WILLIAMSTOWN - The latest in the Labeltalk series at the Williams College Museum of Art, which began in 1995, focuses on India, one of the permanent collection's strongest sections.
The show opens on Saturday, Feb. 2.
The purpose of Labeltalk is to invite professors from various disciplines to offer their commentaries and reactions to the works chosen for the show. It's not often for their expertise in art, but rather a variety of disciplines, including math, physics, romance languages, theater, computer science, dance athletics and more.
The Indian works are delicate because of their age, so are only viewed by the public so often. Show curator Elizabeth Gallerani has a particular interest in Indian art, so was excited to integrate the work into the Labeltalk series.
"I went through and was trying to look at what I thought were some of the strongest works in the Indian collection," said Gallerani, "but also some that I thought were tantalizing, had the most stories that could be told about them, different viewpoints.
"I started with the specific works of art, while trying to keep in mind that I knew that I'd be inviting three professors, and I'd also try to vary their backgrounds as much as possible. So it wouldn't just be, say, three people from the arts. [I was] really trying to get social sciences, hard sciences and the arts represented as much as possible for each one of the works, which can be difficult, but that would be the ideal."
Spread among 27 professors are two sculptures, six miniature paintings and one large temple hanging. Creating the show proved to be a learning experience for Gallerani and the professors, and that experience is passed on to visitors.
"Something that is very important to us is the idea of multiple perspectives," Gallerani said, "that there's no one museum, WCMA, institutional way to look at this. We're not going to tell you this is what you should know about this work of art, this is what you should think. That's one of the things I love most about this.
Gallerani points out that although professors are asked to participate because of their specific discipline, that doesn't always play into the responses as much as she expects, and it's this element of surprise that keeps the curating work fresh and unpredictable, as well as allowing Gallerani the chance to expand her perception of works she already knows very well.
"Sometimes there's just an aspect of the work that I find interesting, or there's a detail that I'm curious to hear more about," she said, "so I'll invite a professor whose research, background, courses offered and personal interest might align with that, but a lot of the time they completely surprise me, which is one of the thrills that I have working on this project."
Gallerani worked with one professor who had never written about art before, so found the idea of studying a work of art so closely in a museum to be a little daunting. It was also helpful for Gallerani, since it broke down the process of what you are supposed to do, and how you are supposed to think, when approaching a work of art for study.
"Looking at the work closely with him, he was particularly taken by the particular shoes that this pair was wearing," Gallerani said, "because he's a hiker and so to see these very dainty shoes with these very curved toes, he was really concerned about how they would be walking and going about in the landscape. It was interesting. Sometimes they bring a lot of personal stories and experiences to it, when I might have expected something more along with something I had seen in their course work."
Some professors were interested in the stories behind the works they wrote about. One in particular, the 1760 miniature painting, "A lady carrying a lighted lamp," by an unknown artist, held great mystery. Text on the back of the work inspired the professors to speculate about its back story. It's believed that the artist found a piece of paper with different lines of Arabic hadith on it and cut the page, writing on one side and painting on the other.
"It has this other unseen aspect, the other side of it," said Gallerani, "but she has these beautiful details - she's holding the lamp, she has this very subtle veil over her. There's not a lot of shading with Indian art, there tends to be a lot more details and this beautiful, strong color, and so it has this mystery to it, this aura to her, and I think especially seeing it in person and how small it is, it's a very powerful image. I was really excited to have professors engage with this one."
For the early 20th-century temple hanging, "Rasa Lila: Krishna dances with Radha and with each of the village Gopis," one of the people Gallerani chose to comment is a music professor who teaches Asian music. The work depicts Krishna as he is growing up with cow herds, and he lures them to a secluded forest area with his flute. It features the Rasa Lila, the circle of life, in the middle of which Krishna dances with his consort, Raja. The image is filled with different Indian instruments.
"The music professor also related even the circle to different structures of music," Gallerani said, "and so circular in patterned time, that's really important for music as well as dance, so bringing in all these different aspects of Indian culture that intersect in this temple hanging.
"Another professor I invited is an English professor, who had worked with us on one of our reinstallation galleries a few years ago on the idea of graphic storytelling and storytelling in boxes, so this had been on view in that section. It was the first time he had seen it and he was really taken by the boxes, and the borders, and different ways to compartmentalize that information. Also the fact that it's a simultaneous narrative, that lots of things are happening here, shown all at once. For him, that was particularly fascinating."
Gallerani said she sees the Labeltalk series as a good prompt for people to talk about art and include their own ideas and perhaps even expand upon the ones the professors offer. It's an especially useful effort for art that might seem a little alien to the typical visitor - some of the commentary brings the work down to Earth and into the lives and concerns of 21st century Americans, and also creates a meta-dialogue between the viewers and the professors
"There's a delicate balance," said Gallerani. "I want people to read the labels and see the perspective, but also to think about what their thoughts are. They may have a completely different entry point or access point with the work of art, so how do they think about it? Some of the professors have very strong points of view and you may agree or disagree, so to be able to engage with that is a very important, very rich exercise.
"On top of that, you have to ensure that the labels aren't engulfing the work of art - that at the end, it's about the work of art itself. "