Forget the Snooty Reputation: Visit the Mead

Pioneer Valley Delights II:
Mead Museum of Art

Ary Scheffer Paulo and Francesca
Amherst College’s Mead Museum of Art is one of the best-kept secrets in western Massachusetts. A lot locals have never been there because, let’s face it–Amherst College has a snooty reputation. Some of that is earned and some unfair, but anyway you slice it, AC doesn’t exactly go out of its way to invite visitors onto its campus. The Mead sits near the dead center of the campus and you’ll have to park wherever you can and walk to it. Aim for the stand-alone gray stone steeple, as it is the gateway sentinel to the Mead. Stick your camera in a locker–the Mead is the only Valley museum that won’t let you take pictures of its permanent collection (which doesn’t help AC’s frosty, and I don’t mean Robert, image.)

The Mead is both free and worth finding. Its 18,000-item collection makes it the Pioneer Valley’s second-largest and it may well have the most diverse collection in the region, including Tibetan scrolls and holdings in Russian and Japanese art that surpass those of other museums. It has also updated better than most college museums, with works from Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Jim Dow, and Andreas Serrano–among others. I was also delighted to see four collages from our friend Lilli Pereira.

The Javanese Coat

As might be expected from a school founded in 1821, some of the American works date to the 18th and early 19th centuries. The opening gallery is actually the Mead’s least interesting, as it is devoted to older American artists such as Peale and Cropsey whose work appeals more to antiquarians than to art lovers. Ditto some of the Dutch masters, nearly all of which are minor works. There is an English paneled room that has fabulous ambience, though you’ll not find much eye-popping art in it. One of the more interesting works in the first gallery is a two-painting work by Thomas Cole, Present and Past, which shows a castle in ruin upon which a wanderer stumbles, and then imagines it in its glory days with a medieval pageant in full bloom. By far the most eye-catching is Ary Scheffer’s Paulo and Francesca, the lustful lovers from Dante’s Inferno unclothed and crawling over each other like fleshy hungry vampires. (See above) There is also a fine set of portraits from Robert Brackman of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, though most eyes will gravitate to Kyoehi Inukai’s The Javanese Coat.

The Fisher Girl
Side galleries contain an impressive Assyrian monumental relief, plus smatterings of antiquities, but the next large painting gallery is a true delight, aside from a dud of a Monet and a cloying Bouguereau. Robert Henri’s Salome Dancer * is probably the most important painting of the lot and it practically invites a debate over voyeurism, though it’s uncertain if the greater transgressor is the viewer or the insouciant central figure with her slutty come-hither stare. Check out some of the lesser-known paintings, Willard Metcalf’s Gloucester Harbor, work from Russia’s Filiip Maliavin and Label Filonov. There is also a superb Winslow Homer, The Fisher Girl
The Radio Fan

The gallery also contains my very favorite from the Mead, Alexander Brook’s The Radio Fan. Brook was best known as an illustrator, but he captures the Modernist spirit brilliantly in what is, at first glance, little more a twerpy nerd perched atop a box. But look at his left leg air dancing with the music. It’s at once whimsical and wonderful commentary on the early age of radio when it was so new that all were moved by its magic.

The next galleries bring the collection up to date. The Mead’s Andy Warhol Mao is one of the best in Warhol’s series of the Chinese revolutionary hero. There’s also a wonderful Leonard Baskin self-portrait and a chilling photograph of a Ku Klux Klan member from the Andrea Serrano–a single evil eye peeking through a ragged robe. I also quite enjoyed works from Kiyoshi Saito’sof the Hokkaido 1961 series.

Kiyoshi Saito
Kudos to director Elizabeth Barker and senior curator Bettina Jungen for updating the collection. The Mead does what a college art museum should do–make the best of what it has, and add when it can with an eye to the present and the future rather than the past.

Robert Henri, Salome Dancer
While you’re on the Amherst campus, air out your liberated camera by snapping sculptures of Robert Frost and Henry Ward Beecher. If you’re still around after 11 am, walk over to the Beneski Natural Science Museum for some impressive shots of dinosaur skeletons. If you find the pale yellow student center, you’re almost there. 

