Bondage Art Holds Viewers Captive

“Within the hallowed confines of Harvard University’s common rooms… amidst the cozy complacency of over-stuffed sofas and Oriental rugs, the twenty-first century has rushed in and rudely taken over. Art history has been debunked and artistic conventions rewritten. Something is afoot at Harvard—listen to the whimpering yelp of the underdog howling in the yard. Watch anger turn into art. Rejoice as the dog slips its leash and jumps up growling ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours.’”

Them’s the fightin’ words on the puzzlingly-titled “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” a show curated by Martin Maloney, a visiting lecturer in Visual and Environmental Studies. Now, don’t get excited—the title is rather misleading. In fact, as I walked into the show’s first installment, in Adams House, I heard another viewer exclaim, “There’s no bondage in this at all!” Alas, it’s true. The show seems to have very little, if anything, to do with bondage as most of us know it—I mean, as most of us have heard about it.

Contentions about the “underdogs” of art coming forward in this show to “debunk” and “rewrite” artistic convention seem equally inaccurate. There is little in the show that could be described as revolutionary. While it is perhaps unexpected to see such works in Harvard common spaces, it’s not terribly shocking, and by no means unprecedented.

We’re not talking feces-covered statue of the Madonna here. No canvasses painted with semen. No naked self-portraits. And definitely no bondage.

As it is, the show contains some excellent, not-utterly-conventional-but-not-totally-out-there pieces by talented young Harvard undergraduate and graduate-aged artists. Whether or not the show lives up to its stated purpose and challenge, it does show off some fantastic individual work.

Against the stark backdrop of Adams House Art Space, odd bulges, ironic twists and surreal cartoon-style drawings expertly mar the serenity of pieces created by Susan E. Bell ’03. “Party Scene,” Bell’s depiction of “the party generation,” will make you want to forget entirely about Harvard parties. As for “Dave’s Girlfriend”—well, she’s got a style and an unexpected allure all to herself.

Geoffrey von Oeyen’s “Appealing Left” lives up to its name, depicting a Shangri-La of an intersession destination that can only be reached in a, well, “altered” state of mind. Indeed, von Oeyen would be a great spokesman for designer drugs, if it weren’t for the vivid gloom of despair creeping into his spellbinding “Twin Soliloquies.”

Honest and unapologetic, portraits by Efrat Kussell ’02 are among the most impressive of the show. A cursory glance might mistake the medium of these works as tousled hair, unfeigned expressions and stark lighting give the impression of candid photographs. The subjects display a true-to-life sense of doubt, seemingly about to say, “Hold up, I’m not ready yet,” or maybe, “What are you doing with that paintbrush?” An extraordinary spontaneity and intimacy create the sense that these are the types of portrait you’d want to have of a very close loved one.

In Winthrop Junior Common Room opposite a festive, impressionistic scene of Memorial Church at commencement, Thenjiwe N. Nkosi’s harsh outlines delineate fantastically Stalinist buildings, “moments in South African history.” Carefully adhering to a scheme of stark contrasts in grey, white and black, Nkosi ’04 creates wintry, nightmarish images of apocalypse.

More black and white awaits in Eliot’s Senior Common Room, but splashes of color—both real and implied—lend an understated but elegant grace to Carlyn Whitt’s portraits of “women of religious belief.” Imbued with dignity, Whitt’s subjects give the impression of having graciously taken a brief respite from the business of their everyday lives.

Neil S. Agarwal ’01 appears to ask, accusingly, “How do your shirts feel when you toss them aside like yesterday’s rags?” Whatever his purpose, Agarwal’s fine paintings present what must be the most forlorn clothing in the world. The works’ shocking detail and color combinations both startle and attract.

Near the show’s conclusion, in Eliot’s Small Dining Room, Sheri J. Ward ’03 disrupts and disconcerts with a distortion of the world as we’re used to seeing it. Hints of dementia accompany an off-putting malleability of shape and concept, giving Ward’s pieces a power and mystery all their own.

The quality of the work in this show doesn’t suffer at all from its misleading title, perhaps designed solely to attract attention. The artists involved are undoubtedly breaking new ground in their own ways, so the results are worth seeing.

If nothing else, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” brings together a good deal of Harvard talent and provides the river house community with the fruits of their labor.

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