UMass: The Place for Pioneer Valley Art in February

Most art fans visiting the Pioneer Valley make a beeline to the Big Three: the Smith College Museum of Art, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, or Amherst College's Mead Art Museum. If the kiddies are along, a stop at the Eric Caryle Museum is de rigueur. It may come as a shock–and no slight is intended to those other fine institutions–but the place to be for February art treasures is the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three fine shows now grace gallery walls.

Run; don't walk, to see Direct Action Comics: Politically Engaged Graphic Novels. And make haste—it's hanging in the Herter Art Gallery and ends on February 22. Why such a short run for a show that only opened on February 2? The Herter Gallery is designed to attract students, their work, and their curation, hence the turnover is quick.UMass Comparative Literature Professor Chris Couch curates this show, along with recent UMass graduate Alex Chautin,* and I do not exaggerate when I say that it's unlikely you will see a better exhibit on graphic novels this year.

Think comics are just for kids? You're decades out of date and need to see what you've been missing. There's very little about this exhibit that would be of interest to or appropriate for children. It is exactly as advertised: agit-prop, identity formation, and social justice art–mass produced, to be sure, but well out of the mainstream. You will encounter now iconic names in this exhibit–Vaughan Bodé, Max Brooks, Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman–but also many newer names. What links all of them is a deep commitment to telling the stories of socially disempowered or marginalized people and groups. In that spirit, one of the first things that you encounter is Gary Hallgren's iconic image of Nancy and Sluggo discovering that the social construction of gender begins with what's in the undies.

If you've wondered what happened to politically charged art in an age in which rock music sells beer, film is paint-by-the-numbers, and theatre operates too close to the margins to take chances, Direct Action Comics will direct you to where provocation is alive, well, and deeply grounded in history. You'll find recent musings and manifestations of the Industrial Workers of the World, Emma Goldman, World War II Japanese internment, the civil rights movement, and Margaret Sanger. I'd make the case that there are very few one-volume surveys of Latino history as good as Lalo Alcarez and Ilan Stavans' graphic book Latino USA. You can also discover the deep history and roots of modern identity movements in works such as Wimmen's Comix, Howard Cruse's groundbreaking gay-themed Wendel, Art Spiegelman's Fagin the Jew, and other such works. No oppressor gets off the hook, and that includes the Islamist butchers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Pay attention to the labels; they are informative and engagingly written. A final note: I've heard people say that young people don't read anymore. Wrong! They devour graphic novels and they can astound you with what they see in each drawing. Educators now speak of the need to teach visual learning. About time!

Tela McInerey
Vonnegut, "Double Wedding"
You'll have even less time to take in Stories: Past, Present, and Future, which is installed in the Hampden Gallery on the main floor of the Hampden Dining Common in the Southwest Residential area of UMass. It closes on February 17. This gallery is generally devoted to the works of local artists–in this case, eight women associated with the Zea Mays Printmaking Collaborative in my town of Florence, MA (a section of Northampton). All eight artists intrigue, but I was partial to a video installation by curator Lynn Peterfreund that stitched together hundreds of still images and animated them in a short, but mesmerizing pastiche. I also liked the work of Anne Beresford, who takes copies of old engravings—for instance, a 16th century Italian print of the Muse of Beauty–and enhances them with overlays of her own designs and slashes of color Nanette Vonnegut (daughter of Kurt), whose puckish sense of humor is on display; and the deeply interior monoprints of Tekla McInerney.

The current star attraction at UMass, though, is Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker's Tales of Slavery and Power, which is on display at the University Museum of Contemporary Art inside the Fine Arts Center through April 30. There are few contemporary artists that inspire as much respect and/or ire as Kara Walker (b. 1969). Hers is a no-apologies-no-punches-pulled look at slavery and its legacy. Her images are often sexualized–to make a point, says she and her admirers; to sensationalize, charge her critics. She usually paints in silhouettes, her large dark figures suggesting the tragedy, but also the hidden power lurking within black bodies. Once again, it's open to interpretation whether the silhouettes deracialize, are forms of reverse racism, are screams of black anguish, or are in-your-face displays of black rage and revenge. In the UMass exhibit, though, there's little doubt that several of Walker's images are meant to challenge white constructions of race and bury white sins. She takes on the idea that the Civil War was about preserving Union by superimposing large black bodies on woodcuts from Harper's Weekly's Pictorial History of the Civil War series. Those bodies—in arrays ranging from detached observation to immediate peril–literally change the frame through which we view the war. In essence, it's no longer a white spin on what matters.

Even more powerful are her scenes from The Emancipation Approximation, the very title suggesting she intends to challenge traditional narratives. And challenge she does. She uses the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan–in which Zeus assumed the form of a white swan to rape and impregnate the beautiful mortal Leda–but Walker's Leda is Everyblackwoman, and the master class the white swans. We see Leda being violated in various ways by whites–either directly or as voyeurs. She also hurls a potent challenge to the very essence of race. The same whites that passed anti-miscegenation laws are, in fact, the ones who made mockery of those laws–a point she makes by superimposing black heads on white swans–an "approximation" of emancipation indeed.

I don't buy the slams on Walker, but I sure can see why she makes a lot of people–black and white–nervous. She dabbles in minstrelsy and that's always a landmine-filled terrain. There is also an overt sexiness in her work that skirts the border between exploitation and appropriation. As for whites, her work is a one-woman destruction of the Lost Cause myth. Plus, it's never comfortable to revisit the sins of one's forefathers–especially when the evening news shows that Old Massah is more alive than dead.

Rob Weir

*Alex Chautin is a former student of mine. I'm a bit biased, but I think Alex's work stands on its own and I had little part of advancing his expertise in graphic novels, though he claims I did turn him on to Industrial Workers of the World graphics. I'll take that with a, "Wow! Cool!"

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