The newest additions: Mead Art Museum exhibit features treasure trove of contemporary art

  • David Little, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, leads a discussion and tour of the new contemporary artworks the museum received from an anonymous donor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Little, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, leads a discussion and tour of new contemporary artworks the museum received from an anonymous donor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Little, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, leads a discussion and tour of new contemporary artworks the museum received from an anonymous donor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Blood III,” a sculpture by Steven Gontarski made of fiberglass, acrylic paint and plinth.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Sacajawea,” a mixed media portrait by Matthew Day Jackson of the famous Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped guide the Lewis & Clark expedition from 1804 to 1806. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Little discusses “Please,” a painting by Sarah Bush, during a tour of the Mead Art Museum’s exhibit of contemporary art, “Starting Something New.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Lackner, left and Mianmian Wang examine “Good With Houseplants,” a sculpture by Amherst artist Sarah Braman. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Illegal Alien’s Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” 2010 color lithograph by Enrique Chagoya. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Hammock,” 2002 painting by Alexis Rockman. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2019 4:25:16 PM

What exactly defines contemporary art?

As David Little sees it, there’s a fair amount of gray in that definition, since there’s debate about when modern art, the dominant theme of the 20th century, segued into contemporary art — sometimes broadly defined as “the art of today.”

But the director and chief curator of Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum also notes that many contemporary artists are willing to work in multiple mediums — painting, printmaking, photography, video — and can comfortably integrate those fields, while also finding inspiration from multiple sources, from the media to found objects to plastic and plexiglass.

On a recent tour of the Mead, Little was able to point to a good number of those examples. The museum received a gift this summer of over 170 contemporary artworks from an anonymous donor, and this fall it has opened a new exhibit, “Starting Something New: Recent Contemporary Art Acquisitions and Gifts,” that pulls together over 60 artworks from the donation as well as other recent acquisitions of contemporary art.

Little said some art historians point to the mid 1950s as a dividing line between modern and contemporary art, but that the work in the Mead exhibit is all much more recent that, with the oldest piece dating from 1987.

He led about 20 people on a tour of the new works, which included sculpture, paintings, photographs, prints and mixed media pieces. What distinguishes many of these new items, and that of contemporary art in general, he said, was that contemporary artists often “don’t necessarily think that art must be sacred … There’s the idea of the artist being a scavenger [for materials] and testing and blurring boundaries between mediums.”

One good example: a photograph by Erin O’Keefe, an artist based in New York City and New Brunswick, Canada with a background in architecture and who creates what appear at first glance to be paintings of basic geometric shapes. But these are in fact photographs, produced in such a way that they appear like optical illusions, confusing the senses with images that appear to be altered but are actually shot straight on, without any retouching.

“It looks like a painting, doesn’t it?” said Little as he gestured to “Built Work #38,” a image of what seemed to be a wooden triangle, a half-circle and a couple other shapes, arranged in a tableau that made it unclear which shape was supporting the others. “But it’s a photograph, and yet there’s no Photoshop, no manipulation. [O’Keefe] says ‘I take photos to see what the camera sees.’ She basically employs the camera to create an illusion.”

Just down a little further along the gallery wall, Little asked the visitors to give their impressions of “Please,” a large painting, spelling out that word (with the letters all bisected by horizontal lines), by New York City/New Mexico artist Sarah Bush. “What kind of paint does she seem to use?” asked Little.

One woman suggested it looked like the kind of semi-gloss paint used in painting houses. “That’s right,” said Little, who added that Bush painted this particular work after living near New York’s Times Square, where she was likely influenced by the district’s neon lights.

The painting, with its graffiti-like look and feel, he noted, “has that kind of pop-art sensibility as well.”

Making a statement

What’s also evident in a number of works in the new exhibit is a dark sense of humor — as well as some more serious commentary on current social and political issues such as climate change and immigration.

Consider “The Hammock,” a 2002 painting by Alexis Rockman that seems a little sci-fi, a bit comic-book like, and more than a tad ominous. Rockman, based in New York City, has long been examining the conflicts between civilization and nature, with work that decries the trashing of the environment. In “The Hammock,” he touches on one particular scenario that’s now envisioned under climate change: the growth of insect populations.

In the painting, three enormous mosquitoes, with others in the background, hover over a hammock strung in a nighttime outdoor setting. A figure is asleep in the hammock, though only his or her bare feet can be seen. According to exhibit notes, the work plays off the mosquito’s title as the “unofficial state bird” of Minnesota. But Rockman’s mosquitoes are both alarming and amusing: They look big enough to carry off the person in the hammock or do some serious bodily harm.

“[The painting] does seem like a pretty apt commentary on our time,” said Little.

Meantime, Enrique Chagoya, a native of Mexico who now lives and teaches in San Francisco, offers a humorous but tart commentary on environmental problems and migration in the color lithograph “Illegal Alien’s Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s a map of the world in which each country is drawn in a distorted size proportional to its carbon emissions. By that calculation, the U.S., China and Russia dominate the globe, while all of Africa would fit into just a corner of the U.S.

Chagoya’s map is also decorated with pop-art figures and images: a muscle-flexing man in the U.S. with a pistol for a head; oil derricks and smoking factories; a samurai wrestler grappling with a small whale in Japan. In the oceans, sea creatures fight back by attacking oil tankers, while in the lower left-hand corner, a human-like figure, with the earth as its head, crouches wearily and sweats profusely.

Little also drew visitors to another work, “Good With Houseplants,” by Amherst sculptor and installation artist Sarah Braman: an angled, abstract sculpture made from pieces of Plexiglass, acrylic paint and tape. He sees it as a good example of the flexible and unorthodox approach many contemporary artists take to their work.

“It’s not bronze, it’s not marble, it’s not made of any of the typical materials we associate with sculpture,” he said. “The kind of haphazard way it’s put together goes against the traditional type of sculpture. But here you could take it apart, make it smaller, put it back together in a different way, and it would still work … I think it speaks to where a lot of [contemporary] art is going.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Starting Something New: Recent Contemporary Art Acquisitions and Gifts” will be on exhibit at the Mead Art Museum through July 26, 2020. Different artworks will be added to the show during that time. Additional information, such as visiting hours at the museum, is available at

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