The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center recently established the Hoene Hoy Photography Gallery on the second floor, courtesy of an endowment by Vassar alumna Anne Hoene Hoy ’63. The first artist being featured in this new gallery is the Brooklyn-based performance artist Martine Gutierrez, whose contemporary works investigate the topics of gender identity and fluidity. The gallery also features experimental photography by Klea McKenna, Ellen Carey and Maria Cosindas.
Gutierrez’s work is a progressive exploration of personal and collective identity as well as gender roles through the use of self-portraiture, and her focus on these immensely relevant themes makes for a powerful inaugural exhibit. The photography currently on display is a set of seven black-and-white prints from a series called “Girl Friends,” as well as a color video with sound titled “Clubbing.”
Each of the seven photographs in “Girl Friends” depicts the artist herself with a mannequin as a counterpart, where often it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two. Along with this, she also interchanges between using life-size props and created backdrops and actual locations for her setting. By blurring the lines between herself and an inanimate object, and transforming physical space and self-image, Gutierrez plays with realism and examines the fluidity of gender, relationships and intimacy. Her creation of tension between the authentic and the fabricated is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s early work, but with an interesting twist that defies gender stereotypes.
“Clubbing,” created by the artist for her thesis while she was at RISD, depicts six individuals dancing together in an alternative style to a rhythmic staccato beat. With large, bulging pupils painted under their real eyes and grandiose clothing, the characters in the three-minute video are a stark, captivating presence. The artist designed all the costumes and make-up, choreographed the dance and played all six roles. In this work, Gutierrez provokes the viewers to question their own perceptions of sex, gender and social interaction. By acting as subject, artist and muse, and making use of eclectic media, Gutierrez documents her personal transformation into various imagined roles.
The power of using this exhibition as the commencement of what will be a long tradition of showcasing photography at the Loeb particularly lies in its relevance to Vassar curricula. As a teaching museum, the Art Center is more than just a passive structure where artwork is available to be viewed. Rather, it strives to make full use of its location in a college, allowing students to learn from the art as much as possible. In her Freshman Writing Seminar “Art and Social Change in the U.S.,” Professor Lisa Collins discussed this particular exhibit extensively, and even assigned an essay on Gutierrez’s displayed work.
Samantha Hodes ’20, a student taking this class, explicated how Gutierrez’s photography was covered as a part of their syllabus: “We spent a lot of the first half of the semester considering what photographs can convey and their importance in impacting society and changing peoples’ perspectives. Martine Gutierrez’s work focused on bending and changing gender norms in social interactions. Her ‘Girl Friends’ series spoke a great deal about female relationships, and each picture embodied a different aspect of friendship. The relevance of Gutierrez’s work loops back to how film and photography are mediums that are rampantly being used today to make social statements or change social and cultural norms.”
With regard to how the students interacted with the works, Hodes continued, “We all had to examine the photographs individually and come up with our own interpretations. We first had to dissect them in a purely visual sense, then infer meaning from what we saw, and finally, ask questions–either what questions the photograph itself raises or what questions we may have had about it. Student interpretations of what was depicted varied from the dynamics of female relationships, to the vulnerability and fragility of women, to how gender roles are fulfilled by women in accordance with certain societal standards where women must live up to the perfect ideal.”
Yasemin Smallens ’20, a student docent, commented on this as well and how it relates to the approachability of art: “I really like how Martine Gutierrez’s work comments on issues like the exploration of gender which are more relevant and understandable, particularly to Vassar students. Usually art museums are so intimidating, and often it’s more difficult for students to relate to the work on display. But with contemporary issues dealt with in the medium of photography, it’s far more accessible to them.”
The gallery also features a photogram by San Francisco-based artist Klea McKenna, titled “Rain Study #19.” Using light-sensitive gelatin silver fiber paper, this experimental work of camera-less photography reveals the unexpected wonders of the natural world, transforming familiar elements of rain into abstractions of light and form, through a novel and innovative approach. This particular rain study photogram integrates and reflects aspects of the artist’s own life, as it was taken during a rain storm in her childhood home Hawaii, capturing raindrops as they fall and collect in the lower part of the composition.
The acclaimed Ellen Carey’s “MultiChrome Pull,” a color Polaroid print made with a large-format, Polaroid 20×24 camera, also hangs in the gallery. This work is a fine example of the experimental, process-driven photography for which she has become known. By exposing color film to a flash of pure light, and then pulling the paper out of the camera’s rollers past the prescribed length, Carey obtains a beautifully strange parabola.
Last but most definitely not least, Marie Cosindas’s photo “Yves St. Laurent, Paris,” which is a part of a larger series depicting various artistic and cultural icons, is featured as well. As one of the first photographers to experiment with Polacolor film, Cosindas is a pioneering artist in color technology, and having her work displayed naturally completes this contemporary exhibition. Her masterful portrait of the French designer draws attention to her interest and background in both painting and textile design, reveals her marked attention to visual detail and demonstrates exceptional color saturation.
Smallens underscored that this particular focus of the gallery on modern and experimental forms was of the utmost significance: “When the Loeb first opened, the Board was very interested in showcasing contemporary art from the Hudson Valley, and so the gallery’s emphasis on contemporary art and artists truly ties in with Vassar’s long standing values.”
Curator of Photography and Assistant Director of Strategic Planning Mary-Kay Lombino also discussed the college’s long traditions, specifically those of collecting and exhibiting photography: “The Art Center has over 4000 works of photography in its collection, and we hold a photography exhibition every year to showcase parts of it. It is the fastest growing area of the art museum, and we are constantly thinking of ways to make it better. The idea of a new photography gallery has been in the works for a long time because visitors often come ask what photos are on view, and sometimes we wouldn’t have any if the annual exhibition was not on.”
Lombino has wanted a permanent space for photography for a long time. So, when Hoy, a former curator herself as well as a member of the Art Center’s Advisory Council for Photography, decided that she wanted to donate funds specifically to put photography on the walls, a dream was fulfilled for Lombino, and a plan was put into place. It was much easier to push for a gallery once the endowment was made, because almost everyone recognized that photography is something that a lot of viewers are interested in seeing, and the gallery would be satisfying a real demand.
In the same vein as Smallens, Lombino explained, “This gallery is going to bring awareness to the museum’s strength in photography, which is really important considering that it is a more accessible medium, especially when it comes to contemporary art.”
As she expanded, “With the direction that the world is moving in, everyone has a camera phone, everyone takes photographs and so naturally, everyone can relate to photography. We all see the world through the images we capture, and so photography is really a tremendously powerful access point into art.”
In terms of accessibility to students of photography, President of PHOCUS Zoe Lemelson ’17 elucidated, “I’m really happy that there is a space permanently dedicated to photography in the Loeb, because the Art Center actually has a massive and mind-boggling collection of photography in storage which is very useful for students to learn from, but is not always displayed. As a result, PHOCUS students at least, have not interacted much with the Art Center except at the annual photography exhibition. But the gallery opening is definitely going to prompt us to visit this space more. It’s certainly an important step, and I hope to see it progress, with an even larger space being dedicated to photography in the future, so that more of the Loeb’s extensive collection can be exhibited, because it really deserves to be seen.”
The current exhibition will run until January, at which point a new one will be introduced and will then run until April. The Art Center plans to change the works displayed in the area fairly often, perhaps four or five times a year, so that they can show a larger variety of the extensive collection that they own. They do not plan to follow any specific theme in the work displayed, but rather plan to keep the only parameter as photography, which includes analog and digital photos, film and video, thus opening up the possibilities of showcasing myriad messages and mediums.