Upon initial regard, the contemporary art exhibition, “Stranger than Paradise,” appears as a baffling mixture of contemporary and ancient art. With works from the Rhode Island School of Design alums, professors and more, this collection of 14 items from the RISD Museum’s permanent holdings opened last July and explores the relationship between humans and nature over time.
Assembled by Dominic Molon, the Richard Brown Baker curator of contemporary art at the RISD Museum, the show features an eclectic selection of pieces that range from a Greek wine jug dating back to 610 BCE to works by recent RISD graduates like Sophia Narrett.
The collection “developed from, as often collection presentations do, objects that I’d been wanting to have on view in the galleries for some time,” Molon said. When a space opened up for the exhibition, he and John Smith, director of the museum, discussed a presentation that had themes of nature. “He suggested kind of looking back into history and combining more contemporary works with works from different historical periods,” Molon added.
Within the exhibit, one of the most noticeable objects is a work by Michael Smith, a sculptor who lives in Providence. It features a “pigeon form encased in a resin within the structure that is taken from a door found here in Providence, but cut very deeply to resemble a landscape or a seascape,” Molon said. It is simultaneously surreal and disquieting, and presents a much more “abstracted idea of humankind and nature,” Molon added.
In contrast, a painting by Wilhelm Frederik van Royen entitled “The Young Hunter” dates back to 1706 and features an image of a young man surrounded by the bounty of his hunt. The contrast between the pieces in the collection that are traditionally pastoral and familiar against pieces like Smith’s creates a tension between the works akin to the tension between humankind and nature. This is a central theme that the exhibition seeks to explore.
“Something that was very important for me when I got here, is to be very proactive about getting the work of recent RISD alumni into the collection. … I think we’ve missed the boat in the past on artists who do come out of RISD who make a huge impact in the art world and don’t have a very major work of theirs up in the collection,” Molon said.
Sophia Narrett, with her stitch-based sculpture, and Tomory Dodge, with his painting of a deconstructed tree post-storm, constitute the two RISD alum pieces in the collection. Angela Dufresne, a professor at RISD, is also featured in the collection with her painting “Man and Kid” that shows a young man, caked in blood, emerging from the woods with a goat thrown over his shoulder.
Narrett’s work coupled well with the work of another artist, Wifredo Lam. “I had those works, in mind, together. Sophia’s was an incredibly labor-intensive stitch piece that takes all these highly eroticized and sexualized unions and congregations of people in this very verdant tropical setting,” Molon said. “Wifredo Lam has also this sensual sort of nature to it but the figures are much more abstracted and eroticized.”
“One of the tensions in our work is that sometimes it’s hard to gauge what public perception is going to be of the show,” said Matthew Berry, a marketing specialist who worked on promoting the exhibition. “We work to find ways in which our exhibitions and our collection can be made relatable to people, how they speak to current events,” he added.
“Visitors have expressed a little confusion about the show, so I refer them to what is written about it, but it is a bit of an eclectic mix,” said Bob Pratae, a security staff member who has worked at the RISD Museum for 18 years. “I found it a bit of an odd mixture of work but I understand where the curator is coming from with looking at how art has been interpreted.”