The Adderley Lecture series at Massachusetts College of Art and Design sprung from tragedy. Tyrone Maurice Adderley, a painting student from the West Indies, committed suicide. To honor his memory, the school inaugurated the lectures to bring more diverse voices to campus.
“Viewpoints: 20 Years of Adderley,” a stirring exhibition in MassArt’s Stephen D. Paine Gallery, spotlights work by artists who have given the Adderley Lecture since 1995. Most are
African-American or mixed-race. Most make keen, searing art that attends to issues of social justice.
But alongside moments of penetrating insight, curators
Lisa Tung and Darci Hanna have installed rollicking, joyful works, and serene ones. It can’t have been an easy show to put together — the range and tone of the work varies so — but they’ve done it deftly.
For instance, Jamaican-born Renée Cox’s wild and stunning black-and-white digital prints from her “Sacred Geometry” series splice and dice black nudes into stunning, snowflake-like patterns based on mandalas.
Just as feminist artists have unpacked the complexity of the female nude and the relationship between the artist (or the viewer) and that nude, many black artists in recent decades have examined what the black body signifies to a viewing audience. Cox’s approach might be seen as violent — she chops all these nudes up! — but as she bisects and dissects, she abstracts flesh into patterns with tremendous delicacy and strength.
These hang near Bradley McCallum & Jacqueline Tarry’s paintings overlaid with silk, which borrow charged imagery of scenes restaged from the 1934 film “Imitation of Life,” about a black mother and her lighter-skinned daughter.
“Family Portrait” and “Family Portrait II” (from the “Projection Series”) situate mother and daughter at different levels — first the daughter looms over the mother, then vice versa — suggesting a tense power dynamic. The silk adds a shimmer to the images that makes them seem shifty and magical, to suggest we shouldn’t believe what we’re seeing — it’s a construct. But the melodrama grabs at us.
There’s also the bubbly needlework of Xenobia Bailey, whose only piece in the show, “The Record in the Work,” spins with pulsing patterns, striped circles laid out in eye-popping tones against a pink ground. She has called her pieces “visual scats,” and this one flies, dips, and wheels like fluid improvisation. It makes a graceful counterpoint to Cox’s human mandalas.
Then we have a cluster of more conceptual works. In Fred Wilson’s “Sneaky Leaky,” giant droplets of black glass run down the wall and puddle on the floor. Here, it seems the building — or some great, shadowy being in its crevices — is crying. Chakaia Booker’s magnificent “Empty Seat,” more than 15 feet across by 6 feet high, is a raucous tangle of torn up rubber tires. The heavy black ribbons snag and curl along the edges, and recess into shards and reverberating patterns in the middle. It comes from the street. It suggests raw, weathered beauty after hard wear.
It’s an odd respite to see, among these assertive works, Richard Mayhew’s watercolors and oils. All about steamy color and melting landscape, they seem to leave society and its conflicts behind. But do they? Mayhew is part Native American, and his paintings depict a spiritual immersion in nature. They are certainly no less deeply felt than the other works in “Viewpoints.”
The 2015 Adderley lecturer, Wangechi Mutu, originally from Nairobi, has lived in the US since the 1990s. She’ll give her talk at MassArt in March. Her mixed-media painting “Mushwomb 3” has a fluid beauty that calls back to Mayhew’s paintings, with a woman perching on the yellow cap of a giant mushroom. An atypical heroine, she wears an oversize T-shirt and flip-flops; her arms appear to have been torn from her shoulders, leaving bloody gashes. At once fantastical and violent, the work is freighted with ambiguity. Let’s hope her speech is as sharp and provocative.
“Excellent Swiss Design,” downstairs at MassArt’s Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery, celebrates selections from the Design Prize Switzerland, an award that covers a vast array of design, from textiles to faucets to cameras. A panel discussion about the exhibition is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 6, at MassArt’s Tower Auditorium.
Design has a different agenda than art, of course. The works in this show are all about sleekness, economy, and utility, and very little about message and metaphor. Art and design have one sure thing in common: attention to form.
“Excellent Swiss Design” is by parts frustrating and enchanting. Frustrating, because you want to see how this stuff works, and often that’s not possible. The faucet, for instance, has no plumbing and is packed in a case. A module room designed to listen to jazz is described, but not present.
Still, many of the works here impress with their inventiveness. “E-Broidery Light Textiles” by designers at Hochschule Luzern with Creation Baumann, are fabrics threaded with LED lights and other handy electronics, but they’re soft and cozy, and you can throw them in the dryer. The “U-Turn” lamp, designed by Michel Charlot for Belux AG, pivots on a magnet and can point anywhere you want it to.
Most art exhibits forbid touching the art, but I furtively moved the “U-Turn” lamp. With design, looking is often not enough. You have to experience it.
VIEWPOINTS: 20 Years of Adderley
Through Dec. 6
EXCELLENT SWISS DESIGN
Through Nov. 22
At: Massachusetts College of Art and Design,
621 Huntington Ave.