ArtBeat: “Affinity Atlas” @ Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum
Review and photographs by Jeff Nania
“Affinity Atlas,” one of the Tang Teaching Museum’s current exhibitions, is making unlikely connections between pieces of work from all different times and places in the Tang’s own collection, and new works by select contemporary artists.
Curator Ian Berry explained that this exhibition is really three different shows in one. Around the perimeter of the gallery space are new works done by contemporary artists like Michael Oatman, David Diao and even a separate room featuring the video “Grosse Fatigue” by Camille Henrot. The inner part of the gallery – an “L” shaped wooden platform – showcases pieces from the Tang’s private collection. Finally, a shelf at the end of the space features a line of postcards with different endangered species on them, contributed by various faculty members at Skidmore College.
The shelf with the postcards is arranged so that in a line just below eye level these little stacks of cards are propped up like small works of art and guests coming through the exhibit can take whichever ones they please, but when each particular stack runs out the viewer is presented with a statement like “the Formosan clouded leopard is gone,” thus signifying the extinction process over the course of the exhibit. Every 10 days or so, the shelf portion of “Affinity Atlas” is filled with different pieces by the Skidmore faculty. The shelf has also been filled with mineral specimens, cosmic photographs of galaxies, skulls and more.
In fact, the shelf isn’t the only portion of the exhibit to evolve. Michael Oatman’s wall of collages has also been expanded upon. These are in-depth collages which are individually framed but placed next to each other so that a single tree branch extends through each of them. Each piece has a different tint to the background signifying both time of day and season. They are up above eye level on the wall although there are a couple of leaning pieces down on the floor, and there is one extremely high up, above everything to the right. There is also a set of binoculars on a little white shelf jutting out of the wall down to the right of the collages. Oatman says that he realized that as a person who regularly wears glasses, he has essentially had a viewing apparatus with him all the time, and it has played a part in framing what he sees. He thought it appropriate to include the binoculars as a way to create an enhanced and framed viewing experience of his works, especially for the small one up to the right near the ceiling of the gallery. This is also a way of inviting interaction with the exhibit.
Curator Ian Berry’s design of the space also does this in a sense. He spoke about how the “L” shaped platform in the middle of the space is meant to guide viewers through the gallery. Sure, there is an infinite amount of lines of sight through the installation, but viewers cannot simply walk from the middle of the room to exit the gallery, but are guided around to the faculty shelf, and also to pieces like Hew Locke’s “Chariots Of The Gods” – a hulking work of cord and beads on a wool backdrop, and Israeli artist Ilit Azoulay’s “The Keys” – a digital photo composition that shows a single person standing amongst shelves that feature all manner of metal scraps, broken toys and other objects that form a kind of imaginary space featuring real items in a way that also feels hyper-real.
The whole gallery itself is set up so that from any possible angle you are seeing a new and interesting perspective that maybe no one else has seen before. It is as if you are walking through an intentional but unlikely collage that makes new connections across artistic disciplines and time periods while also incorporating the building itself and individual visitors into various perspectives.
This idea of having two radically different things juxtaposed next to each other is a nod to the pioneering art historian Aby Warburg, who in his later days famously pinned more than 2,000 images from his life’s research onto a number of large scale black panels in an effort to teach about connections across time and disciplines. Warburg referred to this as his “Picture Atlas,” hence the title of the exhibit at The Tang. Berry has also used these wall-filling black panels as an organizational method to curate connections. In fact, as you first step through the opening to the gallery space the first piece along the wall to the right is a painting by contemporary artist David Diao, which is planted half-on one of these black panels. Diao’s piece, “Barr Talk,” is a painting of a green board with a written diagram of modern art, and arrows all across the piece pointing to connections – thus setting the stage for the rest of “Affinity Atlas.”
Directly opposite Diao’s piece on the far wall is Azoulay’s composition which is also halfway on one of these backdrops. Even without the backdrops themselves though, the objects that are placed on the platform are done so in such a way as to invite connections. Vastly different objects like the wooden hat blocks which were used as forms by legendary Saratoga hat maker Alfred B. Solomon, Allison Schulnik’s “Shell #5” and Wolfgang Laib’s photograph “Grave Near Badami, Sout India, 2001 – 9” are all placed near each other and connected by something as simple as a conical shape.
As the viewer walks through the gallery the connections continue to happen in subtle ways that place the guest along a thread of time and space that teaches about connections in the human psyche – ultimately fulfilling the Tang’s mission as a teaching museum.
The Tang’s regular hours are 12noon–5 pm on Tuesday–Sunday, with extended hours til 9pm on Thursdays, December 3 & 10. The museum will be closed on Thursday & Friday, December 24 & 25, as well as Thursday & Friday, December 31 & January 1. Regular hours resume on Saturday, January 2. Extended Thursday night hours resume on January 28.