WELLESLEY, Mass. — Alice Neel’s brilliant, seemingly off-the-cuff portrait of two students from Wellesley College, painted quickly in New York City in 1967 and now hanging at the school’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center, freezes an amazing amount of information in a moment so fraught with change that one can almost feel the ground shifting under the subjects’ feet. Neel, who roughed it out and was roughed-over during a career mostly ignored until later in her life, captured and distilled the uncertainty, awkwardness, and fragility that courses through the sediments of every young person’s life.
Almost 50 years later, Wellesley students are once again front and center. And the uncertainty, awkwardness, and fragility are still there. A sculpture called “Sleepwalker” by the artist Tony Matelli, depicting a rather ordinary white man clad in just his underpants, arms outstretched, seemingly in search of a middle-of-the-night fix, lurches out into campus space. “Sleepwalker,” which is part of Matelli’s current exhibition at the Davis Museum, New Gravity, has an appealing helplessness; it captures the sort of nocturnal befuddlement we’ve all experienced and transports the graininess of those dark moments out into the light.
The figure is hardly the stuff of nightmares, yet it somehow struck a wholly negative and somewhat absurd chord with some of the students and alumni of the college. Apparently, the sculpture might act as a “trigger,” according to the language of a petition circulating about the work, to victims of sexual abuse, a concern amplified by the work’s placement right in the middle of campus. The petition requests that the sculpture be moved indoors, and its appearance earlier this month was followed by a huge amount of media attention. Of course, the controversy has fizzled as quickly as it went viral, and the sculpture remains.
The sleepwalker, now knee-deep in snow, has turned into an attraction akin to a meteorite that lands in a farmer’s field. People are coming from all over to see it. It has been clothed, posed with, and photographed almost constantly. Oddly, given the reaction of some at Wellesley, the general feeling generated by the work (at least while I was present) seems to be one of bemused endearment rather than trepidation.
The rest of the Brooklyn-based Matelli’s show sits safely inside the Davis Museum, but given the lackluster quality of the work included, the controversy outside seems far more interesting. That is, unless you’re a fan of lavishly fabricated work so utterly static and lifeless that it triggers a slight urge to petition for the removal of the exhibition in its entirety. Matelli suffers (on a smaller scale) from the Koonsian tendency of trying to infuse ordinary objects with a kind of deluxe irony and intensity that chronically misses the point.
Working in bronze, the artist launches rope into the air, mimics the surfaces of smudged and dusty mirrors, upends flowerpots in gravity-defying acts of nothingness, and banally studies kicked-out window frames as if they were portals into the universe — or, conversely, depending on where you stand, back into the deepest recesses of your interior life. Yeah, there is a vague sort of dread present here, but mostly it consists of dreading what misstep the artist might take next.
There is, however, a bit of hope. A second lifelike figure titled “Josh” rises up off the floor, his shirt just brushing the ground. Along with “Sleepwalker,” “Josh” is the best work in the show. Clad in shorts, the figure rises off the ground, or perhaps is just about to crash into it. This spatial question mark in regard to the figure’s destination causes you to hesitate and continually reengage with the work. The horizontal orientation suggests that Josh is landing rather than ascending, which prompted for me memories of people falling from the World Trade Center. Then again, the calmness of his demeanor may suggest otherwise, and his casual clothing hints at a concert crowd-surfer.
Whatever your interpretation, the piece works at making you stay involved, looking for answers. Like everything else in the show, “Josh” is meticulously fabricated, but instead of deadening the effect and larding it with a pompous clutter of ideas, Matelli deftly lets the viewer do some of the work.
Tony Matelli: New Gravity continues at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College (106 Central Street, Wellesley) through May 11 (lower gallery) and July 20 (upper gallery).