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Pimpin' Ain't Easy

One VCU class takes viewers into the world of the gallery exhibit.



Kooky words from a notoriously chemically imbalanced painter, but you can't disagree with the man. Once a painting is framed, we think of it differently. It's dressed up, put on display, and with any luck, its street value increases. Which is exactly why this quote is painted on the wall of "From the Seat of Authority," an exhibition of works from Anderson Gallery's permanent collection.

Curated entirely by graduate students, this practical experiment in museology is a unique event in the theory-heavy world of academia.

Ten students in Professor Peggy Lindauer's museum studies course, part of the art history curriculum, chose themes, selected works, painted walls and wrote wall text and labels over the course of the semester. Sifting through 6,500 works in the Anderson Gallery collection and negotiating 10 different visions of the end product proved to be tremendous challenges, but participants agreed that the result was worth the frustration and the long hours.

"The most rewarding thing was just seeing all this work coming together and knowing that this is something different that Richmond has never seen before and that Anderson has never seen before," says Jenna Kowalke, a second-year grad student.

"Authority," named after a work by artist Robert Rauschenberg, is a gallery's attempt at turning the camera on itself, exploring how exhibit design, wall labels and other forms of context inform the way we interpret works of art. A central theme is the responsibility of both curators and viewers to think beyond the standard wall text, which usually provides basic archaeological information — artist, title, date, medium.

Think of museums as Oz and the visitor as Dorothy. There must be a wizard somewhere. The surroundings — the works on the walls and behind glass cases — are stunning and rare, and the gallery is a wonderland of beautiful things. But someone is pulling the strings and calling the shots behind the scenes.

"There's anonymous, authoritative curatorial power, and people don't question that authority," student and co-curator Jennifer Pate says. "They read what they read on the wall text and take it for granted as the absolute truth."

Challenging the idea that a museum can supply only basic biographical data about works of art, the walls and labels of the three rooms that comprise "Authority" ask questions of the viewer. It probes whether you really knew about the governmental squabble in Alaska regarding Inuit sculpture, or if you'd considered that Andy Warhol's screenprint "Chairman Mao" might mean something different when placed next to traditional Asian woodcuts rather than Western works on paper, its usual companions.

Which brings us back to Degas' scandalous frame.

The room devoted to framing implies that works on paper have been prime benefactors of the practice of framing anything and everything that goes in a museum. Once bordered by shiny, gilt wood, that doodle on Picasso's cocktail napkin is worthy of a place on the wall in MoMA and its own spread in the arts section of The New York Times, neither of which hurt its value at auction. Indeed, the curator and the museum wield tremendous authority in the world of valuating art — both monetarily and intellectually. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Of course, for all its revolutionary fervor, "Authority" can't avoid framing, a reality that creates a palpable tension throughout the gallery. Pompous though it may be, that frame also protects an investment. Pimpin' ain't easy, but it's necessary. S

"From the Seat of Authority" is running at VCU's Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St., through July 29. Call 828-1522 for details.

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