Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.
Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence.
– Ana Mendieta
I have always been enchanted by the work of late Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, and the more I get to know her work, the more mysterious, unsettling, and wonderful it seems. Perhaps her most famous series, the Siluetaswere sculptural performances (which she called “earth-body works”) in which Mendieta would imprint or outline her silhouette into or onto natural elements, such as sand, earth, snow, trees, grass, ice, or rocks. These works are now known only through the hundreds of documentary photographs taken by the artist. Her performances of the 1970s showcase the inherent contradictions which make her work so captivating; they are simultaneously performative and static, expressive and stoic, beautiful and haunting, autobiographic and universal.
Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948 and came to the United States in 1961, living in exile in the Midwestern United States for much of her life. First receiving a graduate degree in painting from the University of Iowa, Mendieta subsequently earned a second MFA through their famous Intermedia department, where she learned to create her own fusion of the emerging media which were to define the art of the 1970s – performance, land art, and photography. While she did not physically return to Cuba until her visit eighteen years later, her work was always inspired by the heritage of her lost homeland and the feeling of being uprooted or, in her words, “cast out of the womb.” The subtle act of imposing her body on the earth is an effort to physically and spiritually reconnect with history and nature.
Mendieta traveled to Mexico every summer between 1973 and 1980, where she made hundreds of Siluetas,either in private or in the presence of a very intimate audience. The works are imbued with symbolism drawn from indigenous religions, such as Santeria – a Cuban hybrid of Catholicism, West African, and Caribbean spiritual beliefs, archetypal nature imagery, and Mexican funerary decorations. Mendieta believed she had more in common with indigenous artists than with her contemporaries, proclaiming “[My work] has very little to do with most earth art. I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.”
The true power of the Siluetaslies in what Mendieta chooses not to show us. Apart from a few early works, such as the first in the series Imagen de Yagul(above), the artist’s physical body is not present, but is suggested by her silhouette created from her body or a plywood cut-out used in later works. While these photographs preserve the immediate and timeless memory of the earth-body works, they were in fact methodically planned, quickly executed, and ephemeral. The pieces produced in Mexico were often created within protected cultural sites – such as Zapotec graves and abandoned church complexes – and were left to deteriorate and return to the earth.
In 1985, Ana Mendieta fell to her death from a window in her thirty-fourth floor New York apartment, where she lived with her husband Carl Andre, the famous Minimalist sculptor. Whether her death was the result of a suicide or murder is still a mystery. While many like to claim that the visceral and morbid nature of Mendieta’s art foreshadowed her own tragic and untimely death, there is so much more to her work than a conveniently romantic tale of a troubled artist who died too young. She states: “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe.” In the photographs, her physical and spiritual presence is felt long after the works disappear, but the Siluetasare not mere autobiography. Mendieta expresses powerful universal truths by employing themes of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, which resonate across all histories and cultures.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Currently on view at SCMA, Juxtapositonsis the collaborative work of On Display: Museums, Collections, and Exhibitions,a first-year seminar taught by Barbara Kellum, Department of Art. The course explored many different kinds of museums and collections, their missions, and the logic of their displays. By bringing together objects from SCMA storage, the Archives, and the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs with works in the galleries, Juxtapositionsasks intriguing questions about what is usually on view in art museums—and what is not.
In Juxtapositions,Smith students find unusual and exciting connections between works of different media and periods. For example, a mid-20th century 3-speed bicycle is paired with Loren MacIver’s 1959 abstract painting Subway Lights,and an Occupy Wall Street poster is shown alongside a 19th-century French bronze sculpture, to name a few. Kellum’s students selected their juxtapositions and wrote an accompanying text for each pairing that highlights the works’ surprising similarities and differences.
