Research at Boston University

What We Look For

By Nathan Welton

Looking at Dana Clancy’s paintings of museum interiors, you can almost hear the clatter of footsteps bouncing off the towering walls of London’s Tate Modern, or the muffled voices echoing through the Guggenheim. You begin to wonder what you might have missed while wandering through museum galleries, armed with a map and headphones as guides.

Clancy, an assistant professor at the School of Visual Arts, conducts what she calls “re-search”—“Looking again,” she says. “If the usual academic research is geared toward helping us understand the world by explaining it better, the point of painting research is almost the opposite.”

The goal of Clancy’s work, including the courses she teaches, is to raise questions about what and how we see. In a long-term project, in which she has painted massive canvases of museum spaces, Clancy is exploring and raising questions about how we absorb art in the twenty-first century. In “Spaces in Art,” a course she teaches for BU’s Kilachand Honors College, her students are confronting these issues by visiting museums in person many times over the course of the semester. Our consumption is fast paced, she says, and we’re distracted by the spectacle. Her paintings are an attempt to fill in the gaps.

At first, people seem to be an afterthought in Clancy’s museum work, although they most certainly are not. In piece after piece, she’s painted ant-like human forms scurrying through expansive galleries. She’s painted tall, empty walls and views through two, three, four levels of a museum. And then there are the striking and unreal hues in the walls, brought into Technicolor in Clancy’s mind because the sun bounced differently at a particular time of day and illuminated something new for her.

“My work presents real spaces, real works of art, real construction materials,” she says. “At the same time, it clearly presents an individual, subjective experience of these spaces and works of art. I change the colors in the museums to green, pink, or orange; I collage together multiple views in one painting; and I paint solid objects reflected in glass, changed into more abstract shapes.” The point, she says, is to make viewers aware that the museum complex is manipulating what they see.

In many of her works, she’s painted the actual process of setting up an exhibit, as she did in her 52-inch-tall oil on canvas called Platform. The piece shows a massive cherry picker and hydraulic lift dominating the center of the frame. It does not represent one visit, but is rather a composite of multiple memories, photos, and drawings from various trips. The result is a moving timeline, an entire movie captured in a single frame. Clancy is at once a documentarian and interpreter.

“The experience of real museum spaces over a period of time—and often with very different art within the space—is very important to me,” she says. “Close observation and experience, as well as reading about museums and contemporary art, are critical to my process in the studio.”

Clancy wasn’t always a painter. She majored in English literature as an undergraduate, but a junior year abroad led her around Europe and to the museums of London, Paris, and Barcelona. There began a fascination with not only the art, but the environment in which it was displayed. As she transitioned into painting, she remained fascinated with the act of looking. Many of her early portraits included people with binoculars, or people peering at something off the canvas on which they were painted.

Perhaps surprisingly, Clancy doesn’t actually paint in the museums—she recreates her pieces in her studio using a stream of images captured via photographs and sketches made during her visits. Often, the entire process leads to new discoveries. While painting a piece of reflective glass she found at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she began to take her use of color and brush strokes in new directions. And after making an installation for the Brattleboro Museum in Vermont, she was struck by the prevalence of hexagonal shapes in her work. This inspired her to begin making shaped paintings for her next studio piece.

“The global art world is complex,” Clancy says. “I want my work to present slices of the art world and, by doing so, raise some questions about the role of art in contemporary experience.”

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