art: Rembrandt revisited 

A "dead hand" comes alive in Carole Garmon's interpretive installations.

Carole Garmon, assistant professor of art at Mary Washington College, became interested in Rembrandt after a visit to Boston where she felt herself drawn to the Baroque Dutch works at the museum because of their costumes and theatricality. Having previously created art that explores clothing and gender issues, Rembrandt's works served as a touchstone for two large installations currently on view at Mary Washington College's duPont Gallery and Randolph-Macon College's Flippo Gallery. Her "mort main" series attempts to revisit masterworks by Rembrandt in order to "address history through the lens of painting." Randomly finding the phrase in the dictionary, she discovered that mort main was French for "a dead hand." This serendipitously coincided with her interest in a painting's authorship and how it has been handed over to her through a contemporary translation.

Garmon reworks Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" at Mary Washington College by executing in life-size scale a white outline of the figures in the composition on a brown wall. "Dr. Tulp" is presented through a large-scale color transparency. The installation is created for viewer participation. In the center of the room, a sculptural prop is placed where viewers can position their hands in a pose similar to the dissecting physician's.

At Randolph-Macon College, "The Nightwatch" installation opened Sept. 8. Garmon walked me through it prior to the opening while she was still in the process of installing the work. She was very careful not to point out what each object meant, but rather likes to leave the interpretive door open, something she calls, "fruitful ambiguity."

The L-shaped gallery provides an interesting backdrop to explore "The Nightwatch" with its fairly dark, cavernous space. In the work, of which Garmon provides a color copy in a large, ornate frame, Capt. Frans Banning Cocq gathers his militia company for a parade. It is generally accepted that each man in the militia paid Rembrandt for his individual portrait, yet some faces are in deep shadow and others cut off by an arm — did they pay less or were they "sacrificed" in the name of artistic license? But most inscrutable of all, why does a fair-haired girl with a dead bird appear amongst this military crew?

Garmon and I discussed interpretations, including the girl's presence as an allegorical figure, or her bird as emblematic for the actual militia. Her placement in this masculine milieu was the springboard for Garmon's undeniably romantic and feminized installation. Across from the outlined figures, Garmon has created an exquisite sculpture of wood, lace and ribbon. Reminiscent of the white ruffs of the men's costumes as well as of an embroidery hoop and a bridal gown, the artist teases the viewer into addressing the issues of identity and gender through stereotypical props, textures and form.

On the opposite side, a sky-blue wall with plexiglass clouds surrounded by groupings of cast-plaster doves provides an emphatic contrast between male and female, and light and dark — all contradictions within the painting itself. The viewer hovers between these contrasting arenas, not as an impassive bystander, but as a crucial intermediary linking the past to the present.

Peering out over the shoulder of the flagbearer in "The Nightwatch" is Rembrandt's own face, the only one to acknowledge the viewer. Three hundred and fifty years later, he still challenges us. Carole Garmon taps into that challenge through the prism of time, space and contemporary reinterpretation. S

"Mort main: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" continues at Mary Washington College's duPont Gallery until Oct. 6. "Mort main: The Nightwatch" at Randolph-Macon College's Flippo Gallery can be seen through Oct. 18.


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