Isabella Galdone ’16 juxtaposed this Edvard Munch woodcut and Thomas Eakins painting, currently on view together in the third floor Chace Gallery:
Galdone’s juxtaposition wall label:
What does melancholy look like? For both Thomas Eakins and Edvard Munch, it took the form of a woman in black. When Eakins painted Edith Mahon, a family friend, she had recently experienced a painful divorce, and it is the emotional devastation that it brought her that Eakins chooses to portray. Less is known about Eva Kittelson, Munch’s model, but it may be that her eerie, chilling image was a mirror of Munch’s past experience with mental illness. The juxtaposition of these two works is fascinating because, although they are executed in very different styles and media, they evoke the same feeling in the viewer.
The image of Edith Mahon, pallid and exhausted in her black dress, with sagging eyelids and carefully tightened lips, coupled with the solitary, angular frame and mask-like countenance of Munch’s anonymous Woman creates a powerful two-part portrait of human suffering. The important elements that these two pieces share are accentuated by their juxtaposition. The black dresses that both women wear suggest that their identity and image is enveloped in and merged with the melancholy they express. The convergence of these two figures only highlights their solitude and the existential angst that it signifies. It is the raw aloneness of these women that draws the viewer in so powerfully to their individual worlds to empathize with them. Mrs. Edith Mahonand Woman in Blackare works of art that give universal form to individual anguish. Seeing them side-by-side reveals that they are significant for the same reason: they take negative human experience and turn it into something of beauty and artistic value.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Everywhere you go these days people are talking or writing about the concept of “mindfulness.” A key component of Buddhism, and, increasingly, Western psychology, mindfulness is focused on an active awareness of the reality of things, and a close and disciplined attention to the present moment. A person can do just about anything “mindfully:” washing dishes, brushing teeth, walking, or breathing. My current mindfulness practice takes full advantage of our special exhibition, Drawn to Excellence: Renaissance to Romantic Drawings from a Private Collection.Each day the exhibition is open to the public, I have been selecting a single drawing to examine, mindfully, for at least 30 minutes. Slowing down and losing myself in a single work of art is a deeply rewarding experience, especially when faced with such a rich array of complex, beautiful, and moving works such as those on exhibit. Drawings, in particular, are a perfect focus for such an exercise—after all they are simply marks on a piece of paper made by a human hand that somehow, magically, coalesce into an image.
My drawing for today was Annibale Carracci’s Study of a Tree:
Annibale Carracci was one of three related artists who were instrumental in the development of art in Italy during the 17th century. Eschewing the excesses of the mannerist style (including high-keyed color and exaggerated body proportions), the Carracci (Agostino, Annibale, and Ludovico) advocated a return to the artistic inspirations of classical antiquity, artists of the High Renaissance, and direct observations of nature.
Study of a Treeis a large sheet featuring a portrait of a tree drawn in brown ink. What struck me instantly about this work was the specificityof the tree—this is not some generic or idealized view, but one that the artist closely observed. The idiosyncratic formation of the trunk and branches, the unbalanced massing of leaves, and the free handling of the foliage all combine to capture the essence of the natural world rather than a mere description of it. Carracci is here attempting to capture the form and spirit of the tree rather than make a scientifically accurate rendering.
Paying close attention to the various quality of lines—the swift, parallel strokes that add depth and fullness to sections of overlapping leaves, or the wild and snaky lines forming bare branches that extend from the top or right side of the tree—gave me greater appreciation for Carracci’s genius in translating visual experience to paper.
The experience of looking closely at this work can also provoke experiential responses. Take, for example, the subtle passages of black chalk visible under the ink. In the upper branches, these areas animate the leaves, like a breeze rustling the tree’s top. When applied to the trunk, the chalk provides additional texture, adding a bulk and solidity that is almost palpable. Thick ink lines outlining clumps of leaves punctuate the surface, as if they are picked out by bright sunlight.
I always leave one of these viewing experiences feeling refreshed and energized. An added bonus in the case of spending time with Carracci’s Study of a Treeis the fact that it allowed me to look at the trees on the Smith campus with new eyes.
I invite you to try this mindfulness practice. There are 86 works to choose from in Drawn to Excellenceand each of them will greatly benefit the patient and mindful viewer.