February 2, 2006

Art for Everyone

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“We’re working to say what still needs to be said,” Art Department Chair Buzz Spector told me when I asked if his faculty had any sort of mission in its new exhibition at the Johnson Museum. If indeed there is still something left to learn about beauty, thoughtfulness, and the complexity of life, these artists have certainly been working successively. To write about art like this is immediately to degrade it: the only way to understand how this art can make you feel is to see the exhibit. But what is this show trying to tell us, and how is it an important part of life at Cornell? Spector and his friend Frank Robinson, Director of the Johnson Museum, agreed to show me around the exhibit and discuss their thoughts this past week.

Both agree that one of the exhibit’s primary purposes is “wedding beauty and form to questions of values,” as Spector described. “Each piece is its own universe,” says Robinson, and arouses an incredible breadth of emotions that only multiply as the piece gets a repeated or closer look. Elisabeth Meyer’s For My Father evokes unexpected tenderness in her simple prints, many emphasizing grids. Will Pergl and Barry Perlus merge modern technology with classical master technique, as does Jean Locey in her painstakingly touched-up Scarista Beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. There is the beautiful draftsmanship of Todd McGrain and a meticulously composed collage, Comeback, by Graham McDougal, but also the innovative use of papermaking and yarn developed by Spector himself. The sheer variety is enough for an entire afternoon.

Yet perhaps the most exciting part of the exhibit is left in the hands of the viewer: how to respond, how to unify the works, if such cohesiveness is even possible, and how to make the artist’s aesthetic explorations a reflexive event.

Although as Spector and I wandered the room I was given hints to the artist’s motivation, my personal reaction was, strangely, one not unlike the calmness that is felt after the death of a loved one. Many of the works feature mortality, or at least some form of finality – mourning the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard with what is probably the last-captured video footage captured of him in Renate Ferro’s art, McGrain’s rendering of two recently extinct avian species, a father’s death in Meyer’s, and the unanswered questions of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a more abstract sense, the two pieces that feature landscapes seem to suggest the increasing difficulty of finding such untouched havens in a globalized world. Yet there is too much beauty in the show, too many exciting uses of color, placement and altogether talent, to feel let down by the works our faculty has presented. Death is, in a hair-raising Schopenhauerian way, unavoidable, but what these artists have done is overcome its inevitability by demonstrating how powerful the creative human mind can, and always will, be.

Nevertheless, it is each artist’s hope that their piece will undergo a wide range of individual interpretations. With 80,000 visitors a year, there certainly will be. As Spector eloquently surmised, “The faculty’s work is typical in its unexpected effects.”

Spector and Robinson are especially excited about the increasing presence fine arts are achieving at Cornell. The department is preparing to hire two tenure-track faculty, in painting and sculpture, which would be a sizable increase considering its current eight-member staff. And while Cornell offers multiple Masters of Fine Arts degrees, each department enjoys minimal discourse with one another. Spector plans to unify the programs in much closer contact, and has already planned a week of cooperation beginning February 12.

The College of Architecture, Art, and Planning and the Johnson are changing the physical, as well as intellectual, nature of Cornell. Plans are already set for Millstein Hall, which will be behind Sibley, and will serve as the new architecture center. Designed by the internationally renowned Rem Koolhaas, the structure should be a vast improvement over the parking lot that sits there now. And just days ago Robinson began work on an addition to the Johnson. Originally, architect I.M. Pei wanted to extend the underground galleries to the Fall Creek Gorge, complete with a viewing area housed in the gorge’s wall. Although the plan is now deemed structurally and environmentally questionable, new underground galleries will allow several thousand more pieces from the permanent collection to finally receive public display.

“The Johnson is a central part of our commitment,” Robinson told me. “It can preserve the memory of human race: what we think and care about.” With its finger on the pulse of what it means to be human, Cornell’s art faculty and administration has shown us what matters to them. It is their hope that, as art becomes a greater part of being on campus, we will realize what is important to us as well.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer