates, from 1994, is a film directed by Cesar Vayssie that two young French choreographers, Boris Charmatz and Dimitri Chamblas, collaborated on right after becoming the teenage sensations of the French dance scene with A Bras le Corps (1993), a duet that has a real thrilling physicality to it. In Les Disparates, a man (Charmatz) dances in four different locations as the film jumps between them all, using his movement to explore the possibilities for fragmenting time and space through editing. Shot in the rainy landscape of Sienne, a city in the north of France, the film leaps from bar to boathouse and back again–it’s very much a dance made for the camera. The choreography suggests the influence of Judson member Steve Paxton’s weight and flow-based contact improvisation techniques, while the film’s crisp compositions and elegant visual motifs—highlighting patches of saturated red and blue within the industrial scenery, for example—resemble contemporary European art cinema.

Do you have a favorite film out of the entire series, and if so, what is it?

This is a tough one. Jesper Just’s It Will All End in Tears will be spectacular on the big screen – let’s just say that there are some amazing special effects. And for Meryl Streep fans, that actress is a star of Laurie Simmons’s The Music of Regret (2005), where she has an unforgettable turn singing a duet with a ventriloquist dummy. Too hard to choose!

The Films of Jesper Just

Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 7pm
Powell Family Cinema, Center for Film Studies
Introduced by Performa Film and Dance Curator
Lana Wilson ’05 with reception to follow.

Other Worlds: Daria Martin and Laurie Simmons

Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 7pm
Powell Family Cinema, Center for Film Studies

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews Kamar Thomas ’12 about his work in the Thesis Art Exhibition (through May 26)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the Thesis Art Exhibition, and sits down with Kamar Thomas ’12, to discuss his seven-painting thesis series, “me, myself, & i”. 

Kamar Thomas, "Untitled" from the series "me, myself, & i"

For an incredible dose of fresh ideas manifested in artwork of all dimensions, I recommend heading over to the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, where the Thesis Art Exhibition is currently in full swing.  This annual showcase features select works from the thesis projects of seniors in the Department of Art & Art History‘s Art Studio program.

Each senior had a chance to display a larger sampling of his or her work last month, in more specialized five-day exhibits featuring five or six students each.  This final exhibition brings all the senior theses together into a comprehensive spectacle.  It’s astonishing to observe all the different concepts and media these seniors chose to explore.  Even though each senior only gets to display one piece of art in this final showing, the walls still brim with evidence of all the thought and creativity that went into each project.

Evidence of this creativity is not limited to the Zilkha Gallery.  If you’ve visited the main dining hall at the Usdan University Center recently, you’ve probably noticed that the back walls have a new infusion of color.  Those vibrant faces that have caught your eye are two paintings from the thesis series of Kamar Thomas ’12, me, myself, & i.  The Usdan University Center bought these paintings from Mr. Thomas and now has them on display.

All seven paintings in his thesis are self-portraits, each contributing to an exploration of self-conception and identity.  As he explains in the description mounted next to his painting at the Zilkha Gallery, issues of identity are especially important to him because of the life transitions he has experienced: “I grew up on Jamaica and spent my entire life there, only moving to the United States to study at Wesleyan University four years ago.  I have encountered the need to be flexible while staying connected to my past as I navigate my ever-changing present.”

For each self-portrait, Mr. Thomas would cover his own face in paint, then have his face photographed.  He would then edit that photograph in Photoshop.  The resulting image would be the inspiration for his painting.  The resulting works of art are eye-catchingly colorful and hard to forget.

I got a chance to sit down with Mr. Thomas and talk to him about his artwork.  Here is some of what he had to say.

Tell me a little bit about your thesis.

Well, it’s inspired by my own biography, having moved from Jamaica to here.  Each of [the paintings] in the series is my way of making another identity that isn’t directly connected to anything else.  So, for instance my skin is dark. You look and say, ‘Oh, it’s a black guy.’  But if you paint it, then what is it?  It really is an exploration of the flexibility of what identity is.

How did you come up with the idea for your thesis?

Playing around, coming up with a couple of ideas, bouncing ideas off my advisor – many, many things.  I can’t really spend such huge amounts of time [on a project] unless I have a personal connection to it.  So it was experimenting – finding something that interested me that I know other people wanted to see, too.

