A giant, century-old Chinese horse, surrounded by creatures large and small, is at the center of a new exhibition at Sweet Briar College. “Beauty in the Beast” opens Monday, Jan. 29, and will be on view through April 26.
It’s not a real horse, of course, or even a sculpture, but a black-and-white image on rice paper painted by Pao Ching Tang between 1900 and 1912. And it’s not just any horse. The ink “rubbing,” as it is classified, shows Baitiwu, one of the six horses Emperor Taizong created for his mausoleum, Zhaoling. As far as registrarial assistant Nancy McDearmon knows, the painting has never been displayed at Sweet Briar, and there is no information in the College database indicating how or when it came to the collection. McDearmon removed the piece from storage before Christmas break to allow the scroll to relax before display. But that was just half the battle. There was no way the oversized, 50-by-76-inch image could be framed for temporary exhibit, she says.
“We can’t get Plexiglas big enough for this. It would be ridiculously expensive to do so,” McDearmon explains. So, she did what is often done at Sweet Briar. She enlisted the help of physical plant and its resourceful carpenter shop.
“They love coming up with ideas, and they’re always happy to assist,” McDearmon says. “Jeff [Moore] has come up with a way to build a frame that is going to be attached to a wall behind the image.”
The Taizong horse will be carefully clipped to Moore’s support frame near the center of Pannell. Everything else will flow from it, connecting thematically and crisscrossing through the gallery space. There are more horses, as well as dogs, foxes and wolves, and a separate wall dedicated to birds. From tiny, sweet creatures to big, scary beasts, from realistic to abstract, “Beauty in the Beast” seeks to show visitors every possible angle of the word “animal.” There are political cartoons, including José Guadalupe Posada’s “Calavera Huertista” depicting a skull spider meant to represent Mexico’s president and the civil unrest in 1913, and a delightful sketch of Walt Disney’s “Ostrich Ballet” from the film “Fantasia.”
McDearmon says she was “extremely grateful” for the help of senior student Kimberly Colbert ’18, who spent the fall semester interning in the gallery as part of her Introduction to Arts Management class. An art history major, Colbert is working on her senior honors thesis this year and is pursuing an Arts Management Certificate. Having the opportunity to help curate an entire show and determine what goes in it is “a wonderful example of what makes liberal arts colleges like Sweet Briar so special,” McDearmon says.
“The most challenging part was creating a natural flow of meaning and relationship between the chosen artworks,” Colbert says. “Nancy and I wanted the show to have a narrative, so we had to be cognizant of how we shifted things to avoid potentially causing a visitor ‘mood whiplash’ from the changing tones.”
Colbert’s personal favorite is “Second Millennium” by British artist and illustrator Sue Coe.
“While the piece is gorgeously rendered, the screen print is also graphic, and kind of creepy,” Colbert explains, no doubt alluding to the image’s central object: an enormous meat grinder that is fed by an equally enormous human hand. “That said, this work encapsulates one of the questions asked in this show: ‘What responsibilities — if any — do human beings have towards animals and the environment we all inhabit?’ ”
In addition to helping McDearmon choose works for the show, Colbert curated an entire case containing lithographs by Benton Spruance based on the book “Moby Dick” — her favorite contribution.
“The Spruance images are a new acquisition and have never been shown before,” she says. “It was exciting to aid in showing them to the Sweet Briar community.”
As is tradition at Sweet Briar, there will be an interdisciplinary Conversation in the Gallery in conjunction with this exhibition. Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink and Mimi Wroten, director of riding, will present an informal discussion of their research from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13. All are welcome and invited to enjoy light refreshments or bring their lunches.
Pannell Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday or by appointment. For more information, email McDearmon at email@example.com.