Faculty art at WCMA: One profession, myriad visions

Illusion, Obama, tethered time and panties – every inclusion in this year’s Studio Art Faculty Exhibition, now on display at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), transcends the thematic boundaries of its maker to create an all-encompassing look into the works of current Williams professors. Curated by WCMA’s curator of collections, Vivian Patterson, and installed by the museum’s manager of exhibition design and planning, Hideyo Okamura, the exhibition presents faculty achievements that range in medium from painting and sculpture to video stills and short films. In an attempt to portray some of the College’s individual visions, the “Faculty Exhibition” successfully captures the aesthetic variety that informs teaching within the department of art.

Housed in the Kroh McClelland Gallery, the collection includes works from 17 studio art professors. Steven Levin’s oil on copper paintings face photos of Ben Benedict’s “Epstein Residence”; Ethan Jackson’s ethereal video installations depicting obscured light through architectural settings neighbor Päivi Jukola’s futuristic photos, set in a blue-marine wash, of aerospace exploration; and Amy Podmore’s “Tether” – a less-than-life-sized sculpture of dynamic proportions – stands as a central focal point.

“Vivian Patterson did a great job with the show. It was good to have one eye pull everything together,” said Michael Glier, professor of art. “None of [the artists] has anything in common but a job. Usually an exhibition has a conceptual arrangement or a connecting theme to make it visually coherent, but the WCMA staff did an extraordinary job with the individual works.”

The full list of artists also includes other stand-out names from the department: Laylah Ali, Sarah Amos, Ed Epping, Frank Jackson, Liza Johnson, Mary Jones, Aida Laleian, Penny Lane, Ann McCallum, Barbara Takenaga and Nick Zammuto all join the cast of featured faculty, which is a mix of returning and visiting professors. Behind each name lies a varied perspective on the creative process and how precisely art should be achieved. Whether through the collaborative discussion about crude humor, avian species and Europe’s mineheads that inspired McCallum’s “House for a Pair of Coal Tits” or through Lane’s “looping, silent installation” in the 2-D animation video “She used to see him most weekends,” WCMA’s newest raises the widely debated questions so often thrown around the classroom: what, in fact, is art, and how does it relate both artist and audience to the overarching theme of human understanding?

For many artists in the department, this new exhibition presents not only the chance to display their own work, but also to engage in discussions with fellow professors and community members. “Despite the fact that I’ve taught at Williams for 22 years, a lot of people don’t know what I do,” Laleian said. Laleian is the artist behind the ink-on-canvas work “Converged at Their Best Table.” “My pictures are an academic’s equivalent of ‘research.’ I guess the [‘Faculty Exhibition’] is the equivalent of the ‘Faculty Lecture Series,’ an opportunity to discuss with the community, at large, what we do.”

And create a framework for such discussion Faculty Exhibition does. The juxtaposition of various mediums, a clean and linear progression through the exhibit from screen shots to oils to architecture and back, provokes inquiries into the sources behind and relationships between each individual artistic manifestation. As Epping, professor of art, said, “As practitioners, each of us are engaged in our individual paths to what making art means. As that should not be singular, the variations present in this exhibition are revelations as to how those paths can diverge and merge.”

Epping’s own addition, a series of six images and five larger paintings (three now hanging in the North Academic Building faculty lounge) known as Apprehension, marks his first return to painting in 10 years. According to the artist, the title “was selected for its dual application of understanding and being suspicious of what can be known.” This particular duality, an element evident in the complicated layering of paint, presents one of the strong thematic influences that run throughout the show.

Other motifs woven into the exhibit range from Levin’s fantastical and frolicsome renderings – reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s dreamlike and irregular compositions – to Sarah Amos’ dynamic landscapes that speak on isolation and identity. Glier’s portrayal of President Obama, an applauded commission that was nearly accepted for the Time Magazine Person of the Year cover, uses abstract sections of what the artist calls “visual slippage” to convey movement.

Amy Podmore’s “Tether,” the central sculpture of a white plaster, blindfolded figure with arms secured around a mostly steel leaping deer also captures dynamic energy in a stationary form. “Normally, I tend towards showing the perplexity of life and the human condition. With this, I had an absurd desire to pause time, to freeze it for a moment. I usually try to include a sense of humor as a starting point,” she said. Podmore’s other inclusion, “Arch 1000, Look 1000, Reach 1000,” certainly incorporates this sense of hilarity: the lower half of what looks like a Degas ballerina greets the spectator upon first entrance, only to startle as a fan blows on to reveal the underpants beneath.

Open until May 24, the Studio Art Faculty Exhibition succeeds as both an outlet for the professors’ work as well as a teaching tool to engage the audience in aesthetic appreciation. As John Stomberg, WCMA’s deputy director and a lecturer in art, said of the event’s opening, “It is part of our campaign to create visual literacy.” Through the questions the exhibition’s range of styles and individual interpretations raise, this campaign is well on its way.