BY NADYA ELLERHORST
When I walk into a themed exhibition, I usually anticipate a set cohesion in terms of style, era, movement, medium or artist. “Focus on Painting” at Old College Gallery focuses on the medium and ignores the rest – and it does so brilliantly.
According to its opening panel, the exhibition, curated by Amanda T. Zehnder and on view until May 17, is a continuation of a larger series of exhibitions intended to highlight facets of the university’s Museums Collections. It specifically features notable works from the university Museums Collections of African American Art, regional and American artists, European artists and alumni and faculty art.
Walking into the Old College Gallery on a Wednesday morning, I was greeted by a hushed, low-lit room and a smorgasbord of paintings spanning the 17th to the 21st centuries. Initially, I was a bit intimidated by the sheer variety on display. As I walked from painting to painting, I found myself taking mental leaps between time periods, artists and subject matter. Based on my previous museum experiences and expectations, this sensation took a few minutes to shake off. A few paintings in, however, I began to enjoy the process of appreciating each work of art simply as it was instead of in explicit relation to others.
I also have to applaud the label writing within the exhibition. Lengthy, artistically-specific labels are one of my greatest pet peeves, but the descriptions of the paintings were concise and easy-to-read, conveying relevant, thought-provoking information that you don’t need to be an art history major to understand. They also occasionally brought the words of the artists themselves into the conversation. Students of any discipline or individuals with varying levels of art experience can easily come away having learned something about the pieces on view.
The exhibition is also notable for its regional feel, and I personally gained a great deal of insight into artists from Delaware and the surrounding areas, which was made all the more interesting by my out-of-state status. The exhibition features a painting by Howard Pyle, a Wilmington-born painter known for his illustrations, as well as the work of regional artists who were students of Pyle, including Maggie Eakins Cromwell, Eleanor Crownfield, N. C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover. The works of these artists, specifically, were generally situated close together, allowing the viewer to find influences among them. I appreciated the chance to learn more about these and other artists who called the area (including Newark) home. Some paintings even find their subject matter within the region, such as “City in Spring — Old Wilmington” by Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach.
The exhibition’s emphasis on university-relevant pieces was an additional highlight. There are works on display by university alumni and former faculty, including Darius R. Steward and Julio da Cunha. There’s even a painting of the interior of Recitation Hall Annex by alumna Lauren Scott Corwin. I also found myself surprised to read that “Old Cherry Tree” by Laussant Richter Rogers was a gift to the Collections from Judge Hugh Martin Morris (a.k.a. the man for whom our library is named) and his wife.
A note for art fans: a piece by Grant Wood – the artist who painted “American Gothic” (you know, stern farmer and equally stern daughter) – is on display.
I likewise adored the case of mineral specimens in the center of Old College Gallery and the descriptions of their relation to art as pigments, including poisonous cerussite, which was also used in makeup! It struck me as a brilliant and engaging way to highlight the synthesis between art and science in a way comprehensible for even my non-STEM brain.
There were a few elements that occasionally hindered my viewing experience. While many of the labels specify the sources of the works, I would have liked to learn more about the background of how some of the paintings actually came into the possession of the university. For example, the panel regarding Amos “Ashanti” Johnson’s “Young Brother” mentions that Collections has more works by Johnson, but doesn’t say why. I have the impression that there may have been untold stories here that I, as a viewer and university student, would have liked to hear.
Some works lacked descriptions beyond basic identifying information. I was left to wonder about the specifics of the scenes taking place and the stories and goals of their artists in pieces like Schoonover’s “Privateers of ‘76 or Man on a Bowsprit” or a group of works by Donald McLaughlin in the exhibition space adjacent to the main gallery.
Regardless, the exhibition as a whole is relatively compact, but “Focus on Painting” effectively manages to fit a variety of genres, sizes and subjects into a smaller space in a manner that’s not at all overwhelming or intellectually dizzying. It’s a great way to grasp the sheer variety housed within the university’s Collections – a fact that I think we may take for granted – through this sampling of art. Whether you’ve got an itch to learn something new or find yourself in need of a way to decompress between classes, I definitely recommend a visit.