Open Ended: Chaos, creation and other dilemmas at the Urban Arts Space

In my Classics 2220H: Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art class last week, each of the students delivered presentations that connected their exploration of myths of creation, love and art with individual art works from the exhibition Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne at the OSU Urban Arts Space here in Columbus. Leaving their Hesiod and Ovid back in the classroom, the students were given an exclusive tour by the exhibition’s curator, Joe Wolin (who happens to have a background in Classics!), focusing on works from the collection that resonated with mythological themes, including discussing Medusa with Cindy Sherman, Medea with Marlene Dumas. 

Cindy Sherman Untitled, 1999

Both of these artists figured in the student presentations, but the range of mythic analogies stretched much further. One student examined how Sherman’s dismembered doll-figure recalled the way ancient Greek and Roman gods inflicted a cycle of cataclysms from floods to fires as punishment for human hubris (Lycaon) or as a result of their own all-too-human errors (Phaethon). The student also showed how Sherman’s feminism can be transferred to an critique of these same male gods for the way they treated human female figures, from Daphne to Callisto, as kids with their toys; breaking and abusing them to sate their desires.

Destruction, divine justice and erotic conquest were also discussed by the students presenting on three different works by Marlene Dumas. These included the horrific triptych The Breaking of the Human Body on the Sidewalk, which the student described as offering a narrative of the dissolution of the figure and the blackening of the image and connected it to the gods ‘shuddering’ in response to Jupiter’s plan for destroying the human race after the treachery of Lycaon (as told in the first book of Ovid Metamorphoses).

Marlene Dumas The Breaking of a Human Body on the Sidewalk, 1987-88

Another student chose to see the erotic violence of the male gods in Dumas’ Blue Movie, turning the idea of the female actress onto the way that the gods deceived their mortal prey through acting and role-playing (think Jupiter turning into the goddess Diana to snare Callisto).

Marlene Dumas, Blue Movie, 2008

Beyond Dumas and Sherman, it was great to see how the students used the same myths to engage with seemingly completely different artists, such as like Ed Ruscha and Albert Oehlen. Yet when you think of ways to illustrate the differences between Hesiod’s account of primeval Chaos as a ‘gaping void’ and Ovid’s as a ‘disordered mass’, you could a lot worse than looking to one of Ruscha’s empty parking lots and a pop/abstract mash-up by Oehlen.

Ed Ruscha Parking Lots, 1967/99 (detail)
Albert Oehlen 24/7 Punk, 2001

Yet beyond the specifics of this dual-vision of chaos and the destructive tendencies within the creation myths, perhaps the most significant outcome of having the students talk about these contemporary art works in terms of their readings in Classical mythology was a basic point about shifting perspective and encountering both the grandiose and epic as well as the mundane and everyday in a striking new way. A process that directly bridges ancient myth and contemporary creativity.

For example, a student expressed his delight at encountering all the ingredients for an epic myth of war and adventure in John Baldessari’s 2010 painting Sediment: Spear, Person and Horse, even going so far as seeing the main attributes of the god Poseidon depicted through his association with horses. But then the student quickly retracted and settled on the more general, yet no less interesting, conclusion that the sum of the painting’s parts do not add up to this epic scene and how this shift in perspective makes us consider the accumulative force of how a myth about a god’s identity and power is constructed and manipulated in antiquity.

John Baldessari, Sediment: Spear, Person and Horse, 2010

This approach was fruitfully explored by students presenting on Christopher Williams and Sherrie Levine, in which a car on its side or a pipe made of gold make specific comments about art historical and modernist theoretical expectations, yet at the same time also call on us to look again and engage with a shift in perspective when engaging with these objects.

Christopher Williams Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095. . ., 2000
Sherrie Levine Une Pipe: 1, 2001

The general and the particular of this myth logic was best explicated by a student who brought together Robert Gober’s untitled work of two doors mounted in a corner in a kind of cross, with the image of Penelope, the cunning wife of Odysseus, weaving a shroud by day and unpicking the stitches at night as a way of staving off the interests of the suitors. She explored these images of domesticity and dilemma in a way that will always stick in my mind and which will act as a reminder of not only of this wonderful exhibition, but also of why I have my students engage with Classical Mythology through Contemporary Art in the first place.

Installation view of Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne, with works (left to right) by Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Paul McCarthy.

Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne is on show until November 7th and for more information, click here.

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