February 8, 2011

Foiled by the Frame

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In what looks like an empty room, the Willard Straight Art Gallery, located just outside the bustle of the main foyer, browsing library and café, lays a broad challenge to the institution of the art museum.  This challenge, posed by architect Elaine Oh ’12, questions the space in which artwork is presented, and more specifically, targets the idea of the frame.  Why do we need to view paintings and drawings through frames?  What sort of hierarchical relationship emerges between the viewer and the work as a result of the frame and how does this change our perception of the work itself?  I had to ask for a key to enter the gallery, which is normally reserved for receptions and club meetings, an unlikely place to find a provocative exhibit.  As I struggled to open the door I noticed an empty room with bare tables and no obvious sign of artwork anywhere.  I looked more carefully after entering and first noticed a few large, lonely-looking wooden frames in various places around the room, containing no objects but the walls and ground behind them, giving the room a look of empty university storage space.  On the wall were a number of small placards: an artist statement written by Elaine Oh and a host of sketches, each one a replication of a famous work of art. Among the artists that Oh imitates are Joan Miro and John Baldessari.  Despite the lack of emphasis that the room lends to the placards, they are nevertheless compelling; the original artwork retains its initial force without the showy display.  Oh’s sketches of austere portraits and abstract work alike invite the viewer to consider the stylistic innovation and timelessness of each piece.  They didn’t need a nice place or a frame to look nice.  Oh became interested in the concept of the frame during her architecture studio last semester.  “Frames came up a lot. They are associated with something 2-D; a painting or drawing that you would see in a museum.  I was looking at hierarchies in sculpture and painting and I started to view frames as hierarchical objects.” Elaine explained to me the authoritative role of the frame in presenting the artwork.  She was right.  Although each replication was visibly impressive, it did not command the same sense of respect that you get when you view a painting at the Metropolitan.  “This is my way of treating frames on a psychological level, as an authoritative figure in art.  I’ve always been interested in authority, and frames definitely signify authority, especially in institutions like a museum,” she said.The choice of room for Elaine’s exhibit calls the authority of presentation into question, but in a context unique to Cornell. Not all students seek new artwork when it is displayed on campus; even installations on the arts quad do not necessarily engage the average Cornell passerby. “I thought that the idea of hierarchies and authorities was present in how art is presented on campus.  Most of the people who attend art shows are art students and architects, not just average students,” Oh said.  By most standards the Willard Straight Gallery is not a memorable room, yet its lack of character is perfectly suited to support her point — that the space in which we view art does effect how we perceive the work itself, in its ability to be authoritative, or in her case, informal.  Oh’s suggestions will hopefully motivate the lay Cornellian to engage artwork on Cornell’s campus — to view it for what it is and dissociate it from its more comfortable, esoteric home.

Original Author: Joey Anderson