Unless you live in Utica or Clinton, New York, there’s a decent chance you haven’t heard of the Wellin Museum. Opened last fall on the campus of Hamilton College, the Wellin comes on the heels of some two decades of planning for the school’s first art museum. Luckily, it seems to have been worth the wait.
Designed by Machado and Silvetti Associates specifically as an object-focused teaching museum, the 30,537-square-foot Wellin features visible storage, exhibition galleries, seminar classrooms and a small lecture hall, and entrances at the front and back, with the goal of encouraging visitors from all directions. When you enter the space, you find yourself in a glass-lined central hall drenched dramatically in light and/or shadow, depending on the time of day. Permanent collection objects are displayed here, in tiered glass cases that run from floor to ceiling. If there’s one fault of the museum, it’s that these cases, while foregrounding the objects in one sense (visibility), also subsume them into the striking scheme of the space. And because the pieces are generally not at eye level, they don’t seem actually all that ripe for extended looking. Still, it’s a gorgeous museum, of a higher caliber than you might expect for the campus of a small liberal arts college in upstate New York (albeit one with an excellent reputation).
To lead the museum, the school tapped Tracy Adler, former curator of the Hunter College Art Galleries for 13 years. Adler moved up to Clinton from New York City for the job, and for her first curatorial effort at the Wellin, she brought an artist with her: Dannielle Tegeder.
Based in Brooklyn, Tegeder is best known for colorful abstract paintings and drawings filled with connecting lines and angular geometric shapes that suggest systems in motion. (Their titles reinforce this, e.g. “Chouenine: Chocolate Constructivist Layered City with Ochre Exhaust System and Garden Escape Routing with Circle Habitats and Magnetic Results.”) The press release for her show at the Wellin, which is called Dannielle Tegeder: Painting in the Extended Field, explains that she comes from a family of steamfitters; in her works, one also sees hints of architectural blueprints, as well as clear echoes of modernism, the ghosts of Constructivism and Futurism given new life. Tegeder’s art is about “utopias that fail but you don’t stop trying to create them,” Adler told me.
As its title suggests, however, this exhibition — Tegeder’s first solo turn in a museum — is about more than just painting. Although the artist sees herself primarily as a painter, many of her efforts have been in that “extended field” — an exploration of the limits of her medium and what it might mean to paint in other ones. So the show includes, in addition to the paintings, a playful, 18-by-82-foot wall drawing; a labyrinthine sculpture comprised of a mirrored glass table and a series of objects; an industrial-looking stainless steel and stained glass mobile; “The Library of Abstract Sound,” which employs a computer program to translate the forms of one hundred drawings by the artist into musical compositions; and animations based on some of the paintings.
The aforementioned works aren’t technically paintings. But in her arrangement of the show, Adler makes a compelling case for its title: surrounded by and interspersed with the paintings, the other works draw on these and become related epistemological inquiries more than independent pieces. That isn’t to say they wouldn’t succeed on their own — some more than others: “The Library of Abstract Sound” and the sculpture, “Fractured Floating City” (2004/13) are particularly good, while the animations lag — but they’re stronger in the context of a mini-retrospective.
I suspect this is the case for Tegeder’s art overall, too. Nearly all of the pieces in the show share the same aesthetic, that of a colorful and reinvigorated mechanical modernism. In some of the paintings, like “Hoshanouxmeh: Thermal Red Secret Universe Plan with Chemical Silver Suspended City with Classification of Color and Shape Language” (2013), the combination is just right — color and forms come together with precisely the right amount of tension to ignite the piece in a controlled but urgent hum. But in other, often sparser ones, the compositions feel dull, lacking that spark and energy and retreading what feels like well-worn abstract territory.
The few works that stand apart from all this are Tegeder’s forays in conceptual, socially interactive art. For “Taxi Conference” (2010), for instance, the artist interviewed numerous cab drivers about routes starting from 14th Street in Manhattan; she then turned their prose answers into poems, printed small books of these, and left them in the back seats of cabs. A few of the books are on view in the exhibition, and from just a short snippet, the viewer can sense the way the constant repetition of phrases like “Make a right” and “Make a left” becomes hypnotic.
Other projects in a similar vein include “In Between the Lines: de Campos Library Project” (2011), for which Tegeder created black paper cutouts and inserted them into library books of the work of Brazilian Concrete poet Augusto de Campos, and “Quarantine” (2012), which involved her researching accounts of sick people quarantined on Governors Island in the 19th and 20th centuries. The connecting thread here is interaction with the world, the act of a mining it for information and then finding a new expression for the results.
At the Wellin, documentation of these works doesn’t feel as anomalous as it might sound. Tegeder and the exhibition may say that she’s a painter, but the picture that emerges is more of a conceptual artist trapped in a painter’s body (or habit). In both her more performative projects and her paintings, Tegeder is investigating — it’s simply a question of what. Despite the former’s smaller presence in the show, I found it hard not to root for the world.
Dannielle Tegeder: Painting in the Extended Field continues at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art (Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY) through July 28.