Overgrowth

Review

of an Exhibition

by Kathryn Sodaitis

Published on May 10, 2016, Modified on July 01, 2016

  • Description:

    I recently went to see Overgrowth at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Overgrowth is a collection of drawings, paintings, photography and sculpture from the permanent collection on display from April through September 18, 2016.

    The show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, to explore “how artists represent prolific growth, expansion, and transformation in the natural world and built environment.”

    I visited this exhibition because I wanted to investigate how deCordova represents their permanent collection of contemporary artists. How might a museum tie together fifty years of collecting in a single show? At deCordova, the objects from the collection are grouped together by a unifying theme and are exhibited for a few months. Much like a temporary special exhibition, this show received curation, interpretation, marketing and programming. This type of exhibition allows the public to see more of the objects from the collection through periodic rotations, keeping the galleries more up-to-date and current. This model likely aims to increase museum visitation and boost membership because visitors can see different work more frequently. But does such an exhibit have the wow power of a show with a singular vision—one that is most relevant to the issues of our time? My recent experience at Overgrowth helped me evaluate whether this approach engages visitors and creates personally meaningful experiences.

    Overgrowth utilizes some effective strategies to create a comfortable, logical, and meaningful exhibition. While the exhibit succeeds in some areas, I also felt that it could promote more meaningful engagement from its visitors. Here are some of the highlights of my visit:

    The aesthetic strengths of this show drew me in immediately. White walls and the modern, vine-like font create the backdrop for an exhibition on contemporary art. The artwork provides the eye-candy and is arranged to draw attention to the colors, textures, and sensory appeal of the works themselves. The three bulbous blue ceramic sculptures by Makoto Yabe enticed me to enter the exhibition. These amorphous, celeste blue forms introduce the philosophy of “Wabi sabi”, “a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection.” This sub-theme reappears in many of the works throughout the galleries, in which beauty is paired with mutation, destruction and decay. For example, in the section, “Overgrowth Observed and Rendered,” four color photographs named The Flower Series by Chris Enos depict a close-up of four flowers in decay, evoking a sense of wonder at the decomposing forms.

    The pops of color throughout the exhibition and aesthetic design drew me into each gallery to look more closely at the work. On the third floor, the brilliant green of the cast aluminum sculpture Glo Baby Glo by Gary Webb greets you first, set against the more distant backdrop of several paintings and photographs featuring the same springtime color. The use of color here is an effective way to invite the visitor into the space. Plenty of breathing room around this sculpture and the rest of the work in the gallery does not overwhelm.

    In the third floor exhibition space, human impact on nature is directly addressed, and as one would predict, the relationship is largely negative. Photographs of styrofoam take-out containers, powerlines, aerial shots of cars and sprawl, and the before and after image of a demolition of a condemned building are some of the imagery documented by artists, which depict some of the drawbacks associated with progress. However, the most meaningful moment for me came in the section titled, “Organic Abundance.” Late Summer, a photograph by Boston-based photographer Laura McPhee offers a different vantage—the idea that nature is not as fragile as we might think. The image of the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho after a wildfire tells a story of growth and renewal, hope and possibility. It’s a message that resonated with me the most—in times when destruction and despair are prevalent, look for a message of strength and renewal.

    The interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition, which includes drawing, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, and ceramics, allowed me to pick and choose according to my interests. The variety of artwork could have a broad appeal to many audiences, especially the photography. People who like to look at and talk about art will most certainly find something they like.

    Although Overgrowth is visually appealing, the exhibition mostly focuses on viewing artwork, with few opportunities to listen, touch, or interact physically. This was a quiet and contemplative experience, which lacked the busy hum of discussion. I felt the exhibition could inspire a deeper level of engagement from its visitors. From a design standpoint, the exhibit needed more sound; the addition of music or poetry could fill in this void, while honoring the aesthetics of the exhibition space. Also, the incorporation of what Nina Simon (The Participatory Museum) refers to as “social objects” could act to inspire dialogue between people to make a more provocative exhibition space.

    An engaging museum should feel more lively, a place more like your favorite neighbor’s front porch than a solo hike through the mountains. According to the website, deCordova has plans to increase the hands-on experiences in the gallery, which typically have the effect of creating a more social environment. Currently, the deCordova offers these experiences in limited amounts in a narrow, closet-sized “Process Gallery”. In the Process Gallery, the invitation to “Create, Mutate, and Regenerate” with buildable plastic toys features child-high tables, mirrors, and photographs of some of the artwork from the exhibition. On the opposite wall, visitors can “Cultivate, Saturate, and Proliferate” with string, by changing and altering the ways strings are twisted and connected to each other by nails in the wall, leaving a personal contribution on the visitor-defined installation. The ideas are effective, but the space is too small to allow more than a couple of people to interact at one time. This is the only space in the exhibition where visitors are encouraged to physically touch, explore, and leave their mark on the exhibition. The Process Gallery offers a window into what might be possible in terms of how to invite visitor creativity into an otherwise conventional exhibition format.

    Similarly, a social space with couches, tables, and books invites visitors to sit down and talk or read outside this main gallery. Situated between the Process Gallery and one other gallery, it is a convenient resting place. On an opposite wall, I reviewed a sampling of the programming related to Overgrowth, printed directly on the wall. The programs are enticing: photography workshops, curator-led tours, summer movie nights, and invasive plant walks. Here we get a sense of the ways visitors might participate, socialize, and make personal connections to their own life, the exhibit, and people with similar interests by signing up for these programs.

    The theme of this show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, a theme which strongly corresponds to the outdoor Sculpture Park. How institutions make use of the space outside the museum walls is of particular interest to me, as it offers opportunities for institutions to relinquish some control over interpretation and behavior, which can be fairly limited inside a museum’s walls. Outside, the rules of behavior are different, and parents of small children especially welcome opportunities to take breaks outdoors and allow little feet to run, fingers to touch, and voices to rise after a more controlled indoor experience. In fact, after visiting the exhibition, I couldn’t resist going outside to consider my own relationship to the natural world while walking along the grounds. The deCordova is right to highlight this strength through an exhibition that encourages us to visit its outdoor space.

    Overall, this “permanent collection-temporary exhibition” is successful. The theme of “overgrowth” ties together the work of local, national, and international contemporary artists in a logical way. The exhibition is visually appealing, and the program offerings look promising. I appreciated the connection of the indoor exhibition to the outdoor Sculpture Park. What was missing was the emotional power to provoke and excite visitors. I think this could be addressed by engaging more visitors in dialogue with each other within the conventional exhibition format.

    The deCordova has the ability to offer unique experiences both inside and outside, and can provide a model for how an institution might not only coexist with its environment, but also provide a range of opportunities for participation from its community. It seems to me that the deCordova could continue to explore options of sharing some of its institutional control over the content of its exhibitions and invite more participatory experiences from its community inside the galleries.

    NOTE: In reviewing this exhibition, I chose Beverly Serrell’s Framework Model: Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective. This model allows professionals in the museum field to evaluate an exhibition from a visitor-centered perspective. Serrell’s Framework identifies four criteria for evaluation: Comfortable, Engaging, Reinforcing, and Meaningful.

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