Dan Wolf manipulated negatives to create creepy to horrific artworks.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Berkshire Art Museum opens its sixth season by dipping into dark matter — art that's slightly twisted, disturbing, tortured, sorrowful, disastrous and, well, dark.
That's the theme running through "Not Just Another Pretty Picture," a group exhibit that opens on Thursday at 6 p.m. during the first DownStreet Art of the season.
"I like to do shows that I can relate to and also I feel that maybe are a little bit underrepresented in galleries," said museum founder Eric Rudd. "Gallery dealers will tell you what sells are pretty colorful things about this big that can go right over the couch."
The works of James Allen, Dan Wolf, Kevin Bubriski, Firoz Mahmud, Saira Wasim, Sandra Moore and Greg Lafave cover a variety of media from photography, stenciling, canvas and clothing. A second group, "Dark Matters," features works by the museum's advisory board members in the Tower Gallery: Keith Bona, Arthur De Bow, Robert Henriquez, Maria Siskind, Sarah Sutro and David Zaig.
It's the type of work that might not find an easy sale and, as Rudd's description cautions, "might not be for everyone who walks through our doors." But also, he points out, this type of darker art has been a part of our cultural landscape since the beginning — portraying crucifixion, war, death, poverty, tragedy, violence to elicit a reaction from the viewer.
Allen, a Buffalo, N.Y., transplant who moved to Williamstown seven or eight years ago, is exhibiting his "tableaus" of painted canvases that evoke despair.
"I probably find it more internally necessary. It sounds pretty profound, but not that much," he said. "To deal with the things that I kind of don't understand, you need to get some sense of control over them more than the things that I love. ... Almost everything I do probably relates a lot to some kind of social or cultural problem."
His canvas cutouts came about with the help of his wife, a quilter, who was able to help him bring his ideas to fruition. They stand out against the white walls in the museum's first floor, pushing them more prominently within the space of the viewer.
"I like that it really occupies our space in a sense, as opposed to traditional frame stuff, where you enter the other world within that frame," Allen said. "I didn't know this when I started but I thought that when I started seeing how they reacted on that wall, I thought, wow, if they come into our space, right, yeah, space is just timeless."
The works on display have a sense of timelessness; they don't refer to a specific moment in time. In one, sickly looking women follow a man in black with a hidden face, in another, skeletal figures lead a starving man in a dance of death. The largest piece, "Nuns and Guns," is a tableau of nuns and armed soldiers of indeterminate nationality and period.
"There's a mystery about it, there's a need to say something to recognize it, too," Allen said. "And I think that my own feeling about what art can do. And there's all kinds of art, I understand that. It all has its own purposes in the final. And I like lots of things that are nothing like mine. But I think art can can help us come to grips with things that we have difficulty coming to grips with."
On the second floor, Mahmud was hanging a large stenciled work portraying the death of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala. Husayn had faced off against a larger contingent and his forces were wiped out outside Baghdad in the 7th century. In the painting, he's being cradled by his father under a golden beam while an angel hovers above and soldiers lurk in the corners.
Mahmud, a native of Bangladesh, said much of his work inspired by historical events, not surprisingly since he's a student of history and his father and grandfather were historians and teachers. His family is originally from Iran and his grandfather traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while Mahmud has traveled on to Japan and now New York City.
"I traveled to many countries, my grandfather, father, we moved from one city to another," he said. "We had a lot of history, migration history, we have regional history, which is connected to my art, my life, to our life. ...
"In general, I make paintings on our regional history — encompassing Bengal, Moghul history, Islamic history."
He uses a stencil technique known as rendering, or "layapa." He collects histories and artifacts or takes photos and then determines how it will be laid out. He uses a variety of tools to layer the paint. He also works in other media, including photography, and other of his works at BAM will be on victims who lost limbs.
This is Mahmud's second time in the city after doing a residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art last year.
"Yes, beautiful city. People are so nice, so friendly. And it's the artistic environment," he said. "It has Mass MoCA, the neighboring city has two good institutions Clark Art Institution and Williams College museum. The city has nice growing up artistic environment. So that like, yeah, I never been to a small city in the U.S. So this is my first city that I traveled and stayed. So that's really inspired me to to be involved into it."
"Not Just Another Pretty Picture" will have an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. with refreshments and appetizers by Meng's Pan-Asian. Rudd thanked the museum's donors who help keep the 24,000-square-foot facility open.
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