Thought-provoking art exhibits highlight of the year

From Northern Berkshire county to South County, museums, galleries offered up interesting, intelligent looks at art

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While the art season was a little quieter — no major expansions to report this year — the exhibitions presented were just as thought-provoking as ever.

In its major show of the summer, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute offered a look at the struggle for female equality in the arts in the latter half of the 19th century. The exhibit, "Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900," which came on the heels of the #MeToo movement, celebrated the achievements of a dedicated group of women artists, who overcame obstacles and societal rules to refine their talents and develop careers.

"Every painting here tells a story of a struggle for equality. It's very poignant at this point in time," Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp senior curator, said of the show.

"Women Artists," was joined by a thoughtful look at an art form that is slowly being lost to time. "The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musee Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy," featured works of wrought iron: signs for cobblers, butchers, locksmiths and grocers.

The Clark started off the year with an introspective look at drawings housed in the collection of Eugene V. Thaw, a a renowned collector of Old Master drawings, influential art dealer and all-around art lover. "Drawn to Greatness" would be the first, but not be the last time The Clark would peer into its collections and draw out rarely seen works. In November, "Extreme Nature!" explored how artists in the 19th century responded to the rise of popular science and an increase in the public's interest in both nature and natural disasters. And the recently opened, "Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape," turned its eye inward as well, highlighting the Manton Collection for British Arts' works by the celebrated landscape painters and the narratives told within them.

While many in the county mourned the auctioning off of numerous works from the Berkshire Museum's collection, including Norman Rockwell's "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" and "Shuffleton's Barbershop," (two pieces donated to the museum by the illustrator himself), there was a bright light. Following the sale of "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, it was announced the beloved painting would make its home at the Norman Rockwell Museum until 2020. The painting, on long-term loan, went on display as part of "Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition," in June. The exhibition chronicled the influence of European traditions on American illustration.

In early November, the museum took a deeper look at two illustrators, Frank E. Schoonover and Gregory Manchess, whose work heavily feature adventure themes.

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"The adventure part of it, basically, is setting out to discover the unknown and what happens along the way, and usually what happens along the way is not very happy," Manchess told The Eagle during a phone interview in November. "And because it isn't very happy, it takes people persevering to get through it, and that becomes the story."

Up north, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the year began with shows exploring how the past influences the present ("Pitch") and how an artist's diverse mediums of poetry, journalism and art come together ("A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun."). The museum also asked its patrons to take a plunge into icy waters with artist Taryn Simon. "A Cold Hole," asks audience members to participate in a cleansing rite as they plunge into icy waters, while "Assembled Audience" examines the meaning of applause.

The museum also celebrated the first 10-year anniversary of "Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective," and announced the exhibit, originally contracted to last 25 years, was extended out for an additional 10 years.

The Williams College Museum of Art also presented many thoughtful exhibitions this year, including "The Field is The World:" Williams, Hawai'i, and Material Histories in the Making," a look at the deep connection between the college's alumni and Hawai'i in the 1800s.

"We are thinking about who gets to tell a story, from what vantage point, who do we listen to?" said Kailani Polzak, assistant professor of art and co-curator. "Colleges now are taking a look at their own histories. Often these investigations end with a report, polished, this is what we will do; move on. But we need, as a community, to see these things, to realize they're here and we are not looking at them. What happens when we look at these things and think about why we haven't been looking at them?"

Galleries throughout the county also offered up interesting exhibitions featuring painters, photographers and ceramicists, to name a few. The Sohn Fine Art gallery featured the camera-less photographs of Garry Fabian Miller and Chuck Kelton in "Light + Dark;" while The Good Purpose Gallery in Lee offered an exhibition, "Two Perspectives," in which two artists renewed their connection, formed 20 years prior.

In North Adams, small galleries showcased the works of artists of a local, regional and international scale. Wildlife photographer Chrystina Geagan Parks opened ROAM: A Xtina Parks Gallery in Building 1 at Mass MoCA to exhibit her African wildlife and nature photography. Glistening-skinned swimmers made and photographed by artist Carole Feuerman were presented by The Artist Book Foundation, also at Mass MoCA, throughout the summer. This fall, Ferrin Contemporary explored form and shape with a ceramics show, "Peter Pincus: Channeling Josiah Wedgwood," while MCLA Gallery 51 showcased "Shel-ter," the diverse responses of 19 artists who were to define the word shelter and what it meant to them.


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