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Middlebury Presents Provocative "Post-Racial" Exhibit

State of the Arts


Published February 25, 2009 at 6:34 a.m.

Kara Walker's "Signal Station, Summit of Maryland Heights"
  • Kara Walker's "Signal Station, Summit of Maryland Heights"

A combination of curatorial imagination and financial firepower has enabled the Middlebury College Museum of Art to stage a show stylishly in sync with the nation’s current conversation about “post-racial” politics.

Some big names on the international art scene are represented here by prints that reinterpret historical themes and events. And because most of the artists are African American, “Confronting History: Contemporary Artists Envision the Past” also interrogates orthodox concepts of race that are undergoing radical reconstruction at the dawn of the Obama era.

Emmie Donadio, the museum’s chief curator, has built the show around a portfolio of 15 lithographs and silk-screen prints created by Kara Walker, a 39-year-old art star. Walker’s sexually and racially provocative work was the subject of a recent retrospective seen in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles. The suite hanging in Middlebury — titled “Harper’s Illustrated History of the Civil War (Annotated)” — was donated to the college last year by Richard and Kathy Fuld, parents of two alumni.

That’s the same Richard Fuld who was at the helm as the Lehman Brothers ship sank. The investment firm’s bankruptcy filing last September helped precipitate the global financial crash and cast Fuld in the role of a leading Wall Street villain.

“I wanted to accompany the Walker pieces with work by some other really good artists,” Donadio says. And so, with the help of other influential friends of the college, she was able to arrange a couple of loans from the Museum of Modern Art. Glenn Ligon’s “Runaways” series comes to Middlebury from MoMa, as does “Deluxe,” a set of 60 obsessively collaged prints by Ellen Gallagher. The college had meanwhile purchased some of the works of three other artists included in the show: Enrique Chagoya, a Mexican American; William Kentridge, a white South African; and Middlebury’s own Robert Gober (Class of ’77).

Besides the ability to draw on the college’s collection and connections, Donadio had the prescience to realize a year ago, when the show was being conceived, that the Obama phenomenon had artistic as well as political reverberations. The timing of the exhibit’s opening in February, Black History Month, was not coincidental.

Despite its hip premises and bold-face roster, “Confronting History” isn’t very visually exciting. Most of the prints are small in scale and monochromatic. Some are quite texty, too — for example, Adrian Piper’s “Everything #18,” which looks a lot like what one would expect from a Harvard-trained-philosopher-turned-conceptual-artist. Ligon’s “Runaways” are word-driven as well, though they prove to be funny, in a disturbing way, once viewers pick up on their irony.

Walker’s superimposed cut-paper silhouettes have a madcap quality that enlivens a show they also physically dominate — even as they risk causing offense with their denigrating caricatures of black people. Visitors’ responses may vary in accordance with just how “post-racial” their dispositions are.

The show’s sprightliest piece, by far, is Chagoya’s LOL rendering of Obama’s triumphal entry into Washington on January 20, 2009. The new president is depicted as Atlas, clad in a stars-and-stripes loincloth. Hillary Clinton preens as the mighty Obama struggles to hold up the planet. First Lady Michelle (or is that Condoleezza Rice?) flanks our hero, along with Vice President Joe Biden (or maybe George W. Bush?), who happens to be wearing a dress.