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Picturing Museums: A Survey

Did you notice anything unusual about the two award-winning pieces in July’s group show?

Both pieces selected by juror Ginger Hammer — Web Bryant’s Sentry to the 54th and Sally Davies’ British Museum — depict museums, and they aren’t the only ones. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that artists around the world have turned to these monuments of art and history for subject matter.

Sentry for the 54th by Web Bryant, awarded the Oerth Kirstein Award in the July All-Media Exhibit.
Sentry for the 54th by Web Bryant, awarded the Oerth Kirstein Award in the July All-Media Exhibit, is a portrait of a National Gallery of Art guard.

Museum guards, specifically, have inspired a sizable body of work — as subjects, participants, artists, and even as video game antagonists. Web Bryant’s oil portrait Sentry to the 54th (above), this month’s best in show, puts a famous work of art in the background to focus on the man guarding it.

Duane Hanson, “Museum Guard” (1975)
Museum Guard, Polyester, Fiberglas, oil, and vinyl. Duane Hanson, 1975. (Photo by George Miller)

Compared to the man in Bryant’s painting, the guard above is more of an archetype than a real person. It’s by Duane Hanson, who sculpted hyperrealistic, lifesize figures. Both he and fellow American artist Marc Sijan have created security guard sculptures — which tend to get a strong reaction when placed in museums.

Hanson’s Museum Guard at the Nelson-Atkins Museum wears a copy of that museum’s guard uniform from the 1970s. Finding it hidden around the corner provokes, in turn, feelings of surprise, guilt, and curiosity. Hanson’s guard stands with his hands folded similarly to Bryant’s, but with a less friendly, relaxed posture and expression. Still, the trompe l’oeil effect adds an element of humor to the gruff figure.

Kugach’s Before the Dance, State Tretyakov Gallery from the "Guardians" series, 2012. © Andy Freeberg
Kugach’s Before the Dance, State Tretyakov Gallery from the “Guardians” series, 2012. Used with permission. © Andy Freeberg

The Russian guards pictured in a 2012 exhibit, who are mostly seated instead of standing, seem to have a warmer presence — as suggested by the series title. “Guardians,” by photographer Andy Freeberg, captured portraits of the women who watch over Russia’s art.

Andy Freeberg describes his subjects in an artist statement:

“In the art museums of Russia, women sit in the galleries and guard the collections. When you look at the paintings and sculptures, the presence of the women becomes an inherent part of viewing the artwork itself. … [One guard] travels three hours each day to work, since at home she would just sit on her porch and complain about her illnesses, ‘as old women do.’ She would rather be at the museum enjoying the people watching, surrounded by the history of her country.”

The unnamed guard in Bryant’s painting is surrounded by his country’s history as well: specifically, the National Gallery’s Shaw Memorial in the background, a bas-relief scupture depicting a Civil War regiment of black soldiers. You can read more about the piece in our Q&A with Web Bryant.

Fred Wilson‘s Guarded View took a different tack in calling attention to the role guards play, by highlighting their status in museums. The installation, on view at the 2012 Whitney Biennial and pictured in this article, comprises four black, headless mannequins wearing different museum guard uniforms.

Guards, both real and actors, have also participated in several recent works of video and performance art that explore their roles and relationship with museum-goers. For Re-g(u)arding the Guards by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, twelve museum guards sat in an empty room with nothing to guard but each other. Guards by filmmaker Hito Steyerl had museum guards reenact their law enforcement stories inside the Art Institute of Chicago. And in 2002, Tino Sehgal created Guards Kissing, a performance where two guards would kiss when viewers entered a room.

Art Institute of Chicago 2, Chicago 1990. Chromogenic Print, 184.0 x 219.0 cm. © Thomas Struth
Art Institute of Chicago 2, Chicago 1990. Chromogenic Print, 184.0 x 219.0 cm. Used with permission. © Thomas Struth

Beyond museum guards, museums themselves have inspired art both reverential and critical. The two paintings below, both in the July All-Media Exhibit, both put the focus on the museum visitor rather than the art. In that way, they recall a series by German photographer Thomas Struth called “Museum Photographs,” one of which is above.

Struth’s series inverts the typical museum tourist snapshot. Instead of pushing to the front of a crowd, the photographer steps back to capture the (carefully composed) visitors, along with the objects capturing their attention. Like Sentry to the 54th and British Museum, it invites us to take a step back from the art and consider the spaces and people that present it.

British Museum, acrylic, by Sally Davies.
British Museum, acrylic, by Sally Davies.

You can read about Sally Davies’ and Web Bryant’s favorite museums in their Q&As. Do you have a favorite museum, or museum-related piece of art? How important are people like guards and other visitors to your museum experience? Please share in the comments!

Museum Visitors, watercolor by Jane Thomas, is also in the July All-Media Exhibit.
Museum Visitors, watercolor by Jane Thomas, is also in the July All-Media Exhibit.

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