Don't Overlook UMass and Hampshire College for Art

Pioneer Valley Delights III:
University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College

Katy Schimert Sculpture
Visitors seldom consider UMass or Hampshire College to get their art fixes. Neither school possesses extensive permanent collections and I suppose serious collectors would say that neither school possesses iconic works. UMass has only been collecting since 1962, and Hampshire College didn’t even exist until 1970. UMass possesses just 2,800 objects–mostly photographs, prints, and works on paper, and Hampshire has but a single small gallery and houses what little it owns in the library ephemera collection. Sound as if you can give them a miss? Do so and you’ll miss out on all manner of things you’d not see elsewhere.

UMCA--The Building is Ugly, the Exhibits Thoughtful
UMass Amherst is the Commonwealth’s flagship public university–the key word being public. Taxpayers aren’t going to shell out for million-dollar Rembrandts hanging on the walls, but they will fork over for an innovative arts curriculum and a museum or two or seven that complement the educational mission. That’s right–seven. UMass is a small city unto itself, with a total student body of around 28,000 and over 1700 faculty members. UMass approaches its museums as dynamic changing galleries rather than static exhibition space. One of the more innovative of these is the Augusta Savage Gallery located in New Africa House, which features art from African Americans and others from the African Diaspora. There’s currently an exhibit there of paintings by Oliver Lake, who is best known as a jazz saxophonist. He’s actually a bit of a Renaissance man who also produces whimsical images that draw on folk tales and animal stories. The gallery in Herter Annex generally features work by faculty, visiting artists, or students. I was particularly taken with a current exhibit by landscape architecture professor Jane Thurber titled “Lenses.” Her work uses geometric shapes for everything from accordion books to tissue collages and cutouts to call our attention to ways of seeing and perceiving. There are additional galleries at the Southwest Residency Area dining hall (Hampden Gallery), a space in the Student Union Center, another in the Central Residency Area, and still another in the Studio Arts Building. 

Katy Schimert Painting
The centerpiece of UMass galleries is its Contemporary Art (UMCA) facility inside the Fine Arts Building (FAC). Let me get this out of the way. I’m a UMass alum and I teach there. I adore the big sprawling university, but the FAC–which dominates the end of the bus circle at the campus main entrance–is the ugliest building east of Boston City Hall, a hulking white whale that legend holds is supposed to look like a monumental piano from the air. It doesn’t; locals dub it the Starship Enterprise (in concrete). It’s also an appallingly awful place for anything related to the arts and one can only admire anyone who displays beauty amidst such brutalism. My chapeau tip goes to director Loretta Yarlow, who does interesting things in a space that could be better used to store drywall.  Changing exhibitions are the UMCA’s s trademark (consult https://fac.umass.edu/UMCA/Online/). Right now there are two very interesting exhibits.  The first is from New York-based artist Katy Schimert, who is serving as an artist-in-residence. Her large paintings are watery and water-themed, but they also have a hand-dyed quilt-like quality. She has a fascination with the octopus, but as rendered in dreamy semi-abstractions. She also renders sea bottom ridges in glass that are evocative of psychedelic Bakelite. Her love of the sea is also represented by four canvases from the relatively unknown Thomas Chambers (1806-86). I was smitten by two depicting castles on the Rhine that are reportorial, but which also evoke the fanciful hilly landscapes imagined by 17th century Dutch artists if they had used colors by Instagram and the sensibility of early video games such as Myst.

Thomas Chambers Castles on the Rhine
When you see ‘famous’ artists at UMass, it’s usually in the form of drawings or photos. There’s currently a nice exhibit titled “Fractured: The Modern Nude,” that sports depictions (mostly photographs) from luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, and Jared French.

As noted, Hampshire College has very little in the way of a permanent collection, but what it does have is a student body and faculty that march to a different drummer. Its gallery, located in the basement of the library, tends to supplement offerings on urban history, ethnography, natural sciences, and the visual arts. There’s generally some student and faculty art on display. Most of what you see there is from artists whose names you don’t know–yet. A recent show featured photographs of James Baldwin; the current show is of work from Hampshire’s Division III (advanced studies) students. Much of it is gloriously off-kilter and unusual. Ken Burns is a Hampshire grad and his visual arts focus endures at Hampshire.   Rob Weir

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