As summer draws to a close and autumn nears with the anticipation of changing leaves, a new semester means one thing to local art writers and enthusiasts alike: new shows at Ithaca College and Cornell. The Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College in particular has experienced a rapid evolution over the past several years after current director Mara Baldwin took over the reins. Baldwin has curated shows that delve into complex narratives, address current and contemporary politics, and challenge the boundaries and norms of institutional spaces. And in trend with its histories, this coming year should not disappoint.
The four main shows of the 2016-2017 school year (two exhibitions in the fall, two in the spring) will focus on a theme of the Four Humors, a quadrant system first devised by Hippocrates 2,500 years ago that has since permeated medical and philosophical thought, among other disciplines.
Motivated by the human desire to bring order to chaos and to cope with anxieties related to aging and illness, this concept divided the human body into four humors—yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood—with each sector carrying both literal and symbolic significance. “Each of these humors,” Baldwin said, “were associated with an organ, were associated with planetary alignment, a number of personalities, a season, and a phase of life. So rather than beginning with birth, we have chosen to begin with youth.”
The first show of the semester is Sun Flare, a coupling of two artists’ solo projects, those of Dara Engler and Nydia Blas, that are presented in relation to the humor yellow bile. Yellow bile is the humor of summer, fire, and youth. Situated in the gallbladder, it is an aspect of one’s body highly associated with being choleric, or ill-tempered and irritable.
Engler’s A Pirate’s Guide to Heat and Meat presents an alter ego character of the artist, fumbling and somewhat failing in an exaggerated attempt at survival. The character, Baldwin noted, “is systematically and very much alone in trying to figure out an order to the shape of her universe.” Engler’s character is isolated in solitude, learning to spear fish or create shelter, but doing so with a naïve and clumsy inefficiency that bares evidence to her inexperience.
Blas’s work on the other hand, collectively entitled The Girls Who Spun Gold, is a series of staged photographs of Ithaca teenagers of color, specifically young women. “An important point about Nydia’s photographs is that they are specifically about girls,” Baldwin said. “All of the young women sit at the boundary of childhood and adulthood, in-between these two realms. So it’s really about a different reading and coding of social structure between women and really giving those young women agency in the representation of themselves and also of what their relationships are like.”
“They both have feminine characters in their work,” Lisa Peck, a senior IC art history student who conducted the research for Sun Flare,said of Engler and Blas’ work. “Even though this is traditionally a masculine humor, I wanted to give it a feminine spin. We really want to get into feminine anger and passion, but also keep it a bit younger because youth is also a big association with yellow bile, so the angst and frustration of growing up and maybe growing up as a woman who is not allowed to be angry, but you are because you are a teenager.”
Sun Flare is a show of anger and frustration, of unapologetic ambition and naïveté that’s suddenly grown jaded. It’s a show of women—both actual women and characters—who refuse to give up.
Part two of the four part series, entitled Dark Passage, is opening later in the semester in late October. It will include coupled solo shows by artists Sarah Sutton and Ben Altman. Dark Passage focuses on the black bile humor, which represents autumn, earth, and adulthood. Positioned in the spleen, its overarching association is melancholy.
“It’s similar to depression and anxiety,” said senior IC art history student Cavan Mulligan, who did the research for the exhibition, “so the two shows are looking at two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, spirituality, but also earthliness.” Dealing with mappings of the world and the human body, Mulligan’s research focused on alchemy and the work of 11th century visionary and nun Hildegard de Bingen. Too much black bile in the system was thought to potentially trigger delirium and discomfort. But it also inspires and produces creativity, just as entering into adulthood can be anxious and confusing, yet also be a meaningful transition.
Sutton’s work, Dissolve, tackles the intersecting spaces of images and experiences, exploring the amorphous melding of contemporary technology with experiences of the body, the virtual versus the actual, flatness versus physicality. Altman’s The More That Is Taken Away, meanwhile, studies mass graves in an act of mourning and memorialization. Fashioning a makeshift monument in his backyard, his work will consist of documentation of his earthwork to shed light on topics of collective trauma, violence, and remembrance. Work by both artists is linked by their shared attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world, to somehow find understanding and resolve.
The Handwerker Gallery’s spring shows will continue with the humors: Cold Wake in early February as exploration of phlegm, a humor of winter and old age, and Bright Speck later on as exploration of blood, a symbol of springtime and birth. Cold Wake, the research for which was conducted by IC art history junior Eluz Fufante,will feature work by photographers Rhonda Vanover and Linn Underhill, ruminating on processes of aging. Details for Bright Speck, however, were only hinted at: it will feature African masks from Ithaca College’s permanent collection with curation by IC professor Risham Majeed.
“When we came into trying to pick a theme for this year I knew I wanted to do something related to the body,” Mara Baldwin elaborated further on the gallery’s choice to venture into its yearlong exploration of the Four Humors. “I think that the body has fallen out of vogue, but then it’s also coming back in certain overarching themes in what’s going on in the art world right now. I think that’s interesting, but certainly when you look at who is painting bodies, and why they’re painting bodies, and how they’re painting bodies, the ways that people are utilizing or strategizing those uses are really different than they were 20 or 30 years ago when we were last seeing a lot of figuration in paintings…but for me rather than really focusing on the story or the biography of figuration, I was more interested in thinking about something more internal. So rather than focusing outside of the body, really going inside.”
Bodies will be present in each show, whether in a figurative or implied sense, but the shows’ purposes seem to be more an internal, psychological investigation of bodies, physical space, identity, and perhaps even time: succumbing to one’s youth or old age and the complications and fears that inhabit both stages and the stages in-between.
Changes are plentiful in the Handwerker’s gallery space as well, thanks to a summer renovation project that recently came to a close. Gone is the carpeting in favor of new cork flooring, and moveable walls have been added to the space for improved versatility.
“I think the rolling walls, and being open to the flexibility of the space, first just allows students to learn skills in how to paint, but then also makes the space more flexible,” Baldwin said, “not just so students are seeing different things all of the time but also so that artists that we’re working with have flexibility in how the space shows their work. In our newly revised mission statement for the gallery, one of our values is supporting emerging and mid-career artists, and for me one of those ways of support is being really open to how that happens … we can’t say yes to everything obviously, but we’re trying to be open, which allows for more exciting things to happen.”
And the changes to the gallery haven’t been all physical changes either, as just as Baldwin mentioned there is a new mission statement in the works as well. While continuing its aim to create an active dialogue in its exhibitions that is both educational and thought-provoking, the Handwerker Gallery is also one of two college galleries in the country to now sign on to Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a non-profit based in Brooklyn.
“Basically the premise is that artists don’t get paid for the work they do,” Baldwin explained, “and usually it’s the non-profit spaces that purport to support artists that take most advantage of them.”
Exciting changes all around for an engaging new year of shows. §
“Sun Flare” is now on display through October 12 at the Handwerker Gallery, located at the first floor of the Gannett Center, Ithaca College. Dara Engler’s artist talk is Thursday, Sept. 8, at 6 p.m., open to the public. Nydia Blas’s artist talk is Thursday, Sept. 22.