What have the reactions been like?

They’ve been so great.  I felt like a rock star at my own show.  There were so many people.  I even sold some of [my paintings].  You know how great that feels?  If you become an English major, it’s like writing a thesis and having a publisher going, ‘I want to sell your book.’ I still can’t believe it.

It must be cool to walk upstairs at Usdan and see your paintings on the walls.

It’s just so weird.  If anything is filmed at Usdan, my paintings will be in the background.  That’s my claim to fame.

In your description of your thesis series, you said that you ‘select images to paint based on their emotional impact and on how exciting they will be to paint.’  Do you think your paintings have had an emotional impact?

Yes, I would say they have emotional impact.  At first, people will see it and think, ‘Oh my God, this looks great,’ and they won’t really think why until long afterwards.  Then the intellect will kick in and go, ‘Well, how did you come up with this idea?’  As much as I like high art, I don’t want to be the person where you need to have taken nine Art History courses to even begin to grasp what these things mean.  They’re very loud.  They’re kind of like pop music – a lot of people like it, but there are still some hipsters who are like, ‘This is too mainstream for me.’ At the show, people were like, ‘Well, I don’t really like it, but it took a lot of work, so congratulations.’  It’s all right – I don’t want everyone to like it, anyway.

How did you publicize your own work?

The school helps you.  The school prints out the flyers and whatnot, and the senior thesis exhibition has happened every year since painting has been offered here, so it’s out there.  Also, I had a Facebook event.  All the painters in my week had a Facebook event, so their friends were coming.  I told a few people, and these few people told some more people – so it was word of mouth, Facebook, and people who I met randomly at dinners.

Each of your paintings is unique, but they all have some common characteristics.  How did you go about creating these pieces? Did you work on them all at once?

At first, I did them serially.  The real learning curve happened during my Christmas break and spring break, when I had nothing to do except paint – so I’d just get up and paint.  I started working on each of them at the same time.  It was, I would say, far more fun than doing any other thesis.  It wasn’t difficult at all.  It took work, but once you stopped complaining about that – I mean, you’re painting.  You’re not digging a hole sixty feet below the Earth’s surface, searching for shiny rocks.  You’re painting.

How long did each piece take you to paint?

The first one took forever.  The very first one took from September to the beginning of November, I believe. The second one took three weeks.  The third one took all of Christmas break.  I took from January till spring break to do another one, and then during spring break I finished three. And then I was done early, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I guess you never got tired of painting?

Hell, no.  I know some people are burnt out by it.  But, you know, if you’ve already decided to disappoint your parents, you might as well do it on a grand, impressive scale.  Even if I was tired of it, I would never mention it or bring it up.  So no, I never got tired of it.  And right now I have a lot of ideas for my next paintings.

That must be exciting.

Oh, extremely exciting.  I’m moving to New York City, and seeing how that plays out.  I’m going to move somewhere and paint in my apartment, wherever I am.

I know that in order to create a thesis, Art Studio majors have to raise funds themselves.  What was that like?

I begged like I have never begged before.  I worked like I have never worked before.  Because I’m international, I can’t work off campus, and I’m only allowed twenty hours a week to work.  So at the end of my sophomore year, I realized, I’m going to have to start painting and selling now.  Otherwise – no thesis.  No money, no thesis.

My thesis in total cost between three and five thousand dollars – I was talking to a few people, and they were shocked that the school didn’t provide the materials.  It was harder to raise the money than it was to make the paintings.

Do you think the University should supply more funding for Studio Art thesis work?

Definitely.  If I ever have large sums of money, I’ll do it myself.  The formula is so simple: no money, no thesis.  No one cares how much talent you have or what you’re trying to do.  Because, I mean, you’re not the next Picasso, and even if you are, you won’t know, because you don’t have any money to try.

Have you always liked art?

Nope. [In Jamaica], I didn’t know about the concept of a museum or art as a means to sustain yourself, or art as a means of expression or making an emotional impact.  I came here and took some art history courses and saw that there were textbooks written on it – just a whole field dedicated to it.

What about actually painting – doing it yourself?

Growing up nearsighted, poor hand-eye coordination, born broke, I just wasn’t exposed to it.  But once I was, I liked it; loved it.

