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COMMENT: Patience Young, Curator of Education (415) 725-6788

New exhibition at Stanford Art Gallery

STANFORD -- A19th-century Cochiti Pueblo clay figure stands beside a 20th-century Indonesian rod puppet in one display case.

On a brightly lit nearby wall, a 19th-century oil portrait of a young Mexican woman hangs next to portraits of St. Catherine and St. Barbara painted in 1510.


The provocatively juxtaposed artworks in "Body Language: The Human Form in Art" are intended to give visitors a peek at the range of the permanent collections of the Stanford University Museum of Art, as curators prepare for the reopening of the restored museum in 1998.

The new exhibition, which opens in the university's Art Gallery on July 16 and runs through April 27, 1997, includes sculpture, paintings, textiles, coins, vessels, prints, drawings and photographs. In its exploration of the ways in which the human figure has been used to convey formal, spiritual and social concepts in cultures worldwide, the show draws on holdings from Europe, Africa, the Americas, Oceania, Asia and Africa ­ and it hints of displays to come in the renovated and expanded museum.

"We wanted an exhibition that could be up for most of the year and have staying power while we work toward reinstalling the museum," said Patience Young, curator of education at the museum. "When the museum is opened, things from similar regions and times will be located together, but we thought an exhibition like this would give visitors a sense of the 'tip of the iceberg.'"

While little is known about artist Vicente Villasiñeor or the subject of his 1870 oil on canvas, "Portrait of a Young Mexican Woman," the decision to hang it next to Jan Baegert's 1510 depiction of two legendary virgin martyrs, "St. Catherine and St. Barbara," not only invites comparisons but also raises the kinds of questions that art is intended to inspire. Together, the three portraits suggest that methods of interpreting the human figure have shared much in common over the centuries.

The Cochiti Pueblo terra cotta figure and the Javanese wooden puppet that share a single display case open a curious window on the depiction of "outsiders" or "others." When Jane Stanford bought the black and white clay figure in 1892, she may have assumed that it was an image of the potter who fashioned it. But scholarship now suggests, according to the accompanying label, that such figures were produced for the tourist trade and were "understood as discreet commentary to insiders about rude and curious visitors" who had begun to visit the American Southwest with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1880. Similarly, the Indonesian rod puppet, with its extra-large nose, paunch and ruddy pink skin, is a native carver's caricature of a Dutch official in the former Dutch East Indies.

Seven curators from the museum's American, African, Asian, European and Oceanic collections have written explanatory labels and wall texts that describe the similarities and distinctions of the human figure as it has been interpreted by image-makers through history.

A shimmering, electric-blue acrylic painting, "Swimmers at Dawn, 1964," is the work of Bay Area figurative painter William Theo Brown. Noting that the light in the painting is "harsh and intense," curator Hilarie Faberman points out that "forms are rendered in abstract planes of exaggerated, expressionistic color." The image, she says, "is both idyllic and mysterious," adding, "The figures seem to belong to the setting and appear locked into place by their relation to the surroundings and the edge of the canvas, while their eyes are closed and veiled, as if they occupy their own private universe."

On a nearby pedestal, a 20th-century "Helmet Mask with Moveable Figures," constructed of wood, hide, pigments, mirrors and rattan by a Nigerian craftsman, offers another perspective of the human figure in spiritual belief. "All Igbo masks are considered to be spirits . . . and signify the presence of ancestors among the living," the accompanying label reads.

Some works, like "Self-Portrait with Small Statue, 1911," an oil on canvas by Henry Varnum Poor, give visitors a glimpse of the evolution of the artistic process. In this painting the artist "gazes intently at the viewer, an effect that was certainly the result of scrutinizing himself in the mirror," curator Diana Strazdes writes. "He . . . is accompanied by the tools of his trade: the jointed, wooden mannequin on the tabletop and a canvas, painted with clouds, tacked to the wall behind him. Characters from ordinary life and landscape have replaced the classical statuary of old as the artist's inspiration."

Photographs of cowboys, etchings of 17th-century military figures, landscapes from Japan and India, volcanic-stone figures, Apache baskets and bronze sculptures encourage visitors to discover the connections that stretch across the centuries and to explore the breadth of the museum's permanent collections. Those who want to read more about the themes suggested in the exhibition can find relevant books reserved on the "Body Language" reading shelf in the library of nearby Cummings Art Building.

The Art Gallery is located on Serra Street, near Hoover Tower. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Docent-led tours are offered at 12:15 p.m. on Thursdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.



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© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.