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Carnage and Communion: Encountering Art in the Shadow of Aurora

On my way across campus to the University Art Museum, I see a single leaf drifting toward the September 11 memorial garden at Chancellor Green. I’m in a don’t-take-anything-for-granted mood, my reporter’s notebook in my hand, my objective a show called “Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery,” which opened July 14 and will be on view through September 23. At the time, I know nothing of the work of Gabriele Münter and the only Aurora I know of is the Aurora Borealis.

In art exhibits you go from one work to another, looking, attending, thinking, so it must be because I’m already in a museum state of mind that I’ve been paying attention to this one yellow leaf. How come it’s falling now, in the middle of summer? I’m waiting to see where it ends up so I can have a closer look.

As it’s about to come to earth by the 9/11 memorial bell, the leaf flutters to life and flies away. Though I’m not in the museum yet, I take out my pen and write, “Butterfly = leaf.” The real exhibit has begun.

The Shadow of Aurora

The carnage at a Colorado multiplex showing The Dark Knight Rises seems a long way from an art museum on the campus of an Ivy League university. Yet the same film opened across the street from the campus at the Garden Theater with a midnight screening a day before the midnight show in Aurora. Meanwhile, visitors to the exhibit are going to see it differently now than they would have if, like me, they had come to it the day before the shooting.

A large, attractively designed hand-out showing a plan of the museum is accompanied by a colorfully printed essay about the exhibit that refers, appropriately enough, to “commonality,” “cultural encounters,” “entangled interaction, mutual impact,” and “points of contact” that “occur across place as well as time …. Such encounters elicit curiosity, bemusement, or, sometimes ardent condemnation and rupture” (the last word is printed in big pink capital letters against a purple background). When you read the preceding statements after learning that a lone, heavily armed gunman shot and killed at least 12 people and wounded 58, “encounter” becomes the mother of all euphemisms. At the end of the essay, which was apparently co-written by the Curator of Asian Art Cary Y. Liu, Project Coordinator Francesca Williams, and Curatorial Fellow Juliana Ochs Dweck, “rupture” is among the five key words that are highlighted and defined (viz, “to burst open — treaty, nation, body, or belief”).

Because of the killings in Colorado, I’m more attuned to terms of “rupture” and “conflict” than “dialogue” and “discovery” as I look back over my exhibit notes. The words of a New York Times article about the shooting, “Fantasy became nightmare, and a place of escape became a trap,” have me asking the obvious: “Aren’t people going to an art show also looking for a place of escape?” More likely, the long view provided by a presentation that spans centuries offers something more enlightening than a vivid, violent, big-screen vacation from routine; speaking of “fantasy as nightmare,” for instance, there’s Goya’s image of the artist slumped over his desk, his head buried in his arms as a nightmare phantasmagoria of owls and bats hover over him in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the etching from Los Caprichos that inspired the most spectacular encounter in “Encounters,” Yinka Shonibare’s massive four-part photographic adaptation of Goya’s original vision.

Encountering Carnage

If you don’t count the leaf that became a butterfly, Le Carnage is the first object mentioned in my notes, an oil on canvas painted by Georges Clairin (1843-1919), described as a “mock Equestrian battle” in the curator’s commentary. My scribbled comment is, “Why ‘mock’? Mock carnage?” You’ve got robed and turbaned warriors and horsemen firing rifles and pistols, the skies in the background blazing like hellfire; there’s a dead horse in the right foreground and on the other side, if you look closely, you can make out at least three corpses. Few museumgoers will be able to view this scene without thinking of the ongoing folk tale of carnage being told in the media and spreading like a virus online. There’s even a lone gunman in the painting, a Hell’s Angel lookalike, the only warrior with a pistol and there’s nothing fake looking about the flame spurting from the barrel.

Before your thoughts can turn to more benign matters, the next thing the museum shows you is a case containing a dagger with an ornamental handle in the shape of a Saracen with sword upraised, about to behead a crusader. And above the dagger is a pen and brown ink sketch by Tiepolo of a Saracen Cavalryman. After that come a legion of Amazons followed by two terra cotta Amazons from 300-280 B.C. in blue leather boots and lavender-colored skirts. As the exhibit brochure suggests, conflict and rupture are everywhere.

