WILLIAMSTOWN — A woman sits at a kitchen table in strong profile, while the man beside her holds his newspaper like a barrier. Then she stands and puts her arms around him from behind, and he reaches to press her arm against him.
In Carrie Mae Weems' "Triptych," three black-and-white photographs, she and her family and friends play out a drama of love and distance, security and insecurity.
Nearby Adrian Piper, an NEA and Guggenheim-recognized artist and professor of philosophy, has created calling cards to give to someone who has just laughed at a joke about her background or acted with unthinking hostility or discomfort because she is black or accosted her at a bar: "Dear friend, I am not here to pick anyone up or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, alone "
Beside Piper's firm assertions, Glenn Ligon has described himself in the kinds of advertisements 19th-century newspapers used to run for runaway slaves, in language sometimes that harsh and sometimes penetratingly human: "5'8", very short haircut, very articulate, seemingly well-educated. Does not look you straight in the eye when talking to you."
Looking the viewer in the eye takes courage. And the artists in this room at Williams College Museum of Art challenge the viewer to look back.
Lisa Dorin, the museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art, has curated a show, "Your smarter than me. i don't care," around a core of artists who came of age in the 1980s — in the early years of the AIDS epidemic — and were beginning their careers in the 1990s, in their 30s and 40s.
They were wrestling with who they were and how the world saw them, Dorin said in an interview at the museum — where the show is on view through Jan. 3 — because they are LGBTQ; because they are black or Asian; because they are women; because they are dying of HIV-related illnesses; because they are artists and they make a living by revealing themselves.
The exhibit brings together contemporary work by Nayland Blake, Tracey Emin, Nicole Eisenman, Richard Hawkins, Mike Kelley and other influential artists. The show highlights a recent gift of artwork from software publisher and philanthropist Peter Norton, complementing his gift with work from WCMA's collection and a few pieces borrowed for this show.
Dorin named the show for a 1994 work in it by Cary Liebowitz. He was then creating a persona for himself, "Candy Ass," and in this work Dorin sees his struggle in creating work and putting it out into the world.
Artists constantly put themselves under scrutiny. They put themselves into their work and expose it to the public and a larger art world, an elite world and not always a welcoming one. Liebowitz was making fun of himself and the structure he was pushing against.
The artists in this show grapple directly in their work with questions Williams students are grappling with all the time, Dorin said: who they will be and how they will develop. Many of these artists were young in their careers when they made these works, though not as young as Williams students or as many artists graduating from MFA programs today. Superstar artists in their 20s were rarer then, Dorin said.
Dorin explained that Norton collected artwork heavily in the 1990s and 2000s and WCMA, then under the direction of Linda Shearer, collected contemporary art at the same time. So the collections overlap.
Much of the work in this show comes from the 1990s, though some is more recent, and a few of the artists are younger.
Mike Kelley, among the most influential artists in his generation in the '80s and '90s, has incised a wooden oar-shaped paddle — used for spanking — with lines from the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a succinct contrast in power dynamics. His name appears in the work beside it.
A broad black-and-white canvas by Sean Landis shows an accordion-playing clown densely surrounded by words, what Dorin calls a brainstorm. Among the deluge of thoughts, Landis has written: "Mike Kelley passed away today — I feel very sad about it."
Kelley died of an apparent suicide in 2012. Teddy Sandoval and David Wojnarowicz, who both have work in the show, died in the early 1990s of AIDS-related illnesses. Richard Hawkins was living in Austin, Texas in his early 20s as AIDS reached the area, and turned to collage, Dorin said, knowing the abstract painting he had learned in school would no longer serve him. He had put away his two collages here for many years, Dorin said, because they reminded him too painfully of friends he had lost.
Dorin finds overlapping themes in the work that go beyond the struggles of all artists — themes of identity politics; of artists who challenge themselves to express themselves when mainstream society does not accept them.
Here are women protesting popular imagery that makes them cartoonlike and plastic, or showing themselves clearly, as in Weems' photographs, warm, strong and alive.
Brooklyn artist Nicole Eisenman won a MacArthur Genius Grant in September for representing the human in a time of abstraction, according to the MacArthur Foundation. A work of hers from the early 1990s shows a bearded figure at a workbench, a god looking over a row of doll-sized women with anemone-like internal parts.
How does an artist design herself or show the sensitive touch of her mind?
"This is a good place to have a conversation," Dorin said, about that effort.
At WCMA, she added, artists should have free rein.
IN THE GALLERIES
What: "Your smarter than me. i don't care"
When: Through Jan. 3. Hours — Friday through Tuesday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Closed Wednesdays, Thanksgiving Day, and Dec. 23-25 and Jan. 1
Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive #2, Williamstown
Information: (413) 597-2429; wcma.williams.edu