hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture October 2021


College galleries come back to life

At MCLA and Williams, new works by contemporary artists


Joshua Ross, the artist in residence this fall at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is working on a series of drawings in colored pencil in the Art Lab at Gallery 51, the college’s exhibition space in downtown North Adams. Susan Sabino photo


Joshua Ross, the artist in residence this fall at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is working on a series of drawings in colored pencil in the Art Lab at Gallery 51, the college’s exhibition space in downtown North Adams. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


In a studio at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, bodies are moving in cloth as fluid as water -- arms and legs weaving together, sometimes solid and muscled, sometimes turning into shadow.

A few miles away, in an octagonal room at Williams College Museum of Art, abstract forms ring the walls like astral bodies, like baby stars half visible in a protoplanetary disc of gas and dust.
College museums are quietly reopening this fall after being shuttered for more than a year by the pandemic.

Joshua Ross, the artist in residence at MCLA this fall, is working on a series of drawings in colored pencil in the Art Lab at Gallery 51, the college’s exhibition space in downtown North Adams. He is creating new work to show in the winter.

In the gallery, “Hostile Terrain 94” has opened with the work of the Sanctuary City Project and Vietnamese-American artist Trinh Mai, tracing the experiences of immigrants to the United States and the lives they build here.

At Williams, the college museum is full of new shows. Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s solo show, “Worshipping at the Altar of Certainty,” has transformed the room under the dome, after two years of work and waiting. A few steps away, “Sweaty Concepts” provides a look through the museum’s collection at contemporary work by women from the 1970s to today.

New exhibits and artists are coming in as the semester gets under way. And themes surface among them -- visibility and invisibility, uncertainty and possibility, how people experience and learn. In many ways, artists are thinking about the challenge of making space for your body where space has not existed, and describing the struggle and effort it takes to be in the world, said Lisa Dorin, deputy director for curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art at WCMA.
At MCLA, Ross is a photographer, sculptor and installation artist. This fall, he said he is focusing on drawings and developing themes he has brought together in his shows over the years, in exhibits from coast to coast. As he describes them, he examines Afro-futurism and world building, fluidity in body and in mind, color and a sense of playfulness, and subjective experience -- an understanding of one’s own consciousness and ways of thinking, and ways of seeing.
He shows two new works in progress, and they are vivid, fluid scenes. Bodies weave vigorous limbs as lithe as a dancing Shiva. They inhabit spaces inside and outside. A body ripples on a banner under oak leaves. Figures entwine in a room with a dusky light and a back wall striated gray, like sedimentary rock or agate, or a curtain on a stage.


Figures in motion
Ross is experimenting with hues and strokes, layering in color with his pencils until the pigment takes on a texture and a shine. From his background in photography, he brings a focus on light. He calls one of these new drawings “Irises,” thinking both of the flower and of the eye.

In his drawings, figures seem to shift from two to three dimensions, between visible and invisible. But he does not think of invisibility as vanishing, he said. He thinks of it as the point when something exists fully in its environment.

These beings are alive and unselfconscious in their worlds. They move freely without feeling the weight of anyone else’s attention. They are absorbed in their actions. And they are not gazing back at the people gazing at them.
“They’re not looking -- they’re being,” he said.

They are moving and inviting people into their movement. They ask people nearby not to stand apart and watch, but to feel their own bodies and the world around them.

“In their space, if we’re not confronting ourselves, does that become ourselves, when we’re conscious of our bodies and when we’re not?” he asked. “There would be no purpose, to me, for them to look. … These aren’t persons -- they’re gestures, movements, points of contact.”
They may become people when they are in relationship to people, he said. They may invite people to dissolve boundaries and connect or just to breathe and let each other be.

They explore “questions about how I understand my identity consciously, not through structures pre-existing in this world — feeling as though there are no structures I can inhabit as my own,” he said.

He said his residency at MCLA is coming at a good time for him, a point of clarity. He has come to the Berkshires from Los Angeles, a place where he has found mentorship and space to find his voice, and now he has the chance to take a risk, to have the time to immerse himself in his work, and to bring a body of work together and expand it.


A library of the mind
At Williams College, Rasheed has transformed the octagonal room under the dome to move people outward from the center, toward the margins. A Guggenheim fellow whose work has drawn acclaim from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, she is one of 10 artists in the group show “Kissing through a Curtain” at Mass MoCA.

At WCMA, in the one room that once held the college’s entire library, she walks into the labyrinth of Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel,” an infinite store of all of the knowledge in the cosmos -- to challenge that idea and find possibilities in it.

Words and abstract images, some bold and some subtle, line the walls, drawing people to walk slowly around the room. A pillar sets words at eye-level, spiraling around so that they can form and re-form new sentences depending on where someone comes to them, how they walk and how they read.

