One Class, Four Exhibitions: Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art Redux

Three years ago I taught the first manifestation of a Classical Mythology Honors course here at Ohio State that explored the dynamic between Classical Myth and Contemporary Art. At that time, the students encountered a range of artworks using the (then recent) publication Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Art Works (Phaidon 2012). However, this time around I am luck enough to have four very different, but equally exciting exhibitions to take the students to here in Columbus, giving them four unique opportunities to explore the thematic intersections between Classical Myth and Contemporary Art first hand. 

For our discussions of ‘Epic Myths’, the myths surrounding the Trojan War and its aftermath, the students will visit the exhibition Seeing the Great War at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library – an amazing place that didn’t even exist last time I taught this course.

(Yes, I know that calling this ‘contemporary art’ may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I wanted to ease the students in to the process of ‘reading’ visual narratives and storytelling, as well as ideas of heroism and its parodies – and there is a great Snoopy cartoon that does all of these brilliantly!)

The second exhibition the class will visit, which is in many ways central to the course as a whole in its ambition to offer the students a general introduction to the range of themes explored in Contemporary Art and how they can be applied in interesting ways beyond art historical discussions, is called Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne at the OSU Urban Arts Space.

For this exhibition, we’ll be discussing ‘Creation Myths’ and the expansive and eclectic range of stories about the gods and goddesses of antiquity and their creative, amorous and destructive relationships with us mere mortals and our worlds. The collection of Blake Byrne is not only amazing for its range, but also for intriguing clusters of works by several key contemporary artists (e.g. Marlene Dumas, Martin Kippenberger, Glenn Ligon, Paul McCarthy). Curated by Joseph R. Wolin, this exhibition will give the students a panorama of key movements and voices in contemporary art. 

Next on our itinerary is the Wexner Center for the Arts – my more usual stomping ground! – and their huge After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists. While the range of artists represented compared with Open this End (with some intriguing cross-overs, including Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Sigmar Polke, the focus on the reception of Picasso’s icon works will give the students a different spin on their mythic comparisons. They will think about the ‘Tragic Myths’, from the plays of Euripides to their afterlife in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while investigating ideas of figuration and identity in contemporary responses to Picasso.
Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Last but not least the students will visit the exhibition Imperfections By Chance: Paul Feeley Retrospective, 1954–1966, at the newly opened Columbus Museum of Art. the students will think about how myths collude with Platonic ideas and abstractions via Feeley’s colourful ‘undulating forms’ (not to mention their Classically-loaded titles!).

Paul Feeley Caligula, 1960

For information on each of these exhibitions, please click the images above. As for my class, watch this space!

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