* Salome dancing was an early 20th century phenomenon that used the New Testament story of Herod II’s daughter as an excuse to erode Victorian strictures. Salome’s dancing was supposedly so seductive and exciting that she was granted her wish as a reward: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. She is often viewed as a harlot and seductress, but the sheen of a Biblical theme allowed risqué Modernist dancers and vaudevillian hoofers to bare some flesh and titillate audiences.


Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum

Pioneer Valley Delights I;
Mount Holyoke Museum of Art

When “art” and “western Massachusetts” get mentioned in the same breath, most East Coast cognoscenti head for the Berkshires to take in the Stirling and Francine Art Institute, MassMOCA, or (gasp!) the Norman Rockwell Museum. Okay, I’ve developed a grudging admiration for Rockwell over the years, but he was mainly an illustrator and I’m just enough of a snob to say his work doesn’t qualify as fine art. But my biggest beef is that travelers to the Berkshires miss some serious art treasures if they fail to stop in the Pioneer Valley, home to the Five Colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst). In that spirit, this is the first of four blog posts highlighting college art collections–first stop, the Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum (MHCAM).  

Milton Avery: Lone Goat
The MHCAM is located in South Hadley, just across the Connecticut River from Holyoke and just a dozen miles from Springfield as the crow flies, though it’s light years removed from the squalor of urban postindustrialism. Though the town has 17,000 residents, it feels like a village–especially when you venture further from the river and venture upon the Gothic campus of Mt. Holyoke, the nation’s oldest remaining women’s college. You’ll find the MHCAM beside the college greenhouses and fronting a narrow stream connecting Upper and Lower Pond. It’s a ‘teaching’ museum, which means it’s small, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Longtime curator Wendy Watson has always made the best of the museum’s 16,000 plus items and its new director, John Stomberg, is dedicated to bringing vest pocket but innovative special exhibits to at least one of the museum’s nine galleries. Through June 8, 2014 there is a show of six of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s monumental works, which he fashions from flattened bottle caps connected by cooper wire. This is a big deal indeed–El Anatsui’s works can be found in art museums in Boston, Brooklyn, New York and Washington.

Avery: Purple Ram
Because the MHCAM is a teaching museum, its on-display permanent collection is generally a sampler from the vault; that is to say that you get a splash of American art, a splatter of Asian, a dab of African, a daub of European, and a smattering of antiquities. Because the collection is small and changeable, there’s plenty of time to savor what you like and then return in the future for something new. My personal favorites are idiosyncratic. I’ve always enjoyed Milton Avery. His Discussion is at Mt. Holyoke, which most would consider a more important work, but I’m quite fond of two small pictures: Lone Goat and Purple Ram. Why? Because they remind me of how little a great artist needs to produce striking work–just a few squiggles and two or three colors.  

Joseph Cornell, Marsh Sunset
Lawren Harris, Mountain Sketch
The MHCAM also some dramatic pictures from the Hudson River School, including Albert Bierstadt’s Hetch Hetchy Canyon, but my heart raced faster for a small Joseph Cornell often called Marsh at Sunset, though Cornell didn’t name it. I also liked Mountain Sketch by Lawren Harris. His name might not be familiar to you, but Canadians know him–Harris was part of the influential Group of Seven credited with forging a distinctive Canadian style of art. If ever a painting can be described as icy and warm at the same time, Mountain Sketch fits the bill.

Japanese netsuke
A small favorite is a piece of Japanese netsuke–that’s small as in size, not in importance. I was magnetically drawn to a piece that’s made of ivory and is about two inches high. It’s a robed badger holding a bowl of saké. It comes from the 19th century and that’s about all we know about it. And what else do we need to know? Think of it as a metaphor for the MHCAM–lots of small pleasures that, like saké, can stagger you.     

