April 10, 2008

Exhibit puts the “art” back in artifacts

[img id="80461" align="alignleft"] The most exciting thing about Idol Anxiety at the Smart Museum is that it is at the Smart Museum. The show borrows many of the objects on display from museums like the Oriental Institute where they are displayed more as artifacts than art objects. This show asks viewers to ponder them in this instance as pieces of art.

Of course, the show does not ignore the context and history of the pieces—in the same way that institutions like the Oriental Institute do not ignore their artistic significance. Still, simply presenting the works in an art museum forces the viewer to take the works’ artistic merit into account. This angle was refreshing because most of the show’s viewers will likely be much less well versed in the cultural contexts of these pieces than in art appreciation.

Hailing from Mesopotamia in the mid to late third millennium B.C.E., or the Early Dynastic Period, are five stone sculptures of worshippers. The first “Male Worshipper Fragment” is a man with crossed arms. His body below the arms is cut off, but detailed marks in his locks of long hair and hanging beard remain. His eyes are proportionally huge and suggest concentration. He and his counterpart, the bust of another bearded, concentrating male, are both carved in limestone. Although their many millennia of existence have separated these busts from their bodies and worn the stone a bit rough, viewers can pick up on something of the emotion of prayer when staring back at these faces.

One of the “Female Worshipper Fragment” pieces is impressive for the intricate pattern of its dress, which is rendered in limestone. Her hands are folded in the same position as the other statues in the case. Most of her body is intact, but she is headless. Another “Male Worshipper Fragment” also has a detailed costume. A pattern circles the bottom hem, and what looks like text creeps up the right side. The smallest piece in the case, another “Male Worshipper Fragment,” has less intricate carving but is made of travertine rather than limestone. The creamy white stone is luminous, and light brown veins running through it form a pattern within the stone rather than one carved into it.

What makes these statues remarkable is are their differences. The different materials appear to affect the artistic process. No carved pattern supplements the pattern of the travertine, but there are details carved into the clothes of the limestone pieces. The positions are similar, but each has distinguishing marks and evidence of an artist’s hand.

How significant or intentional this is I confess I am not sure, but it jumps out to a contemporary viewer accustomed to artists’ striving for a unique style and making pieces both distinctive, to separate themselves as artists, and distinct, to imbue pieces with singular identities.

The show represents a huge diversity of historical periods. Beside pieces from Ancient Mesopotamia stands a print by Albrecht Dürer, “Sudarium.” In the image, Christ’s image stares out, captured on the cloth on which he wiped his face. Two angels hold the cloth, somber and depicted by dark and sketchy black lines. Dürer is exploring ideas of image-making in the piece.

Perhaps the most striking piece in the show is Johann Benedict Witz’s 1750 Rococo “The Crucifixion.” A lavishly decorated wooden sculpture, “The Crucifixion” depicts Jesus on a cross with three figures below. The cross is black, plain, and stark. The figure of Jesus is very detailed, with visible ribs, muscles, and folds in the loincloth, but is also relatively free from decoration. The base of the sculpture, however, is covered in looping, curvy details. There is also a nook cut into the base in which another figure lies—presumably Jesus in his tomb. This piece is not necessarily the most beautiful piece in the show, but its size and intricacy make it the most attention-grabbing.

Another attention-grabbing piece is the 19th century “Holy Tree.” This piece is a long strip of parchment with Hebrew text inked onto it. The piece is a sefirot, or a graphic representation of God’s attributes. This piece, like the works from Ancient Mesopotamia, may generally be thought significant more for its religious or historical significance than as a piece of art. But approaching the piece from an aesthetic perspective brings out the fluidity of ink markings and the way the shape of the text guides the viewer’s eyes through the piece without a dizzying effect.

Idol Anxiety is successful in bringing together works of so many different periods and traditions, in having a unifying theme, and in asking viewers to look at these works as unique pieces of art without ignoring what the works could tell us about the times and places from which they originate.