‘Your smarter than me’ poses questions at WCMA

WCMA’s new exhibit Your smarter than me. i don’t care. challenges societal norms with art outside traditional museum fare. Grace Fan/Contributing Photographer.
WCMA’s new exhibit Your smarter than me. i don’t care. challenges societal norms with art outside traditional museum fare. Grace Fan/Contributing Photographer.

The new exhibit Your smarter than me. i don’t care. opened silently last Friday at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) – there were no Daily Messages, no official opening, no notice. But oddly enough, that seems to go in line with the premise of the exhibition. Lisa Dorin, WCMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, has selected a survey of works in different mediums that question certain societal and cultural norms and the values they represent. But the works on view are not brash, nor do they call attention to themselves by being overtly critical. Rather, they invite you to consider, deliberate and think for yourself – before maybe reacting and responding.

You might have already seen pictures of Cary Leibowitz’s “Your smarter than me. i don’t care.,” the eponymous work for the exhibition, on the banner outside the museum, the front cover of the WCMA newsletter or posters around campus. They all make the piece seem aggressive and larger than life. It’s not. The work is tiny – the wall swallows it – and that makes it all the more in-your-face, angsty and snarky when you get up close.

Visually, the titular painting is not impressive, but perhaps that’s the point. The work is unevenly painted, pale blue latex on rough-hewn wood, its snarky misspelled phrase scrawled on from left to right. “Your smarter than me. i don’t care.” The hanging isn’t even concealed; a crooked D-ring resting on a nail holds the piece up. In his piece, Leibowitz seems to have no indication of intending or even wanting it to be a work of art. He doesn’t care. Instead, the painting’s careless layering suggests that art doesn’t have to be pretty and perfect, and that it can poke fun at formality.

So what if “you’re” is spelled wrong? Does it mean one is “smarter” if he or she doesn’t make grammar mistakes? What does it mean to be “smarter” than anyone else, even? Leibowitz’s piece doesn’t conform to what a work of “art” is expected to be – nice, pretty and clean. Instead, he’s questioning the criteria in place that deem whether a work of art belongs in a museum or not.

Similarly, Mike Kelley’s “Untitled” provokes thinking – but about an entirely different established entity. Kelley has silkscreened a wooden paddle with a very familiar calligraphic passage: the Preamble to the United States Constitution. It’s a spanking paddle, to be exact. “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” will do exactly what? Our most venerated text is printed on a smooth, glazed wooden instrument of abuse; the paddle as a form of punishment for slaves is hinted at, but that reading is not explicit. As Americans, as people of the United States, what are we proud of? Do we ever stop and think of what we’ve done to get where we are? Of our position being one of possible intimidation? Kelley wants us to think about this – and more.

Your smarter than me. i don’t care. doesn’t follow an agenda. Each piece after the previous piece is unexpected. The exhibition is not “easy” by any means, both because the works take time to understand and because the subjects themselves presented in each artwork are challenging.

“Fool Hero,” painted by Sean Landers between 2011 and 2012, provides a nice contrast to the other heavier, more introspective works on display, though that’s not to say the painting is shallow, or the other works overly didactic.

It is, however, a funny work. Landers’s thoughts, all jumbled, are painted across the entirety of the canvas, with arrows connecting certain phrases trying to make sense of his stream of consciousness, but ultimately failing. He laments: “Art is great and everything but no art can even beat a nip slip as far as something compelling to look at is concerned.” And then: “I have devoted my life to making images that can’t even out do a mere glimpse of a boob.”

Landers refers to his own livelihood as a mid-career artist. “Not young, not old, not cheap, not sold.” is written somewhere near the bottom of the canvas, with “Best definition of mid-career?!” squeezed in next to it. It’s the art equivalent of laughing at your own dumb joke. He confronts failure by joking about it, and with his absurd self-deprecating humor, ends up speaking to insecurities everyone has.

An incredibly detailed, expressively rendered sad clown has been painted over the text. It shows that Landers can paint, that he can make “art,” but that perhaps that’s not what he’s aiming for anymore. With his witty thoughts, Landers questions what artists do. He’s making art about making art, or at least trying to.

Near the left-hand-side of the work, Landers has written: “Mike Kelley passed away today. I feel very sad about it.” “He had a big influence on me, more than anyone he taught me to let go.” It’s no coincidence, then, that Landers’s painting is hanging next to Kelley’s “Untitled” in the exhibition. Maybe that’s a sign of success.

One could easily miss “Tongue of Flame” by David Wojnarowicz, tucked away in a display case near the entrance of the exhibition. Don’t. Wojnarowicz’s work dates only three years after the national outcry that surrounded several controversial exhibitions funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1989 featuring the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of acts of BDSM and urophagia were deemed too homoerotic and sadomasochistic, and Serrano’s photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine too blasphemous, for Congress and for America.

Here, a book entry detailing an AIDS patient’s bleak state of being is accompanied by a graphite drawing. Raw images relating to the AIDS epidemic – red blood cells, a mummified figure with pins and needles sticking out of it, an eerie skeletal mass – are sketched over an old copy of the New York Post, whose headline reads “Offensive art exhibition” and references the resulting furor among conservative and religious organizations in 1989.

So what do we think of Wojnarowicz’s work now? Is the reminder of homosexuality and AIDS too explicit for us to handle? Unfortunately, perhaps that’s the case. In 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., silently removed Wojnarowicz’s short film “A Fire in My Belly” from its exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture after backlash from certain groups.

What does that say, then, about how we react to things that alienate us and make us uncomfortable? Things – perhaps art, perhaps not – that make us question our values, question what we find okay, question what we think about.

The inclusion of the Wojnarowicz piece in the exhibition is an apt reminder of a growing inability to confront what makes us uncomfortable, what we don’t want to see or hear for fear of being offended – a “coddling of the American mind,” as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.

The premise of Your smarter than me. i don’t care. is sound, but it seems that something is still missing – and it’s to no fault of the works on view or the curator. The art is smart, and goes against the grain of “ideal” museum art, but there’s an unfortunate irony in that students simply may not go see the exhibition because of what they expect a museum exhibition to be: stuffy, boring and pretentious.

Here, the art is presented to us so that we may think about controversy. The works are refreshingly raw and invite different interpretations – very appropriate for a museum on a college campus. What do I think about the exhibition, as a whole?

It doesn’t really matter – you should see for yourself.

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