Artists in residence weave variety with common threads

After a long winter during which many renovations were undertaken, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) invited the public back after its re-opening earlier this month with another new installment as a part of its spring season. A reception was given for one of the brand-new exhibitions now housed in WCMA, entitled “Recent Works: Steve Levin and Aida Laleian.” These two resident artists and professors of art at the College have put up their works in an exhibit by curator Lucie Steinberg, an art history graduate student at the College.
WCMA director Lisa Corrin gave a short speech thanking Steinberg and the artists and providing a brief synopsis of the works at hand, explaining their source and significance. They are the product of a number of years of work and represent not only a very real insight into contemporary art, but also the sort of inspiration that art students at the College have been exposed to.
Dozens of Levin’s works are on display. These paintings, all oil on copper or panels, despite presenting on the surface a strong sense of uniformity and continuity between them, inspire a sensation of wonderment and surprise when confronted individually. Every picture is a minute curiosity box, dragging together heteroclite elements and coercing them into a regular, rectangular space. The panels, often portraying an open closet of sorts, slightly receding into perspective space and displaying a variety of objects, generate within themselves a tangible frame.
The items actually occupying this orderly, defined space are anything but: Surrealist creatures and Dali-esque accessories rub shoulders with dolls, postcards or napkins, the disordered mess of daily life so often overlooked. In this dense, jumbled, ecstatic muddle, with no regard to scale or proportion, it becomes unclear what is alive and what is inanimate. One cannot help but conjecture that these works are an effort to capture the impossible swirl of the human mind, a material manifestation of thought or memory themselves; within futilely organized compartments and subdivisions, the mundane and the bizarre float in unison, packed so tight that the eye cannot rest in one point. Certain items, textures or references seize our attention and conjure up memories, others remain cryptic and mute; such is the journey into another man’s mind.
Laleian, the second faculty artist on display, has crafted three works that differ wildly from those of her colleague. Her medium of choice is traced in digital photography: Translucent, evanescent synthetic films of photo-montages superimposed with rich embroidery and framed in strips of deep, colorful fabric. The female body, indeed femininity in general, is the common thread here; the woman is celebrated, enshrined in highly decorative, symmetric, sometimes architectural montages that lend gravitas to the image at hand. Cultural symbols commingle, as Western images neighbor Oriental or even Egyptian iconography.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of her tapestries, “Joan of Arc at the Battle of New Orleans,” presents a colorful female figure draped in a cascade of sumptuous clothes and accessories and framed in a baroque doorway of composite images that occasionally invert our perspective. A leitmotif of Joan, an oft-used heroic female figure, juxtaposes an historic touchstone to a strongly aware, contemporary reference (Joan of Arc fought for the French city of Orleans, not the New one). The central figure is cryptic, but no doubt the jarring green plastic goblet she grasps tightly, contrasting with her rich finery, is a testament to the charged nature of this piece.
The contribution of student curator Steinberg is noticeable in the presentation of these works; the organization was clear and lucid, naturally directing our attention from one artist to the next. Levin’s works are placed in tightly packed, asymmetrical clusters, as a reflection of his theme, whereas Laleian’s draperies are hung a foot or so from the wall, setting them up as self-contained, stand-alone pieces.
As this writer snuck a peek at some the other beautifully renovated rooms, such as the on-loan Yale exhibit, it became obvious that this was only one of the new additions to WCMA’s catalog, and that the upcoming spring season at the College’s museum promises to be an exciting one.

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