Crate Expectations

Posted April 20, 2009, at 5:44 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A viewer who enters an art gallery usually expects to watch the artwork.

Right?

With his latest installation, however, Portland artist Aaron Stephan turns the tables on the viewer by making him or her into the work of art, and raising questions about traditional perceptions, in “Vessels Absent,” one of three exhibitions launched last week at the University of Maine Museum of Art.

Stephan’s two-dimensional work is on display in “Selected Works on Paper by Aaron Stephan” in the Zillman Gallery, and silverpoint drawings by Florida-based artist Carol Prusa in “Successive Approximations: Works by Carol Prusa” is now in the the Edward D. Leonard III and Sandra Blake Leonard Gallery.

Museum Director George Kinghorn said the new exhibits are a conscious attempt to focus on more conceptual work, for this exhibition cycle, anyway, after a series of shows of more definitive work.

“We wanted to have some exhibitions that pushed the boundaries a little bit and got people questioning what is art, finding their own meaning in art,” he said.

An installation created specifically for the space in the UMaine museum, “Vessels Absent,” consists of six 8-foot figures — Stephan, 33, is known for his play on scale — made of thin plywood and with white tissue paper falling out of the backs, the same materials with which artists crate and pack their work for shipping.

The walls of the gallery were purposely left blank, although they’re lit as if there were art hanging, which appealed to Stephan and helped give him the idea for the installation.

“For me this was a really great opportunity to work in a museum space with a completely clean slate,” he said during last week’s opening. “I immediately recognized that and wanted to make a work that was built specifically for this space. It’s kind of funny being in that situation as an artist. There’s people walking around a gallery, and I’ve gotta come up with something for them to look at … at a certain point I said, maybe I’ll just stick with that.”

The figures are blocky, but they’re not stiff. In fact, they’re all positioned in different gestures; the same contemplative stances a viewer might make when looking at art. One has its hands on its hips. Another stands with arms crossed. Another has its arms behind its back.

The common thread in all of the figures is that they’re clearly posed to resemble a person looking at a work of art.

And what are they looking at? Well, one could make a case that they’re looking at us, the viewer.

“In a way, this show questions what it means to be a viewer looking at a piece of artwork, what my relationship is with you when you’re looking at my piece, and where the bridge is between those things,” Stephan said. “In a way, it’s also a simple reaction to the idea of having crated artwork. Instead of the artwork crated, you have the viewer crated.”

The figures in the middle of the room make for a more inclusive experience for the viewer. When art hangs on walls of a room, the viewers stand with their backs to each other while staring at the walls. Stephan’s installation, at least during the opening, had viewers facing toward the center of the room, looking at the wooden figures — and watching each other.

The other grouping of Stephan’s work consists in part of iconic images from the history of art, originally made by masters such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer, rendered over and over again in miniature. Each of the tiny ink drawings is a bit different in detail and line.

For Stephan, repurposing the works is about doing something new and different with an image that has become so familiar. In one of the pieces, “Portrait of a Man — 64 Times,” Stephan drew 64 versions of Italian Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina’s “Portrait of a Man,” originally painted in 1475.

“[The images] are iconic,” he said. “You’ve seen them so many times. I think [author] Roland Barthe said something about, you’ve seen the “Mona Lisa” so many times that you really haven’t seen it. You can’t even see what it looks like past the 2,000 images you’ve seen of it.”

All three exhibitions run through June 18. For more information about the University of Maine Museum of Art, go to www.umma.umaine.edu or call 561-3350.

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