Massachusetts College of Art and Design is not the norm. It is the oldest independent public college of art and design in the country. MassArt Art Museum marks the school’s 150th anniversary with “The Myth of Normal: A Celebration of Authentic Expression,” an alumni exhibition that opened earlier this month and questions the healthiness of societal norms and sees creativity as medicine.
The story behind the school’s founding sounds like an aberration by today’s standards. A movement for more art sparked legislative action.
Mid-19th century Bostonians “believed that industry wasn’t the only way to build a stronger nation,” reads a note about MassArt’s history on its website. “Art, they felt certain, was also essential to growing a powerful country, a vital economy, and improving and advancing the well-being of citizens.”
So in 1870, the state legislature passed the Massachusetts Drawing Act, requiring drawing be taught in public schools of larger municipalities. Three years later, Massachusetts Normal Art School opened its doors. A “normal school” was a teacher’s college, and this one aimed to train art teachers and promote art education.
In 1983, MassArt arrived at its current Huntington Avenue address, taking over space once occupied by the Boston Normal School — a name still etched in granite on a MassArt building.
Today, that “NORMAL” is highlighted in pink light. It’s alum Steve Locke’s installation, posing the question: What is “normal,” anyway?
As inspiration for the alumni showcase, guest curator and alum Mari Spirito turned to “The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture,” a 2022 book by physician and trauma specialist Dr. Gabor Maté and his son, composer, lyricist, and playwright Daniel Maté. The book points to capitalism as a driving force behind obesity, loneliness, and addiction. For Dr. Maté, the trauma umbrella also covers historic oppression of people of color and LGBTQ individuals, antisemitism, sexism, childhood trauma, poverty. The effect of stress on life expectancy is drawing increased attention from public health experts.
“When we push down our emotions and conform to society to meet the norms, we get sick,” Spirito said over the phone from a coffee shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
“We can work to being more whole by being more authentic, not conforming, and having creative expression,” Spirito said.
Creative expression is a gimme in an art exhibition. Many artists make careers out of exploding the status quo or shining light on its hidden problems, and if making art is a means to healing, then every work represents the end of this show’s thematic arc. For that reason, Spirito’s structure feels at times muddy.
Here, artists are essentially role models. Cedric “Vise1″ Douglas explicitly shoots down typical hierarchies in “Majestic,” a pair of giant spray-painted portraits above the museum’s entrance. The piece confers monumental status upon two MassArt students of color, Kai Buffonge and Shurvina Heraldo.
Self-identified people of color make up 25 percent of the student body, and “they feel like they don’t see other people of color,” Spirito said.
Spirito divides the exhibition into three sections. The first, and most painful, addresses the confinement and pain of trauma, and the loneliness of conforming. The entrance features Heather Rowe’s haunted and prison-like installation “The Entity III.” In a video, Rowe recreates a spectral presence studied in 1974 by University of California Los Angeles’s parapsychology lab, according to the label. A woman’s complaints of an invisible presence in her home prompted the research. Rowe sets the video amid wall-like structures with the feel of rickety doors and windows.
It’s sharp-edged and largely blocking the view. But that’s how trauma can shape someone’s perspective. Other works crank up that tension. Zhidong Zhang, a young artist whose art investigates homophobia that shaped their youth in China, appears backlit, like an advertisement, in the photo “Backyard Portrait.” They stand precariously on a block in their underwear and red platform shoes. Body exposed, they duck to hide their face behind a branch.
In the second gallery the focus moves from oppression to bringing one’s truth into the open. At more than 8 feet across, Erin M. Riley’s weaving “An Accident” enlarges a bruised and bloodied hand, suggesting evidence of domestic violence.
Speaking up, artists in this section ground themselves in revelations and step into agency. Richard Streitmatter-Tran’s endearing giant beaver sculpture, “Gluskabe Comes Home,” occupies the middle of the gallery. The artist’s adoptive grandfather is descended from the Penobscot tribe, a label tells us, and Gluskabe is a figure from creation myths originating in the North American northeastern woodlands. A small child emerges from the beaver’s belly, as if being birthed by one’s lineage and mythic imagination.
Self-expression comes unbridled in the final gallery. Maya Hayuk, in her mural “Tryzub Trio,” turns a Ukrainian trident into a building block of buzzing pattern, passionately declaring her Ukrainian-American identity. Gail Hendricks-Hill’s small assemblages, filled with fury and lament, address how Europeans devastated Native American culture. Nancy Callan’s spherical glass sculptures embody lucid, dancing wholeness.
Ultimately, Spirito’s “Myth of Normal” delineates a hero’s journey through the wild back to oneself. In this case, the wild is everyday life. Are artist’s heroes?
“This is not to say the art world doesn’t have its own unhealthy societal norms,” Spirito said. “But this is our calling. This is what we’re here to do.”
THE MYTH OF NORMAL: A Celebration of Authentic Expression
At MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave., through May 19. https://maam.massart.edu/exhibition/myth-normal
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