Currently On View at Mt Holyoke: Not Enough Info

Like/Life: Photography by Martine Gutierrez
Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas
Afterlives of Objects/Conflict and Commemoration
Mount Holyoke Afire
Mount Holyoke Museum of Art
Through June 2019

Readers of this blog know that I often prefer smaller, more intimate exhibitions to brain-numbing blockbusters. Is there such a thing as too small? Yes. Several shows at Mount Holyoke College (MHC) cross that line.

Let's start with what Mount Holyoke does right. MHC has always prided itself on being a teaching museum that uses its collection to supplement what takes place in the classroom. An exhibit titled Afterlives of Objects uses the permanent collection as "biographies;" that is, it discusses the object, its origins, and how it ended up in a college art museum. Good idea. The most powerful statements concern adaptive reuse of materials, such as what appears from a distance to be an African-style mask, but which is actually an assemblage of shoes. The overall theme, though, is an important one in an age where hard questions are asked about the appropriateness of collection methods. Does a Mende dance mask teach us about traditional cultures in modern Sierra Leone, or does it exoticize in patronizing ways?

This struck me as a much more profound strain of inquiry than another teaching exhibit Conflict & Commemoration. I breezed through this one because it seemed so obvious. It purports to look at loss and the aftereffects of war. The paintings and objects chosen tell us little that we don't know. The message is that war is a bad thing that kills, destroys, and has lasting impact. Duh! Other than neo-fascists and Nietzsche junkies, who would argue otherwise? The exhibit mostly sidesteps the question of whether conflict is necessary in the first place.

The museum's current featured exhibits underwhelm. Eighty-two-year-old visual artist Joan Jonas, a Mount Holyoke alum, is considered by many to be the "Mother of all Performance Artists." Perhaps she is, but this form of art runs into meta problems when it's on display in a museum. Put simply, once stripped of its very nature–performance–the artistry is easily lost. How interesting is grainy footage of naked people standing in a row while other semi-naked people don mirrored assemblages that refract the view of the lineup? Not very.

The featured MHC show at present is Life/Look, a collection of photographs by Martine Gutierrez (b. 1989), a transgendered Latinx. Hers is a thought-provoking display, but it's also a classic one-trick pony. Gutierrez wishes us to analyze our own gaze, as well as explore gender roles and boundaries. To that end, she poses flesh-and-blood women–often dressed in retro style–in a variety of poses: languid, sensual, whimsical, vaguely erotic, ironic…. She juxtaposes her living subjects with life-life mannequins that call attention to the Life/Look title of the show.

I liked Gutierrez's work, but the show is too small and is tucked away in vest-pocket-sized gallery. The images are strong but once you "get" it, there's not much more to whet the appetite. Her past work provokes thoughts on race, fashion, disembodiment, and fluid sexuality. She infers these themes in Life/Look as well, but the show's small size reduces Gutierrez's politics to the realm of novelty. In a word, what we need is: more.

I also couldn't escape the fact that the most extensive feature show is "Mount Holyoke Afire," which shows the aftermath of three disastrous campus fires. The one in 1896 destroyed the college's original seminary building. Those in 1912 and 1922 also wiped out some of the college's past. It is a nicely done exhibit that looks at those who battled the blazes as well as campus remembrances of the fires. Would that several of the other shows been equally well curated.

Rob Weir


No comments: