A bright, bulbous tentacle, patterned like a party and blinking with white lights, reaches across the railing and hangs over the stairway leading up to MassArt Art Museum’s inaugural showcase exhibition, “Joana Vasconcelos: Valkyrie Mumbet.” Enticing, festive, creaturely, it’s the first hint that you’re about to encounter more than you thought you were in for.
As museums go, Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s new museum is quite modest. The 15,000-square-foot space, previously known as the Bakalar & Paine Galleries, has been considerably spiffed up: walls righted, new education and preparator’s studios, a new office-space overlooking the second-floor gallery.
But it has not grown much — the exhibition space is 2,600 square feet bigger, and a dropped ceiling has cleared some air space. The renovation cost $12.5 million, pocket change compared to what the museum’s Fenway neighbors, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, have spent on revamps.
But executive director Lisa Tung, the steam engine who moved the museum from dream to reality, has always been an ambitious and attuned curator of contemporary art. The Bakalar & Paine Galleries, despite limitations imposed by a creaky, century-old facility, hosted a number of stringent, sexy, and surprising exhibitions.
Remember Japanese artist Shintaro Miyake’s wacky “The Beaver Project,” for which he dressed as a beaver and built a dam? Or the eyepopping fiber works of Xenobia Bailey?
But the galleries were hard to find, nested inside the school’s South Building. Now there’s a door to the street, signage, and a welcoming little plaza. Tung has turned the lobby into an exhibition space. First up: the collective Ghost of a Dream’s “Yesterday is Here,” kaleidoscopic wallpaper, designed using 30 years’ worth of MassArt gallery ephemera.
Unless you’re a true stalwart of MassArt exhibitions, there’s not much stock in taking this slightly psychedelic trip down memory lane to find, say, Miyake’s beaver. Even so, “Yesterday is Here” justifiably nods to the museum’s past as it vaults to the future, and the pattern is caffeinated and fun and may spin you right out of the room.
From the lobby, head up the stairs, where that tentacle from “Valkyrie Mumbet” dangles. Reach the top, and it’s like stepping into a Mardi Gras parade. The enormous, exuberant work hangs in the air like a Goddess welcoming you into her realm, tangy, fringed, sparkling, and festooned with pompoms and bells (if not whistles).
In this second-floor gallery, designLAB Architects and Dimeo Construction, who headed up MAAM’s renovation, have exposed a 37-foot-high terra-cotta vaulted ceiling and original steel girders. Seeing those girders, Tung leaped at the opportunity to hang art.
She contacted Vasconcelos, known for her “Valkyrie” series of suspended fiber installations, which reference mythological Norse war goddesses who determine who will live and die in battle, and retrieve the dead to the afterlife.
“Valkyrie Mumbet” is the Portuguese artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, a nice coup for a newbie museum.
It’s vibrantly feminine, curvy and loopy and dressed to the nines. Its body — part squid, part hourglass — is made of inflatables clad in fabric. Twenty-two limbs undulate like an octopus’s arms. Their dance shows off the space, dropping near the floor, or floating up and over a balcony. Lights twinkle. There’s crochet, lace, and embroidery. Historically domestic arts explode into bold fantasy.
“Valkyrie Mumbet” is named for a local hero, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, an enslaved woman in Massachusetts who sued for her freedom in 1781, on the grounds that the state constitution said that “all men are born free and equal.” She won that suit, took the name Freeman, earned her way as a domestic worker, and eventually bought a home in Stockbridge.
Vasconcelos uses capulana, giddy prints associated with African textiles. The piece is airy yet weighty, rooted in history and with ties around the world that evince slavery, trade, and colonialism, yet an embodiment of all the good — the warmth and love, the generosity and strength — that can arise from struggle.
Intricately planned, it nonetheless feels improvisational; the artist’s light touch lets “Valkyrie Mumbet” take on a life of its own. It is the wildest, biggest, most expansive work of art I’ve ever seen at MassArt. A fitting kickoff to a new museum.
A third show, “Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art,” organized by MAAM’s assistant curator Darci Hanna, on the other hand, fits a little too well: It has the aura of being market researched. It almost self-consciously says, we’re hip and tech savvy; we’re an art school!
Gaming has plenty of inflections in contemporary art, and there are clever works here.
Juan Obando, an associate professor at MassArt’s Studio for Interrelated Media, modified the game Pro Evolution Soccer to plug in Mexican indigenous militants as players, inserting socio-political conflict into the game, which he calls “Pro Revolution Soccer.” And Brent Watanabe’s weird incursions into Grand Theft Auto — combining human and animal characters in “Possessions,” and following a stray deer in “Video Captures from San Andreas Deer Cam” — shrewdly dismantle hierarchies within the game.
But as an exhibition, “Game Changers” is stifled by its good intentions. Then again, almost anything would look too small, too neat, and too planned next to the transcendent surprise of “Valkyrie Mumbet,” with which MAAM makes quite a promise. Let’s hope the museum can live up to it.
JOANA VASCONCELOS: VALKYRIE MUMBET through August 2
GAME CHANGERS: VIDEO GAMES & CONTEMPORARY ART through April 19
GHOST OF A DREAM: YESTERDAY IS HERE through Feb. 28, 2021
At MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave. 617-879-7333, www.maam.massart.edu
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.