Gallery Recap | ‘Recent Gifts’ (and challenges) at Tufts Art Gallery

The Tufts University Art Gallery recently hosted an exhibit of work by thesis candidates from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA). The exhibit ran through May 18 – but the show wasn’t really on display last Tuesday.

The glass doors of the gallery were still locked half an hour after opening. Eventually, the doors were opened, but they led only to an empty desk standing guard over rooms of dead television monitors and silent projectors. Yaron Dotan’s dynamic, op-art influenced drawings were the only work visible.

Sometimes the problem with new media is that it has to be turned on to be seen.

It’s been a year of ups and downs for the Tufts University Art Gallery. Never failing to fill its galleries, Tufts has presented shows of SMFA thesis work, fluorescent sculptures and critiques of commercialism. Looking over the past two semesters of shows, a few thoughts come to mind. The gallery has some challenges to work through, which are exemplified by another show on view this month.

Downstairs from the complex of quiet television screens is the Remis Sculpture Court. Presently on view there is a selection of recent gifts of art to the university. With a grand total of six paintings, one can’t help but wonder where the rest of our permanent collection is, besides the tepid Andy Warhol screen print by the desk and the Louis Nevelson hidden in the corner by the doors. The paintings in the show barely make more than a whisper in the cavernous space of the Sculpture Court, last seen filled with an enormous box installed by Ivan Navarro.

John Adam Griefen’s work here is in a minimalist, monochromatic painting style that features heavy brushstrokes across the surface of the canvases. His three pieces, “Deep Blue” (2007), “Deep Red” (2007) and “Turquoise Teal” (2006), were all created in the past two years. The paintings’ label states that they were given to Tufts by one John Griefen Sr. The artist’s father? The artist himself? Are we in the habit of accepting and then showing gifts from the family of the artist? Do we show gifts whose paint has just dried out of the studio? One must be careful when showcasing permanent collections. What is the context for this work? Nothing is given. What is our mission in collecting art? Audiences can’t tell.

This lack of context and even clearer lack of consistency is a problem. The absence of a curatorial organization to the show means that it emphasizes the status of these pieces as gifts rather than their artistic value. Even if the show is meant as just a placeholder, it seems slapdash and irresponsible to simply put the gifts we’ve received up on the walls without thinking about what kind of image this projects.

The exhibit continues with the best piece in the show, Susan Schwalb’s “Mirage II” (2003). It takes the same minimalist approach as Griefen’s work, but instead of monochromatic washes, Schwalb uses her brushstrokes to create a vibrating surface switching from foreground to background and back again. The shimmering pinks are as visually engaging as they are austere. It’s a great piece, but upon seeing it here one wonders how it might look in a better setting. Minimalism needs its own space, but the Remis Sculpture Court doesn’t give it enough room to breathe.

The problem with “Recent Gifts” isn’t just that the work is rehashed at best. It is that the show exists in the first place. Where is the independent curatorial spirit in the Tufts University Art Gallery? This is a major area for improvement. The Edward Burtynsky show last year proved that the gallery has potential to organize exciting, professional shows. From long runs of interesting but superficial thesis shows to the borrowed, mediocre “Branded and on Display” to the brutal treatment of Kabakov’s “Center of Cosmic Energy” installation, it hasn’t been the best year for Tufts galleries.

And yet there is no shortage of willing volunteers at the university: Tufts has undergraduate and graduate programs for art history. With so many resources lying in the Boston area, it shouldn’t be long before the Tufts University Art Gallery starts taking advantage of its “gifts” and becomes a superior Boston art venue.