On Friday, Sept. 7, the Rose opened its new slate of fall exhibitions: “Tuesday Smillie: To Build Another World,” a collection of the trans-feminist activists’ work, and “Passage,” a retrospective of the Rose’s sizeable collection. The result is a museum that looks back on its past and to the future, providing a space to make connections between pieces and contemplate what they mean. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of a high-quality museum that’s free and conveniently located on Brandeis’ campus.
Tuesday Smillie: To Build Another World
The top floor hosts Smillie’s “To Build Another World.” The works are biting and melancholy, yet resolved. They provoke and then direct a response.
They’re mostly banners, made of fabric and a few other materials (beads, flowers, notions) that accentuate the pieces. In the first, “Again,” (2017), several different ragged fabrics are draped over one another, looking like materials about to be sewn. Black text, superimposed, reads, “The razor blades we’ve swallowed will cut us again as we cough them up, to cut each other.”
Smillie’s show is full of text like this: pithy, dark statements that conjure violent images, provoke thought and stir political action.
The next, “GENDER>GENITALS,” is the most conventional-looking of the banners, ready to be carried at a march. But below the eponymous text, the artist has attached a row of flowers: silver, red and white. They add impracticality, but warmth too.
One pitch-black banner reads, in just slightly legible letters, “WE FUCK UP SOMETIMES.” Another one near it reads, “TOGETHER / STRENGTH IN DIFFERENCE / SAFETY IN NUMBERS.” Honest rallying cries.
There’s a reconstruction of a Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) flag, with a little added on. A picture is provided for reference, harkening back to the organization’s founding in the early 1970s as a political movement. Smillie obscured the words slightly, covering them with strips of fabric that look like black wounds or deep claw marks. But we can still see the text remaining beneath, resilient.
I found the last banner, near the entrance, the most affecting. It’s a vertical banner, draped like a tapestry, almost touching the floor. The artist cut the words, “Your wound is a blessing” into a sort-of stencil, so the orange fabric beneath illuminates them. It’s a short, powerful phrase.
Another section of Smillie’s work, “A Slow and Arduous Progression,” does something different. First, a little backstory. The famous science fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin endeavored in her book “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969) to invent a gender-fluid world. While pioneering in many aspects, the book was criticised for falling back on old tropes of heteronormative association. Smillie’s “Progression” takes a page from a later essay by Le Guin, “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” with handwritten comments by the author overlayed.
Next to Le Guin writing that she “regrets this very much,” Smillie adds, “Le Guin breaks from heterosexuality, but we are still locked in a physiological endochronic binary.” It’s an efficient, concise way of visually demonstrating the process and history of gender and sexuality studies over the past 50 years.
To the right are watercolor renditions by the artist of Le Guin’s novels. We see several renditions of “The Left Hand of Darkness,” such as the Korean and Spanish versions. It’s interesting viewing Smillie’s visual interpretations of these pulpy old sci-fi novels. They look realistic, almost plain, but about Le Guin and Smillie.
Beneath a glass case, we see three pieces of black paper, each with variations of a grey drawing and a bit of text. If you read the words in a series, it goes, “To build another world, we must be brave enough to imagine how that world could be. // We will make profound mistakes. The critical question is how we proceed, as our failures become clear. // A slow and arduous progression.”
With difficult questions, beautiful, provocative art, “To Build Another World” should not be missed.
“We have a Picasso?” one of my roommates asked me, as I told him about the Rose. Yes, we have a Picasso, and works by Rene Magritte and Wifredo Lam and Juan Gris that you can view right now.
“Passage,” curated by Director of the Rose Luis A. Croquer, aims to examine and showcase the museum’s collection of works from the 1900s to the 1970s. Across three rooms, paintings, photographs and sculptures demonstrate the breadth of the museum. Demonstrated, too, are the prejudices against women and people of color that have long plagued the American art world. There are works by Isamu Noguchi, Marisol Escobar and Robert Colescott, yet, by and large, this show is comprised of white men. That the museum acknowledged this up front, and detailed how, in recent years, acquisition practices have changed, is honest and helpful for the conversation.
The pieces are arranged to play off each other: There’s a painting by Hyman Bloom, “Corpse of Man,” that looks opposite Alfonso Ossorio’s “The Making of Eve.” “Corpse” is a visceral depiction of a dead man’s body in the throes of decomposition. Vivid colors—reds, greens, tinges of light blue—make death seem alive.
The juxtaposition, with “The Making of Eve’s” writhing bands of energy, doesn’t seem forced. We get to see the processes of going into the void, and being ripped from it, right next to each other. Viewing the pieces in conversation with one another adds depth to the whole.
“Passage” also has excellent selections for fans of photography, especially two works by Andre Kertesz: “Chairs of the Champs Elysees,” and “Distortion #88.” The former finds everyday symmetry in a line of chairs and their shadow, and the latter creates a brushstroke like distortion effect between the heads of two women. I also highly recommend checking out Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “Retrato de lo Eterno (Woman Combing Her Hair)” in the Lois Foster Wing.
“To Build Another World” and “Passage” coexist nicely. Where one focuses on social justice and political action in the now, the other looks back at a problematic history with honesty. If you visit the Rose, you’ll be able to make even more connections.