Curators behind a Monandock Region exhibit want visitors to do more than consider artists' creations and curators' points of view; they want people to bring their own perceptions and experiences through the gallery doors.
It's about connecting the tangible and intangible, from references to science, language, religion and technology to values, customs and social conventions. And then considering if knowing who produced a particular piece of art somehow shapes or changes someone's impression of that work. Further, what does that say about human nature?
While the questions may seem more like an academic exercise, they are in fact integral to the showing "Intersection: Art, Culture, Identity" at Keene State College's Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery in Keene. Designed around the concept of object-based learning, "Intersection" invites people to visually analyze works, as well as their own reactions to them.
Gallery director Maureen Ahern said the exhibit is an experiment of sorts in which people are asked to participate in the artistic process — to bring their own experiences, feelings and thoughts into the gallery, and discover if those things shape how they respond to pieces of art and the circumstances that surrounded its creation.
In selecting art for the exhibit, academic curators, many of whom teach in the college's journalism and communication departments, also engaged in this active learning process. They were asked also to consider several concepts, including how an object itself might influence contemporary culture, what its meaning might be to the artist, and how knowing such details could change the public's interpretation of it. As part of the exhibit, each piece is accompanied by a written narrative that describes the academic curator's respective perceptions.
The end result of the 18-month planning and selection process is a surprisingly diverse collection of work, which has garnered talk in the gallery and online at www.thorne-sagendorph.com.
"Many of them didn't necessarily have an art background, so it's been a fun learning experience," said Ahern, who also selected a piece for the exhibit.
For participating academic curator and KSC professor of journalism Mark Timney, the exhibit has the potential to impact how people view not just art, but themselves.
"I hope people realize that how they interpret what they see depends on who they are," said Timney, who cited his participation in the exhibit helped change some of his own thinking. He said this conceptual shift began shortly after his selection of a sculpture that depicted a Native American, which he thought was interesting. What he didn't expect, Timney said, was that his selection, titled "King of the Maquas (Mowhawk)" and created by artist Judd Hartmann, was actually viewed as historically inaccurate by some Native Americans, artists and scholars.
"My own experiences didn't give me a greater context in which to judge the piece in," said Timney, who noted his selection stirred up controversy on the KSC campus as several faculty members felt the image "contributes to harmful, cultural stereotyping."
"I wanted to know what they knew that I didn't," he added. "I asked myself, 'What do these people know that changes how they view art or this social issue?'"
He wound up experiencing the same learning curve he and other academic curators hope the public will encounter.
"It takes broader concepts and puts them into context; it's more than just rote memory," said Timney, who also created all aspects related to the exhibit's graphic and Web design components.
In asking questions about an object that on the surface appears deceptively simple, Ahern said the hope is people find themselves squarely at the middle of an intersection between art, culture and identity.
"In object-based learning, it's like being Sherlock Holmes," she said. "You look for clues to see 'who done it'."
For Timney, his selected piece centers on the notion of free speech.
"Free speech is, and always will be, a two-edged sword," he said. "Our courts have generally sought to balance security with freedom when it comes to limiting expression. Where that balance point is, however, depends greatly upon the intersection of numerous aspects of culture."
"Intersection: Art, Culture, Identity" is on view ' in person, the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery is open Sunday through Wednesday from 12 to 5 p.m., Thursday and Friday from 12 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 12 to 8 p.m.
For more details, visit www.thorne-sagendorph.com/intersection.