A major new exhibition of works from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art explores the various ways that artists have represented evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Something Wicked This Way Comes is on view in the museum’s main galleries from January 24 to April 11, 2009. The exhibition features 96 paintings, prints, photographs, mixed-media works, and sculptures by 65 artists, and was organized by the museum’s curator of collections, Rick Axsom.
The title of this exhibition is a warning uttered by one of the three witches in William Shakespeare’sMacbeth; the witch foresees the entrance of King Macbeth, who, after murdering the King of Scotland, usurped the royal title for himself. The witch’s admonition sets the stage for MMoCA’s exploration of evil as represented in the museum’s collection of approximately 5,000 artworks. Dark themes cut through the styles and movements represented in the museum’s collection, as evidenced by the unusual gathering of artists in the exhibition, including Leonard Baskin, Leon Golub, Käthe Kollwitz, Robert Lostutter, Claes Oldenberg, T.L. Solien, William Wiley, and Andy Warhol, among others.
Initially focusing on stark representations of evil, Axsom gradually expanded the scope of the exhibition to include artists whose expressions ranged from horrific to satirical to whimsical–with many works simply providing the pleasures of a good scare. With this encompassing scope,Something Wicked This Way Comes affords an opportunity to reflect upon the ways that evil has been understood and represented over time. To early Christian traditions, for example, evil reflected a fall from Grace, fostered by the temptations of the Devil and anger toward God. In the secular traditions of the West, dating to ancient Greece, philosophers have taken another perspective: they situate evil in the malevolent actions of individuals and societies gone wrong. Expanding on this latter point of view, the modern age shifts the location of evil to political history, the acts of the individual, and the inner torments of the mind.
Although evil is understood to be a universal curse on humanity, its expression in recent art takes context in modern thought and event. Sigmund Freud, in his psychoanalytic theories and from personal experience of the atrocities of World War I, viewed the human psyche as inherently evil. Freud used the words of the Roman writer Plautus to characterize humanity as Homo Homini Lupus (Man is a Wolf to Man). Georges Rouault used the same phrase as the title of a 1926 etching that is included in the exhibition.
Two other works in the exhibition likewise secularize evil, and through their titles and imagery position it in modern circumstance. Peter Dean’s lithograph Hear No Evil (1984) takes its title from the illustrated Japanese proverb in which three monkeys–with hands to eyes, ears, and mouth–represent the immorality of turning a blind eye to unspeakable things and avoiding involvement. Dean pairs a beautiful woman and a skeleton, who cuffs her ears, to suggest the traditionalmemento mori, a reminder of death. The self-obsessed woman willfully turns her back on her own mortality, just as society can ignore harsh realities around it.
In the photograph Hockey Player, N.Y. (1970), Arthur Tress offers a portrait of a young boy in full sporting regalia, including pads, gloves, striped athletic socks, roller skates, stick, and goalie mask. Aside from the association of physical violence with the game of hockey, muted in this instance because of the setting and young subject, nothing is out of the ordinary except the eerie effect of the perforated mask, which is skeletal-like and oddly frightening. Evil is in the eye of the beholder, the image suggests; it lurks in the everyday, and can come unexpectedly out of nowhere.
On a more fantastical end of the spectrum is Robert Lostutter’s bird-masked man in The Birds of Heaven 14, Red-Fronted Conure, a lithograph from 1974. Adopting the Surrealist strategy of juxtaposing different realities to prompt nightmarish meanings, Lostutter creates a mutant beinghalf man, half parrotfiercely capable of malice. The Surrealists, strongly influenced by the theories of Freud, found in dreams and the subconscious a source for the more sinister, irrational side of human identity.
Despite the darker shades embedded in the works of Dean, Lostutter, Rouault, and Tress, we are drawn in. If evil is repellent, what is the attraction? Wherein lies the fascination with the blood baths of Greek tragedy, the sculpted depictions of Hell on the tympana of medieval cathedrals, the cruel fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the gothic novel, horror movies, even the scary fun of a Halloween nightwhen with a “boo,” we can all be wicked with impunity? According to Axsom, the appeal of the terrifying may lie in a dissipation of evil. Viewers feel a sense of relief and redemption as their own goodness transcends what they see and makes them safe.
Shakespeare’s witch sensed Macbeth’s approach; behind the locked door the wicked King of Scotland had yet to appear. Like the witch, the artists in this exhibition open the portal and let the frightful in.