Was painting self-portraits a self-reflective process for you?

That’s putting it mildly.  You want to know yourself? Paint yourself seven times.  You really want to know yourself?  Go outside in broad daylight with your face in full makeup, with two women holding up a mirror and a background behind you and another woman taking a picture, and having school children walk by. You will develop a level of confidence that you didn’t even know you had.

The Thesis Art Exhibition will continue in Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery until Saturday, May 26, 2012. There will be a reception on Saturday, May 26, 2012, from 2pm to 4pm. 

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews Paula Matthusen’s “work divided by time” (May 2-13)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reflects on her visit to “work divided by time,” a sound installation by Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen, on display in Van Vleck Observatory through Sunday, May 13, 2012.

Energy. Power. Work. Time. We use these words rather casually in everyday conversation.  But when we delve deeper into these theoretically simple terms, we begin to realize the depth of their meaning.  The concepts of work and time carry an endless variety of historical and cultural contexts; they mark a place where science and culture merge.

work divided by time, Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen’s new sound installation at the Van Vleck Observatory, reflects and renews these ideas.  The installation quite literally echoes a historical conception of time in a way that is simple yet evocative.

Dr. Matthusen’s work on this piece was inspired by a visit to the small town of Spillville, Iowa, where Frank and Joseph Bily spent all their lives constructing huge mechanical clocks.  The clocks, now on display at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, feature intricate visual designs and moving figurines – as well as the captivating sounds of chimes and music boxes.  work divided by time takes sonic recordings of the Westminster Clock, one of the Bily Brothers’ first clocks, and manifests them using simple electric circuits.

A visit to the installation will bring you to a tiny room, surrounded by faint tones and snippets of static, bathed in the meditative heat and glow of candles.  The candles sit atop small handmade wooden boxes embellished with rosette patterns, from which the tones of the clock emerge.  Above each box and set of candles is a rotating propeller, powered by the heat of the candles.  If you lean in close, you’ll see that each setup forms its own little circuit – its own microcosm of energy.

“As the propellers turn on the modules, certain blades dip lower than others, at times intersecting with a wire that closes a circuit, allowing an audible tone to emerge, as well as a grit of noise as the connection is made and then re-broken,” Dr. Matthusen explained.  “Small rhythms emerge as the blades move at different rates, and gradually slow down and/or stop alltogether.”

Certain propellers do indeed slow to a halt occasionally, though a light tap will get them moving again.  You never know what patterns of sound will result – a factor which adds an intriguing layer of unpredictability to a space that is visually balanced and uniform.  The simplicity of the installation’s design makes all the small nuances of sound spring to life.

The mechanisms of work divided by time were constructed mostly by hand, recalling the innovation and technical skill with which the Bily Brothers fashioned their clocks in the early 20th century.   The brothers never once strayed further than 13 miles from their hometown – yet their clocks display an incredible level of worldliness and a boundless spirit for adventure.  The clocks are huge and majestic, some reaching over nine feet in height.  The setup of work divided by time is nowhere near as grandiose – quite to the contrary, its beauty arises from its conceptual simplicity and the subtlety of the sounds it produces.  The installation evokes the time and energy put into Frank and Joseph’s creations, while also transforming their legacy into something entirely new.

In a speech at the installation’s opening reception, Dr. Matthusen talked about her experience at the Bily Clocks Museum, and how it shaped her ideas for work divided by time:

“When I was first there, I heard the audience gasp as the music box gears engaged, and figurines began to rotate through the intricate mechanisms of the clocks.  I heard expressions – and certainly thought them myself – ‘I can’t believe the amount of work that went into that’ or ‘I can’t imagine the amount of time it would take to build that.’  Part of what is intriguing about these reactions are the very general concepts we’re accustomed to throwing around – ‘work’ and ‘time’ (perhaps in having too much of the former and not enough of the latter) – and in the work of the Bily Brothers, we encounter a world that has a radically different relationship to both.”

The installation stands alone as an immersive soundscape and physical space, but having this sense of its background makes the experience more meaningful. Because of the room’s small size, only a few people can step inside at a time.  This ends up enhancing the experience, allowing visitors to really settle into the space and the sounds – as well as the occasional lapse of silence.

work divided by time was commissioned by the Center for the Arts as a part of the ongoing project Feet to the Fire: Fueling the Future.  As Dr. Matthusen pointed out, this installation has “the unique status of being the first Feet to the Fire commission to use actual fire.”  It’s also the first sound installation of its kind to ever be set up in the Van Vleck Observatory.

