Visual rhymes at the Tang

Posted by Kristin Travagline

Curated by English professor Michelle Rhee and peer mentor Caitlin Allen '12, "Eye Rhymes," in the Frances Young Teaching Museum and Art Gallery unites image with text in an unhappy marriage where each party vies for attention. The exhibit explores the tension-inducing power dynamics created when image and text undergo full equalization. The exhibit runs until Jan. 2.

The piece "Mercy" (1991), by David Moffet, embodies this tension. The piece mounts a translucent photograph of an unfurled white rose on a circular light box. "MERCY" glows in black caps in the center of the rose. "It just kind of glows and leads the viewers into the gallery and I think that the students really enjoyed discussing that in class," Rhee said. "Eye Rhymes" includes a variety of other media including book art, collage and screenprint.

The exhibit also serves as classroom space for Rhee's Scribner Seminar, "Ways of Seeing." "The change in space for students is really wonderful and important. Also, to have your primary text exist in this very public space changes your orientation toward how you treat it and how much importance you give to it," Rhee said.

A year and a half ago, Rhee went to the Tang to look for art for her English classes. "I was trying to figure out ways to incorporate the Tang into my classes. And once I was there I realized there are so many works of art that incorporate text and image just in the private collection," Rhee said. From that moment Rhee worked with John Weber, dayton director and professor of liberal studies, and Ian Berry, the Tang curator, to find a way for a gallery show and a class to coexist.

After an eight-week installation project, the course culminated in a reconfiguration of the space based on student research. The students received scaled down versions of every work of art on the main wall of the exhibit, which they mounted in a miniature, to-scale version of the gallery. Collectively the class decided to mount the artwork in an order that conveyed a transition from innocence to maturation.

However, when the class tried to mount the exhibit in the gallery they realized that their vision would not translate to reality. "It would have had no concept of space," Rhee said. But, the 16 students still had to decide on a single idea for the space and a way to make the artwork cohesive.

"They had started to impose meanings upon the works of art that weren't necessarily there. It was almost a hindrance to them that they knew too much about the work of art," Rhee said. The students let go of the narrative idea and instead drew connections between the pieces through visual cues.

"I think they did an even better job than what I had come up with, with the help of my peer mentor over the summer. It's really quite good. They were really impressive," Rhee said.

One of Rhee's favorite pieces in the exhibit is "Negroes with Guns," by Michael St. John. The piece displays 14 small canvases with pictures of various African Americans associated with gun crimes, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Tupac Shakur. The pictures range from several inches to covering the entire canvas. Bright colors and the text "NEGROES WITH GUNS" in bold, black font also span the canvases.

The piece was based on the manifesto by Robert Williams, which suggests that the NAACP should arm themselves to prevent being attacked in the south, an idea which the Black Panther Party gravitated toward and eventually used.

 Beneath this piece, two black leather shoes with buckles that spell the words "LAP DOG," by Nayland Blake, rest on a pedestal. "It creates this strange bodiless sculpture where you have these heads and then the feet and then the two works sort of alter their meanings by being juxtaposed in that way," Rhee said.

After the exhibit was remounted the class presented the trajectory of their semester work in a Tang dialogue to the public.

"It was probably, in terms of teaching, one of the most rewarding classes I've taught because it felt like every step along the way was moving toward something very tangible. Everything just became very productive in a way that I've never experienced before," Rhee said.

First-year thought matters: FYE students exhibit projects a semester in-the-making

What is in store for Zankel?: Examining the potential of the Music Center as a cental building on campus