Berkshire Art Museum: Dark, yet important, themes in exhibits

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NORTH ADAMS — For Eric Rudd, art doesn't have to brighten a room for it to be essential.

"While viewers can be moved by good art that has color and beauty, this exhibition examines good art that minimizes those features," the Berkshire Art Museum's founding director writes in the institution's 2019 season catalog. "This exhibition might not be for everyone who walks through our doors."

In the North Adams museum's three shows this summer — "Not Just Another Pretty Picture," "Dark Matter" and "Death of a Loved One — 1890s Fashion" — mortality and destruction figure prominently, arriving in literal and abstract forms. James Allen's "Me Too" features four livid women trailing a man whose arm partially obscures his darkened face, his shame and reputational ruin still plain. The Williamstown artist's acrylic-on-canvas work directly references the #MeToo movement, which has exposed numerous instances of sexual abuse, and draws inspiration from a German expressionist piece depicting a strong female figure, according to Allen.

"I would like to make some defiant women, some strong defiant women exerting some power, showing their total disgust with the situation," the artist said of the mindset behind the 2019 work.

One woman leans forward, fists clenched. Another glares, arms crossed. They are cut-out paintings that Allen prepared specifically for "Not Just Another Pretty Picture." But his work in that medium spans decades.

"With the use of cut-out figures, I seek a balance between achieving a striking human presence and a painterly surface rich in expressive formal invention, one that conveys a sense of transience and mutability, even vulnerability, and provides an edginess that may suggest the impossibility of fully understanding the situation of my subjects," Allen writes in an artist's statement.

His wife, Kristin, is a quilter and helps him assemble the cut-outs. Several more hang on the museum's entrance floor, including "Nuns and Guns." The 2002 piece is more than 15 feet long, mixing gun-toting soldiers with merciful nuns. The contrast between the two groups had been on Allen's mind for decades. Growing up in Michigan during the 1950s, he often thought about the prospect of going to war.

"I always had those feelings of trepidation of having to get involved in something like that," Allen said.

At the same time, he was attending Catholic school and was well-aware of the sacrifices nuns were making.

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"That was an obligation or an urge in a different way," he said.

"Dark Matter" and "Death of a Loved One — 1890s Fashion" are displayed on opposite sides of Allen's work. "Dark Matter" includes pieces by museum advisory board members Keith Bona, Arthur De Bow, J.M. Robert Henriquez, Maria Siskind, Sarah Sutro and David Zaig. "Death of a Loved One" offers a funereal arrangement of North Adams resident Greg Lafave's Edwardian Era fashion collection.

Upstairs, "Not Just Another Pretty Picture" continues with works by Kevin Bubriski, Firoz Mahmud, Sandra Moore, Saira Wasim and Dan Wolf. A room of Moore's paintings focuses on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabia-born, U.S.-based Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit team after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. The event's initial cover-up and gruesome details received ample international media attention, as did U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to not hold Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable. Details culled from news sources, as well as a Trump statement, accompany Moore's framed pieces. The art was "painful" for Moore to make.

"It was horrifying to me, but I felt that I wanted to do something to commemorate the event so that it wouldn't just slip away in the news and be gone," said the artist, who is based near Hudson, N.Y.

Often painted with watercolors, the works are similar, evolving as the news did.

"They're all the same painting with little details added," she said, mentioning garbage bags as an example.

In a corner, earphones rest on a table. (A doctor may have advised the hit team to wear headphones during the dismemberment, according to reports.) A cigar guillotine is glued there, too, another attempt to physically represent torture. Khashoggi's case stuck out to Moore because of the U.S. government's response to it, but she recognizes that similar incidents merit reflection, too.

"His death maybe isn't different than the death of many other people around the world who are tortured," she said. "He's not the only one."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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