Rock, Paper, Memory
Ancient made modern
by Sally Wright Day
From the July, 2015 issue
Perfectly named, the Rocks, Paper, Memory exhibit at the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology takes you to the tactile carved stones of ancient Greece and Rome, immerses you in Wendy Artin's watercolors of them, and bathes you in a remarkable experience of history, art, and archaeology.
And, wow, can it do a number on you. Especially on history dolts like me. Skimmers we are. Sure, we know the Romans and Greeks were great (yawn). But this exhibit--beautiful, beautifully curated, and interdisciplinary--had an "ohhhhhh" effect on this viewer.
The exhibit melds ancient sculpture, modern painting, and curious artifacts from the museum. Knowing that Artin has spent more than a decade detailing these rocks, and admiring her immense skill, I figured there's something to this. So this skimmer dug down.
When you step into the Meader Gallery, you're greeted by an imposingly large rocks/paper pairing that gives you the essence of the exhibit. You first see a full-scale plaster cast of "Parthenon West Frieze Slab II" from 447-432 B.C. of two men on galloping horses. Facing it is Artin's watercolor, "Cape and Skirt," which captures with incredible detail the depth and movement of the original sculpture, as well as its chips and pits.
My heart sank, troubled at the thought that the show would be full of war. Relief was thankfully right around the corner: on a sidewall hang watercolors of Rome, where Artin lives. So deft is she with light and shadow in these landscapes of ancient buildings, you can feel the Italian sun. Take some time with these. Artin's art is described as "calligraphy" that captures the essence in every stroke to bring her subjects to life.
Turn around and the whole gallery glows with spotlights on the glass cases and the white of the paper and plaster casts, made even brighter against midnight-dark walls.
Here was yet more relief: Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, steps into many of the spotlights. One portrait series in particular, "Head of Aphrodite," kept me entranced
as both art and a record of history. Across the room is "Mold for Figurine of Aphrodite with Egyptian Wig." The imprint of a female body, tinged with red--from clay, perhaps--and dating back to the second or third century, is a museum purchase from 1935. It was this object that startled this skimmer into a reverence for how very ancient this art is, how incredibly skilled these artists were, and how grateful I was to those archaeologists who saved it. I had a more modern reverence for Artin's "Nudes." Sublime.
To deepen the experience further, the exhibit is sponsoring multidisciplinary events: a conversation between Wendy Artin and curator Christopher Ratte on June 26, a curator-led drop-in tour on June 28, and several "Painting with Water" sessions for six-to-twelve year olds.
And do see the exhibit, open until July 26. If you miss it, you'll have another chance to see Artin's work on its own, unpaired with museum artifacts, September 25-October 25.
[Originally published in July, 2015.]
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