Anna Murray ‘23 and Caroline Webster ‘21 in front of their curation statement for “The Performer’s Medley.” Photo courtesy of Landin Eldrige ‘21. 

Anna Murray ’23, (she/ her) and Caroline Webster ’21 (she/ her)

Two main objectives guided The Performer’s Medley, the show that we curated in the Cunningham Theatre Center; first, we wanted to parallel (to an extent) the investigation of portraiture that we see in True Likeness, the exhibition on show in the Galleries. Secondly, we wanted to create a show that seemed fit for display in the performing arts building. Knowing how much exploration our loose guidelines allowed, we began assembling images from the Van Every/Smith Galleries’ digitized collection in late October. 

We met in Cunningham in order to familiarize ourselves with the space, noting the amount of open wall space, the windows that would help determine the layout of the show, and the background color of the walls: a deep maroon. Understanding the location of our exhibition was important in determining which images we selected, both thematically and in terms of dimensions and sizing. The hue of Cunningham’s walls played a role in our selection; we wanted the show’s grayscale coloration to provide a uniformity to our images, but it would also prevent the potential for clashing had we mixed colored images with maroon. 

The question of what constitutes “The Performer” appeared early on in our research. We were influenced by True Likeness’s investigation of portraiture: in COVID times, there’s something more engaging than ever about art that represents the entirety of a face. Isn’t it ironic, then, that student performance, such a key artistic outlet on campus, must be constrained by the wearing of masks? We wanted to use this exhibition to remind ourselves of the things that we’re missing. Collecting images separately, we compiled a list in a shared folder of photographs, paintings, and etchings that would come together to comprise our understanding of performance. We (Anna, a dancer, and Caroline, a sometimes actor) also wanted to use our show to spark conversation around the diversity of performance and to provide visual inspiration for our community’s performers. 

Performers across the globe are missing the reciprocal energy that comes from a live audience. Some of our pieces, like Larry Fink’s photo, Woman Dancing for Small Crowd, depict the electricity of that relationship between the performer and the observers. The titular “woman dancing” twists to look over her shoulder at a photographer and a pair of smiling onlookers; she smiles as well because of the effect she’s able to produce as an entertainer. Looking at the photo, we are left to imagine whatever music might be fueling her performance, but it’s easy to see the connection the dancer forms with the gathered crowd and the momentum it creates for her small show. One goal of our exhibition is to show that this sort of personal interaction, in many cases a nostalgic remnant of pre-COVID performance, is not the only reserve from which a performer might draw energy. 

In this respect, a contrasting photograph to Fink’s Woman Dancing is Steven Meisel’s Sean, a photograph of one striking central figure against a dark background. While the woman dancing performs for a candid audience that also appears in the photo, Sean’s central relationship is with the photograph’s viewer, or perhaps the camera or the photographer — who may well be six feet away! With dramatic costuming and intentional positioning of the body, such as a bent leg and a sharp stare over the shoulder, the staged central figure of Meisel’s photograph reaches outside themself while appearing alone. Instead of rousing excitement from the spontaneity of live performance, this performer builds intrigue by executing a precise pose in a calculated costume. We can almost imagine viewing them appearing in a Zoom window, the subject of some Cold Open exhibition.   

Perhaps one of our favorite pieces in the exhibition, Ben Shahn’s Partings Long Seen Coming, conjures an ache that performers, as well as all people,  experience in our current climate: a longing for physical touch. The seated figures are placed in opposition, not looking at one another, with a reluctance in their closeness. The thick contours of their faces and detail of their clasped hands adds tension and distrust to the figures’ relationship, but they touch each other anyway. Shahn’s lithograph illustrates the performance of every day activity and reminds the viewer how important to our relationships physical touch was in pre-COVID culture. Whether a greeting handshake, hugging a friend, partnering through movement, or bowing together on a stage, the absence of touch has forced us all to reimagine how we might remain connected to others without that familiar, unspoken language. 

While the show is intended to unite all people in an understanding of performance that includes their own presentation and interactions, it remains true that the performing arts community has been particularly impacted by COVID limitations. The inability to eventually share and perform one’s work can, at times, be incredibly discouraging to creators. Yet, we feel it’s important to celebrate the ways in which makers and performers have adapted to current conditions and have continued their art, both on campus and across the nation. We hope The Performer’s Medley will help the Davidson community to do that.

The Performer’s Medley is on display now in the front hall of the Cunningham Theatre Building. 

Anna Murray’23 (she/her/hers) is an art history major from Avon, CT. She can be reached for comment at anmurray@davidson.edu

Caroline Webster’21 (she/her/hers) is an English and Classical Studies major from Lexington, VA. She can be reached for comment at cawebster@davidson.edu.