Nessie, aka the Loch Ness Monster, is not something you expect to run into at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. A historic Western tableau or even Islamic art, perhaps, but not a contemporary artist’s exploration of the meaning of monsters in our culture.
“Isn’t it fabulous? We’re putting Nessie outside the museum,” says Jeff Lambson, curator of contemporary art at BYUMOA, of the reclusive creature. “The exhibit is going to be a little theatrical, but these are all serious, legitimate artists.”
The Loch Ness Monster by artist Niki De Saint Phalle will be but one of the mythical works of art Lambson is bringing to Provo.
We Could Be Heroes: The Mythology of Monsters and Heroes in Contemporary Art is only one of nearly a dozen contemporary exhibits that will be staged in the middle of what The Princeton Review-labeled the “most stone-cold sober campus” in America.
Lambson, BYUMOA’s first-ever contemporary and modern art curator, is clearly, for lack of a better term, bustin’ some moves this year.
And the Heroes show might be the least envelope-pushing of Lambson’s programming. The museum that once refused to uncrate certain Rodin sculptures it deemed too naughty for the Mormon Church–owned university is unveiling 11 contemporary art exhibits in 12 months. The onslaught began with Think Flat: The Art of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami that includes a suite of Warhol’s iconic Marilyns owned by none other than BYU. “Isn’t that cool?” Lambson says. “I love that BYU owns a soup can, too.”
Lambson is sensitive of the often subversive reputation of contemporary art. “We’re changing things.” Still, BYUMOA, with its foundation of serving as an educational resource for the university, remains committed to the broadest view of art, including sacred works.
A 2011 exhibition of Carl Bloch altar paintings from Sweden and Denmark drew a record-breaking attendance of more than 300,000 visitors.
But it delights Lambson that many of the Bloch visitors wandered into his The Matter of Words contemporary art exhibit that was running in a nearby gallery. “I actually saw a jaw drop—I thought that was just an expression—when a visitor from Carl Bloch saw Adam Bateman’s book exhibit.”
Executive Director Mark Magleby says Lambson’s contemporary programming, which demands an intellectual involvement from viewers, has been well received. “The university has been exceptionally supportive because contemporary art is so connected to academics,” Magleby says.
Part of that positive reception could be due to Lambson’s respect for his audience and a curatorial approach devoid of condescension. He sees his job as reaching out to students and visitors to challenge their preconceptions of contemporary and modern art.
“Sometimes it can be hard to find contemporary art that is smart but still familiar,” Lambson says. His strategy is to avoid intimidating his audience, while helping them make connections with what they know. “If there’s something familiar [in the exhibit], then people are willing to move on to harder pieces they might not understand at first.”
As he gazes on a particularly garish Marilyn print, Lambson unconsciously proves his own point. “I never liked this Marilyn until I saw them all together,” he says. “It shows best what makes Marilyn Marilyn. The lips. The shadows under the eyes. Andy captured her vulnerability.”