WCMA reopens with “Destinies”

A picture is worth a thousand words. But each picture or painting may utter a thousand more if placed in a different location or given different lighting, and yet another thousand if moved again. This principle underlies the new exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), “The Gallery of Crossed Destinies.” According to a Jan. 18 press release, the exhibit opens as one of eight that will constitute “the museum’s massive reinstallation project entitled ‘Reflections on a Museum.’” The press release goes on to report that “The Gallery of Crossed Destinies” contains a small “collection” of 25 pieces, rearranged in their particular order by a “guest curator.”
The museum has invited four outside parties from Williamstown – a florist, a group of high school students, a summer theater festival director and an athletic coach – to install the collection of artwork in their own distinct ways. In this way, “The Gallery of Crossed Destinies” seeks to show that art tells a different story each time we restyle, reorganize or re-hang it. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s fantastical “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” (in which a group of travelers in an enchanted castle can only communicate using tarot cards that offer a different message each time a traveler shuffles the deck), the exhibit asserts that the same pictures have very different messages when their physical arrangement and relationships with one another is altered.
When I entered the second floor 1935 Gallery, which houses the exhibit, the open emptiness of the room struck me first. This took me by surprise, because I had just read the description of the exhibit on the wall and expected a vivid human story. The sparse, open gallery certainly does not capture the complexity or color of a human story that the individual pieces intend to tell. Upon further investigation, I found that “The Gallery of Crossed Destinies” has another, slightly different objective.
The exhibit also aims to “enlighten” us as to the effects of light on artwork. The gallery encourages us to consider that, just as life necessitates light, the perception of art also hinges on the type of light we see it in. Different light will elicit different responses. While this assertion does not seem mutually exclusive with the idea that a collection of artwork may tell a different story each time we shuffle its physical arrangement, the mixing of these two missions in the one gallery made for a somewhat confusing experience.
“The Gallery of Crossed Destinies” is divided into two categories: artwork that begs for interpretation, for the attachment of a story, and artwork that is meant to be seen in bright, natural light. Robert Lee MacCameron’s “Group at the Theatre” (1912) belongs in the former category. Blurring the faces of most of his subjects, MacCameron draws our attention to the piercing blue eyes of the old man in the painting. While he has narrowed our focus, he leaves the old man’s story up to the interpretation of the viewer. Maurice Brazil Prendergast’s “Summer Day, Salem” (circa 1915-1918) accomplishes a similar objective. While offering a view of men and women engaged in leisure summer activity, it tells us nothing specific about the people or their gathering. Perhaps the best example of this encouragement to find an unknown story lies in Edward Hopper’s famous “Morning in a City” (1944). Hopper’s portrait of a weary nude woman, seemingly cold despite the harsh morning light and standing next to a bed that seems too small, practically pleads with us to create a narrative, one that surely will differ from viewer to viewer.
The gallery seems to diverge from this objective with the rest of its work. A number of statues, mostly by unknown artists of antiquity, stand bare and bathed in the light of the gallery’s large Currier Quad-facing windows. “John the Evangelist” (circa 1430), “Head of a devotee” (central India, circa 10th-11th century) and “Horse head” (T’ang Dynasty, circa 618-906 CE), are all included in this section and seem to make the exhibit more about a juxtaposition of ancient and medieval artwork with more modern pieces. I found that there was very little tying all of the pieces together.
Only Louise Nevelson’s “Sky Wave” (1964) successfully united the ideas of both storytelling and light play. Viewed from afar, it appears only a black, bulky polygon. While it maintains its shadowy quality when closely examined, its design becomes much more evident and it may begin to tell its viewer some kind of story (though its randomness seems to discourage any coherent thought on its meaning).
Featuring hundreds of pieces from WCMA’s own collection as well as 50 works from the Yale art gallery, “Reflections on a Museum” will celebrate “exquisite art in all its varied forms” for the next three years. WCMA will celebrate the completion of the project with a free and public reception on April 7 at 5 p.m.

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