Forbidden City extends stay at VMFA, Fusion opens

Taylor Thornberg
Spectrum Editor

“Fusion” curator John B. Ravenal explains the process of choosing, buying and acquiring appropriate pieces for a contemporary art exhibit. Photo by Brooke Marsh

With the new year comes a few changes for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in terms of both new and old collections.

“Forbidden City,” an exhibit at the VMFA showcasing art from Imperial China, was supposed to close its doors Jan. 11, but extended its stay to Jan. 19 as a result of its immense popularity. However, this should not take away from the newest exhibit to reach the museum, called “Fusion: Art of the 21st Century.”

Curated by John B. Ravenal, the exhibit is an expansion of the museum’s 21st century gallery, and includes many works on display for the first time.

The focus is on global artists, specifically African and African-American artists, as well as pieces from Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America.

The exhibit also includes Virginia artists such as Sonya Clark, the chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at VCU, and Cynthia Henebry, who received her master’s degree at VCU.

“With the 21st century collection, some of the goals have been to diversify the collection,” Ravenal said. “And I think of that maybe three or four different ways, and one has been more work by African-American artists, another has been a balance of work by male and female artists, another is work by Virginia artists and the last is global representation.”

The exhibit features works not just from a wide array of artists, but also of all mediums, from photography and painting to sculpture and fabric. Ravenal, who has worked as the VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art since 1998, says the works were grouped by what he saw as “conversations” among them, by theme, style and textures.

Some unique works in the “Fusion” collection feature a blue couch sculpture by furniture artist Wendell Castle, and a flag piece incorporating thread to represent human hair by Sonya Clark.

The works were acquired by purchase, donation and loan from the artists themselves and other collections. Ravenal said while some pieces are brand new, a few have been in the collection for several years.

While a focus on globalism is clear, Ravenal said he and his assistant curator Sarah Eckhardt also tried to choose contemporary pieces that would stand the test of time.

“It’s not just an arbitrary matter of taste, that’s really the last thing it is,” Ravenal said. “It’s an informed judgement that still in the end is an individual judgement. So this collection does represent my perspective over the last 15 or 16 years.”

The “Fusion” exhibit will remain on display until July 26 and some pieces could be incorporated permanently into the 21st century gallery. Ravenal, however, will be leaving his position at the VMFA before the end of January to become the director of the deCordova Musem in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Ravenal said he hopes that the “Fusion” collection and other modern art exhibits he curated while at the VMFA make contemporary art more accessible to a general audience and “connect (them) with culture.”

“Hopefully you’re opening people’s minds up to thinking more,” Ravenal said. “About other places and other people and other kinds of ideas and other perspectives.”

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