“Composition Trouvée,” 1990, mixed media by Guillaume Bijl, Belgian, born 1946. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. © 2018 Artists Rights Society, New York / SABAM, Brussels. Image courtesy of the artist

To mark the 125th anniversary of its Walker Art Building, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has mounted “Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts,” an exhibition featuring 150 works from the museum’s collection of more than 25,000 objects. The title of the exhibition refers to the inscription in the rotunda of the Charles McKim-designed building: “to be used solely for art purposes.”

The show is the swan song of the museum’s erstwhile curator, Joachim Homann, who left in August to be a curator of drawings at the Harvard Art Museums. Homann chose to limit the scope of “Art Purposes” to works created since 1970 in order to focus on how contemporary art engages with a range of current cultural and social issues such as race, identity, politics, social data, the environment, the status of art objects and so on.

This engagement is clear from the very first gallery of the show. Virtually every work in the room either is made by a black artist or depicts people of color. Glenn Ligon’s 1993 suite of 10 lithographs, for example, features versions of ads placed in publications by slave owners to call for the return of their runaway slaves. Ligon has changed the name in each text to Glenn and includes a stereotyped period drawing of a black man.

The room also features Barkley Hendrick’s triple portrait of a man who looks much like Huggy Bear, a heavily-stereotyped pimp character from the 1970s television series “Starsky & Hutch.” Next to this is Kara Walker’s 1998 “African/American” which features a strongly sexualized female figure in black silhouette on a white background. In the label copy, we read the artist called the topless figure “your essentialist-token slave maiden in midair.”

From the very start, the exhibition establishes visual ideas and then uses thoughtful label copy – there are about 70 authors for the catalog and wall texts – to connect these ideas to societal concerns in the language of contemporary academic and social criticism. In short, Homann effectively moves us from discourse, meaning the terms we use to talk about a subject, to dialogue, or the use of those terms in conversation. This is a show about ideas held at a teaching museum. It very much fits the multidisciplinary model of a liberal arts college. Homann brings in writers from a huge range of disciplines taught at Bowdoin. On one hand, we are being introduced to a vast range of art objects in Bowdoin’s encyclopedic collection, but we cannot help noticing how seemingly disparate works often dovetail in their content and concerns. “Art Purposes” makes a great argument for why the museum is a phenomenal tool for serving the college’s mission.

“Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” 1997, wool with jute backing and brass, by Yukinori Yanagi, Japanese, born 1959. Archival Collection of Marion Boulton Stroud and Acadia Summer Arts Program, Mt. Desert Island, Maine. Gift from the Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud Foundation, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. ©Yukinori Yanagi. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

The exhibition is also a great opportunity for showcasing works that have rarely or never been shown. Guillaume Bijl’s 1990 “Composition Trouvée” (“Found Composition”) was the first work of installation art to enter the museum’s collection, and it had never been displayed until now. “Composition” looks like a gathering of objects from a junk store window, but it exudes an underlying eye to colonialism as directly hinted by an outdated map of ancient civilizations of the “Near-Orient.” The colonialist content is then echoed by nearby works, most notably Yukinori Yanagi’s “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” a luscious red wool rug featuring a chrysanthemum with all but one of its 16 brass pedals missing. The others are scattered about the rug, accompanied by the phrase “s/he loves me” or “s/he loves me not” written in Japanese or the languages of Japan’s 10 former colonies as well as the Shuri and Ainu, two indigenous peoples of Japan.


“Stranger Visions: Sample 7 NYC (Reconstruction of a Face Based on found DNA, from the Series ‘Stranger Visions’),” 2012– 2013, polymer, by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, American, born 1982. Image courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Fridman Gallery

Despite the broader conversations, some of the works stand out on their own. A large Andy Warhol drawing of a polar bear – Bowdoin’s mascot – was done for a portfolio of images of endangered species (although it was not included in the final project). And one of the most alarming works is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s 2012 “Stranger Visions: Sample 7 NYC.” It is a life-like polymer work that looks like a realistically painted facial bust of a man. To create the works in this series, Dewey-Hagborg collected DNA from cigarette butts, chewed gum and hair that she found in the streets and public spaces of New York City. The artist then analyzed the DNA and used it to 3D print life-size portraits. As science, the technique is fascinating. But as art, we are forced to face all sorts of moral implications, a point compounded by this example’s appearing to be a young black man (raising the issues of police state, forensics, the ethics of taking his DNA and portraying him in public, etc). Is it portraiture? Well, I think so, but a proper conversation about that could fill a book, or two.

One of the most beautiful works in “Art Purposes” is Graciela Iturbide’s 1988 silver gelatin print of a scene in a Oaxacan cemetery. It is not obviously a burial ground. What we see is a woman in profile carrying sticks through a whitewashed door. The white wall blends into the flat white sky, and the woman is a dark silhouette. Hundreds of blurry black flecks – a swarm of tiny birds – swirl through the scene like a dust storm. It is an extraordinary image. However, I was struck by the language of the photographer in a quote that concludes DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum Curator Sarah Montross’s text about the photograph. In it, Iturbide says, “I want to be clear that I do not work in the indigenous world if there is not complicity and respect. I don’t like it when they refer to my work as magical – it makes me furious.” The picture had so drawn me in that I didn’t read the text until I saw it for the third time. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Maybe it was misspeaking on the part of the artist, but the idea that she would be furious when the people she photographs thinks her work is magical? Really? And clearly this is a thing; it has happened so often that the artist has lost patience with the repeated perspective among her indigenous subjects. Montross’ text plays up the artist’s stated respect for women of the region, but by finishing on that note implies something different.

Homann’s “Art Purposes” is an effective show. It sets out to bring us from discourse to dialogue on a range of current social issues –and it succeeds. It is exciting and fresh with so many never-seen-before works and a few promised gifts. And it is challenging. It’s a perfect show for an academic teaching museum that is free and open to the public.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

“Oaxaca,” 1988, gelatin silver print by Graciela Iturbide, Mexican, born 1942. Archival Collection of Marion Boulton Stroud and Acadia Summer Arts Program, Mt. Desert Island, Maine. Gift from the Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud Foundation, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. Copyright Graciela Iturbide, courtesy of Etherton Gallery. Photo by Luc Demers

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