The Sleep of Reason

I first saw one of Yinka Shonibare’s massive photographic revisitings of “The Sleep of Reason” at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers four years ago (“Goya’s Book of Dreams: Sharp as the Point of an Etching Needle, Sept. 10, 2008), but the four-fold impact here is considerably more impressive because of visual excitement created by the arrangement. It’s rare enough to speak of a “view” unfolding within the confines of a museum, but what the curators have created is very definitely a view, and a great view at that. You enter the exhibition gallery on your left as if coming to the summit of an old world city — imagine yourself, say, atop the Palatine Hill in Rome peering through a statuary-ornamented balustrade at a Nigerian Sound and Light spectacle fashioned with fabrics from London’s Brixton Market.

Or, to put it another way, less fancy and more fact, what you see is a matchless matching of the photographic clarity and richness of color and design with which Shonibare has clothed the four dreamers, each one representing a continent, Africa, Asia, America, and Australia. The genesis of the work — Goya’s vision remastered in living color — is implicit in Shonibare’s personal history. Born in London in 1962, he moved with his family to Lagos, Nigeria, when he was three years old. At 18, after returning to Britain, he contracted an inflammation across the spinal cord that left him disabled. Because of his disability, he depends on a team of assistants to help him manifest his visions, the essence being composed of the African and Indonesian fabrics he buys himself from the aforementioned London market.

Shonibare includes his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) whenever he uses his name, to emphasize his hybrid identity. “I have always viewed art as a form of opera, or as being operatic,” he explained in 2004. “And opera is excessive; it is beyond the real, and therefore hyper-real.”

The opera in images arranged around Shonibare’s hybrid, hyper-real aesthetic is all about, according to the museum’s summer 2012 magazine, the pursuit of “the ideas of cross-cultural discovery — and its attendant dislocations — as a common human experience and of the visual arts as a crystallization and visualization of that experience.”

Cosmic Encounters

Instead of presenting the effect of a view across an earthly vista, the other half of the exhibit, which is located in the gallery opposite the one centered on the spectacle of Shonibare’s “Sleep of Reason,” offers views of the moon and the cosmos, with an emphasis on “encounters with the unknown,” including “other spiritual realms or celestial worlds” and “so-called encounters of the third kind.” The epigraph of moment is from Lewis Rutherford, the father of celestial photography, who observed on January 8, 1865: “Few things have inspired as many myths and mysteries as the moon.” The range is stunning. You go from photographer Ruth Bernhard’s shiny, smashed-flat teapot to Howard Russell Butler’s “early scientific visualizations of other planetary bodies” to Liu Guosong’s hanging scrolls, five full moons painted after the first lunar landing.

Having infinitely expanded the dimensions of the subject at hand, “Encounters” allows a larger view of what happened at the Century cineplex in a place called Aurora. For one thing, scientists at NASA have predicted that in 2012, the Aurora Borealis will be the brightest and most intense in 50 years. Last April 24, according to an article in Huffington Post Science, “The Aurora Borealis put on a dazzling show in more than a dozen states,” including Colorado and Illinois. A post from County Antrim in Northern Ireland described “vertical green pillars of light some 60 degrees high accompanied by amazing pulsating motions like the beating of a heart.”

Münter’s Moments 

When you leave “Encounters” make sure to stop by the gallery of 19th − early 20th century art to see the newly displayed paintings by Gabriele Münter (1877-1962), from the repository of works of the Berlin-born artist donated by Frank E. Taplin, Class of 1937, his wife Margaret (Peggy) Taplin, and their family. The paintings include a thoughtful self-portrait of Gabriele in her early thirties, peering at us, at once focused and wistful, from under an extraordinary lampshade of a hat, and an oil on board from 1910 of her fiance-for-a-decade, Wassily Kandinsky, age about 44, holding forth over coffee to a young woman named Erma Bossi.

In a 1958 interview with Edouard Roditi in Dialogues – conversations with European Artists at Mid-century, Münter said, “My main difficulty was that I could not paint fast enough. My pictures are all moments of my life – I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim …. When I painted my ‘Blue Mountain,’ I had learned the trick. It came to me as easily and naturally as song to a bird.”

In the context of current events, murder and mayhem, art shows and butterflies, it’s hard not to think of another Gabrielle, the survivor of another shooting in the west, Gabrielle Giffords. Which brings us back to the present, July, 2012, where a carpenter who makes crosses for the victims of massacres travels from his home in Aurora, Illinois, to Aurora, Colorado, with 12 more.

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The image of The Sleep of Reason (Africa), 2008, C print mounted on aluminum, is from the Collection of Nancy and Rodney Gould, courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.


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