‘State of Disobedience’ empowers and inspires viewers

State of Disobedience explores an elusive and nuanced concept through multiple mediums to force the viewer to question reality. Marshall Borrus/ Staff Photographer.
State of Disobedience explores an elusive and nuanced concept through multiple mediums to force the viewer to question reality. Marshall Borrus/ Staff Photographer.

In the Williams College Museum of Art’s downstairs gallery, as part of the show entitled State of Disobedience, visitors are confronted by a large-scale portrait of a man, staring them down, holding a cigarette, wearing a shirt that reads “Fuck you you fuckin’ fuck.”

State of Disobedience is curated by Anna Kelley, a second-year graduate student in the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art. The title comes from a 1998 essay by the poet Alice Notley: “It’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything.” This state of disobedience takes multiple forms and acts as the structuring force in the exhibition, with works grouped by various interpretations of the phrase. One subgrouping, an institutional state of disobedience, perhaps, shows photographs whose subjects have often been overlooked, such as skinheads and men dying of AIDS. Another subgrouping explores how “through abstracted, associative, and reductive means the works here highlight the harm people inflict on one another.”

Some pieces’ relations to the theme are clearer than others’. One of the most successful invocations of the idea of a state of disobedience is when the show challenges the viewer to maintain a state of skepticism against the pictorial truths presented, an idea embodied by Paidraig Timoney’s “Doubting Thomas Finds the Licorice.” The titular Thomas refers to the apostle, who needed to feel Christ’s wound in order to truly believe in his resurrection. In the piece, a ghastly red-and-black hand stretches out three-dimensionally from the canvas, as if probing into the body of Christ. The licorice between the fingers of the hand suggests the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which communicants consume wine and bread considered to contain the blood and body of Christ.

One of the most stunning pieces in the show is a massive photograph by Gregory Crewdson called “Untitled, Winter.” It depicts a decrepit motel room, dingy, dimly-lit, with a peeling ceiling. The picture tells a story through a series of frames within frames, like a camera panning inward: first, the shot is of the hotel room itself, a beat-up red car peeking through a dust-frosted window. The next is the reflection in a mirror of a naked woman looking downward, seen from behind. The last is a reflection in the reflection, revealing the woman’s face, aging, enigmatic. It’s a photograph, a medium that offers the seduction of authenticity, but there is something too clear, too clean, too perfect about it. The angles in this photograph are a mathematical marvel. It plays perfectly with Notley’s idea of a state of disobedience, which consists, for her, of “trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me” and also to “remain somehow, though how, open to any subject or form in principle, open to the possibility of liking, open to the possibility of using.”

In another grouping, the show explores the use of text to disrupt cursory looking, the bane of museum-going. The curating is particularly clever in this unorthodox space. On one of the panels next to and in front of the aforementioned Barkley Hendricks’ “Manhattan Memo,” with its stark white-on-black capital letters (“Fuck you you fuckin’ fuck”) is Glenn Ligon’s “Invisible Man,” which layers black ink over the preface of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, making one strain to read the words: “I am an invisible man … I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” The layout of this exhibition makes it so that you struggle to read this black-on-black text while the black man of “Manhattan Memo” glares at you from the periphery of your vision.

Sometimes the idea of a State of Disobedience can be stretched too far to remain a satisfyingly unifying theme, as in Matthew Ronay’s sculpture, placed on the floor of the show. It consists of a fried chicken wing standing (yes, standing) atop something that looks like a breast, lovingly balanced atop a pink “O” that seems to ride along a series of undulating white and pink sine waves. The title of the work — “Biker Sex” — gives perhaps some hint of its intention and its reason for inclusion, but the work remains generally inscrutable.

But the show’s lack of straight-forwardness is easy to forgive for two reasons. The first is the strength of the individual pieces. The Ronay piece, despite its opacity, is unflinchingly lovely. The second is that resisting the curatorial constraints of this show is, paradoxically, in line with the premise of the show. As the opening wall text says, “An act of disobedience is not always one of rebellion or refusal. Rather, it can be a way of opening up to unforeseen possibilities.”

This, like any good exhibition, is rich enough to encourage you to form your own connections and build your own understandings. In the first room in the show, on the same wall as the Crewdson, is “Betel Nut Stand, Taiwan,” a photograph by Reagan Louie. It depicts a lone female worker inside a glass box of a convenience store, its neon signs painfully bright in the surrounding darkness. The camera approaches at an oblique angle; the viewer sees her gaze sightlessly out as he or she looks voyeuristically in. There is something terribly predatory about this picture, something so vulnerable about the white and pale pink of her outfit, the way her sandal seems about to slide off her ankle.

In the other room are a set of Louise Lawler’s wine glasses encased in a glass box, which you approach from a similarly oblique angle. Inside, the glasses are vulnerable, with their feminine curves, their delicacy. But there’s something haughty about them, too. Look closer, though, fending off the glare from the gallery lights, and you’ll see three phrases etched finely into the glass: “Who shows,” “Who says” and “Who counts.” This work, in its conception, is a piece of institutional critique — the glass box containing those feminine glasses is a glass ceiling that women have yet to break, as women still do not get their fair share of gallery representation.

But the beauty of curating is that it puts works in conversation with their viewers, with other works, with the shows they’re contained in. “Who counts”? When I read those words and think of this particular show, I think: “I do.” Anybody else looking closely enough to read those words, thinking deeply enough to wonder about their answer, counts. Anybody who upholds that dictum of the state of disobedience — always looking, always curious, always thinking — counts.