‘Believing’ examines truth in art

In a tag-team gallery talk led by Linda Shearer, director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), and Steve Gerrard, associate professor of philosophy, the WCMA sponsored a discussion on two of the most innovative exhibits currently at the museum: “Louise Bourgeois: Sleepwalking” and “But Is It Real?” The well-attended lecture began with the introduction of Abigail Guay, a student in the art history graduate program, and Lisa Dorin, curatorial and program assistant at the WCMA, who collaborated to organize the Louise Bourgeois exhibition.

The exhibit was inspired by a string of inquiries that the museum collected in connection with the well-received, but easily misunderstood, sculpture, “Eyes,” which now graces the area in front of Lawrence Hall. For the museum’s 75th anniversary, it commissioned the piece by sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who is now 90 and living in New York. Bourgeois has always been a fascination to the art world as an artist whose work borders on surrealism without ever attaining the title of “Surrealist.” The categorical conflict in her work can be seen in the piece “Knife Couple,” featured in this exhibition, though perhaps the profound strangeness of her career is exemplified in how Bourgeois hit the national scene and attained fame only past the age of 70.

Guay spoke about the pieces in the exhibition in the context of the title “Sleepwalking,” which was inspired by a Bourgeois quote, and the artist’s infamous insomnia as an influence on much of her work. The small exhibit contains approximately six sculptures made from metal and stone; the walls are packed with sketches and pages from her drawing journal.

Sexuality is apparent in much of Bourgeois’ work, but the intention and focus are never clear – first and foremost, she remains elusive. Bourgeois is deeply affected by her own unconscious; her work is a constant battle to keep these feelings close to the surface. Suffering from insomnia, her repressed thoughts and desires cannot be expelled in the form of dreams. To combat this, Bourgeois draws consistently to mechanically work out her emotions.

These drawings, sometimes merely repetitious doodles, are some of the more difficult works in the gallery to access critically. When one listener questioned the artistic integrity of these sketches, the speakers answered by saying that this exhibit was also a demonstration and exploration of Bourgeois’ “process,” which is integral to the sculptures and truly the most impressive part of the show.

“Spiders II” and “Arch of Hysteria” are the most memorable pieces in the program, the first being a favorite symbol of her mother in the form of a large metallic spider, welded together and hung from the wall. “Arch of Hysteria” is a glistening, headless, arched body hanging by a wire floating in midair. It communicates an unleashed eroticism. This gallery gives an insightful look into the mind of Bourgeois and assists in giving a subtext to the “Eyes” that many students pass everyday.

In the second gallery talk, Gerrard discussed one of the more curious exhibits in the WCMA, “But Is It Real?” The exhibition was co-organized by Gerrard and Stephanie Spray Jandl, a Mellon curatorial associate, in association with his course “Fake: A Path Into the Philosophy of Art,” which questions the role of authenticity and originality.

In this exhibit, WCMA has an amazing span of artists, from Degas to Warhol. Gerrard chose the Marcel Duchamp piece “Trébouchet” as the introduction to his talk. In the foreground, the audience saw before them two well-lit coat racks, one of which was signed by the artist himself. Besides questioning the artistic value of ready-mades and asking in essence “What is art?,” Gerrard made the question more difficult by adding further knowledge of the piece, including the fact that these coat racks were actually only copies of an original piece. Gerrard boggled the audience more by adding that the original may have been imaginary itself.

In Gerrard’s own words, “this gallery keeps us from an easy answer.” He went on to describe his class in which he had a “fake” syllabus, a moving classroom and other antics to question authenticity. Other pieces in the exhibit include a wooden sculpture of St. Jerome, which was thought to be an original work from the 17th century and later was found to be a copy by a Spanish woodcarver, and prints by Warhol of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Forgery, originality, representation and artistic value are all questioned and confused within this small gallery space, but it is a discourse that continues on into the larger parts of the museum as well. No other room in the museum exemplifies this more than the public coat rack on the first floor, bearing the label “this is a coat rack not a work of art.” In Gerrard’s world, we learn not to be so sure.