The McMullen Museum’s current retrospective, Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, has a title that aptly describes its content. Entering the exhibit space, tucked away in Devlin Hall, feels a bit like leaving campus entirely. Lam’s paintings have a remarkable capacity for making the viewer forget the present; even his earliest works, which take inspiration from movements and events far removed from BC’s tightly insulated campus, remain immediately relevant to student lives.
Wifredo Lam began his artistic career as a young man in Cuba near the onset of the 1920s. The exhibit showcases several works from this period, in which his impressive talent and technical skill are evident. But, like many artists of his generation, Lam soon left home for Europe and its burgeoning art scene. There, he became acquainted with some of the 20th century’s most prominent artists and intellectuals.
Lam spent most of his later life in Europe, but he also lived in and frequently visited Cuba, the Caribbean, and New York. His output from the beginning of this period – the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s – is easily his most exciting work. Viewers are treated to large paintings that recall the overwhelming trauma of war-torn Europe and post-colonial Latin America.
But, the McMullen’s exhibit is an impressive distillation of a prolific career that spans multiple decades and artistic movements, encompassing Lam’s far-reaching experimentation and exploration of a variety of media. In whole, Lam’s work stands up as fascinating and often deeply emotionally affecting. It’s otherworldly, jarring, surreal, trippy – extraordinary enough to get lost in.
The idea for Imagining New Worlds came to Professor Elizabeth Goizueta after a 2005 McMullen exhibition on Chilean abstract-expressionist Roberto Matta. That seems fitting because Matta and Lam share much in common. Both are notable Latin-American artists whose art transcends political boundaries, and includes strong indigenous and Afro-Caribbean influences. Their work has had profound implications for Latin-American art and cultural identity, prefiguring our global 21st century conception of diversity. As Nancy Netzer, McMullen Museum director, told the Boston Globe, “[Lam’s] was the kind of multiculturalism that makes our cities so vibrant today.”
Unfortunately, like Matta, Lam’s European and American contemporaries often overshadow him in the sphere of name-recognition. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge that Lam, as a Latin-American artist, made significant contributions to movements that are often popularly regarded as European or American. In this respect, Imagining New Worlds is a refreshing break from the norm, challenging visitors to reconsider notions of the origins of some of the 20th century’s greatest artistic developments.
In many ways, the McMullen Museum’s exhibit has mirrored the arc of my freshman year. The opening in August was lively – with tons of great energy, music and food – and awkward, cringeworthy incidents including students bumping into artwork and straining to fill silences. But now that it’s officially November, most students have settled in, and the muted orange banner hanging from Devlin that advertises Imagining New Worlds no longer seems all that noticeable. Even the poster near Gasson, which features one of the show’s most vibrant paintings, appears faded in reproduction. Normalcy in life can be comforting, but it’s incompatible with Wifredo Lam. Before the month’s over, do yourself a favor and break the routine: visit the show.
The McMullen Museum, located in Devlin Hall, is free and open to the public 11am-4pm on weekdays and 12-5pm on weekends. The Wifredo Lam exhibit will be on display until December 14. For more information, visit the museum website.