Some people may see the current small exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art as merely an interlude, falling as it does between the summer's large Rodin exhibition and In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West, which opens this weekend. And while it may indeed be, as has been said of our state, a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit, Interiors is hardly insignificant. For this exhibition carries forward one of the museum's important (but sometimes neglected) missions: to put the work of North Carolina artists in a broader context.
It has always been difficult for artists working outside of major centers like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to be taken as seriously as their counterparts in those cities. Often local and regional cultural institutions prefer to import art and artists that already have been validated by the prestigious museums and powerful critics elsewhere. Of course, there is a huge value in that. It would be parochial in the extreme to act as if we had nothing to gain from looking outward. But--pardon me while I harp on this point again--we will never be a center for first-rate art if we do not nurture our own artists.
One of the very best ways for a museum or gallery to do that is to show our local or regional artists together with others working at the same level who live elsewhere. The Interiors exhibition, curated by the NCMA's Huston Paschal, demonstrates just how good such a show can be. As Paschal notes, the interior has long been a theme in the history of art, from the perfectly ordered rooms of the great Dutch painters all the way through to recent installation art, with its literal presentation of interior spaces. Paschal picked 12 artists whose work reflects some facet of the concept of "interior"--eight of whom live in North Carolina. For this show, she has cunningly chosen unpeopled images, objects and installations, so that, looking at each, we feel ourselves within it, either imaginatively or in actuality.
Durham's Jeff Goll, whose work we have been seeing all too rarely, is represented by a selection from "The Gourd Archive." In each of these, you peer through a lens into the lighted interior of a large gourd, which has been filled with all manner of things illustrating philosophical or spiritual questing. Looking into them is like looking into Goll's brain. Andrea Lekberg shows us her brain in a very different way. Her open-faced "Jeannette's House" is an homage to art she loves: She's made little replicas of sculpture and painting by many artists, and placed them in a beautifully furnished 'dollhouse' that is so whimsical in terms of scale that you feel like Alice down the rabbit hole just looking at it.
Stephen Aubuchon's black-and-white photos show interiors that have no pleasant connotations. He photographed Nazi death camps in Poland from the point of view of the captive, and these images reek of fear, despair and rage--even though they show the clean and empty rooms as they are today, and almost appear as abstract compositions in light and dark. They make Shellburne Thurber's photographs of abandoned houses look downright luxurious.
Page Laughlin mocks the luxury of expensive stylish domestic interiors and the social striving they embody in her paintings--while seducing us with the beauty of her surfaces. There's no such unease or ambivalence in Elizabeth Matheson's lovely color photographs, which convey with calm pleasure the gracious glow and gleam of rooms well-loved for generations.
As small as the show is, with only 32 works, it manages in its eclecticism to provoke an astonishing range of thought on its subject. Paschal deftly and subversively makes the relationship between a physical interior and a psychic space, and gently argues, as so many mystics and poets have, for the value of a singular quietness, a still axis. As she says in her catalog essay, "a person requires a private station whose coordinates are stillness and silence" in which to become receptive to "the transformation of perception" that art can bring. Paschal is to be thanked, not only for contextualizing the work of some of our state's artists, but for bringing together these works that encourage us to be quiet and receptive to thought and transformation. That encouragement is only too lacking from many museum shows in this era when art is often confused with noisy entertainment.