The Walshes in Williamstown
by Elizabeth Michelman
In most advanced art museums, it’s almost unthinkable to present an exhibition without resorting to curatorial explanations. Language is deemed essential to orient the viewer to historical information and current critical jargon. Without it, Lisa Dorin, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Williams College Museum of Art, could hardly impart knowledge about today’s art and artistic legacy to culture-hungry college students. But she gamely rolled with the punches when Dan and Lexa Walsh arrived to create a large-scale installation that challenged many robust conventions of the exhibiting institution. The installation/exhibition that resulted, “Both Sides Now,” is powerful, subversive and sometimes just plain funny. Every museum could learn from it.
Many things are odd in this collaboration between the brother-and-sister artists. First, the show is utterly lacking in labels. The bizarre display structures determinedly push objects and viewers apart. The surrounding walls of damaged portraits and empty frames attack our expectation of quality or purpose in the museum’s holdings. Even on the walls of an adjacent gallery, where words are its subject, barely legible quotations generate an incomprehensible buzz about art, artists and the academic and cultural professionals who live off of them.
The Walshes’ insistence on a wordless presentation left the curatorial staff of this small but well-regarded teaching museum high and dry, helpless to explain their views or knowledge of the art and implicitly calling into question both their authority and the value of their expertise. The artists, on the other hand, acted from the concern that language too often abstracts from, dominates and distorts the experience and value of art. Using a different range of skills and insights than normally found in academe, their intellectually- and sculpturally infused works of display architecture advance their points as effectively as a verbal argument — perhaps even more so. Through its awkward grace, sensual appeal and subtle dynamics, the exhibition seems likely to provoke even a gaggle of storming eighth graders to stop, look and listen to their own minds at work.
The siblings’ distinct artistic practices might seem dissimilar, but it would be a mistake to view them as opposites. Lexa Walsh’s practice is bound in theoretical dialogue, community action and interaction with the audience. Dan Walsh is a minimalist painter and hands-on builder. But they work inseparably and effectively as a dyad, and the process of differentiating themselves makes the end result richer and livelier than if one’s role were subordinated to another.