‘Monster Energy’: UMCA features exhibits by Brooklyn artist Caitlin Cherry and acclaimed printmaker Kara Walker

  • "Pastoral” by Kara Walker at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From “The Emancipation Approximation” by Kara Walker at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. At left, “Phoenix by Ash,” paper sculpture by Caitlin Cherry. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An architectural maquette by Brooklyn artist Caitlin Cherry, part of the exhibit “Monster Energy” at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left, digital prints "Warm Sunrise or a Just Blaze,” "Inferno Pipeline Punch" and "Embers on the Battlefield" by Caitlin Cherry at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • "Phoenix by Ash," paper sculpture by Caitlin Cherry at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art, says the exhibits by Caitlin Cherry and Kara Walker complement one another. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2017

A stately New England home, where a mysterious clay figure resides, catches fire and burns to the ground. But it’s no ordinary fire: this one comes in a kaleidoscope of colors, and it leaves smoldering ruins that magically give birth to a phoenix.

And it all happens in a format that blends paper sculpture, photography and printmaking in a unique way.

The fire in question is part of “Monster Energy,” an exhibit by Brooklyn artist Caitlin Cherry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that’s a product of a new artist-in-residence initiative, one UMass art personnel hope to build on.

The show, at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, features colorful digital prints, lithographs and small maquettes that Cherry built to serve as foundations for the digital prints. It’s the latest incarnation of the mixed media work for which Cherry, a painter and sculptor, has gained attention in recent years.

The eight maquettes she built for the exhibit are made from a variety of paper and other materials, including a golem — in Jewish legend, a golem is a clay figure brought to life by magic — in various poses. Cherry, working with staff from the UMass Art Department’s printing studio, had the maquettes photographed with different lights, after which the photos were individually printed.

The prints, aside from their rich color and the story they tell, offer an incredible 3D effect, with the constructions from Cherry’s maquettes seeming to burst off the flat surface. It’s tempting to touch the prints to determine if they are in fact flat surfaces and not some kind of textured structure.

“Caitlin’s work has just a tremendous sense of energy and vibrancy to it,” said Loretta Yarlow, the UMCA’s director. “We were really excited to work with her.”

Cherry’s work, which is on display at UMCA through April 30, came about after Juana Valdes, a UMass art professor and head of the university’s printmaking studio, asked Yarlow in January if UMCA would be interested in co-sponsoring a project in which an artist would “respond” to another current show at UMCA, by New York artist Kara Walker.

Walker (see below) is a painter and printmaker who’s won acclaim for her use of prints using black silhouettes that examine the history of race relations in the U.S.

Yarlow says she loved Valdes’ idea but wasn’t sure how such a project could be funded. She turned to Jordan Schnitzer, an art collector and philanthropist who helped put together the Kara Walker show. Schnitzer agreed to help with the new effort, and he suggested Yarlow ask Walker to recommend an artist for the project.

Walker quickly suggested Cherry. “Caitlin had been one of her graduate students and has become a big advocate of her work,” said Yarlow.

Indeed, Walker says that Cherrydemands more than mere painting is willing to provide. She teases the viewer with the promise of illusionistic painterly space … I have a sense she will continue to break apart the rules governing painting and sculpture.”

Cherry came to UMass in January for two weeks to create her exhibit, working closely in particular with UMass printing teacher Mikael Petraccia, who specializes in digital prints, and other UMass staff. It was actually Cherry’s first printmaking project, Yarlow says.

The success of this artist-in-residence program has spurred hope that UMCA will be able to repeat the process — perhaps annually — though establishing how such a program might be funded still needs to be investigated, said Yarlow.

“That’s always the un-answered question,” she said.


Kara Walker exhibitcontinues

UMCA’s Kara Walker exhibit, “Emancipating the Past,” includes 60 works in different mediums, from a variety of prints such as lithographs and photogravures, to wall murals and metal sculpture. The exhibit’s subtitle — “Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” — speaks to the artist’s re-examination of the nation’s painful history of race through her work.

All 60 works come from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, based in Oregon (Schnitzer is the art collector and philanthropist who funded Catlin Cherry’s residency program at UMCA in January).

Walker has become most widely known for her use of black silhouettes, often of archetypal figures from the antebellum South, in her prints, which she sometimes uses by themselves and sometimes adds to other media.

In some of the most striking images in the UMass exhibit, which runs through April 30, Walker has enlarged original wood engravings of the Civil War culled from “Harper’s Pictorial History,” one of the most popular publications of the time, and transformed them by adding oversize, silk-screened silhouettes of African-American slaves to the prints.

The silhouettes often have exaggerated features — huge lips, nappy hair — matching the stereotypes whites had of African-Americans. Their presentation as mere outlines also serves as a comment about how invisible blacks remained in the pages of “Harper’s” even after the Civil War ended, though the bloody conflict had erupted over the debate between North and South about ending slavery.

Walker, who’s stirred up her share of controversy — one African-American artist accused her of disrespecting slaves by using negative images of them “for the amusement and investment of the White art establishment’’ — also tackles the difficult topic of miscegenation. In one series of prints, male and female silhouettes, presumably of master and slave, couple in erotic poses.

In an essay from a catalog that accompanies the UMCA exhibit, Jessi DiTillo, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, writes that Walker believes race relations today are closely linked to our painful past — but that her art suggests that “this influence flows in both directions.”

“As history affects contemporary people, so we affect history by forming and transforming it through fantasy and interpretation,” DiTillo says. “Kara Walker’s artwork inhabits the past and present at once, intertwining areas to demonstrate the complex and subjective nature of memory.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the exhibits by Caitlin Cherry and Kara Walker, visit fac.umass.edu/UMCA/Online/.