At first glance, the pieces seem to come from different worlds.
Ruben Trejo’s “Cruciform # 94 (In Honor of My Mother)” hangs in the Jundt Art Museum next to Franz Muller’s “Madonna of Kevelaer.”
Trejo’s sculptural piece, from 1995, is made of welded steel, wire and other media. Some of the steel resembles pitchforks. Some is wavy like ramen.
Muller, a German, painted his Madonna in the early 1900s, applying oil to linen. Hands folded over chest, blue robe flowing, she looks like an iconic Virgin Mary.
But the pieces draw on similar religious and maternal imagery, sharing compositional and other elements. Put them next to each other, said Paul Manoguerra, the museum’s new director and curator, and there’s a lot to talk about.
Getting people talking – and asking – about art was Manoguerra’s goal in creating the 19-piece exhibition “What is Art?,” which includes the Trejo and Muller pieces. It’s supposed to be a “forum for questioning,” he said, for audiences extending beyond art appreciation classes as the museum strives to serve as a resource for wider audiences at GU and the region.
Creating the display let Manoguerra, who started his job in June, dig into Gonzaga’s permanent art collection, studying its contents and history. But it also let him indulge in some “curatorial conceits,” he said. That includes juxtapositions meant to be “interesting, shocking, confusing.”
The show combines work by old masters, such as a self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn and a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, and work by unidentified artists or those about whom little is known. The latter category includes an early 18th century Queen Anne-style chair, artist unidentified, and an Australian aboriginal sand painting.
“Our work-study students have very quizzical looks on their faces and have been asking, ‘Why?’ ” Manoguerra said before the exhibition opened. “Our facilities people who come in, the cleaning crew, they’ve been interested in some of the works, and they’ve been asking, ‘Why?’ That was the goal – a lot of ‘Why?’ ”
He hopes the exhibit prompts similar questions among Gonzaga students and the public – What is art? What does an art museum do? – along with questions about authenticity, quality, materials, ethnicity.
If nobody comes up with any solid answers, that’s OK, he said: “That may be the point, too.”
Manoguerra took over as the museum’s director and curator after working since 2002 as chief curator at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. Scott Patnode retired from the position last year.
The director-plus-curator job appealed to Manoguerra, he said, partly because leaders at Gonzaga wanted the museum to forge stronger connections with students and university employees.
“Art is one of those places where religion, politics, gender roles, societal issues – it’s a place where all those ideas intersect,” he said, adding history to the list. “So if you want to have discussions in the humanities about anything, the place to do it would be with visual images you would find in an art museum.”
Toward that end, Manoguerra has issued a call to GU instructors, offering to help make connections between their subject matter and art or visual imagery. Among takers: a photojournalism teacher whose class visited recently to look at photos in the museum’s collection.
The museum will also strive to mount exhibitions, he said, that connect with students and residents throughout the region.
A traveling show of photographs by Ansel Adams will appear at the museum starting in January. Even if you don’t know much about art, you’ve probably seen a photo by Adams, and Manoguerra expects the exhibition to draw visitors.
But the Adams exhibition is a departure from the landscape photographs for which he’s best known and presents a chance to explore connections between art and history. Featuring 50 photos made at the Japanese-American relocation camp at Manzanar, Calif., in 1943, the Adams exhibition will coincide with a symposium on Japanese-American internment and other related events.
Manoguerra has a doctorate in American studies from Michigan State University, a master’s in museum studies from The George Washington University, and a bachelor’s degree in history from University of Notre Dame.
His particular interest in American art grew out of a fascination with a group of mid-19th century artists who traveled to Italy, filled their sketchbooks and created images of Italy for an American audience.
“The other part of it,” he said, “is there’s so much great American art. You go from colonial to contemporary, and you’ve got a lot to choose from.”