“Tlazoteotl ‘Eater of Filth,'” 2018, C-print mounted on Sintra, hand-painted artist frame, by Martine Gutierrez, American, born 1989. Museum Purchase, Greenacres Acquisition Fund. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

For art lovers, the yearlong denial of public access to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has seemed like an eternity.

It was impossible not to envy the students who had the great privilege of popping in for great art between classes. A visit to the museum, which reopened July 1, will illustrate the preciousness of what we’ve been missing.

Two exhibitions in particular are stunning, firstly, for the art and artifacts that populate them: “New Views of the Middle Ages: Highlights from the Wyvern Collection” (through Feb. 27) and “Transformations: New Acquisitions of Global Contemporary Art” (through Jan. 30).

Even more interesting, however, is the way they play off each other to reveal not only how small our world is, but how small it has always been – and, in concert with this fact, the consistency of human themes that artists have expressed across millennia.

“New Views” presents art and objects on long-term loan to the museum, many never seen in public before. It challenges the conventionally Eurocentric view we often encounter in exhibitions of this period, making the very cogent argument that, as visiting professor of medieval art history Kathryn Gerry writes in her fascinating catalog essay, “medieval Europe was not an isolated and monolithic region, but an integral component in a series of global networks, reaching as far as east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.”

Here, Gerry is speaking specifically of research done on the materials employed in medieval art, which, of course, originated in places far removed from the European continent. This implies an early globalism most people rarely consider except in negative terms (i.e., the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition in colonies such as Goa). The blending of religions and cultures that many of the works embody, however, paint a radically different picture of fruitful cross-pollination – aesthetically and beyond.

Venetian Enameled Plate, ca. 1500, painted enamel on copper, partially gilt. Present-day Italy (Venice). Wyvern Collection, 0959

A circa 1500 Venetian enameled plate displays obvious Persian influences. In “Diptych with Saint George, and Virgin and Child,” the saintly dragon slayer is represented using a traditionally flat, heavily outlined Ethiopian style, while the Virgin and Child panel draws from Byzantine icon painting. Gerry points out that both iconographies “would have been familiar to Christian viewers in Ethiopia and Europe.” Further, she posits, while they were surely the work of separate artists and eras, “the identical size and format shared between the two might indicate that one was made as a pendant for the other, the later work added to the earlier…” This is hardly art in a cultural vacuum.

As for Europe itself, she writes, “research has revealed a world in which medieval Europe was home to people who looked different from each other, spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and sometimes even stepped outside of the seemingly strict gender boundaries of the period.” Later on, she adds, “Indeed, there is plenty of evidence in the record of material culture to dispel the erroneous perception that white, European Christians in the Middle Ages categorically disdained those different from themselves.”

Virgin and Child with Musical Angel, ca. 1500, oil on panel, Follower of Hans Memling, Present-day Netherlands, oil on panel. Wyvern Collection, 2219.

Of course, the abundance of technique and craftsmanship on view will appeal to a wide audience, whether they are interested in the intellectual premises of the exhibition or not. I defy anyone not to be awed by the impossibly minute carving of a circa 1500-30 wooden prayer bead, or by the golden and jeweled hem of the Virgin’s dress in “Virgin and Child with Musical Angel” (by a follower of Netherlandish painter Hans Memling circa 1500). Or try slipping inside the hands of the artists who crafted the delicate chains of “Byzantine Bow Brooch (Fibula)” or the one who painstakingly hand-painted a multitude of soldiers on a circa 1560 Limoges “Grisaille Ewer with Biblical Imagery (Genesis 14).” Your fingers will ache at the intensity of labor involved.

The scholarship, however, supports the objects themselves in proving the relevance of the art of the Middle Ages for today. If you doubt that, just descend a flight of stairs to the Focus Gallery for “Transformations,” audaciously curated by Sean Burrus. It will be immediately apparent that many of the issues we face today are but echoes of what we have just seen upstairs, though often created without the promise of salvation through faith inherent in those works.

“Although our present-day understandings of race, particularly in its relationship to skin color, were established long after the medieval period,” writes Gerry, “certainly such methods of categorizing people were at play in medieval Europe.” Sadly for humanity, this acknowledgment easily applies to the subject matter of some works in the Focus Gallery.

“Woman. Umbrella,” 2006, gelatin silver print by Adou, Chinese, born 1973.

Indigenous cultures have always been displaced and deracinated – not just in the Middle Ages – by conquest, environmental events (manmade and natural), fluctuations in economies, and the appropriation and development of land. It was as true in the 1600s as it is today, and this is exactly what the Chinese photographer Adou tackles in the exquisite “Woman in Fog” and “Woman, Umbrella.” Both are part of a series documenting the effects of the disappearing landscapes of the Yi ethnic minority in Sichuan.

Adou’s use of expired and/or damaged film, which creates misty images that look almost like age-worn daguerrotypes, conveys the mournful sense that these forlorn-looking subjects are already gone. Is this quantitatively different, in essence, from the ephemerality of mortal life depicted in medieval art? Their nostalgic quality seems to suggest that in the march toward human dominance, we’ve missed something fundamental to our spiritual nature.

In “The Three Gorges Dam Migration” – an extraordinary 10-foot scroll printed with over 500 woodblocks – Yun-Fei Ji critiques the engineering project on the Yangtze River that uprooted millions. Farah Al-Qasimi’s large-format archival inkjet prints focus their lens on New York City, where she moved from Abu Dhabi in 2018. Though her eye is merely curious, rather than critical, the images telegraph the ennui of cultural dilution that has occurred in immigrant communities for centuries as they have pursued perceived opportunity in urban centers far from their homes.

There has also never been a limit to the ways humans have fashioned themselves in their refusal to be neatly categorized (think the sexual fluidity of Native American Two-Spirit people, the Hijra of India or the kono sekai of Japan). “Tlazoteotl ‘Eater of Filth’” is a mesmerizing C-print by Martine Gutierrez. Her elaborate costume, jewelry and headdress are feats in themselves and confound the viewer’s ideas about gender and sexuality.

In Gerry’s catalog essay, she notes that “we are increasingly recognizing the traces of people who lived outside this (binary) structure, and the ways in which artists manipulated gendered expectations in their attempts to show the remarkable and spiritual nature of certain persons and events.” The statement could just as easily describe Gutierrez and her Tlazoteotl.

The Aztec deity of the title, says the wall label, “is patroness and purifier of sin and vice.” In Gutierrez’s imagining, Tlazoteotl looks mysterious and not altogether wholesome, if not slightly demonic, as if she is manifesting some of the unsavory things she’s been ingesting. Yet you can’t turn away from this fascinating image.

This modest-sized gallery is packed with issues and ideas that seem on first sight contemporary. Yet after viewing “New Visions” upstairs, it becomes apparent that they are just newer permutations along a continuum of artists’ expressions of our ever-fallible human condition.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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