Artists responding to turmoil: University Museum of Contemporary Art offers three new exhibits

A report by Steve Pfarrer for The Amherst Bulletin.

Like museums on many college campuses during the past year, the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), the largest exhibition space at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has struggled with the effects of the pandemic, forced to close to the public and for the most part to the campus community.

But UMCA is now on the verge of reopening to students, faculty and staff with three new exhibits, all of which are available for viewing online through April 30.

Among them is a first for this region, says UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow: a comprehensive exhibit of works going back 35 years by Alison Saar, a renowned sculptor and printmaker who has explored the history of slavery in the U.S. and issues such as race and culture in her art.

Along with the Saar exhibit are two smaller shows: “We Are For Freedoms,” which features 10 posters designed by regional artists responding visually to the theme of “freedom”; and “Artifacts at the End of the Decade,” a collection of varied work made by leading artists at the end of the 1970s that has been tucked away in the university’s vaults since about the mid-1980s, Yarlow said.

Yarlow notes that the two latter shows had been scheduled to run in 2020 but had to be postponed due to COVID-19. Yet the fact they’re both now being exhibited alongside the Alison Saar show is a happy coincidence, she adds, as the three exhibits dovetail thematically.

“What they have all have in common is that they show artists responding to crisis and to difficult issues the country has struggled with,” Yarlow said. “How do you engage with that as an artist?”

As noted, Saar, who lives in Los Angeles, has examined slavery and the African diaspora in much of her art. In addition, a number of works in “Artifacts at the End of the Decade,” including photography, ceramics, prints, drawings and more, reflect a tumultuous decade that was riven with protests over the Vietnam War, civil rights and other social issues, Yarlow notes.

The works themselves are by leading artists of that time such as Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt and Robert Kushner, among others. They had been solicited and then collected by two other artists, Steve Watson and Carol Huebner Venezia, and first reproduced in a 1981 book.

And Yarlow says the “We Are For Freedoms” show was commissioned specifically by UMCA last year to ask regional artists to respond to the upheaval sparked by the pandemic and the nationwide protests that erupted calling for racial justice. The exhibit is presented in partnership with the national organization For Freedoms, a collective that seeks to get more artists engaged in public action and pro-democracy movements.

In turn, the name For Freedoms is a reference to a famous speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made in 1941 outlining four basic freedoms all people should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The artists in the “We Are Four Freedoms” exhibit, which has been put together principally by UMCA’s education coordinator, Amanda Herman, reflect a diversity of styles and mediums and of personal backgrounds, Yarlow said.

“It was important to us that we offer this opportunity to artists who represent a cross-section of people, since so much of what we saw happening last year was a call for greater equality and for a recognition of our country’s diversity,” she said. “We were thrilled when all 10 artists we approached to do this said ‘yes.’”

The 16-by-20-inch posters offer a range of images. Kara Lynch, who teaches video and critical studies at Hampshire College, offers a sort of collage that includes bits of grain, corn, pine needles and other natural materials and a central design with the words “Free The Land Back” — a reference to the Land Back movement embraced by Indigenous Americans.

A poster designed by Liz Chalfin, founder of Zea Mays printing in Florence, features a background of black and white interlinked words that have been partly rubbed away; superimposed on top of them, in color, are the words “Stories Sow the Seeds of Change.”

Yarlow says over 500 copies of the posters have been made available for museum visitors and that smaller versions of the work will also be available for download.Focus on Saar’s work

Yarlow says she’s particularly excited about the Saar show. As best she’s aware, a small amount of the artist’s work has previously been shown at the Smith College Museum of Art, but otherwise her art has not been seen in the Valley, though it’s been exhibited internationally and in other parts of the U.S. Saar’s work is also part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York City.

Saar, born in 1956, grew up in an artistic family: her mother, Betye Saar, is an African-American sculptor and installation artist and her late father, Richard Saar, was a white ceramicist and art conservationist. Alison Saar absorbed influences from both her parents and also developed an interest in African culture and Caribbean and Latin American art — and the folk tales that underpin some that work.

Her woodcut and lithograph “Snake Man,” for instance, references African culture, the human body and nature in one image, with the snake in question gripped in the mouth of a flat-headed male figure. “Compton Nocturne,” another lithograph, depicts a naked, prone female figure whose hair extends in long braids like tree branches, each of which is topped with an empty bottle.

Yarlow says the exhibit includes some of Saar’s unique sculptures, which can be made of carved wood, metal, bronze or repurposed objects. “She makes use of a huge range of material,” Yarlow said.

And as exhibit notes put it, though Saar may “chart the tragic history of slavery in America” in her work, her figures “symbolize defiance and strength.”

The UMCA director also gives kudos to UMass graduate students Jessica Scott and Jill Hughes for co-curating “Artifacts at the End of the Decade.” The two candidates for arts-related degrees, as part of a year-long research projects, dug through the UMCA archives to find the 44 pieces of art in the show.

Given the recent COVID outbreak on campus, it’s not yet clear when the exhibits can be seen in person, Yarlow noted; UMCA had originally been slated to open to the campus community this week.

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