But work divided by time is memorable beyond these standout details.  It infuses meaning into simple circuitry, in a way that is quietly powerful (no pun intended).

The installation is open every afternoon through Sunday, May 13, 2012.  You can see the exact hours here.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews David Schorr’s “APOTHECARY” (through Mar. 8)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 sits down with Professor of Art David Schorr to discuss his current exhibition in the Davison Art Center, “APOTHECARY (storehouse).” The exhibition will continue through Thursday March 8.

David Schorr (American, born 1947), Remembered Laughter (detail), 2011, gouache and silverpoint on Fabriano paper. © 2011 David Schorr. Courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery, New York City (photo: R. J. Phil).

“For a problem that had been plaguing me, a wise ophthalmologist suggested I try artificial tears. In gratitude I made him a drawing of an apothecary bottle I had salvaged from my father’s medical office, changing the Latin of the original label to the Latin for ‘artificial tears.’ I became interested in drawing more of these bottles and started to collect them on eBay. Because I had long wanted a place to put away cherished values or to hide shameful thoughts, I discovered to my delight that the Greek word ΑΠΟΘΗΚΗ, from which our word ‘apothecary’ derives, means storehouse. This project followed.”

So indeed began Schorr’s work on APOTHECARY (storehouse), his newest exhibition on display at the Davison Art Center.   All of the paintings in this exhibit depict antique apothecary bottles, modeled after actual bottles Schorr has collected from all over the world.  Executed with scrupulous detail, each bottle appears to be suspended mid-canvas, lifelike and gleaming with iridescent color.  But these are no ordinary medicine bottles, and they carry no ordinary remedies. Their labels say things like “Silver Linings,”  “Sleepless Nights,” and “Stardust.”  Plenty of the labels are in different languages, and plenty more allude to literary sources–Shakespeare and Keats among countless others.

The premise of the series (which amounts to more than 75 paintings) seems simple—but the bottles’ vibrant colors and translucent depths, paired with the strange lure of their imaginary contents, give the entire space an aura that is both whimsical and mysterious.

“It really is meant above all to be fun, and, I hope, witty,” said Schorr in an interview about his work. “But I am particularly pleased if the wit and the quality of the drawing seduces some people into taking certain bottles as personal metaphors, bottles they have in their own storehouse. This can be a source of pleasure in something precious or a source of shame or discomfort realizing they have a bottle they keep tightly sealed because its contents are best not thought about, or not sampled.”

Phyllis Rose, Professor of English, Emerita, touches upon ideas like this in her essay entitled “Poetry in Bottles: Schorr’s Storehouse.” You can find this essay, which explores deeper meanings lurking within Schorr’s work, in a catalogue available in the exhibition room.

Schorr created these pieces using gouache and silverpoint on colored Fabriano Roma paper, a rare type of paper that he went to great lengths to secure.  He found the apothecary bottles through searches on eBay.  “Often they came in groups,” he said. “On the whole, once I had a particular style in a particular color that was fine and I didn’t need a duplicate, but I became very tuned in to subtle differences, especially the relation of the sides and neck to the slope of the shoulders.”

David Schorr (American, born 1947), Sleepless Nights (detail), 2011, gouache and silverpoint on Fabriano paper. © David Schorr. Courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery, New York City (photo: R. J. Phil).

He added, “Sometimes there would be a bottle that looked great, but opening the package I found it disappointing, but also the reverse. Some bottles really came to life only when I posed them and started to draw them.”

Schorr now has a vast collection of antique bottles, quite a few of which are assembled on a shelf in the exhibit.  Seeing these bottles in real life, in such a huge array of colors and shapes and sizes, adds to the striking effect of the exhibition as a whole. “I’m not certain what I am going to do with them all now, when the show is over,” he said. “I will probably keep a few treasured favorites and sell the others back on eBay.”

You can tell just by looking at the work in this collection that it took lots of time and attention to detail.  “Some of the best [pieces] were very spontaneous, finished in less than a week, others as long as three weeks,” said Schorr.

