A Vanderbilt art exhibition challenges viewers to reconsider what they think they know about art 

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"All art is difficult in some sense, and at all times. That is one of the attributes that we find from art, is that it does challenge us in some way, it does provoke us." So argues Martin Rapisarda, a dean at Vanderbilt and the mastermind behind Difficult Art and the Liberal Arts Imagination.

The show took shape as an attempt to broaden incoming students' minds by forcing them to consider what a photo of a woman's armpit hair, or a sculpture made from old car fenders, could possibly have to do with art.

In the process, it confronts an issue that plagues almost every would-be cultural literate, but is rarely afforded serious discussion. The bewildered gallery visitor who fakes profound understanding, and the abstract "masterpiece" that somebody's kid coulda painted are sitcom staples. Underlying the jokes is a frustration with artists who won't just say what they mean, or with ourselves when we're not erudite enough to get it. By explicitly celebrating interpretive obstacles as part of appreciation, Difficult Art frees us to engage with art on our own terms.

And there's a lot to engage with. It's a show in which vibrant abstractions by Joan Miró share wall and floor space with a Renaissance-era statue of Jesus, an ink portrait of Victor Hugo, and a plexiglass tribute to Marcel Duchamp.

Proving that a work can be at once beautiful and puzzling is Gerhard Richter's 1971 "Teyde-landschaft." To create it, Richter projected a found landscape photo onto canvas, and reproduced it in paint, with strategic blurring. "Landschaft" shows us a blue sky with filmy patches of white over a green field whose foreground is in shadow. Beyond these minimal details, there's not much to see — a scene devoid of features, perspective or vanishing point. The result straddles the line between image and abstract composition. It draws the viewer in to look for clarifying details that aren't quite there.

Lichtenstein's "Modern Art Poster," much smaller than poster-sized, chaotically juxtaposes art deco design elements (a sun, a wing, a Grecian column, pipes from a steamship, a Modigliani-like elongated head). Lichtenstein's trademark comic-book style of representation adds a further level of stylization to an already stylized set of motifs. It's a witty piece that prompts the viewer to puzzle out its allusions.

Of course, understanding the sources of an artist's vision doesn't always make that vision any easier to understand. In Emil Nolde's 1906 "Abschied (Parting)," two human figures are almost obscured by anguished scrawls, scribbles and blots of ink. The work was nominated for inclusion by Jewish studies professor Robert Barsky; the artist was a Nazi sympathizer who was booted from the party because his fellow fascists considered Expressionism, a movement Nolde spearheaded, degenerate. Barsky argues that understanding a work's sometimes troubling place in history enriches our experience of it, and says in the painting's placard that "difficult art is art that does not on its surface represent the complex processes and tensions that went into it."

Perhaps the most provocative work is Kara Walker's "Emancipation Approximation, Scene 5." It's a screenprint from Walker's series of large black-on-white silhouettes that depict surreal, sexually charged vignettes from fictional plantation life. The central figure here is a man with stereotypically black features and a comically enormous posterior; he's wearing a tailcoat and cravat, checking a pocket watch attached to him by a chain, and studiously ignoring a small boy who's trying to get his attention. The image could be a white journalist's caricature of newly uppity post-emancipation blacks; it disturbs the viewer through the ease with which we recognize the ugly racial images it draws on.

While the exhibition is unsurprisingly heavy on modern and contemporary work, challenging the spectator isn't remotely new. Rembrandt makes an appearance in the form of an etching, "The Stoning of Saint Stephen," selected by gallery intern Rebecca Bookout. A shadowy cluster of figures holds the flailing saint by his robe, the better to pound him at close range.

In past centuries, the Bible was a reliable source of violent tales and visceral horror. A 17th century Spanish sculpture of John the Baptist shows the famously decapitated saint's head, his mouth agape in an enormous howl of agony, his hair cascading onto the round disc that forms the base of the piece. If you never stopped to think about how distasteful it would be to have one's head served on a platter, you will after seeing this.

If martyrdom sometimes appears less than appetizing, evil can look downright seductive. An etching by Eugène Delacroix shows Goethe's Mephistopheles flying above a moodily lit sunrise (or sunset) cityscape. The devilish character has the muscular, feathered wings of an angel; his clawed hands make a "come here" gesture to an unseen companion, and he seems to look down on the sleeping city with limitless power and freedom.

A secondary theme of this exhibit is works that reference other works: A late Man Ray painting shows a pear sitting in a field, immense and cryptic, under a single cloud. It pays tribute to Erik Satie's composition "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear," but might also remind the viewer of René Magritte's floating apples. A Salvador Dalí illustration of Dante's Inferno shows two monstrous figures with immense, distorted breasts and shriveled heads.

The promise of provocation has drawn record crowds to the gallery. Rapisarda says visitors have even been overheard talking about the art, which is ultimately the point of the show. In Barsky's words, "A world in which we encounter truths that are not known in advance is a world that is perhaps more likely to promote creativity. ... Encounter[ing] works that don't deliver themselves up to easy interpretation at first sight is a very powerful experience, and should be, and could be, and is, a model for all intellectual engagement."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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