While you’re on campus, make your way to the foyer of the library, where you’ll see a large white with gold flecks Dale Chihuly glass installation. Then cross the foyer and climb either of the side stairs and peek into the library’s fourth floor Reading Room. If you’ve had a cup of tea from the Rao’s in the foyer, you can squint your eyes and imagine yourself in Cambridge–the one in Britain, not the one across the Charles from Boston.  
Detail of Dale Chihuly glass scuplture


Way Way Back a Cut Above Usual Teen Fare

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Fox Searchlight, 103 minutes, PG-13
* * *

My family never owned a station wagon, so I had to be reminded that the “way way back” references the loading end of such a vehicle. If you’re a passenger in the seat-less way way back, it means you face away from other passengers. That’s the opening and ending setting for this film and its central metaphor. In this case, our wrong-way- facing passenger is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James). It’s tough enough being 14, but it’s even harder if you’re scarred from your parents’ divorce and don’t much like mom’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell). Duncan instantly sees what his moonstruck mom, Pam (Toni Collette), refuses to view: Trent is a Type A, and the A stands for asshole.

Duncan finds himself condemned to a beachside summer with Trent, his snooty 15-year-old daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), and his mom making cow eyes at Trent like she’s 14. How will Duncan ever endure an entire summer? Why can’t he just go live with his dad? He’s condemned to endless evenings with these creatures, plus next- door neighbors Kip (Rob Corddry) and his girlfriend Joan (Amanda Peet). And then there’s Betty (Allison Janney), a boozy, blowsy glad-hander with all the subtlety of a fatal coronary. She’d like nothing better than for Duncan to befriend her geeky son, Peter, who is much younger; if anything, Duncan has eyes for her older daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Were this a French film, Duncan would come of age after sex with Susanna. Yeah, that would fly in the abstinence-obsessed American Bible Belt where one is led to believe teenagers never have sex. Off the table. Ain’t happening. Instead, directors Faxon and Rash have to figure out a more acceptable way for Duncan to find the entrance ramp to confidence and maturity.

Their approach is more fun than I ever thought it would be. Duncan’s liberation comes in the form of a girl’s bicycle plucked from the recesses of the garage. It’s the sort of thing a 7-year-old into My Little Pony would ride, but Duncan doesn’t have much self-esteem left to damage; to him, it’s a set of wheels to take him away from the adult aliens. It lands him at the Water Wizz theme park, where he encounters a group of folks who aren’t much better at being adults than he is at being an adolescent. It’s ‘managed’ by man-child Owen (Sam Rockwell), a wisecracking slacker whose stream-of-consciousness commentary is reminiscent of Robin Williams during his cocaine years. The place is really run by Owen’s love (lust?) interest Caitlyn (Maya Randolph), with very little help from surfer dude Roddy (Faxon) or eternal pessimist Lewis (Rash channeling Michael O’Donoghue). It’s always party world at Water Whizz, though the beer-guzzling and pot-smoking is considerably healthier than what’s going on at the beach house, including Joan’s temptress moves on Trent.

Worlds collide. When Duncan learns of his father’s lack of parental desire and has a heart-to-heart with Susanna, he begins to view Owen as a surrogate dad. Owen couldn’t be a worse choice save in one respect—he cares about Duncan and wants to see him snap out of his funk. Enter Duncan the Water Whizz model employee. Will it all work out in the end? Of course it will (sort of)—this is an American movie and we Yanks don’t like messy ambiguity. We also have an outsized tolerance for broad humor that transgresses the stupidity border. Some of the scenes in this flick make National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation seem like high art.

For all of this, The Way Way Back has a goofy charm that’s a cut above must teenagers-in-peril films. It starts with the cast, which is stellar no matter what one thinks of their characters. Liam James plays Duncan as a perfect 14-year-old storm, and Rockwell shows us just enough interior for us to know he’s more than an aging frat boy. Rash is hysterical as a man self-trapped in a dead-end job, and AnnaSophia Robb has an icy radiance that forces us to pay attention to her. The script is littered with clichés, but in between there are some brilliant lines, and the overall pacing is terrific. I suppose it’s even mildly subversive in its lack of a happily-ever-after ending and its impression that nuclear families are generally more dysfunctional than wholesome. Duncan’s takeaway point is worth considering: the people that choose you matter more than the ones acting in an official capacity.

The Way Way Back is ultimately like cotton candy—loosely spun, overly sweet, and messy. But’s also a treat, one in which one can safely indulge in moderation.
Rob Weir