April 5, 2001

Warhol, War, Rubbish, And Wear

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This past Saturday, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art opened five new temporary exhibits, which range in content from works done in unorthodox mediums, such as clothing and trash, to more traditional paintings and etchings.

The first exhibit, “Uncommon Threads: Contemporary Artists and Clothing,” is the brainchild of Sean Ulmer, the museum’s assistant director of painting and sculpture. It consists of works in which the artists use clothing as a starting point for interpretative pieces on personal and sociocultural themes, as well as three pieces of video art. The centerpiece of the show is a wedding dress made from soiled men’s and women’s underwear that, as described by Ulmer, “shows how both partners bring their dirty foibles to a relationship and provides incentive to move past them.” The fact that the works are arranged thematically makes this fascinating, but bizarre, exhibit more accessible to the viewer.

The other clothing-related exhibit, “Common Threads: Dress, Identity and Art in the Twentieth Century,” provides an overview of women’s fashion in relation to both the artistic and social atmosphere of each time period. The exhibit was planned and installed by curator Charlotte Jirousek, a professor in textiles and apparel, and by members of her course on TXA 675, Aesthetics and Meaning in World Dress. The outfits from the 1980s are of particular interest, as they stylistically portray the steps forward that women took, in spite of a lack of government support.

On that note, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) attended the opening and spoke briefly about the necessity of government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. He wisely pointed out that successful societies of the past have supported the arts and, that funding for the NEA has continually declined since the Republicans took over the Congress in 1995.

Fortunately, there are some citizens who are willing to use their money, in addition to their taxes, to support the arts. One case of such generosity, “Something Old/Something New: Gifts from the Class of 1951,” juxtaposes older pieces, such as traditional Mexican and Hudson River School art, with more modern ones, including works by Andy Warhol and Susan Rothenberg ’67. One of the more interesting works is by Chinese-American artist Hung Liu. It combines a traditional East Asian style with stamps that display modern advertisements, creating a striking impression. The exhibit, although it lacks a sense of unity in its overall composition, has more than enough individuality to make it worthwhile.

“Leavings,” an exhibition by Kathryn Spence, a San Francisco artist, is by far the most difficult of the recent openings to connect with. The artist combines dirt, trash, old fabric, and other debris to make the point that everything eventually becomes soiled, evoking a feeling of discomfort in the viewer. Her untitled piece, composed of a series of bird sculptures that are made of waste, is the most successful at achieving these goals, as it also reminds the viewer of related environmental problems. The rest of her pieces are not as effective individually, but the exhibit as a whole (looking like a messy room) achieves what it set out to do.

Lastly, “War and Peace” is a collection of paintings, posters, and photographs from the museum’s permanent collection. Assembled by the Art History Majors Society, it serves to break down stereotypes associated with the two title topics. The war propaganda posters are of special note, as they give insight into the persistence and nature of marketing techniques. All of these works are accompanied by student interpretations, which help the viewer to understand the pieces in the appropriate context.

Regardless of your artistic preferences, each exhibition offers a unique array of works that appeal to a wide range of interests.

Archived article by Louis Benowitz