Maine has always felt like a second home to me: I grew up spending summers with family at Wells Beach, studied at Colby College in Waterville as an undergraduate, and even married a Mainer! Though I frequently return to the state to visit my in-laws in Portland and Old Orchard Beach, I drive the additional miles to my alma mater far too rarely. Seeking to change this, I had a true "throwback Thursday" when I returned to campus last week. Though nostalgia initially drew me back to Mayflower Hill, it was the new ideas and connections that made my day truly special; as always, the weathervane atop Miller Library is perpetually poised to point students in new directions.
After catching up over lunch at The Last Unicorn (order the green goddess dressing!) with my former art history professor Véronique Plesch, I spent some time roaming the Colby College Museum of Art. Sol LeWitt's conceptual wall drawings have been a signature part of the building's architecture since he custom-made Wavy color bands within a gray, red, yellow and blue border for the lobby in 1996. This was the arrangement I was familiar with during my time at Colby (2004-2008), but that version was taken down when the lobby was repurposed during the museum's expansion in 2013. However, LeWitt's art became an even more dazzling centerpiece in the form of a three-story projection of Wall Drawing #559 in the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion. A great video of its installation is available here - what a useful teaching resource! Another cornerstone of Colby's collection is The Alex Katz Collection of approximately 900 works. I love the chic, high-fashion character of figurative paintings like Ada's Black Sandals (above). Who knew in 1987 that sequined, TOMS-shaped shoes would have a comeback two decades later? Alex Katz, that's who.
In addition to mainstays like Katz, LeWitt, and an encyclopedic collection of American art, Colby has mounted an excellent program of temporary exhibitions. Given my research on the intercultural functions of textiles in contemporary art, Teresa Margolles: We Have a Common Thread was a must-see. The six large-scale textiles were displayed flat on illuminated tables in a dramatically darkened, black box-style gallery. They reminded me of cadavers in a morgue, and indeed, the fabrics were all involved in murders, stained with blood and punctured with bullet holes and other wounds. Margolles collaborated with women in the areas where the violence had occurred in order to reclaim and recode the fabrics through loving additions of appliqué, embroidery, and assemblage, executed in both traditional and contemporary local techniques. Likewise, my dissertation examines earlier collaborations from the 1970s between Sheila Hicks and textile workshops in Mexico, India, and Morocco. These were largely motivated by economic rather than social concerns, and Hicks's laborers remained anonymous whereas Margolles's named authors tell their own stories via fiber as well as video. In both scenarios, however, the projects spin a "common thread," whether this universal value is a shared goal for an improved quality of life (Hicks) or a mutual recognition of the violence and political strife across cultures (Margolles et al.)
In the evening, I attended the event "Picasso in the Classroom," in which Dr. Plesch's five seminar students presented their final papers from a course structured around the artist's Vollard Suite (1930-1937), recently acquired by the museum. The class made rich use of the college's resources, ranging from a hands-on explanation of print processes with printmaking professor Scott Reed; firsthand viewings of prints by Picasso and his sources, Rembrandt and Goya; and technical support for a multimedia website situating the Vollard Suite in its biographical, historical, and artistic contexts.
In her introduction, Dr. Plesch remarked that in her 22 years at Colby College, she had never seen a group of students work so well together. Over the course of the panel, it indeed became evident the five students were even more closely knit than Picasso's frenetic hatch-marks: not only personally, but intellectually. During the Q + A, for example, one presenter pointed out how all five papers addressed questions of feminism from different perspectives. Referencing a talk from visiting Picasso scholar Karen L. Kleinfelder, another emphasized, "It is redeeming that we talk about these images as rape" rather than aestheticizing or romanticizing the seductions. Her comment raised the urgent issue of sexual assault on college campuses, underscoring just how relevant this series is today despite (or perhaps because of) its seemingly distant historical origins and patriarchal underpinnings. Most of the panelists are studying abroad in various locations this spring, so watch out, art world - here they come!
It appears that I have a lot of new inspiration to "mule" over (that's our mascot, aren't I punny?!). I'm already looking forward to upcoming trips to Colby College view the exhibitions No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki (Spring 2017) and Marsden Hartley's Maine (Summer 2017). See you on the hill!