Not having participated in mounting many art shows, I can only imagine the challenge of presenting works that have no particular thread uniting them beyond their inclusion within a specific collection. While viewers of The Collector’s Eye: American and European Art From the McClung Museum probably appreciate being spared a heavy-handed or overly organizational theme for the art, a cohesive exhibition experience has much to offer. Acquisitions pulled from a museum’s nether regions and presented without adequate connection could, after all, be considered the artistic equivalent of a booty call.
Presumably, a majority of gallery-goers seek some sort of anchor—chronology, subject matter, style, medium, what have you. In other words, as remarkable as most of the 50 or so pieces in The Collector’s Eye are, their lack of coherence together is a bit frustrating. Yet some museum visitors might not mind a certain lack of context—call it one person’s hodgepodge being another person’s admirable variety. Consisting of sculptures, paintings, works on paper, and a wool textile piece (Henri Matisse’s 1951 “Mimosa,” his only design for a carpet), The Collector’s Eye presents only a portion of donated works amassed by the McClung Museum during the half-century since its opening. Everything from British artist David Wynne’s “Reclining Woman,” a bronze nude from 1963, to a color lithograph of birds by Georges Braque (1960’s “Couple d’Oiseaux”) remains on display through the end of this month.
Art itself, not the places in which it’s found, is my usual emphasis as a critic. However, changes recently impacting the McClung are worth noting. Technology has, of course, resulted in a significant departure from how things were done when I began reviewing shows at the museum more than 15 years ago. Furthermore, we can now enjoy Family Fun Days, Sunday gallery tours, stroller tours, and a lunchtime art-film series at McClung alongside traditional lectures. What’s not changed enough is the presentation of special exhibitions.
Longtime readers of this column know what a fan I have been of the McClung’s sophisticated approach to numerous temporary exhibitions. And given paintings such as the prominently-displayed impressionistic “La Rochelle” (an exquisitely subtle scene with sailboats by Georges Charpentier, of 1880s Paris Salon fame), “Architectural Interior” (an interior space by early 20th-century American artist Walter Gay), and the small-scale but bold “Breton Boy” from 1900 (by Elizabeth Nourse, one of Gay’s contemporaries), the museum’s generally understated handling of shows like The Collector’s Eye is quite fitting. Nevertheless, it would be a welcome change of pace if, for instance, modernist pieces in the current exhibition were presented separately, within a white-walled space.
Whether or not the contemporary works mentioned above are displayed in a brightly lit gallery, prints like Ben Sakoguchi’s intaglio titled “What man’s mind can create” pack a significant punch. In the case of Sakoguchi, his loss of childhood years to a California internment camp for Japanese-Americans has likely informed his “Great Ideas of Western Man” series, produced in the mid-1960s for the Container Corporation of America. Populated by all sorts of human figures and everything from images of a light bulb to that of an atomic mushroom cloud, his contribution to The Collector’s Eye seems like a present-day cross between work by Hieronymus Bosch and Hannah Höch. Likewise striking, no matter what the space it inhabits, is a color lithograph titled “Sad Cat” by Karel Appel of the CoBrA movement (designating post-World War II artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam). Its child-like, semi-abstract image resembles finger painting.
According to Catherine Shteynberg, the museum’s head of Web and media and the current show’s curator, The Collector’s Eye reflects the tastes of collecting connoisseurs and “how history has shaped culture and art over time.” I admire ambition, but the latter goal is a pretty tall order for a single exhibition limited to a university museum’s holdings. And it perhaps short-changes what the show might otherwise be—that is, a pared-down but less disjointed selection that might best be presented according to the differing tastes and motives of various acquisitive individuals.
Incidentally, the museum will be screening a film about James McNeill Whistler on Thursday, Aug. 21, at 12:15 p.m. The next exhibition in the McClung’s lineup, opening on Sept. 12, is an assortment of works spanning four centuries, also drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. Titled Birds, Bugs, and Blooms: Natural History Illustration From the 1500s-1800s , it will no doubt be more well-defined than The Collector’s Eye.