When museum directors and curators move to new institutions it is not uncommon for them to draw on art and artists they have worked with previously for some of their first exhibitions at the new venue. Dan Mills, who came to the Bates College Museum of Art a year ago from Bucknell University’s Samek Art Gallery, has done just this with Tale Spinning (through December 27), a very entertaining and engaging exhibition of works by six artists organized around the theme of multicultural narrative and storytelling.
The six tellers of tall art tales are Iranian-born artists Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, Mexico-born Enrique Chagoya, Native America Brad Kahlhamer, African-American Alison Saar and Lesley Dill, an artist who grew up in Maine. Dan Mills, himself an artist, included Kahlhamer (a Native American adopted by a German-American family and brought up ignorant of his ethnic heritage) in a 2001 exhibition about identity issues when he was director of the Gibson Gallery at SUNY Potsdam. He featured Chagoya in a 2006 exhibition at Samek Art Gallery and Nodjoumi in a 2009 show of epic paintings, also at Samek.
Kahlhamer and Dill are the showstoppers for me. Kahlhamer’s work is not original in the least, appropriating illustrator Ralph Steadman’s manic drawing and lettering style almost wholesale, but the gonzo approach to prints and drawings is perfect for fantasizing about the Native American life Kahlhamer never got to lead. Dill, with New England roots not only in Maine but also in education at Trinity and Smith, is famous for the wedding of words (texts) and body forms. Her Dress of Opening and Close of Being is a life-size dress made of steel, metal foil, organza, thread and wire and inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem about mortality, the words of the title hanging like a necklace.
Tale Spinning is accompanied by a truly lively and playful little catalogue designed by Victoria Blaine Wallace. I’m not sure I’ve even mentioned a graphic designer before, but the catalogue really is a work of art unto itself.
This year being the 25th anniversary of the Bates College Museum of Art building, a brick basilica that is part of the 1986 Olin Arts Center, the lower level gallery is devoted to 25:Selections from the Permanent Collection. The Bates museum had its start in 1955 with a gift of Marsden Hartley drawings and archival materials. The collection has grown since then to some 4,500 objects. The collection is necessarily eclectic, but Bates has a clear focus on works on paper and Maine artists. It is the print repository for artists Charlie Hewitt, Sigmund Abeles, and Clair Van Vliet, and has acquired a significant collection of works on paper by William Manning, the Lewiston native who is one of the states foremost abstract painters.
A small collection makes the gems sparkle ever more brilliantly. A pair of very small, early Maine landscapes by Hartley twinkle as you enter the lower gallery. They are the sorts of minor masterpieces that would be lost in a large museum. A recent acquisition, Bates graduate Takako Yamaguchi’s Connoisseur of Chaos, makes an apocryphal statement as one of the Japanese-born artist’s signature seascapes in which East meets West.
Small, light and quick on its feet, the Bates College Museum of Art does what good college art museums do as well as any – bring the world of art to campus, exhibit the best of local art, and place the best of local art in larger contexts.
[Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston, ME, 207-786-6158.]