Princeton University Art Museum presents Encounters. Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery exhibition

Princeton University Art Museum presents Encounters. Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery an exhibition on view through September 23, 2012.

Every work of art embodies an encounter. The creation of art epitomizes encounters between artists and what they see in the world around them. Sometimes art represents a specific encounter or is the focus of an encounter. In this way, art provides a common ground, a cultural meeting place, a platform for people to connect across time and space.

Yinka Shonibare MBE, British, born 1962: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Africa), 2008. C print mounted on aluminum, 182.9 x 125.7 cm. Collection of Nancy and Rodney Gould. © The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

At the heart of any encounter is an exchange—giving or losing something while receiving something else in return—that can take the form of a chance meeting, an adversarial conflict, or a discovery of unknown worlds, real or imagined. Every encounter fosters a dialogue, questioning or confronting perceived similarities and differences. What is accepted and familiar in the art and culture of any people is often hidden in the currents of tradition until there is an encounter with something that is different yet similar, or similar yet different. Such encounters elicit curiosity, bemusement, or, sometimes, ardent condemnation and rupture—bursting open treaty, nation, body, or belief. When we are faced with difference in similar artistic forms and shapes, what had been considered familiar is seen in a new light and becomes conspicuous. Confronted with similarity in cultural objects and ideas that are different, one suddenly finds commonality among works that had been viewed as unrelated.

Cultural encounters result in entangled interaction, mutual impact, and translation—conveying from one person or place to another, expressing ideas in different words. The points of encounter occur across place as well as time, and the direction of the gaze controls how one culture sees others and how one sees oneself—sometimes transposed in the guise of another and sometimes in relation to one’s own past, present, or future. These points of contact are made through various means of cultural exchange, including trade, travel, exploration, communication, migration, colonization, or conquest. Not all cultural similarities result from such transmission, however; they may also be due to independent inventions. Such considerations might even raise questions about the very fabric of what we understand to be culture. For example, in four sculptures attributed to the Flemish artist Jan Claudius de Cock (1667–1735), the people of the continents of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe are symbolically embodied in female forms. Encountering them today, one might question the essentialist reasoning behind such Enlightenment constructs of peoples and cultures. The contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962) pursues this very question in his photographic series The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (see cover image). Re-visioning Francisco Goya’s (1746–1828) print of the same title, Shonibare pictures the four continents as men clothed in sartorial artifice and surrounded by nightmare denizens representing the spawn of reason.

Assembled in this exhibition are artistic encounters drawn from the arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, spanning ancient to contemporary and including mediums from painting and sculpture to calligraphy, prints and drawings, ceramics, glass, metalware, and photography. Works from disparate temporal and geographic realms are loosely arranged by function, style, shape, material, or theme in order to question and provoke ideas about encounters between various peoples and their discourses. Stylistic trends toward the abstract or calligraphic, for example, have sometimes been deemed primitivist, modernist, or expressionist, as seen in the early twentieth-century Surrealists’ translation of African and ancient American models or in modern painterly and sculptural transmutations of traditional Asian calligraphy. Other works are related by the exchange of forms, techniques, and ideas, demonstrating the interaction between different peoples across location and time.

Also included are images showing encounters with the unknown, such as how to perceive other spiritual realms or celestial worlds, so-called encounters of the third kind that raise questions about our very place in the cosmos. Howard Russell Butler’s (1856–1934) early scientific visualizations of other planetary bodies stand in contrast to Full Moon by Liu Guosong (b. 1932). The former reveals human curiosity and aspirations to escape the bounds of our world while the latter, painted after the first lunar landing, questions our isolation in the unbound vastness of space.

For information, please call (609) 258-3788 or visit the Museum’s Web site at

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