Mickalene Thomas: A Guard’s-Eye View of Art

Peter Saenger, Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2022


For a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, guest curator Alex Dicken chose a strangely serene vision of an earthquake by the surrealist Max Ernst. Traci Archable-Frederick picked a Mickalene Thomas panorama of racial protests, painted last year. And Michael Jones selected a 1925 bronze door-knocker by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle representing the snake-topped head of Medusa. He also designed a glass case to keep museum patrons from touching the artwork. 


Mr. Jones knows that problem from experience: For eight years, he has worked as a security guard at the BMA. For “Guarding the Art,” opening March 27, 17 of the museum’s guards chose works from the museum’s collection. Asma Naeem, the museum’s chief curator, says that the goal was to include the guest curators in every step of the curatorial process—research, conservation, designing the display and writing the label. In the catalog, BMA trustee Amy Elias writes that the show is designed to give “museum visitors a window into the works that resonate with the people who spend the most time with the BMA’s collection,” inviting reflection on “how a visitor might feel about the art, rather than just provide frameworks for how to think about the art.”


“The biggest surprise was seeing how many tedious steps and different levels of departments are involved in creating a show,” says Chris Koo, who, like several of the curators, is an aspiring artist. Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who mentored the guards as the project progressed, saw her role as encouraging them “to value their voices”—to avoid talking in academic generalities when explaining their choice and focus on what in the piece appealed to them. 


Guard Elise Tensley chose to display an item from the museum’s storage, where about 90% of the collection is found at any time. “Winter’s End,” by Baltimore artist Jane Frank (1918-86), is a largely abstract landscape that Ms. Tensley describes as hinting at an icy stream or a foggy cliff’s edge. Touches of red, green and blue suggest the seasonal change of the title. Ms. Tensley is an artist who sometimes gets commissions for paintings, but she says she’s had her share of pictures that haven’t seen the light of day—which is why she wanted to give “Winter’s End” a reprieve from the shelves. “Paintings such as this stoke my curiosity as to what else is left unseen, unknown and unexplored,” she writes about the picture.


Mr. Koo’s choice was Philip Guston’s “The Oracle ” (1974), in which two figures wearing the costume of the Ku Klux Klan appear to threaten a disembodied, one-eyed head. Abandoned shoes and a bare lightbulb add an ominous note to the scene. Guston made ”The Oracle” after turning sharply away from abstraction, and “his sudden career shift was attacked by critics and fans,” Mr. Koo notes. He adds that the “rawness” of the picture encourages him to paint instinctively and fearlessly.


Kellen Johnson chose “Normandy Landscape,” an early piece by Hale Woodruff (1900-80), who is best known for his depictions of Black life and struggles. By contrast, this 1928 work recalls Monet or Van Gogh in its two beautifully delineated rows of willows and poplars. Woodruff made the painting in France, where he traveled on a one-way ticket after winning a $100 art award. Mr. Johnson, who is majoring in classical voice performance at Towson University, sees in the painting an old story in American culture: Many artists needed to succeed in Europe before they were taken seriously in the U.S.


“This project not only opened my eyes to museums in general, but it also gave me an exclusive look as to how they are run from behind the scenes,” says guard Ricardo Castro. “This is something that not everybody gets the chance to do.” Mr. Castro, who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Delaware, hoped to select a work by a modern Puerto Rican artist but found that the museum had none available for the exhibition. 


Instead he selected three pre-Columbian sculptures from Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador, leaving a fourth plinth empty to inspire Latino artists, museumgoers and museums “to celebrate and showcase more of the beauty that is our culture,” as he says in the wall label that accompanies the display. When he first saw the pieces he had chosen in person, Mr. Castro says, it was an emotional moment. He found himself crying on his drive home.


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