On Tuesday, Oct. 26, the University’s Samek Art Museum unveiled a new exhibition at their downtown gallery on Market Street. The exhibition is titled “Nobodies: Identity, Selfhood, and Expression Beyond Portraiture.” Curated by guest curator Carly Boxer, a Carney Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Art and Architecture at Rice University, this exhibit aims to explore the unconventional depiction of bodies in art and how these depictions reveal a story beyond the medium. The pieces that were selected “express the inner lives and physical form of their sitters (and sometimes themselves)” through means other than direct portraiture, as stated on the Samek website.
When setting out to create the exhibition, Boxer was largely inspired by her work with medical manuscripts of the late medieval period in Europe. Boxer said that the depiction of bodies in these manuscripts are often not what one would expect. “They are not portraits, even when they show a person with great attention to their external appearance. They rarely link the person they depict to a specific, recognizable identity, or even to a name,” Boxer said.
This abstract depiction of bodies influenced Boxer to curate a collection that expressed similar ideas. “All of the works in ‘Nobodies’ question the relationship between a represented person (a person sitting for a portrait, for example) and the way the work actually looks,” Boxer said.
One striking example of this that Boxer points to within the exhibition is Miriam Schapiro’s “Children of Paradise”. This piece incorporates vibrant scraps of various fabrics to create a beautiful collage, all surrounding the central point: the empty outfits of two young children. While we see the clothing, we do not see any people wearing them. The “body” is absent, but, as Boxer emphasizes, “we still get hints of a story, and with it a specific person.” This idea of invoking the story of a person or persons, oftentimes without even showing them, is at the core of this exhibition.
In selecting “Children of Paradise” and the 10 other pieces for this exhibition, Boxer was able to sift through Samek’s collection to find the art that illustrated the story that she wanted to tell. She began first by browsing the museum’s online collection to get an idea of the possibilities. Later, as she was able to see the artwork in person, she was offered detailed descriptions of their condition and histories in previous exhibits. She started off with two pieces that she knew were central to the narrative: Ray Yoshida’s “See” and a piece titled “Seated Scribe Fragment”. The latter of the two is the preserved fragment of a sculpture created 4000 years ago by an anonymous Egyptian artist. But beyond this incredible artifact, most of the other pieces in the exhibition come from Samek’s large collection of modern and contemporary art. Pondering the collection, Boxer turned her attention to what pieces would operate well in conversation with the two that she had already selected. She was searching for art that similarly “play[ed] with conventions of text and image in combination,” and would therefore make up the dialogue that would become the exhibition—in short referred to as “Nobodies.”
In addition to the three pieces already mentioned, Boxer selected art pieces by artists Roger Brown, Gerhard Richter, Alen MacWeeney, Robert Rauschenberg, Díaz Lewis, Gabrielle Bakker, Domenico Tintoretto, and Alice Neel. Walking through the exhibit, one is astounded by the diversity of mediums, from lithograph, to collotype, to collage, to oil, to sandstone—even lint was used on acrylic. Yet, despite these differences in how the pieces were created, it is clear that each piece stays in conversation with the next. Realized together, the art offers insight into how we can sense the presence of emotions, identities, and relationships, even if no body is directly present to encapsulate these things. At the same time, the pieces maintain their own separate stories. Boxer commented on this simultaneous connectivity and individuality. “Each piece in the exhibit becomes more interesting when you view it through the lens of its neighbor because each offers a different perspective on identity and selfhood,” Boxer said.
While Boxer has yet to see the final product of the collection, because she is completing her fellowship at Rice, she is eager to see the full execution of her curation when she returns to Lewisburg.
Due to the nature of these artworks that allow viewers to conceive of their own ideas of the bodies that occupy them, Boxer hopes that visitors are able to “see [themselves] in the work. I hope visitors leave the exhibit with their own, new questions about how works of art can communicate identity and represent their subjects,” Boxer said.
“Nobodies: Identity, Selfhood, and Expression Beyond Portraiture” will be on exhibit at Samek’s Downtown Gallery until Feb. 27, 2022. Be sure to pay a thoughtful visit so that you can form your own ideas and questions about how bodies, or lack thereof, can convey a sense of identity in art.