Art review: Colby extracts works from his collection to create “Atmosphere”

In 2016, Quartz, an economic analysis organization made up of journalists, surveyed 20 museums in seven countries to determine how much work by 13 major artists was on display and how much remained in storage. Among their finds? “Overall, only 44% of the artworks included in the survey were on display. That’s 689 works in reserve for just the dozen artists we interviewed.

It’s not just a problem for museums like the Metropolitan in New York or the Tate in London. Works in storage are something of a low hanging fruit, so it’s surprising that more museums aren’t tapping into this readily available resource. The Colby College Museum of Art does just that by periodically digging through its archives to assemble themed exhibits that highlight some of their rarely seen works. That was the impetus for “The Poetics of Atmosphere: Lorna Simpson’s ‘Cloudscape’ and Other Works from the Collection” (until April 17).

As the title suggests, the focal point of the exhibition is a video by Lorna Simpson entitled “Cloudscape”, around which Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Siera Hyte has curated a small group of works by two well-known artists, such as Georgia O’ Keeffe and Alexander Calder, and less daring names, such as Sally Egbert and Arnold Bittleman. The unifying theme is how our body experiences, interacts with and affects the atmosphere around us.

In Simpson’s video, the late, award-winning multimedia artist Terry Adkins stands in the middle of an empty room, whistling an eerie tune as fog slowly fills the space, eventually engulfing him in invisibility. Then the fog thins and disappears as gradually as it came, leaving Adkins calmly hissing his tune. This cycle repeats once more before the end of the video.

For me, the work sparked memories of reading the novel “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. These two books are about the effects of the toxic environment of racism on black bodies.

Coates forcefully writes: “In America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it’s heritage. Enslavement wasn’t just the antiseptic borrowing of our work – it’s not so easy to get a human being to engage their body against their own elemental self-interest. And so the enslavement must be occasional anger and random mutilation, the gash of heads and brains blown over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be a rape so regular that it is industrial.

The tune whistled by Adkins is an obscure African-American witty one, intentionally chosen by Simpson and Adkins to be vaguely familiar, yet also unfamiliar. The video conveys a sense of calm and unwavering defiance. No matter how the fog tries to erase Adkins’ identity and physical presence, it can’t. We hear the hissing through the mist even though we can’t see it. And the bodily act of whistling seems to drive the fog out of the room.

The late critic Okwui Enwezor wrote of “Cloudscape” that it “seems like a departure song from the mass grave of the racial sublime. But,” he warned, “that doesn’t mean it will go away altogether, because race and masculinity still have social significance.” Yet we end as we began – with Adkins standing tall, unfazed and very physically present despite an atmosphere that tried to erase him.

It is by far the most powerful work in the exhibition. None of the others seem to have a political or social context. A possible exception is Julie Mehretu’s print, “The Residual”. Mehretu sees his creation of abstract marks as “characters who hold identity and have social agency.” Fundamentally, many of his works are maps of the progress of human civilization across the landscape, tracing their histories, societies, wars, and their effects on the world they touched.

Julie Mehretu, ‘The Residual’, 2007. Color sugar and brooch aquatints with hard etching and drypoint. 40 3/4 in. x 50 1/4 in. (103.51cm x 127.64cm). Lindsay Leard Coolidge ’78 Print Acquisition Fund Museum Purchase, 2010.033

In “Residual”, the ramifications of human presence on the landscape seem to have left it degraded and in disarray. The obsessively worked surface resembles an aerial view of mountains and crevices beset by swirling, almost violent winds and currents of energy. It’s a beautiful piece, whether she hears that message or not.

Many works focus on the artists’ preoccupation with the sky and clouds. This is exemplified by Arnold Bittleman’s “Untitled (Cloud Study)”, which accurately and beautifully depicts the feeling of swelling emerging from a cloud. Vincent Andrew Hartgen’s “Neptune Churn” vaguely alludes to dark storm clouds above waves crashing against rocks. And “The Big Sky (or Marshes)” by Arthur Wesley Dow, a woodcut, is all clouds and sky, but for a piece of land below.

Cao Xiaoyang, “The Twenty-Four Solar Terms: Vernal Equinox”, 2019. Charcoal on paper, 60 1/4 x 40 9/16 in. (153 x 103cm). The Lunder Collection, 2020.004

The most ethereal of these is a large drawing by Cao Xiaoyang. By using charcoal rather than brush and ink, Xiaoyang challenges our view of traditional Chinese inkbrush landscapes. It is a sumptuous otherworldly image worthy of long contemplation. As well as telegraphing the quiet serenity of traditional Chinese landscapes, it is amazing how the artist has captured the sense of the moisture-laden mists and their slow, vaporous movement using what is essentially a dry medium.

Others invoke the atmosphere more obliquely. Sally Egbert’s “Perfumes” use translucent liquid paint washes, a jewel-like palette, and collage elements to convey something we normally smell but don’t see. This work recalls the stain paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and the fluid biomorphic forms of William Baziotes. It effectively conveys a feeling of an atomized cloud of a perfume, the different elements suggesting the perfume’s complex blend of notes – floral lavender, perhaps, mixed with citrus notes (orange) and streaks of spice (cinnamon red, black pepper, etc.). Or there’s Charles Birchfield’s “Lakeview,” which sounds like a humid summer day.

Charles E. Burchfield, “Lakeview,” 1915. Watercolour, 8 5/8 in. x 11 11/16 in. (21.91cm x 29.69cm). Bequest of Adelaide Moise, 1986.042

Some choices seem a bit confusing. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Christ Walking on the Waters” can be related to “Cloudscape” in terms of religious reference (here a Bible story and, in Simpson’s video, Adkins’ witty whistles). But it looks more like a traditional religious depiction than a lot of atmospheric elements. Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of a feather resting on a seashell is beautiful, but also looks more like a still life than a particular expression of the atmosphere. And Etel Adnan’s minimalist piece, Hyte told me, feels “almost steamy” to her. May be. But I would say Birchfield’s “Lakeview” is warmer. It also doesn’t seem, to me at least, to be one of this artist’s strongest pieces. The orange sphere at its center could definitely be a sun, but the dull color around it dampens that warmth somewhat.

But these are just minor flaws. I’m glad to see works normally in storage, especially those by artists I’ve never heard of (notably Egbert and Bittleman). You could say, among the other pleasures of the show, that Hyte created an atmosphere of discovery.

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

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