A Sanctuary For Artists: Celebrating Artists-in-Residence at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Walking into the palace of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the same as going through a portal to a different world. Just blocks behind the Museum of Fine Arts, the home gallery of Isabella Stewart Gardner hides an oasis of fine art and nature. For years, this museum has been a patron of all the arts and works hard to recognize every type of artist. In her time, Isabella Stewart Gardner invited artists of all backgrounds to “activate the galleries, paint, dance, play music, and read poetry” within the museum walls, according to the museum’s guide.

This fall, the museum is honoring these artists with In the Company of Artists: 25 Years of Artists-In-Residence, an exhibit highlighting the works of the seven artists who worked in residence over the last 25 years. These seven female artists come from all different backgrounds, and all came to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to focus on their work or renew their creative energies.

The Hostetter Gallery is split into two rooms: a long room and a tall room. Outside the gallery entrance is a timeline showcasing the artists-in-residence since the home-gallery was turned into a museum for the public. Upon entering the gallery, the first, long room has three walls painted a neutral white and a fourth wall painted a rich red. Along one white wall, there look to be blank, framed canvases; only when a viewer steps up closer to the wall do they see the tiny gold leaf details on the canvases. Rachel Perry stared at a new object every day for an hour during her residency. She was overwhelmed with the amount of religious art in the gallery and “began looking for the different ways a halo was reproduced.” Perry produced 445 unique drawings of suggested halos she noticed within paintings; fourteen hang on the white wall appropriately titled, Halos.

On the white wall next to Halos, was a watercolor painting. The designs were simple shapes, and as the artist, Laura Owens, says, she was inspired by the various textiles within the museum. This untitled work is Owens’ adaption of a medieval Spanish embroidery found in the Raphael Room.

Opposite of Halos, on the red wall, were four frames of equal size. In two of the frames were bodies of text, and next to them were photographs of people staring at the blank frames that litter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the 1990s, paintings were stolen right out of their frames from the museum and no one knows where they went. The museum decided to keep the frames up, a reminder of the missing art that once hung there. Sophie Calle looked at these empty frames and saw something else entirely. The year of the theft, Calle conducted press interviews in front of one of the stolen paintings, The Concert. In her collection, What Do You See? Calle revisits the empty frames and invited visitors to look at the frames and respond to the question, what do you see? The collection focuses on memory and how different memories come together to highlight loss. In one of the photographs, a man stands before the frame where Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black once hung; in another, a woman– presumably Calle– stands before the empty frame of Vermeer’s The Concert. The lithographs besides the photos are beautiful works of poetry, spelling out what art means and what the absence of something meaningful can be like.

In the other room of the Hostetter Gallery, the tall ceilings and glass window feels like the opposite of the other part of the exhibit. With four main installments, the tall room of the Hostetter Gallery was full of sculptures and mixed mediums. There are four frames hanging on the wall, similar to the other part of the exhibit. This is the work of Luisa Lambri in her collection, in the corner. The four frames are four laserchrome prints from two art museums: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Chinati Foundation in Texas. Lambri uses light and space to express her art. Exploring the poetics of space and reflection, Lambri is able to maximize natural light and move viewers through time with her distorted lights.

Next to Lambri’s frames of light, is the mixed medium creation of Dayanita Singh. Singh uses wood and photographs to examine bookmaking, especially the process of producing accordion books. By creating a portable museum, Singh expands her knowledge in photography and bookbinding. The meditative work of building and setting up the “mobile living studio” gives viewers a look into her personal archive and her practice of mixed mediums.

The last two installments in the gallery were from the artists Su-Mei Tse and Bharti Kher. These are both large scale sculptures with various parts to them. Tse’s installment, entitled Bleeding Tools, is a large wooden box with a single light in the corner and various paint tools hanging from the ceiling. These tools have been dipped in black paint, and have dripped onto a canvas below creating a message not from the artist, but from the tools. Tse wanted to allow time and paint to add meaning to the piece, focusing on the possibilities of chance, time, and existence. Kher’s installment, entitled Six Women, uses the different mediums of plaster, wood, and metal to create plaster casts of bodies. This is a technique Kher used before coming to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Only during her residency did she cast the body of a pregnant woman and the idea of recording bodies over time became clear to her. In Six Women, Kher created full-body plaster casts of six sex workers from Kolkata, India. The artist’s perception of these women’s life experience is captured in the cast, a moment forever recorded in time.

Along with the seven previous artists-in-residence on display, the current artist-in-residence, Lee Mingwei participates in the fall exhibition with a performance art experience titled, Sonic Blossom. Unlike the other works, Sonic Blossom takes place within the actual museum, in the courtyard of the palace. There is a vocal soloist who randomly selects visitors and asks them, “May I give you the gift of song?” If the visitor accepts the gift, they will be led to a chair in the courtyard where the vocalist will give a personal opera performance of one of five lieder (art songs) by Franz Schubert. This is supposed to highlight the spontaneous gift, especially the gift of song. This performance occurs every day during museum hours at the timing of the soloist (while I was at the museum, there were four personal performances).

Sonic Blossom is on display until December 1st and the exhibition, In the Company of Artists: 25 Years of Artists-In-Residence, will be open until January 20, 2020.

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