The Everson museum of Art, in Syracuse, New York is an adventurous and daring museum. Incorporated in 1897 based on the collection of art historian George Comfort, its building opened in 1968 from an endowment by philanthropist Helen Everson, in a building designed by architect I. M. Pei.
The building itself is remarkable. It is a triumph, somewhat in the style of Brutalist architecture because of its dark brown and olive concrete. The building is the same color at the Hirshorn museum in Washington, D. C. While the Hirshorn is a strange cylinder akin to a giant donut, the Everson building is two large cubes projecting above a smaller cube. Inside, these cubes overlook the lobby with perch points that change depending on the perspective of the particular point. In this way the building is similar to the Museum of Modern Art’s Manhattan location. In another way, it reminds one of M. C. Escher’s optical illusions.
While the museum is known for its world-class ceramics collection, three of the Everson’s current exhibitions show the museum’s commitment to minority, feminist, and newer American artists. For instance, the sculpture entitled “Kong” (1981) by Harmony Hammond is a work of radical feminism because it’s made of cloth, wood, foam rubber, acrylic, gesso, glitter, wax, and charcoal powder, which are traditionally associated with feminine crafting. Crafting was historically done by women for applications in the home. Nevertheless, while the monster King Kong in the movie kidnapped a woman, this art piece flips the script: first, it is a giant hand made from feminine crafts materials, and second, the artist is a woman – and so here the menace is female. It may very well have inspired the work of the Gorilla Girls during the mid-1980’s.
The sacred feminine is also the subject of a second exhibit, “I Was Born to Bring You Into This World,” by male artist T. R. Ericsson. This immersive exhibit examines the upbringing of the artist’s mother, who eventually committed suicide at the age of 57, in 2003. Ericsson’s grief is palpable, but not really the whole story. His mother’s death coincided with a fierce pneumonia at the end of her middle age. The coroner’s report is blown up large, about the size of the wall, with ashes from his mother’s cremation remains smeared as a halo around the report. This work’s starkness speaks to the searching, tender feelings on display: the coroner’s report seems desolate as it is mostly white space, and the artist placed a large color photograph of his mother immediately next to it. In the photo the woman is old and haggard, smoking a cigarette. These two are part of several walls of memories, mostly black and white, which are poignant. The point is forgiveness, gratitude, and respect and an attempt at understanding this life of hers. Hurt lingers in the background as if the coroner’s report and photo together formed a radical landscape painting of emotional upheaval; mountains and rivers leveled. One room has pictures of Ericsson’s mother as a stunningly beautiful woman, and as a young girl enjoying an ice cream, “Susie (with ice cream)” (2017). An additional photo is of a rummative young Ericsson in Coney Island as he looks outward towards the ocean. The photo makes him look away from his mother and her life on the adjacent walls. The observer comes away sad and perplexed.
The museum’s basement exhibition “From Funk to Punk” is an admixture of artists working with 1960’s to 1980’s contemporary, counter-culture themes. These works were seductive in complexity, splashing color and form with rounded edges and sleek glazes, like a surprise birthday party for the viewer. This exhibit is all sculptures, and here the artists contrast the moment against the long breath of human art work. Ceramics and sculpture are the closest form of art to actually being eternal, see for example the Venus of Willendorf, which is some 30,000 years old. In this exhibit, one sculpture has bright red, ceramic tongues in a bell jar, another is a ceramic sculpture of a deflated woman’s purse precisely crafted to look like well-worn leather, soft and frail compared to the hard material it actually is and which would have made it weigh an enormous amount. Additionally, one ceramic urn has intricately striped glazes woven around its core, but in a humorous turn, has the famous McDonald’s arches on top.
From “Funk to Punk” speaks to the ages, and maybe the joy expressed in these works augur against feelings of greed and nihilism to come by being so joyful. These artists made vibrant and strange pieces, too fun to be intimidated by the past or the future.
The Everson museum has three other exhibits on display now. They are a video installation, “When a Heart Scatter, Scatter, Scatter” by Sune Woods (on until December 31, 2017); “Focus” (until December 31, 2017) from the museum’s permanent collection, which has to do with time; and “That Day Now: Shadows Cast by Hiroshima (until November 26, 2017), which is by Keiko Ogur, Syracuse, New York’s official nuclear bomb chronicler and survivor.
This museum is a treasure of Syracuse, New York and the art world. It is the premier ceramics museum in the country and should not be missed.