Frame of Reference

by Laura Sim | 2/9/14 7:06pm

On Feb. 3, Brooklyn artist Tony Matelli’s lifelike sculpture “Sleepwalker” was installed outside of Wellesley College’s campus museum to promote the artist’s show, “New Gravity,” which will run through July. The sculpture features a middle-aged man in tight white underwear briefs, with eyes closed and arms outstretched like he is sleepwalking. After its installation, students circulated a petition demanding the sculpture’s removal.

The day after the installation, the Boston Globe reported that the statue had shocked campus. Some students snapped pictures and smiled or laughed as they approached while others were concerned.

A Wellesley junior started a petition on Change.org to have the sculpture moved inside Wellesley’s Davis Museum, where students could interact with the art on their own terms. The petition has since gained over 850 signatures.

The petitioners argue that the statue could be a trigger for students who have experienced sexual assault, especially at night. Critics claim that the statue falls under the category of shock art, a contemporary art form that incorporates disturbing features to unsettle viewers.

Matelli’s work forces viewers to question age-old dilemmas about the purpose of making art and what constitutes art. Matelli, defending his work, said in an interview with CBS Boston, that the sculpture was meant to elicit empathy, not fear. He described the statue’s subject as “an outsider” displaced from his natural environment.

Wellesley’s museum director Lisa Fischman said that the statue will remain on display through July. In a statement on the Davis Museum’s website, Fischman wrote that, “as the best art does, Tony Matelli’s work provokes dialogue, and discourse is at the core of education.”

Matelli’s work follows a string of thought-provoking, confrontational art that dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. Works of art including bodily secretions or even portraying self-mutilation are no longer avant-garde.

Not surprisingly, shock art has made appearances at Dartmouth, too. Though recently designated as a national historic landmark, Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural, “The Epic of American Civilization,” attracted high levels of criticism when it was completed in 1934. Touching on industrialization, colonialism and nationalism, the murals implicated a ruling class of white capitalists in marginalizing Latin Americans, often with extreme force. Using a fresco style, the violent imagery of Hernan Cortes’s arrival in Mexico and dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in the mural’s eleventh panel are extremely affecting.

More shocking than the work itself, however, may be the response pieces that Orozco inspired. Walter Humphrey, member of the Class of 1914, was outraged by the new mural and convinced then-College President Ernest Hopkins to allow him to paint his own murals.

Humphrey’s work, a tribute to Richard Hovey, shows Eleazar Wheelock traveling through the New England wilderness to teach Native Americans. Yet the “teaching” is a lightly veiled scene of drinking and carousing, with free-flowing rum and Native American women posed like pin-up models.

In many ways a parody of Orozco’s creation story, the Hovey murals came under scrutiny in the 1970s.

Whether in college communities or major cities around the world, art is not valuable simply because of its ability to shock the viewer. Ultimately, the beauty of art lies in its subjectivity, its ability to elicit differing responses based on the viewer. While the Hovey murals clearly antagonize members of Dartmouth’s community and should not be on regular view, Matelli’s work edges up against a different boundary.

If the sculpture makes women feel unsafe on their campus, then maybe Wellesley chose the wrong place to exhibit the piece. We have different standards on our campuses than in the world at large, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps Matelli’s visit to the Wellesley campus on Feb. 12 will help clear up the confusion regarding how viewers interpret his work.