University art gallery exhibitions raise questions about American art historical canon, delve into identity

William L. Hawkins' "Hippo" (n.d., enamel on masonite), a recent gift of Andrew and Linda Safran to the Tufts University Permanent Collection, is pictured. Steve Briggs for Tufts University

The Tufts University Art Gallery (TUAG) in Aidekman Arts Center is currently showing “Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art” and “States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux.” Both exhibitions began on August 29 and will be shown until December 16. Besides the shows themselves, TUAG will also be presenting a series of events based off the themes and philosophical concepts explored through the works in the show. Each exhibition features many works from Tufts University Permanent Art Collection, and will provide a unique opportunity for the public and the student body to engage with the university’s own work, as well as the work of numerous contemporary artists.

“Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art” features Tufts University Permanent Collection’s most recent, and one of its most esteemed, donations, the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection. The collection highlights works in the American Art Movement, deemed outside art because of the nature of the works and the artists creating them, who were mostly African Americans, women and artists who did not receive formal training. The gift is the largest donation of American outsider art that Tufts has ever received. The exhibition celebrates the gift, as it is extremely rare to receive a personal collection as a whole. The first work in the exhibition is also the Safran’s purchased when collecting was William L. Hawkins’ “Hippo” (n.d.). “Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art” is both celebratory of the depth that the gift gives the Tufts University Permanent Collection and defiant of the term “outsider art” by celebrating these works in the American art historical canon.

The collection is comprised of many notable outsider artists such as Thornton Dial, Mary T. Smith, William L. Hawkins and Purvis Young. Their works often depict bucolic life, and the sculptures in the gallery take on craft-like qualities. Artists in the show also use nature as a medium, either sculpting from mud or painting with it, further emphasizing the brilliant and rich textures in each of the works. While outsider art, as the name suggests, has not been taken seriously by the art historical canon because of the artist’s lack of education, current scholarship has begun to take serious interest in it. The show presents that there is a lot more to be learned from outsider art, as well as the various ways that these artists were legitimate and insightful, and that their art rightfully deserves a place in the American art historical canon.

Many of the works follow similar motifs such as the depiction of flora and fauna using bright colors and almost patch-work assemblage. The issue of the body and how it is configured is what bridges the two shows, and brings the historical issues of outsider art and displays how they are still relevant to contemporary artists.

The gallery’s latest showcase of American outsider art is a great introduction to the genre and the questions it poses: Who gets to decide who is an artist and who isn’t? What makes something a work of art as opposed to a craft? Are these two the same? The show offers a significant amount of wall text and a detailed catalogue, making the show accessible to those who may not be familiar with the works or analyzing art in general.

The second show featured in the back as well as the lower level of the gallery, “States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux,” takes on similar theoretical questions as “American Outsider Art” and pushes them even further. The show mainly features contemporary artists, some of whom are even local to the Boston area and are the School of the Museum of Fine Arts graduates. The works largely deal with the issue of the body in relation to identity, and how depictions of the body that are not typically found in art can often be more naturalistic than their Greco-Roman predecessors. The concept of the body is further complicated by issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Through the works in “States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux,” the viewer can see how the body can be manipulated and disassembled in order to explore race, gender, and sexuality. The human “form” becomes incredible apt in the show, as many works use the body more often as a medium and template than a figure that has to be naturalistically rendered.

A highlight of the show is also a recent gift to Tufts University Permanent Collection, Lorna Simpson’s “Jet Earring, Jet over the Shoulder, Jet Rouge.” The work is part of a series containing imagery from “Ebony” and “Jet” magazine of the 1970s and repurposes it as an act of praise towards media that empowers black people. Many other works from the collection fit seamlessly alongside Simpson in their political message as well as their composition, often challenging how bodies are depicted dependent on who is depicting them.

The exhibition also explores how the body can be used as a vehicle for introspection. Works from artists like Maria Lassnig and Lucy Kim both use the image of their own body and distort it through the medium of animation and sculpture, respectively. Maria Lassnig’s video shows a drawing of her face and body being taken apart, enlarged, shrunken, and also incorporated the images of other people into her work.

Another section of the show entitled “Hybrid/Cyborg,” explored how artists meshed technology and the human body as a means of exploring how technology impacts our identities, according to the wall text of the exhibition. The text also details how the idea of a cyborg was created by feminist scholar Donna Haraway: “Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ has since gained cultural notoriety, but was first developed as a means to undercut patriarchal and essentialist views of humanity.”

The exhibition also features the sculpture “in this hole/honey bucket” by Harry Dodge, who will be the subject of a solo show next semester.

The last section of “States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux” incorporates many older historical works in conjunction with more modernist pieces. Cycladic sculptures and medieval manuscripts from Tufts University Permanent Collection are placed alongside modernist paintings and a Henry Moore sculpture. These works further express how ideas of the body from the past often align with post-modern thought, and follow the theme of incorporating philosophies and texts alongside visual works. The last work is a close-up video of New Orleans’ street dancers’ feet placed in a sublime background, while “When the Saints Go Marching In” is playing.

Along with the two exhibitions at the gallery, TUAG will be hosting a variety of events corresponding with the concepts explored in the shows. There will be a gallery tour with Dina Deitsch, the gallery’s director and chief curator on October 19 at 11 a.m., a marathon-reading of the Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” to commemorate the 200th anniversary on October 31 from 10:30 a.m.–8:30 p.m., and a panel discussion entitled “Does an Education Make an Artist?” on November 8 from 4:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. 


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