Ackland displays ‘Strangeness’ in good company

July 9, 2013 

In giving a tour of “In Pursuit of Strangeness: Wyeth and Westermann in Dialogue,” at the Ackland Art Museum through August 25, Erin Corrales-Diaz illuminated one aspect of the show, the uncanny home, in a personal way.

“I used the example of my home. When I stay in my old bedroom, it is redecorated, but that feeling I have, despite it looking different, is of all the memories,” Corrales-Diaz said. “This is where I wrote my college applications, where my dollhouse was. There is that subversion of the familiar.”

The 14 pieces in the exhibit were also chosen because their creators are all about the pursuit of strangeness. “Whether it is through their themes, the context, the raw materials, there is a haunting, strange quality in these works,” said Corrales-Diaz, who curated the show.

Last fall, Corrales-Diaz was awarded the Joan and Robert Huntley Art History Scholarship, which lets art history graduate students do collaborative research involving the collections and resources of the Ackland and the N.C. Museum of Art (NCMA).

“This reflects the Huntleys’ longstanding respect for these entities and their belief in the great potential for original research that can result from bringing the resources together,” said Carolyn M. Allmendinger, the Ackland’s director of academic programs. Recipients present their research in a variety of forms. Corrales-Diaz chose to curate an exhibit.

With no restrictions, Corrales-Diaz, whose expertise is in American art, set off to the NCMA for inspiration and headed straight for its American collection.

She was stopped dead in her tracks. There, hanging side by side, were three paintings by Andrew Wyeth: “Winter 1946” (1946), “Sea Dog” (1971), and “Weatherside” (1965).

“I liked ‘Winter 1946’ and ‘Sea Dog’ but I was a little unsettled by ‘Weatherside’ and could not put my finger on why. It was haunting. Unusual,” she said. “I was also inspired by the absence of human bodies in it. That is another theme running through the show – absence and presence.”

‘Weatherside’ is a portrait of a Maine house where Wyeth’s neighbors, Christina Olson and her brother Alvero Olson, lived.

Wyeth wrote that he did this painting for himself. “I had this feeling that it wouldn’t be long before this fragile, crackling-dry, bony house disappeared,” he wrote. “I’m very conscious of the ephemeral nature of the world. There are cycles. Things pass. They do not hold still. My father’s death did that to me.”

Corrales-Diaz learned she could borrow the Wyeth for her exhibit.

Elated at having part of the foundation for her exhibit, Corrales-Diaz then searched to find a piece in the Ackland’s collection that, paired with ‘Weatherside,’ would provide the other part. “The Wyeth is very large in stature and I needed something that would have enough visual impact to hold its own against it. So I was struggling with it,” she said.

Her struggles were offset by the opportunity to intimately explore the museum’s vast collections and to learn from the institution’s wise staff members.

“None really jumped out that quite made it. Then I showed the Ackland’s curator, Peter Nisbet, my list,” said Corrales-Diaz. “He mentioned ‘Vent for a Chicken House,’ by H.C. Westermann. Once I saw it, it put a bee in my bonnet.”

Westermann was inspired by to make his vent sculpture by friends living in a chicken coop where the wildlife and weather could not be kept out. There are cut-out elements in the small structure including a human figure and a rocket. “If you spend some time with the piece and peer through its vents, you will find drawings of a log cabin and dogs,” Corrales-Diaz said.

She let the bee buzz for a month and continued to look. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be an unusual pairing,” she said. “I did fall in love with it.”

Another piece in the exhibit is a pair of old boots by artist Marilyn Anne Levine. Corrales-Diaz said the boots may seem out of place but she wanted to add another facet of dialogue to the idea of home.

“I was beginning to wonder what makes a home and some of that is your own material objects,” she explained. “When you enter your home, you take your shoes off and leave them by the front door.”

“I also thought the boots were a good example of another artist pursing strangeness through materials. You go and look at it and think that it is just an old pair of boots in a show. But they are actually clay, though they look like leather.”

Corrales-Diaz did not get to see the pieces she chose all together until she hung the show, she said.

“The first time I got to see the Wyeth and the Westermann together, I thought, this really works.”

Deborah R. Meyer’s ‘Brushstrokes’ appears the second Wednesday of the month. Contact her at

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