Generous support for Something Wicked This Way Comes has been provided by James and Sylvia Vaccaro; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation and the Overture Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The First Fridays opening of the exhibition has been generously supported by Newcomb Construction Company; J.P. Cullen & Sons, Inc.; and Isthmus|TheDailyPage.com.
The following discussions, films, and kids’ programs related to Something Wicked This Way Comes will take place at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. All are open to the public, and are free except where noted.
Friday, February 6 · 6:30 pm
Rick Axsom Discusses Something Wicked This Way Comes
As part of the First Fridays celebration for Something Wicked This Way Comes, MMoCA curator of collections Richard Axsom will give an overview of the exhibition and discuss the picturing of malevolence and misfortune in modern and contemporary art. Axsom’s unique take on the exhibition’s theme has yielded a range of works that speak to a variety of personal, social, and political ills. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free admission for MMoCA members; $5 for the general public.
Friday, February 6 · 7 pm
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton, director
United States · 35mm · 93 minutes
Described as “a weird, manic fantasy in which evil confronts the power of innocence,” The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum in an unforgettable role as a psychopathic preacher in relentless pursuit of two children who have their dead father’s stolen fortune hidden in a doll. Set in rural West Virginia during the Great Depression, the film follows the devious trail of Preacher Harry Powell, a murderous, self-proclaimed “man of the cloth” who believes he is doing the Lord’s work by marrying and killing widowed women. Upon learning of the stolen fortune, Powell entraps the children’s mother in marriage and manipulates and terrorizes them in an effort to find the money. Though their mother is doomed, the children emerge from danger through their courage and the nurturing protection of an elderly woman. Free for MMoCA members/$5 for the general public.
Sunday, February 8 · 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Kids will take an adventure into the wild side and make a portrait of their favorite “creepy creature” using oil pastels and watercolors. The project is inspired by Lizard, Joseph Raffael’s portrait of an enormous reptile on view in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Activities are planned for 6- to 10-year-olds, but younger siblings are welcome. Children must be accompanied by a parent or other adult. more »
Friday, February 20 · 6:30 pm
Jill Casid Discusses Evil
In her talk, “Beholding Evil,” Jill Casid will address the “ethics of spectatorship” and the experience of the viewer when engaged with art that depicts immorality. Casid is an associate professor of art history and director of the Visual Culture Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is author of Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization, published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Friday, March 6 · 5:30 pm
The Witching Hour
Sixteen musicians, actors, and dancers will present solo and small ensemble performances inspired by Something Wicked This Way Comes. Performances will range from Renaissance-era vocal duets and wandering Klezmer minstrels to eerie theremin loops, laptop improvisations and Tuvan throat singing. Actors and dancers will appear in the main galleries as living, breathing characters sprung to life from the exhibition. The performances will take place simultaneously over one hour, scattered throughout public spaces in Overture Center for the Arts, MMoCA galleries, and the 200 block of State Street.
Friday, March 6 · 6:30 pm
Poems for the Wicked
In this special evening, members of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets will read original poems that delve into themes depicted in Something Wicked This Way Comes. An informal reception in the museum’s main lobby will follow the 90-minute reading. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Friday, March 6 · 7 pm
L’enfant (The child) (2005)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directors
Belgium · 35mm · 95 minutes
Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or award-winner L’enfant focuses on humanity’s perpetual struggle with wrongdoing and transgression through the story of twenty-year-old Bruno, his girlfriend, and their infant son Jimmy. Desperate for money and unable to face his parental responsibilities, Bruno sees Jimmy as little more than a new source of wealth. Realizing the error in his actions Bruno sets out to try and undo his callous deed, leading him to a powerful personal transformation. Free for MMoCA members/$5 for the general public.
“For the past decade, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been building one of the most passionately engaged bodies of work in contemporary cinema…what interests the Dardenneswhat invests their work with such terrific urgencyis not only how Bruno became the kind of man who would sell a child as casually as a slab of beef, but also whether a man like this, having committed such a repellent offense, can find redemption . . . .” —Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Thursday, March 26 · noon
Christopher Livanos Discusses Evil
In conjunction with Something Wicked This Way Comes, Christopher Livanos will speak on the subject of “Nature and Monstrosity,” as illustrated by works in the exhibition. Livanos is an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.