Ever since the Renaissance, when European civilization rediscovered the art and literature of Greek and Roman classical antiquity, artists have had a wonderful storehouse of stories and images from Greek mythology to draw upon as inspiration for their works.
The degree to which classical mythology remains a cultural touchstone to this day is evidenced in a new exhibit at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College called “Greek and Roman Mythology.” The show includes work by many local artists for whom the stories and characters of the myths provide grist for pictorial expression. The classical celebration the human body is also echoed by many of the artists in the show. Other artists draw upon the storehouse of mythology to make a political statement or to find humor. The images and the stories of classical antiquity have by no means lost their potency as cultural currency. Dynamic, fantastic and poignant, Greco-Roman mythology gives us a communally held set of symbols that serve as vehicles for expression by contemporary artists.
On her large and lavish canvas, “Jupiter and Europa,” the accomplished painter Marit Berg uses a contemporary style to depict the story of the abduction of the princess Europa by Zeus/Jupiter who appears in the guise of a bull to carry Europa across the sea to Crete. In Berg’s version of the scene, Europa is a young woman in a flowing pink gown and Jupiter is a Texas longhorn bull. Europa sits at ease on the back of the bull that stands in a featureless landscape. Seashells on the ground and a wreath of mistletoe in Europa’s hair function as fertility symbols.
Karen Benvenista’s photographic triptych “New Friends” draws upon the fantastical elements of the myths in which humans often magically interact with other creatures. In the photos, a bearded man is seated at a bar between a deer and a mountain goat (taxidermy heads). It looks as though the man, the deer and the goat are having a drink together. It is also a good setup for a joke: “A man, a deer and a goat walk into a bar…”
It was through the art of the ancient Greeks that Renaissance artists of Europe returned to a celebration the human body as the repository of beauty. Dan Haggerty works from classical (or neo-classical) statures in paintings like “Three Graces – a Contemporary Study in Ancient Beauty.” Here, Haggerty depicts the trio of female figures from behind, zeroing in on the way their arms intertwine.
Tacoma’s own William Turner, known for his abstract and semi-abstract, jazzy excursions, is showing a series of oil paintings called “Perseus and Andromeda (after a cartoon by Reubens).” Done as quick studies in oil paint, they have a gestural liveliness mixed with areas of marvelous murkiness that is reminiscent of similar studies of the masters done by the likes of a young Paul Cezanne in an earlier century.
The ceramic artist Susan Thompson has created a politically charged tableau called “Pandora’s Box for the Misogynist.” The unglazed, clay head of a cigarette-smoking man looks down upon a Barbie doll that is trapped in one of Thompson’s green, lidded vessels. Slips of paper with words and phrases like “legitimate rape” are strewn about. The piece is a result of Thompson’s “frustration and disgust with the rhetoric of some of the candidates during the last election cycle.”
Dorothy McCuistion’s mixed media monotype “Hercules Gets Thumbs Down” is one of the gems of the TCC show. The print shows a figure dressed as the stereotypic pilgrim (symbol of our Puritan heritage) standing before a waving American flag. The pilgrim holds his thumb down (the red hand is wonderfully drawn). Under foot is a little facsimile of Michael Spafford’s “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” a work that was commissioned by the Washington State legislature for their chambers in the 1980s. There was great controversy at the time, and the works were covered up due to the supposed sexual nature of some of the images. This is a work that is both humorous and political in its condemnation of censorship.
In a lighthearted vein, a number of artists draw upon Greco-Roman myth as a way to pun and poke fun.
Margaret Doty produces a gaudy, multi-tiered box encrusted in a colorful mosaic called “The Marriage, Pandora and Narcissus.” Doty manages to mingle the troubles of poor Pandora with the vanity of Narcissus into one busy bauble.
The master painter David Roholt has joined together a cluster of rectangular surfaces. Each one depicts an object of Greek art (some of it pre-classical). As a joke, a container of Greek yogurt is fixed to the cluster of panels; made to look as if someone used the painting as a ledge on which to rest the remnants of a casual snack.
Space constraints prohibit a discussion of every work included in the show. Presented here is but a small sampling of the works on display. “Greek and Roman Mythology” runs through April 19. A series of artist talks are scheduled to take place at intervals during the course of the show. For further information visit www.tacomacc.edu/campuslife/thegallery or call (253) 460-4306.