I have been wanting to organize an exhibition of Wendy Artin’s paintings of ancient sculptures for more than a decade. Fortunately, I now have the opportunity to do so at the Kelsey Museum—and in addition, to place Artin’s work in dialogue with a selection of objects from the Museum’s collections, as well as with casts and photographs of the sculptures she depicts. I am especially glad that we are able to feature two of Artin’s recent projects, a series of large-scale paintings of the Parthenon frieze and a group of small-scale paintings of ancient sculptures commissioned in 2012 to accompany a selection of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s classically themed poems. Our exhibition also includes a number of Artin’s figure paintings and Roman landscapes.
Artin’s work delights and intrigues me for a number of reasons. First there is the subject matter—sculptures I have known for decades. I take pleasure in the simple recognition of these familiar images and great interest in the opportunity to see them through another person’s eyes. Then there is the realism of Artin’s work, what one critic has described as its “post-photographic” fidelity to its subjects. And finally, there is what one can only call insight, her success in evoking, at least in me, an emotional response akin to the one I feel when I stand in front of the sculptures themselves. On the most basic level, I find Artin’s paintings of the Parthenon frieze beautiful and compelling for some of the same reasons I find the Parthenon frieze beautiful and compelling. I derive some of the same pleasure and satisfaction from contemplating Artin’s paintings that I do from contemplating the actual sculptures—because, through an act of representation, she has captured not just the appearance but the mood of her subject.
Of course, these paintings are not the actual sculptures but depictions of them in another medium. As such, they are autonomous works of art, and that is another source of wonder and enjoyment. Just as the fascination of the Parthenon frieze lies partly in its technique—the wizardry of marble carvers who could persuasively represent multiple overlapping horses in a relief only just over two inches deep—so I as a viewer of Artin’s paintings am entranced by the artist’s representation of the play of light and shadow, by the materiality of the paper, by the knowledge that these watercolor paintings were done in a medium that does not allow for correction.
On a more intellectual level, it is natural that I as a classicist see Artin’s paintings as works of “reception”—of engagement with the classical tradition, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Neoclassical architecture and sculpture, or David’s Oath of the Horatii, or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, or Heaney’s poems. What is the place of Artin’s work in the long history of classical reception? What is its audience in the world of contemporary art? Why has this particular artist turned to the Greek and Roman past for inspiration? In choosing ancient artifacts to pair with Artin’s paintings, I have tried to explore a number of related themes: the relationship between early Greek sculpture and the Egyptian tradition, the processes by which imperial portraits were reproduced in numerous media and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, and the popularity of famous figure types such as Aphrodite Rising from the Sea.
This exhibition has been in preparation for just over a year, and for me one of the most rewarding aspects of that process has been a lively exchange of ideas with the artist. When we were drafting a letter to send to potential lenders of her work, for example, I wrote that Artin was “practicing a form of emulation that has very ancient precedents, such as the Roman habit of copying famous Greek statues”—to which Artin herself responded with spirit: that is something, she wrote, that ”no artist would ever want to have said about themselves. I am not practicing emulation, I am not copying statues, I am creating unique and original works of art that sometimes have antiquity as a partial inspiration! (along with Light, Erosion, and picture making, all of which are just as important sources of inspiration). . . . ‘Copy’ and ‘emulate’ are simply negative for painters. They assume a better original.” I answered in turn, “My first reaction is that you are not doing justice to the richness and complexity of your work by rejecting those terms outright. Why be afraid of words?” University museums, I added, are “places of fearless questioning.”
At a certain point, it occurred to me the dialogue that was emerging between us would be a good format for a catalogue essay—one that would capture the spirit of discovery that animated our exchanges—and certainly one with very distinguished ancient precedents.
Christopher Ratté, Ann Arbor, 2015