This is Not a Gag

Richard Nielsen's "This is Not a Gag," on display at Mass MoCA, is made up of 49 portraits of individuals wearing face masks. 

Does art reflect society? Or does society reflect art?

Can each influence the other simultaneously?

The answer to those philosophical questions — a topic of debate for over a century — may be found in the exhibitions of the Clark Art Institute, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum opened at the end of the state-mandated COVID-19-related closure of museums.

Although the shutdown pushed a majority of the summer's scheduled programming into 2021, exhibitions that did open in 2020 seemed to reflect society at every crucial moment of the year, both prior to and during the pandemic.

Here are 5 Berkshire art shows that best captured the essence of 2020 ...

Blane De St. Croix's 'How to Move a Landscape'

Conceived pre-COVID-19, Blane De St. Croix's "How to Move a Landscape" was supposed to open at Mass MoCA at a time when climate change and global environmental issues, such as the Australian bushfires, were dominating the news. Delayed by the state's mandated COVID-19 closures, it debuted in July reminding viewers that climate change and other environmental issues remain unresolved. On view through Sept. 6, 2021.

Local museums also mounted shows addressing the topics of racism, systematic oppression and violence against Black and brown Americans following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor. At Mass MoCA, Shaun Leonardo's "The Breath of Empty Space," created prior to 2020, uses drawings based on media images of violence against Black and brown men to explore the public memory of those mainstream events. On view through Jan. 4, 2021.

At the Rockwell, issues of racism, systematic oppression and voting are front and center in a series of exhibits — "The Unity Project," "Pops Peterson: Rockwell Revisited," "Reimagining the Four Freedoms" and "Norman Rockwell: Murder in Mississippi" — accompanying "Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom."

'Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom'

“Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom,” brought home the iconic “Four Freedoms" paintings, which had been on a six-city international tour since mid-2018. Arriving home just a month before the 2020 Presidential election, the exhibit and its accompanying shows do not shy away from the legacy and continued importance of the "Four Freedoms." On view through Jan. 17, 2021.

A new exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom,” brings home the iconic “Four Freedoms" paintings, which have been on a six-city international tour since mid-2018. The exhibit is the first comprehensive look at how the paintings came to be embraced by the American public, provided aid to the war effort and helped uplift public morale.

'Ground/work'

Although "Ground/Work," the Clark Art Institute's first outdoor sculpture show began three years ago with an invitation to artists, the exhibit is one that feels as if it was created directly in response to the pandemic's social distancing requirements. The works of six international artists — Kelly Akashi, Nairy Baghramian, Jennie C. Jones, Analia Saban, Haegue Yang and LeWitt — are set throughout the museum's woodland trails and open meadows on its 140-acre campus, providing not only ample space for social distancing but also opportunity for some much needed time out of doors. On view through October 2021.

'Wendy Red Star: Apsàalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird'

Native American artist Wendy Red Star's art, which focuses on bringing attention to the history and culture of Native Americans, especially that of the Apsàalooke tribe, was a natural fit with Kidspace at Mass MoCA, which recently has emphasized art and artists dealing with topics of social injustice. This exhibit, which uses historical artifacts and images to examine the misrepresentation of Native Americans, became even more poignant when indigenous Americans challenged the highly-sanitized legacies of Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims. On view through May 2022.

'This Is Not A Gag'

The best example of art reflecting society, Richard Nielsen's "This is Not a Gag," is the artist's direct reaction to those around him during California's shelter-in-place mandate. Nielsen soon branched out, painting fellow artists, museum administrators and supporters of the arts from selfie photographs, of which 49 are one display — in a Zoom conference like grid — at Mass MoCA. On view through 2021.

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

UpCountry Magazine Editor/Features Digital Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is the editor of UpCountry Magazine and The Eagle's features digital editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.