posted 2011-02-09 13:30:43

Reliquary Reaction: A mash up of medieval and contemporary art at Hunter College

Relics on display at the Leubsdorf Art Gallery. (Photo: Beatrice Di'Alimonte/The Envoy)
Relics on display at the Leubsdorf Art Gallery. (Photo: Beatrice Di'Alimonte/The Envoy)
Reliquary Reaction

A mash up of medieval and contemporary art at Hunter College


Leah Gerlach

Staff Writer

On Jan. 27, while all five boroughs of New York City were blanketed in over a foot of fresh snow, the doors to the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery were open. The art show, Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art, opened at 5:30 p.m. as scheduled. The snow did not stop the exhibition curator, Hunter College Professor Cynthia Hahn, and her students after all of the work they had put into the show. The pieces on display include not only those created by Hunter graduate students, but also medieval relics from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cynthia Hahn is a professor of early and late medieval art at Hunter College and The Graduate Center. Her publications have been seen in the scholarly journals of Art History, Art Bulletin, Gesta, and Speculum. For the last semester, however, her focus has been on meshing medieval and contemporary works of art within the bare space of the Leubsdorf gallery with her students.

When asked about what makes medieval reliquary work different from other forms of art, Hahn stated, “Reliquaries demand faith to produce audience response,” or in other words, that reliquary art requires the audience to have a certain belief in order to see the beauty of the piece. With an extensive interest in the field of relic art, she is now working on a major art exhibition at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, M.D. called Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, and expressed that this exhibition has been the largest motivation for the smaller exhibition displayed at Hunter’s gallery.

Professor Hahn asked her class to relate the themes of the show around five core objects of art being premiered from The Met. The combination of relic artwork and contemporary pieces produced the following five themes: Vision/Senses, Body/Death, Fragment/Composite, Photo/Index, and Memory/Time/Ritual.

One of the premiering pieces at Objects of Devotion and Desire is Venus, a silent film of the Anatomical Venus, a medieval wax model of the female human body. The filmmaker, Melissa Hacker, is a Hunter College graduate student working on her thesis in Hunter’s MFA program in Integrated Media Arts. She made the film while in Vienna on a Fulbright Artist in Residence award working on her animated documentary, Ex Libris.

Venus is unlike any of the other works Hacker has completed as a documentary filmmaker. Her documentary My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports was selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of the top ten documentary films of 1996. With her work on Venus, however, Hacker did not take her usual informative, educational approach; instead she tries to convey an artistic message of the “deeply disturbing” idea that human beauty is cut into and then left displayed so “overexposed and vulnerable.” The focus of this piece on the perception of the human body is what made it perfect for the exhibit at Hunter.

The Venus body is a wax construction of a female body made in the 18th century for medical students to study. Complete with genuine human, waist length hair and a string of pearls adorning her neck, this model was detailed from head to toe with a precision and artful grace that expresses the beauty of femininity.

Most significantly however, is the presence of the human body’s largest organ: skin. This Venus is one of the only models to have been crafted with skin covering her body, while the corresponding male model’s muscles and internal organs were completely exposed to the viewer. She chose a focused, circular shaped camera lens called an ocularis to pore over the beautifully wax crafted female body, to roll over it like a landscape. She explained her choice of lens as a way “to play with the hidden and revealed, the overexposure of the splayed open Venus with a denial of a complete vision or view.”

Objects of Devotion and Desire will continue to be on display in the Leubsdorf gallery until Apr. 30, 2011. On Friday, Feb. 25 there will be a live performance featuring artists Rebecca Carter, Jaeeun Lee, Matthew Newton and Sarah Young.