States of the Union exhibit features understated collection


A group of art history graduate students recently created an on-campus art exhibit that displays the highlights of the TCU Permanent Art Collection.

Dr. Mark Thistlethwaite tasked his graduate seminar class, The Art Museum, with the project of creating, designing and curating an exhibition in the Moudy Gallery. He gave them only one limitation: all work had to come from TCU’s permanent art collection.

“When we were assigned this project, we had a basic overview of what the collection looked like,” Lola Clairmont, one of the four graduate students that curated the museum, said. “We didn’t realize, however, how many recognizable pieces the collection contained.”

The permanent art collection consists of around 1,000 pieces of work. Some pieces are on display around campus and some are in storage.

Clairmont was joined by Alexa Ibarguen, Cathryn Bidal and Anna Kern in working on the project. After sorting through much of the permanent collection, they decided on “States of the Union” as the theme.

“We spent about eight hours in a classroom hashing it out, deciding what direction we wanted to see the exhibit go,” Ibarguen said. 

Staying true to the theme, the gallery exhibition opened on the same night that President Obama delivered his 2015 State of the Union Address and will close Feb. 19.

“The opening went even better than we were expecting,” Clairmont said. “After the ceremony, a drawing class stayed after and sketched some of their favorite pieces. That’s what this gallery is all about.”

Ibarguen said that deciding on pieces to show in the exhibit was a matter of choosing what they “couldn’t live without” and then building it around those pieces.

Two pieces, portraits of George and Martha Washington created by Jane Stuart, were located in the quiet section of the Mary Couts-Burnett Library.

In the exhibit catalog, Bidal said that Jane was the daughter of artist Gilbert Stuart, who was the artist behind the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill. Jane recreated these portraits after her father’s death.

The collection does not end with those two portraits. Rachel Livedalen, an assistant professor of art who assisted with print making for the gallery, said she was thoroughly impressed by TCU’s art collection.

“A lot of these artists are extremely well established artists,” Livedalen said. “For as small of a space that the gallery is, there is a lot of value and prestige in this exhibit.”

These different pieces inspired the idea of works centered around the United States government.

The theme of the flux of government throughout American history is carried throughout the different parts of the exhibit. After the Washington portraits, the exhibit leads visitors around the corner to paintings by artists who were employed by the government.

In the exhibit catalog, Kern said that these artists participated in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), meaning they essentially worked for the federal government. The WPA Federal Arts Project was created during the Great Depression to commission unemployed artists to work within public projects.

Clairmont spent much time researching different pieces that dealt with race issues. In the following portion of the exhibit, the works portray the relationship between art and civil rights. The paintings show African Americans and how they were viewed in society, as well as the transition and struggle toward racial equality.

The next section, dealing with art and war, builds on this idea of struggle. The works strive to create a picture of war and pain in the minds of onlookers.

From there, the exhibit turns from international unrest to domestic conflict. The two Andy Warhol paintings from the Cowboys and Indians series demonstrate the fight for dominance in the American West.

“We knew about the Warhol paintings and knew we needed them in the collection,” Ibarguen said. “They were in the education building and have always been a student favorite.”

The exhibit then highlights caricatures of Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. They serve as a contrast from the somber portrait of Washington that started the exhibit, showing the evolution of public view of the President of the United States over time.

The exhibit concludes with paintings by Latin American artists, showing the movement to a globalized world. The paintings show American values through foreign eyes.

“We each have certain types of work that interest us more than others,” Clairmont explained. “The best thing about this exhibit is that it showcases all of them.”

The final painting is George Washington crossing the Trinity River here in Fort Worth.

“They [the curators] thought it was a great way to conclude the exhibit,” Livedalen said. “It started with Washington and ended with Washington.”

While the paintings themselves show ample reason to be exhibited, there is another common factor that makes them unique to this gallery; many of the works have a direct relationship with TCU.

All of the works have been a gift to the university, either by the artists themselves, their foundations, or private donors.

According to the exhibit catalog, Bill Mauldin presented TCU with his presidential caricatures of Nixon and Johnson to TCU in 1966. The Andy Warhol Foundation gifted TCU with six Warhol prints.

McKie Trotter, artist of “Two Levels,” began teaching at TCU in 1955. He was on the panel that hired professor Thistlethwaite.

Antonio Alvarez, who created the last two pieces in the exhibit, got his Master of Fine Arts degree from TCU in 2000 and painted both pieces as part of his thesis at TCU. While working on the exhibit, Ibarguen spoke to Alvarez.

“He is the only living artist that has art in the exhibition,” Ibarguen said. “He teaches art in Mexico now.”

The exhibit was designed to be interactive. On the back wall, there are fake dollar bills where visitors can “create their own George Washington” and even take a picture in a dollar bill cut out.

Dr. Donald Jackson from the political science department joined Dr. Thistlethwaite and professor Livedalen in hosting a panel at the gallery on Feb. 4.

Thistlethwaite gave the audience a general background of the exhibit, explaining his role in the project and a little bit about the permanent art collection.

Livedalen explained the process of printmaking and the role of prints in the collection and demonstrated the different ways to make prints. Jackson spoke about the historical and political significance of portraits of presidents.

The panel had a standing room only audience.

The exhibit has shed light on the value of the TCU art collection. It has also raised the question of what will be done with the art collection in the future. Devon Nowlin, gallery manager for The Art Galleries at TCU, said she has high hopes for the collection.

“In the future, I would like to see that the Permanent Art Collection is used as a teaching tool in the way that Dr. Thistlethwaite utilized it this year, and that a program or “Art Tour” is created that could be added as a part of the admission tours or for the general public,” Nowlin said.

Nowlin said those involved with the gallery will continue to research pieces of art and try to bring them in to the gallery for the public’s enjoyment.