Landlocked Gam: A Joint Exhibition of Moby-Dick Art Works of Northern Kentucky University and Rockford College. Rockford College Art Gallery. 7-25 April 1997.
by Jay Langguth, University of Cincinnati
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Northern Kentucky University students of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick recently took part in the opening of a collaborative art exhibit with a group of art students from Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. The event, entitled Landlocked Gam was the result of efforts by Professor Robert Wallace of Northern Kentucky and Professor Robert McCauley of Rockford College to bring students from differing backgrounds together to participate in a dialogue centered on Melville's continuing power to inspire artistic creations of various kinds. Along with student art from both schools, the exhibit included work by guest artists Vali Myers, Frank Stella, and Robert Del Tredici. The exhibit was formally opened with a talk by Professor Elizabeth Schultz from the University of Kansas, author of Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth Century American Art.
In Moby-Dick, gams are often festive affairs in which tired sailors entertain one another with stories and exchange important information regarding the business at hand: whaling. Understandably, gams tend to take on a more serious tone if the topic is a sighting of, or story concerning, Moby Dick. Appropriately, then, Landocked Gam included whimsical works, such as William Fletcher's The Pequod, a Lego construction that envisions Ahab's doomed vessel as a ghost ship with a skeleton crew, and more somber works, like Kim Van Laeke's Whiteness I Remember, in which Melville's invocation of the sublimity and terror of whiteness in "The Whiteness of the Whale" is meditated on by way of a consruction incorporating a rectangular pool of red wine, a wall of folded white gauze, and a bleeding pig's heart.
Landlocked Gam, in addition to bringing together the lighthearted with the serious, also combines the personal with the symbolic, or iconic. In his afternoon talk, photographer and illustrator Robert Del Tredici called attention to the ways in which Moby-Dick fruitfully combines personal meditation with concrete symbols of immensity. Similarly, in her opening talk, Professor Schultz highlighted both the incredible variety of personal artistic responses to Moby-Dick in contemporary art, and the status of the novel's central symbol, the white whale, as a cultural icon "more powerful and more meaningful than the national bird."
This marriage of the personal and the symbolic is also on display in the exhibit itself. Abby Schlachter's Queequeg In Her Coffin II, a full body cast in plaster covered like Melville's character in mysterious writing, emphasizes the personal in a couple of ways. First, by "casting" herself as Ishmael's cannibalistic companion, Schlachter both expressly identifies with Queequeg and responds to what she takes to be his essentially feminine nature. Second, the strange web of tatoos that covers Queequeg in the novel is replaced with texts that have personal meaning for Schlachter. At the same time, however, the points of contact with the novel that are maintained in Schlachter's work allow it to transcend the purely personal. That is, Schlachter's Queequeg is still connected in important ways with the Queequeg of Moby-Dick. In this way, Queequeg In Her Coffin II is personal without being narcissistic.
Another work that combines the personal with the symbolic is Kristen Sekowski's Prayers of Frances (Who Was Not a Saint), in which objects with personal meaning for the artist are joined with what appears to be a human form sprouting angel wings. Though the connection to Moby-Dick is less explicit here than in Schlachter's work, there is a link to Melville in Sekowski's ability to allow the intimate to mingle with the "metaphysical."
Other pieces in the show make use of Melville's powerful imagery to say something about our relationship to the natural world. In Michelle Bear's Nature Acts to Destroy What Culture Creates, for example, the line between human artifact and natural form is deliberately blurred by joining a bit of the natural world, a tree branch, to an arrow point. Theresa Zillig's Will He Perish? forces us to confront the threat human culture poses to the natural world with her pastel drawing of the "face" of the white whale. The questioning look in the eye of Zillig's whale makes this one of the most moving and memorable works in the show.
A few artists have created works that make a more direct statement about Melville's aesthetic accomplishment in Moby-Dick than those discussed above. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is William Ryan Fletcher's wondeful collection of drawings and texts inspired by the character of Ahab. Fletcher's picture book, entitled The Mad God, nicely captures the mysterious elusiveness of Ahab as presented by Melville. Similarly, Michael Gallagher's The Cunning Weaver, in addition to alluding to one of Melville's central metaphors, is an insightful commentary on Melville's ability to draw on an immense variety of source materials and weave them together into a powerful whole.
Among the many achievements of Landlocked Gam is the ability of all of the approaches discussed above to work together in a fruitful way. Melville writes in his poem "Art" that in successful art unlike forces "meet and mate." What gams and works of art have in common, then, is the ability, if things go well, to bring contrary forces together for the sake of some greater whole. Professors Wallace and McCauley, the guest artists and speakers, and especially the student artists from both classes are to be congratulated for making this gam a success.