Walking through pre-show chaos as the Handwerker Gallery prepares for “Starting from Scratch,” its first show of the fall semester (now up in the gallery through the end of the month), the potential and newfound energy of the space is apparent. As an Ithaca College alum and former Handwerker employee myself (yes, there are biases here), it’s exciting to see how Ithaca College’s gallery has evolved over the past years thanks to the hard work of its director, Mara Baldwin.
These days, active viewer participation is integral to the space, hinted at through the magnetic landscape exhibited by Elisheva Biernoff, where students and visitors can collaboratively build their own utopia by adding to or changing the scene as they pass, and works such as Tara Mateik’s Making It Harder on Yourself that are both mechanical and performative in nature, asking visitors to turn a lever and read a failed work of writing as they are “kicked” by a boot.
This year’s exhibition theme is Utopia/Dystopia, resulting in a collection of ambitious and compelling shows and events that are politically charged, inquisitive, and bound to engender numerous dialogues for discussion. These exhibitions are, Baldwin articulated, a means of getting students and others engaged who may or may not have ever entered a gallery or been interested in art. They’re an opportunity to introduce contemporary artists and works, and to prompt viewers to experience them through a more critical framework.
As it is, the fall semester shows focus more on the utopian side of the theme’s dichotomy, but neither half is entirely without the other. “Starting from Scratch”uses Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s forward thinking, early 20th century novel Herland as a launching point, a story in which male explorers stumble upon a nation composed entirely of women. The Handwerker Gallery’s resulting show is a combination of sculptures, installations, photographs, and videos in which this ideology of utopian splendor is investigated, envisioned, and performed. The gallery is transformed into its own little world, complete with a mini library of utopian literature displayed for your perusal. But in its imaginary entrance into the ideals and ease of a perfect, feminist world, the exhibition asks questions, too, about the necessity of isolation in achieving such a goal, and the struggles and complexities such a paradigm may disinter.
The second show in the semester, opening in October, is “Free Play,” curated by Melissa E. Feldman. In certain respects the show is just what it sounds: a collection of artists whose work deals with notions of games and play, allowing visitors a “free play” of each game model, available for interaction and amusement. The show’s point, however, does not end there. Through altered recreations of well-known games, “Free Play”aims to highlight what 1960s Situationist International revolutionary Guy Debord once stated. “No vital periods ever began from a theory,” he noted. “What’s first is a game, a struggle, a journey.” The works in “Free Play”thus dissect the cultural, social, and philosophical undertones present in games, how not everything is quite as simple as it may seem.
Finishing off the semester will be “Make Do,” an exhibition engaging in craft and elements of the handmade. “In contemporary markets, the distinction between art and craft is severe,” the show’s statement proclaims, and it is without doubt that the art world continues to uphold this division between “high” and “low” art. But “Make Do”calls for a change in thought process, challenging the boundaries between aesthetics and function. Can’t, the show seems to ask, pieces be both functional craft and aesthetic art?
Along with shows, the semester includes artist talks by seven of the included artists, film screenings, plays brought by the English department, and a natural dye workshop taught by local artist Sarah Gotowka and executed with dyes made from flowers grown in Ithaca College’s community garden.
Be ready to think this semester, and be ready to engage. The Handwerker Gallery is stepping up its game.
All programming and exhibits are free and open to the public. The Handwerker Gallery is located on the first floor of the Gannett Center at Ithaca College. Hours and events schedule are available at Ithaca.edu/handwerker.