Rasheed began the work before the pandemic, she said, and for her and for her curators, a show exploring knowledge, openness and uncertainty has felt more and more timely in the last year. WCMA has been closed since early 2020, and its staff has brought the show together while waiting for the museum to reopen.

“The ideas we were talking about became coherent and tangible in our daily lives,” said Nidhi Gandhi, a graduate of the Williams master’s program in art who has co-curated the show with her classmates Mallory Cohen, Elyse Mack and Sinclair Spratley.

The questions of what people know and what they are told, what they have learned and have not learned, have become increasingly, visibly, life-and-death matters, she and Mack said.


Ideas to infinity
A library gathers stories, but which stories are preserved, and which are lost? How does a library shape how people learn, and what they learn, and how does their learning shape the knowledge they preserve and share?

Gandhi sees these questions and a wide-ranging joy in Rasheed’s practice, as Rasheed gathers ideas and moves freely among them.

“How do you arrive at an idea?” Rasheed asks. “It’s something I think about in all of my work: How do I learn something or make sense of something?”

She quotes from Octavia Butler, the late science fiction writer, who once described having four or five books open at a time, ideas in communion with each other.

In the same way, Rasheed said, if she is interested in the ways communities form, she may want to read about human communities, and she may also want to read about ant colonies and fungal networks.

“The ways you explore the world should be interdisciplinary, interspecies and interstellar,” she said.

In Borges’ story, the library is so vast that librarians have searched for years without finding a coherent thought.

“In Kameelah’s version of the library,” Gandhi said, “we are creating our own ideas and goals, and there is no end point. We can find infinite meaning and poignancy, and we create that meaning, language, syntax, signification of words.”

The sense of infinity extends beyond the conception of the library itself.
“I think about what exceeds libraries or will never end up in a library because of its form,” Rasheed said.

Libraries are designed to gather words in writing, though some now encompass multimedia, oral histories and digital archives. On the one hand, Rasheed sees knowledge lost or not included, and on the other, city and college libraries are not the only ways to share knowledge, and she finds a sense of possibility in paths to building new ways to share and hold onto stories.
“I want to offer … an invitation to wander and wade in the wet,” she writes in thoughts on her website about the philosophy behind her art, “to touch and make anew what has not been made solid ... to return to the scene of presumed certainty for revision.”

In this show she has left gaps to invite viewers’ minds to fill them in, and she has set strong images along the walls. She sees people walking through the room in a circle, like planets around a sun, like pilgrims in meditation around the Kaaba, like men and women in a ring shout, holding African traditions here across the sea and creating a beat with their bodies and calling aloud -- like the Sufi idea of a circle, an idea, encompassing all the acts of life.


Exploring the subjective
Ross too invokes his drawings from movement, and he reflects on an ongoing series of ideas he has explored in photographs and sculptures.

He recalled a recent group show, “Loitering is Delightful,” at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, inspired by the National Book Award-winning poet Ross Gay and his essay of the same name. In the essay, Gay considers the idea and power of taking your own time.
“Might the gesture of standing or sitting, with no apparent purpose, contain a seed of radical potential?” Gay asked. “In a world consumed by digital devices and driven by productivity, what possibilities does daydreaming offer? Can fulfillment be found in staring into space? Is there pleasure in simply hanging out?”

Ross created a sculptural installation with music and a series of photographs. He created a garment for someone to wear and activate while he photographed them. He made a kind of wearable sculpture, so that it could feel awkward or unexpected, he said.

“What if it had a pant-leg for an arm? I’d ask people, ‘How would your arm walk?’”
He worked with friends, a DJ, a singer, an artist who works with music, and together he and they would choose the places where he photographed them — on a city street at night in the Mission District of San Francisco, indoors in New York City, on a hilltop in Los Angeles surrounded by satellite dishes.

They would wear his cloth sculpture and move in it, he said. They might feel out-of-body wearing it. It might ask their bodies to behave in ways they usually wouldn’t, and they would have to get comfortable with it. It would influence their movement, and they told him they found something both difficult and relaxing in letting go and letting their body move, sometimes outside their control.

“I want to propose a path for awe, to wonder and wander for yourself while looking at the work,” he said.

In his drawings, Ross can build on those movements and experiment with environments and gestures and the shapes of bodies, without the constraints of physical space. But they are for him very much alive in this world.

“Surrealism is a dream-state,” he said. “I think this is a real thing. I’m not dreaming, although they can feel unstable.”

His works touch on the idea that people can experience the same thing differently, and one person can experience another person, or a place, or an object differently, and for him that idea opens wide fields to wander in.

“Sometimes people are afraid of their own subjective experience,” he said. “It’s like having dinner, and everyone says ‘it’s good,’ but what do you taste?”
That conversation draws him in, getting into the flavor.

“It’s exciting to me, because then it’s not about good and bad,” he said. “It’s how you perceive something, … and to me it’s making it as expansive as possible. … You get to have an affair with life.”