Venturing behind the scenes of his artwork, Schorr said, “I love finishing a picture late at night. I typically work until 3 AM, and when I finish a picture, I turn my easel to face the couch where I can stretch out and make myself a glass of juice with chopped ice and light the picture and put on a playlist of twenty or so different recordings of “Vissi d’Arte, Vissi d’Amore” from Tosca by Puccini and sit and look at the picture. About half the time I see tiny things I wish to change and do. But sometimes I just make a list of them and fix them the next day. I always think it’s too bad I don’t smoke, as that would be the perfect time for a cigarette.”

The longer you linger around the exhibit, wandering through this makeshift “storehouse,” the more you’ll appreciate the bottles’ mystique: even though they are right there in front of you, you will never be able to open them and sample their contents for yourself.  It’s up to you, the viewer, to derive meaning out of what you see.  Contemplating what lies within the bottles is not only a compelling experience; it can also be a deeply personal one.

APOTHECARY (storehouse) will remain at the Davison Art Center through Thursday March 8. After that, it will move to the Mary Ryan Gallery in New York City.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the exhibit “Metamorphosis” (on display through Dec. 9)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the exhibit “Metamorphosis: The Collaboration between Photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Suzhou Embroiderers”. The exhibit is on display at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies through Friday, December 9, 2011. The gallery is open from noon to 4pm; admission is free.

Step up really close to “Graceful Branch Movement,” the most recent piece on display at the Metamorphosis exhibit, and you’ll get blissfully lost in the intricacy of the stitches, the vibrancy of the colors.  Take a few steps back and you’ll appreciate the depth and unity of the work as a whole.

“Graceful Branch Movement,” a six-foot-tall double-sided silk embroidery based on a photographic print by Robert Glenn Ketchum, hangs from the ceiling at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, where it’s making its debut.  It is one of five such embroideries on display at the gallery, showcasing a prolific artistic collaboration that has spanned over two decades.

Metamorphosis, curated by Patrick Dowdey, exhibits the collaborative work of nature photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Suzhou embroiderers.  Mr. Ketchum and master embroiderer Meifang Zhang began their first project together in 1986, and have been collaborating ever since.  With meticulous deliberation, they work to transform Mr. Ketchum’s photographic art into pieces of Chinese embroidery.

The fusion results in incredibly textured, seemingly three-dimensional works of art.  The pieces on display at the Mansfield Freeman Center merge the natural beauty of Mr. Ketchum’s photography with the intricate serenity of Chinese embroidery—an art form dating back to ancient times.

Mr. Ketchum says that despite a language barrier that prevents them from communicating conversationally, he and Ms. Zhang share a “common language” of appreciation for the work they seek to create.  This appreciation shines through in their collaborative work.

Creating these pieces takes a lot of planning, discussion, and imagination.  The final products display not only Mr. Ketchum’s original artistic intentions, but also the creative visions of the embroiderers.  The highly technical process of stitching also requires concentration and precision.

“When you’re experimenting with a piece like this, you can’t undo it if it doesn’t work well,” explained Ketchum. “If you do it wrong, there’s no going back and taking it apart.”

“Graceful Branch Movement” arrived at Wesleyan for its international debut from Ms. Zhang’s Suzhou Embroidery Art Innovation Center (SEAIC) in China.  As the exhibit’s brochure states, “Robert’s central vision of the super-real in nature comes out more strongly here than in any other work so far in the collaboration.  Meifang Zhang conveys a particular kind of natural beauty with delicacy and clarity in a way that leaves us enlightened.”

The exhibit spans almost the entire two decades of this collaboration: the oldest piece on display, a three-paneled standing screen embroidery called “Beginning of Time,” dates back to 1994.

The press release for this exhibit calls it “a visual experience you will never forget, featuring silk embroideries that celebrate a unique vision of the natural world.”  The embroideries on display certainly breathe an air of magic into Ketchum’s photography.  It’s the type of artwork that you have to see in person, and once you do, it’s pretty much impossible to turn away.

“I don’t bring these pieces out very often,” Ketchum notes. “They’re fragile and it takes a lot of effort to get a nice display.” Don’t miss your chance to see these creations for yourself while you can.