A breath of fresh air: The Clark Institute opens its first outdoor exhibition


After several years of development and a months-long postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has opened its first-ever outdoor exhibition.

The show Ground/Work comprises several poetic site-responsive commissions imbued by the picturesque backdrop of the Berkshires by six contemporary women artists, including Kelly Akashi, Nairy Baghramian, Jennie C. Jones, Eva LeWitt, Analia Saban and Haegue Yang.

The show is scheduled to be on view until October 2021 or later, and is perhaps serendipitously timely as lockdown restrictions begin to tighten with Covid-19 cases spiking in Massachusetts and other parts of the East Coast again, making outdoor art activities more valuable than ever even as winter rolls in.

The Clark, formally known as the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, opened in 1955 as a museum of European and American artworks from the collection of the American philanthropists Sterling and Francine Clark, who amassed a significant collection in their lifetime, including extensive holdings of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, JMW Turner and Winslow Homer, among others.

The institute expanded to become a research and academic centre, and gradually blossomed to its current state to include a 140-acre outdoor campus as part of a $145m renovation by the New York-based architect Annabelle Seldorf that was completed in 2016.

While museum attendance remains capped at 25% capacity due to state-wide mandates amid the global health crisis, the outdoor campus will be open year-round at all hours, and offers ample room for social distancing.

The inaugural plein air exhibition has been organised by the guest curators Molly Epstein and Abigail Ross Goodman, in collaboration with Robert Wiesenberger, the associate curator of contemporary projects, who joined the museum in 2018 and is a graduate professor at Williams College, which The Clark co-sponsors.

Below, Wiesenberger tells The Art Newspaper about the dynamic works that now dot the surrounding landscape:

Courtesy of the artist and Patron Gallery, Chicago. and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Photo: Thomas Clark

The Brooklyn-based artist Jennie C. Jones has produced a sonic wind-activated sculptural work of monumental scale that evokes an Aeolian harp. The work is in direct dialogue with two turbulent seascapes of the Atlantic Ocean by Winslow Homer in the institution’s permanent collection—titled Eastern Point and West Point, Prout’s Neck (both 1900)—which the artist, who is “deeply steeped in the history of African American culture”, related to the “the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage”, Wiesenberger says. “The sound is very subtle—it’s a call and response with these pieces inside and explores the vernacular language of minimalism as it relates to sound art”.

Courtesy of the artist, François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo: Thomas Clark

The Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Akashi, who is trained as an analogue photographer, has produced the sculpture A Device to See the World Twice with a double-concave lens mounted on cast bronze branches. Akashi chose the site because of a remarkable ash tree that was toppled during a storm a few weeks before the installation. “She was given the choice to change sites but decided to keep the work here,” Wiesenberger says. “The result was a clearer focal point, and a meditation on a ruin.”

Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Photo: Thomas Clark.

The South Korean artist Haegue Yang, who is based between Berlin and Seoul, has produced the three-part project Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens. The sculptures are installed throughout trails on the campus and reference the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, where South Korean media attempting to record information from the meeting with sophisticated microphones were only successful in capturing birdsong. “By virtue of not having people, the demilitarised zone is one of the most biodiverse parts of the Earth, rich with flora and fauna”, Wiesenberger says. The spherical work, a “conceptual bird bath”, acts as a meditation on peace and humanity, and contains various meta data, including the coordinates of the Korean demilitarised zone and The Clark.

Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Thomas Clark

The Iranian-Armenian artist Nairy Baghramian has created an abstracted portrait of the body using marble and steel. “It’s the first time she’s worked in marble, which, for someone who considers herself a sculptor, was a momentous move, and likely related to her encounter with works at the Clark,” Wiesenberger says. “Marble has a neoclassical aspect—as does the Clark’s collection—and is loaded with pedigreed ideology.” The pockmarked, chiseled surface of the work references “the pain she sensed in the material”, and its fluidity “suggests a freeing of the material—a moment of pause, or reflection”, he adds.

Courtesy of the artist and VI, VII, Oslo. Photo: Thomas Clark

With her first outdoor sculpture, the New York-based artist Eva Lewitt, the daughter of the late conceptual pioneer Sol Lewitt, contrasts the natural landscape with bright geometric towers in the work Resin Towers A, B, and C. The nearly 11 ft-tall works were created from hand-cut pieces of colourful plastic and transparent resin, which creates a rapturous, vibrant intervention on the campus. “The way it responses to sunlight—it just glows”, Wiesenberger says.

Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles. Photo: Thomas Clark

Analia Saban’s cedar wood sculpture Teaching a Cow How to Draw modifies a fence on the campus and “invites the cows that roam around here to consider the rules of composition and perspective”, Wiesenberger says. The work references art historical theories like the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio, transforming this functional boundary line into a sculpture and drawing. Saban was a student of the late conceptual artist John Baldassari, and this work pays homage to his absurdist 1972 video Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, in which the artist gave an alphabet lesson to a potted banana plant in an attempt to confront notions of what art can or should be.

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