November 16, 2000

From the Big Red and Beyond

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Like most of Middle America, I don’t know jack about art. I know what I like, but I’ve never been so presumptuous as to think that any taste I have doesn’t solely exist in my mouth.

It’s a rather traumatic experience for my ego each time I visit an art gallery or museum. While looking at artwork, especially modern or post-modern pieces, I desperately seek any brain wave that runs through my head that even vaguely resembles intelligent thought or understanding. By the time I leave, I’m wondering if the admissions staff at this fine Ivy League University wasn’t taking a bit of a nip while reviewing my application.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case last weekend at the opening of the late fall exhibitions at the Johnson Museum of Art. Cornell’s resident architectural wonder was lit up like a Chinese lantern Saturday night and crawling with the most interesting assortment of people, ranging from a Tibetan monk to a four-year-old art enthusiast. It was a colorful mix both physically and mentally, a surprising fact seeing as I was expecting a room filled with black clad beatniks.

Instead of feeling mystified and subservient to my surroundings, I experienced a level of engagement not previously reached by my visual cortex. This experience can be largely attributed to the overwhelming representation of artwork from the Cornell community. This seemed to make everything more graspable and a lot less intimidating for those of us who haven’t taken or haven’t passed Art History 260.

Whatever the case may be, the Cornell students and alum, as well as the Cornell Art Faculty, are quite a heady bunch of virtuosos. Their work, as well as the Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion and Collecting and Consumerism in America exhibits, cooperated to give our fair school unsuspected depth.

But 12 Artists: Cornell Council for the Arts Invitational Exhibition was the most intriguing of the four exhibits. It’s not merely my student bias that left me impressed by the works, but the overall variety, originality, and sophistication of each piece in the exhibition.

With exhibits ranging in subject matter from sculpture to painting to an interactive multimedia installation to experimental film, walking into the basement level gallery is like walking into a carnival. The little kid inside each spectator leaps to the forefront with greedy, clutching hands.

The line outside Nathaniel Stern’s Enter: hektor was reminiscent of the line outside Space Mountain in Disney World. People of all ages bobbed on the balls of their feet like first graders trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening behind the blue curtain covered with Metro cards and the space age screen sprinkled with poetry and dots.

Stern’s installation wasn’t the only multi-sensory piece. Less imposing was Damon Lee’s score, In search of the tooth fairy, which accompanied Andy Gose’s film of the same title. Not only did visitors enjoy the audio side of his work, but also the visual. “That’s not an exhibit-worthy piece of art I think, because it’s people in a recording studio. So I thought that instead I would put up the actual manuscript … I wanted to have an additional element to look at also, so I put it on transparent paper and then behind that I put watercolors,” explained Lee, who is in the fourth and final year of his doctoral music program here at Cornell.

On the other side of the museum’s stairwell is the Cornell Art Faculty show, more sedated than 12 Artists, but no less startling. The museum stairwell seemed to be the barrier that separated Disney World from MoMa in a sense. The works of the art faculty were more in line with what one expects to find in an art museum.

A rather unusual, misty photograph of a lock of hair was the work of Jocelyn Nevel, the instructor for Photography I and Photo Processes. “I like it as sort of a transformative object, something out of the everyday, something that can be very intimate and a little … not repulsive, but give some people pause because they think it’s … something between beautiful and ugly.”

Much more intricate, but no less meaningful was the transcendental Tibetan Art exhibit. Full of meaning and majesty, this exhibit emanated the spirituality and grace of the Buddhist religion and philosophy. The simple lines of the museum seemed to be the perfect backdrop for the colorful and figurative pieces of ancient art. The architecture and art worked together to create a general serenity and aura of contemplation that radiated from each visitor to the gallery.

Similarly, entering the gallery housing Collecting and Consumerism in America was like opening up a treasure chest filled with priceless jewels. From an intricately carved card holder made of ivory to amusing and commentative propaganda pictures, this exhibit is a flea market of wealth and rarity. It’s interesting to consider how American collectorism has evolved from these remarkable works of craftsmanship to beanie babies.

The entire gala was an incredible experience filled with good conversation and decorated with candy for the mind, spirit, and eyes. It was a strange and welcome change of pace to being learning on a Saturday night. But, despite the many places through which I traveled visually and educationally, I think Painting I and Drawing III instructor Francisco Guerrero put it best when he said, “It’s great to have these intelligent conversations about art, but then you have to be like ‘Let’s go get some chicken wings.'”

Archived article by Laura Thomas