Spectacles on Display at Shelburne Museum





Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education (PCA&)

Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT

Through October 16


I confess that the fanfare for this small show at the Shelburne Museum induced something less than enthusiasm. Call mine an error of judging an exhibit by its title. It is, if I might, a sharply focused and clever idea for a humble-sized art showcase.

If you’re like me, spectacles are a necessary evil I equate with lost youth. I don’t give them a second thought other than the annoyance of wondering wherever on Planet Earth I might have plopped them down. The PCA&E’s downstairs gallery makes one realize how often and in how many ways eyeglasses show up in art. We quickly learn that more people through the ages have appreciated the utility of their glasses than those who have sworn at them.



In case you’re wondering, they have been a corrective accessory in Western culture
since at least 1290 and are thought to have first appeared in Italy. Prior to that, a 
small number of scientists –usually Catholic clerics–experimented with optics, but it
 was quite a breakthrough for weak and aged eyes when someone got the brilliantly 
simple idea of sticking a few lenses in a frame, fashioning a way to rest them on the 
bridge of the nose, and inspiring future generations to cry out, “dove ho lasciato i 
miei stupidi occhaili?” (“Where did I leave my stupid glasses?”) 

The Shelburne Museum show confines itself to American art from the 18th to the 
21st centuries. It draws upon materials in the permanent collection and a few 
well-curated borrowed works. Charles Willison Peale appears twice, once in a 
self-portrait and again with a famous look at Benjamin Franklin, peering at us like 
he’s about to begin a lecture. We also see several optometrist trade signs from 
the 19th century.  

  The PCA&E exhibit shows the utility of eyewear, but also has the sense to be playful 
and whimsical. There is, for instance, a 1983 photograph from Tseng Kwong Chi 
that’s a backdoor nod to Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit that thawed relations between 
the US and Red China. Tseng lives in Vancouver, but he dressed himself in a Mao 
suit and sunglasses in the guise of a diplomat. And that’s not even close to being 
the most puckish depiction of specs. There is a droll surrealist-style skeletal 
sculpture, but the Grand Nosepiece Award is a tossup between a 1952 
Life Magazine shot from the appropriately named J. R. Eyerman, and a 
Cindy Sherman image from 2016. Look closely at what Sherman has done; 
every person in the frame is she.  

  You will also find work from William Wegman, Howardeena Pindell, and the 
underappreciated Edwin Romanzo Elmer. But let’s go for humor once again; 
Richard Caton Woodville’s 1851 “Magic Glasses” tickles funny bones for several 
reasons. First, the figures in the painting are oddballs and the man in the dark 
glasses (which would have been rare back then) looks like some madcap 
Sherlock Holmes trying to blend into the woodwork. Maybe he is. Check out
the name of the publication he’s reading.
I recommend dropping into this show, which can be viewed in 15 minutes or fewer. 
Of course, that’s assuming you remember where you left your glasses.

Rob Weir

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