Take a fresh look at Wellesley's Davis Museum

Chris Bergeron

Painters, sculptors and videographers twist, stir and shrink wrap our everyday world like magicians who create optical illusions that dazzle our senses.

When she re-installed the Davis Museum's permanent collection at Wellesley College, Dabney Hailey wanted visitors to discover how artists entice us to see that world anew.

The curator of painting, sculpture and photography, she organized "Perceiving Space as Art," a smart, insightful exhibit that can enhance viewers' enjoyment by examining how artists from around the world variously represent space in their works.

"I hope this is a really exciting and immersive viewing experience," Hailey said. "We really want people to look at these works and think about how they're seeing them."

The exhibit is one part of a comprehensive re-installation of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center's permanent collection galleries, overseen by Hailey with assistance from museum staff and faculty. After being closed for more than a year for renovations, the museum reopened in September 2008 with the exhibit "Global Feminisms." To complement "Perceiving Space in Art," Hailey invited feminist artist Kiki Smith to curate an installation, "The Artist as Curator: Kiki Smith." Opened in 2007, other newly installed galleries are "American Art" and "Stories, Ideals and Beliefs."

Like an optician, Hailey wants to clarify viewers' vision by giving them a fresh lens. Like an art historian, she aims to show how artists of different eras "organize space, pictorially and physically, and (how) their choices influence our experience as viewers."

Hailey accomplishes these complex tasks by juxtaposing somewhat related works in categories such as "The Space of the Picture Plane" and "Moving Through Space" to prompt viewers to consider how artists create vantage points for them to observe their works.

In an early section, "Cityscapes," she's placed Thomas Moran's gorgeous 1895 oil "View of Venice," which depicts the busy harbor off Saint Mark's Square as seen from the sea, beside an earlier John Singer Sargent painting of an empty Venetian square where nothing seems to be happening.

As if adjusting the eyepiece on binoculars, viewers Thursday moved back and forth before the two paintings, seeking, it seemed, to find the natural vantage points Moran and Sargent created to provide a sense of open space and intimacy.

On a nearby wall, Hailey has hung Belgium artist Francis Alys' subversive "Cityscape, triptych," that reminds viewers modern art has gone way beyond photographic realism to now offer "artistic" rather than objective interpretations of reality.

In 1997, Alys painted a small oil view of Mexico City rooftops so nondescript as to barely qualify as art. He then recruited two professional sign painters to copy and enlarge his scene in their own styles.

As if trying to satisfy advertisers, the sign painters gussied up Alys' drab scene, giving it a shiny gloss and sunlit sheen that reminds viewers, according to Hailey's wall text, "translations are never precise and one can find variety and poetry even in the most banal corners of the modern city."

The exhibit grows even more intriguing as later sections examine how sculptors, videographers and audio artists incorporate perspective, space and sound into non-traditional works in different media.

While viewers merely stand in front of paintings, visitors to "Moving Through Space" can - and should - circle Giambologna's powerful 1583 bronze sculpture "Rape of a Sabine" or stand beneath Alexander Calder's 1937 iron and wire mobile "Study for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail." Created 350 years apart, each work seems to generate a spatial force field around it that draws viewer toward it like magnets to engage it from varying perspectives.

The only better way would be to run our fingers along Giambologa's dynamic figures or give Calder's hanging installation a spin.

One of the single most fascinating artifacts displayed in this section is a wooden "Ciwara," or headdress, from Mali, Africa. Set in a cabinet it resembles a simple, carved ornament, but a nearby video shows a dancer wearing a different "Ciwara" during the ecstatic performance of an agricultural ritual.

Across cultures and time, the message seems to be: Art is just something to be hung on a wall and looked at.

In "Among School Children," Irish poet William Butler Yeats asked, "Who can tell the dancer from the dance?"

In "Perceiving Space as Art," Hailey helps viewers discover through their senses they're also part of each piece of art.

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Davis Art Museum, 106 Central St., is on the campus of Wellesley College. For visiting hours and more information, visit www.davismuseum.wellesley.edu or call 781-283-2051. Admission is free.

For docent tour information, call 781-283-3382. The museum and adjoining cafe and cinema are wheelchair accessible.