VISUAL ART: Business was far from usual

Friday December 28, 2012

It was a year for not doing business as usual.

At the Clark Art Institute, known for its Impressionist art, we had Chinese archaeological discoveries and a show curated by an 11-year-old.

Mass MoCA made its biggest exhibition ever one about contemporary Canadian artists (Who knew there were such creatures?). And the Berkshire Museum showed how traditional Native American crafts could be translated into new contemporary art forms.

The Williams College Museum of Art gave recognition to an overlooked group of pioneering Chicano performance artists and the Norman Rockwell Museum showed how a single illustrator morphed old comic book characters into new justice-seeking superheroes.

Diversity, globalism, new media and fresh curatorial approaches are reshaping the Berkshire art scene as they are visual studies everywhere.

Visual art also got more street-friendly in 2012 with a new First Fridays Artswalk of open-studios and galleries in downtown Pittsfield. Artswalk follows a precedent set several years ago in North Adams with its DownStreet Art program.

Open studio events are nothing new, but their institutionalization in the Berkshires speaks to growing official recognition of the value of the visual arts to downtowns. That recognition was capped in August by the establishment of The Upstreet Cultural District to promote Pittsfield as a tourist destination for the creative arts.

Elsewhere, the Clark moved forward in its 10-year, $170 million campus expansion due to be finished in 2014 and Mass MoCA enlarged plans for a building dedicated to artwork by celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer. It will open next fall.

Among new faces, WCMA hired a new director, Christina Olsen, former head of education and public programs at the Portland Art Museum, to replace Lisa Corrin.

The China show at the Clark, "Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China," was the institute's first to feature nonwestern art. It marked the 100th anniversary of an expedition founder Robert Sterling Clark organized to Northern China in 1902. But more important, it established a cultural exchange with China -- the institute's Impressionist collection will be shown in Shanghai next fall -- that opens the door to more curatorial collaboration.

Giving full-dress treatment to an exhibition curated by a 11-year-old might seem too sweet to take seriously. But the show, "Giselle's Remix," put together by young art fan Giselle Ciulla and still on view, is actually an experiment by the Clark to involve viewers in exhibition programming through multimedia. Through its "Clark Remix" experiment, visitors were able to sort through artworks using tablets, then arrange them in a virtual gallery posted on the Clark website. Giselle's was picked out of 1,000 entries. Others shows by lay curators will follow.

Mass MoCA led in ambitious exhibitions this year. "Invisible Cities," still on view, had 10 international artists reimagine urban environments as psychological and emotional experiences as well as physical ones.

"Oh Canada," also still on view, brought together 120 works by 67 contemporary Canadian artists for the first-ever show of its kind outside Canada. The catalog illuminated much about the art scene in our neighbor to the north.

And Xu Bing, one of China's best known contemporary artists, was seeing to the installation last week of a major piece, "The Phoenix Project," a metaphor for China's rapid urban renewal. It has just opened.

The Berkshire Museum's "ReThink: American Indian Art at the Berkshire Museum," paired historical objects from the museum collection with new artworks by invited artistas to show that Native American art is very much present and evolving.

The Pittsfield museum this year also commissioned local artist Tom Patti, who has built an international reputation in glass technology, to create a major new permanent architectural installation in its lobby.

The Williams College Museum of Art in March examined the Los Angeles performance art collaborative Asco, whose Chicano membership staged cutting-edge street events in the 1970s to mock and protest establishment culture. The group have been largely overlooked by mainstream art historians more focused on New York as an art hub.

Finally, the Norman Rockwell Museum paid homage to two significant American illustrators -- Howard Pyle (1853-1911), widely respected for bringing a sense of visual drama to popular stories about pirates and the American Revolution, and Alex Ross, who is credited with leading the transformation of 20th-century comic book characters into the multimedia superheroes we know today.

To reach Charles Bonenti:,
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles


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