Last semester, members from Vassar’s photography club PHOCUS approached the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center with a proposal for an exhibit of student work that would accompany the last stretch of “American Impressions: A Nation in Prints” (Oct. 9, 2021–Feb. 6, 2022). Co-curators Ida-Rose Chabon and Grace Rousell worked with the former Baldeck Photographic Center Advisor, Monica Church, and Jessica Brier, Deknatel Curatorial Fellow in Photography, to coordinate the show. As a whole, Chabon said, “The student work contends with current exhibitions at the Loeb with themes like climate change, American identity and land use,” explaining that “[The work] isn’t a direct version of the art that’s in the exhibits in the Loeb, but it is totally riffing on a lot of the same scenes.”
The exhibit also includes the Loeb’s recent land acknowledgement plaque as an additional consideration amongst the show’s themes. The plaque and the show not only share a physical space––the glass hallway leading to the main galleries—but the unfortunate and ironic fact that the conversation they’re engaging with is largely made by and for non-Indigenous people. In order to address this, Chabon spoke with Director of American Studies and Native American Studies advisor Molly McGlennen and came to the conclusion that participants should be directed to “Shoot and create pictures with your identity in mind” and “Be conscious of who you are when you are creating this work.” Artists were asked to consider their presence on Vassar’s campus, which was built on stolen Munsee Lenape land, in addition to the history of the rest of the United States. Co-curator Haley Whetstone specified, “As an artist of Indigenous descent, places and their histories matter not only to the themes of my work, but also affect how much I want to work in a particular setting. Having helped create this exhibition, when I see other artists consider ‘place’ in a variety of ways, I feel a great sense of accomplishment.”
Some works deal in themes of Indigenous land more than others. Mareme Fall’s photograph is a clear example of this, as it depicts a tree growing on stolen Tunix land in Connecticut, the background littered with ubiquitous Northeastern neo-colonial houses. Chabon includes her own work, an image depicting the town of Sedgwick in Maine, as she documents an American town that has preserved its Indigenous nomenclature while otherwise lacking an Indigenous presence. Other works, like Chenkai Yu’s, instead focus on a Vassar landscape that lies precariously between nature and architecture, such as one shot of Sunset Lake and the surrounding forest taken through the dilapidated buttresses holding up a tent. Another shot frames a weeping tree against the waterfall that used to be walkable by bridge. “Some works highlight the great effects of industrialization, juxtaposing these with the natural elements to show what’s been replaced,” Whetstone said of the show’s ecological concerns.
Audience members may be surprised by the other themes present, such as food culture and hotels in America, but these are nonetheless involved in the conversation that current exhibitions, “Cryosphere: Humans and Climate in Art from the Loeb” (https://miscellanynews.org/2022/02/02/arts/cryosphere-exhibit-provides-chilling-portrait-of-warming-planet/) and “Urban Sublime: Recent Acquisitions of Photography at the Loeb,” also present. The destruction of wildlife and wildlife without destruction, as well as art and visual culture in the context of the climate crisis, are all occurring simultaneously. From all of this biological and historical chaos, the small collection of works in “Spaces: Vassar Student Reflections on Land and Identity” seeks to take a snapshot of photographers active on campus, and though the exhibit may not thoroughly analyze any one specific aspect about Vassar—such as the College’s incommensurate land acknowledgement arriving too late—it collectively still holds a critical eye to many things most of us still take for granted.
The show was scheduled from Feb. 5 to Feb. 7, but has now been extended until Feb. 13.