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Sight: Originality, Duplicity, and the Object
Self-Portrait, Milton Bellin, Egg tempera on panel. Gift from the Estate of Milton Bellin.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- Consider that museum exhibitions normally emphasize "master" pieces: objects, which through singular quality and renown, stand for definitive transitions and chapters in the evolution of art. Instead, the new exhibition Second Sight: Originality, Duplicity, and the Object highlights artworks that have bridged the evolution of art, by transmitting motifs, methods, styles, genres, ideas, and traditions from one context to another.

Second Sight emerged from a larger initiative by Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center to exhibit rarely seen works from its vast permanent collection. “We began pulling out objects that for one reason or another do not 'fit' into canonical histories of art,” explained Joel Smith, a curator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. “As we assembled the best of the pieces, we realized that as a group they bring to life some of the central issues facing art historians today, from the criteria for originality and the appropriation of earlier images by later artists, to the dissemination of ideas and motifs from one cultural setting to another.”

Even before the idea for Second Sight took shape, the curators and the director spent months plumbing the vaults of the Art Center for works across all media, geography, and history, from the Middle Ages to the present. As a result the exhibit brings together variant renditions and copy sketches, satires and homages, authorized facsimiles and suspected forgeries, works of problematic attribution, renderings in alternative media, modern versions of classic themes, and postmodern reinventions of modernist icons.

“An important story we tell in Second Sight is about the constant, subtle amendments that occur in art over time,” continued Smith. “The vehicles for our narrative are artworks that refer in a variety of ways to other works. ”

Andy Warhol's screen-print Jackie II (1966) features enlarged side-by-side copies of a press photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy mourning at JFK’s funeral, a nod to the numbing familiarity induced by overexposure in the mass media. Second Sight exhibits the famous artist's work alongside an anonymous snapshot of a television screen showing the first lady during the live telecast of the funeral: a mourner's private memorial, captured before the public moment's conversion into pop-cultural cliché.

Two self-portraits in the exhibit by the later American artist Milton Bellin (1913-1997), one work painted and the other drawn, are remarkable for a degree of finish -- and of inch-for-inch agreement with each other -- where manual skill borders on mechanical precision. Bellin’s technique, in egg tempera on panel and ink and gouache on paper respectively, was characterized by meticulous attention to detail and perfection of surface.

Photographers, working in a medium widely regarded as inherently mechanical, have employed diverse methods to avoid the taint of “art reproduction” and to signal the status of their work as art in itself. In Second Sight an Orientalist platinum-print of the Thames River by Ernest Lamb is seen alongside one of its aesthetic forebears, James McNeill Whistler’s lithograph Early Morning, Battersea (1878).

Among the satires in Second Sight is a seventeenth-century Flemish bronze sculpture that lampoons the classical tragic group know as the Laocoon; here, the lead figure, Bacchus, has been set upon not by serpents but by mischievous angelic creatures (“putti”), who are after his bowl of wine. In James Gillray’s etching Weird Sisters: Ministers of Darkness, Minions of the Moon (1791), Henry Fuseli’s image of the witches in Macbeth -- a famous contemporary painting at that time -- morphs into a trio of Tory ministers. The moon they worship is a two-faced monarchy, a smiling Queen on its sunny side and the King in the shadows.

Second Sight: Originality, Duplicity, and the Object will be exhibited through Sunday, April 10, 2005 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and was made possible with the support of The Smart Family Foundation.

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