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Gravity's Rainbow

Troy-based teacher and installation artist Michael Oatman tackles serious themes with a blend of the concrete, the abstract, the absurd, and plain old good fun

By John Rodat

John Whipple

Sprinting up the back steps to the Williams College Art Museum to meet installation artist Michael Oatman, I notice in the periphery of my vision two lumpy black forms. They register vaguely in my mind as benches of some sort, seemingly stone and single-occupancy. As I gain the top of the staircase and turn toward the entrance, the obverse side of the structures becomes visible: Two outsized, disembodied and unblinking eyes peer down the walkway toward the museum’s driveway. Like orbs pried from the monolithic heads of the moai of Easter Island, they sit there gazing implacably as students hustle past. Oh, it’s art, I think, somewhat surprised. Kind of startling, unexpected in an intriguing way.

Once inside the museum, I find a press release readily available that identifies the granite objects as just one of four pairs of eyes cast by artist Louise Bourgeois as part of a commission in celebration of the museum’s 75th anniversary. As I walk through the museum with Oatman to view his own work, IDOL, also commissioned for the anniversary, the mild disorientation of the bench-to-huge-eyeball double take fades easily while we pass Renaissance and Medieval paintings framed in stately fashion, hung at comfortable, average eye-level height. We approach IDOL through a domed room ringed with neoclassical columns entirely appropriate for a more-than-200-year-old liberal-arts college. These rooms have a dignity and a deep kind of calm, gravitas. And then we step into Oatman’s work, and the disorientation returns.

The staccato, telegraphic rhythms of hurriedly written chalkboard notes are heard from hidden speakers. The walls are blackboards covered in dust and scribbled legends: “The Berkshire Rattlers rule,” “All you need is Love,” “the Boatman will always be.” Strange models, figures, textbooks, maps and gadgets of mysterious purpose—a Tinker-toy atom, The Elements of Zoology, a galvanometer, a blank chalkboard globe, a heroic painting of Galileo, a stuffed jackrabbit, a six-foot slide rule—litter the room in piles. An enormous frock-coated figure—covered, head-to-toe, in powdery scribbles—reaches toward you from his seated position on a segment of fallen tree. His hand, as large as a tennis-racket head, indicates a space on the log where the words “Sit here” are scrawled. The figure’s unchanging and ambiguous expression—is he frowning? scowling? smirking?—is unsettling, so you sit where instructed, under the pewter-colored dunce cap suspended from the ceiling. And then the lectures begin.

“You never run out of things to learn,” a stentorian voice booms. It begins a new sentence, only to be interrupted by a higher-pitched but equally authoritative speaker discussing the nature of objectivity.

Over the ensuing scholarly chatter, Oatman notes the central figure’s resemblance to an antique cast-iron coin bank. He says, “I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could make a sculpture where you could pay for your education, on a smaller scale?’ You come in and you sit on this cast iron object, you put your quarter in, you hear a lecture. And so I approached the registrar’s office about giving college credit if you sat through all 300 of the Williams College professors’ mini lectures.” He pauses and smiles, irony betraying the serious tone. “They didn’t go for it, strangely enough.”

So, in a far, artfully cluttered corner of the Williams College Art Museum, beyond the works of classical and sanctified antiquity, a looming, dusty figure spouts a babble of academic theories amid a riot of arcane pedagogical implements—an artwork dispensing an obscure, unaccredited and compelling education: Look closer at this. What do you think?

“Here at Williams, it’s a great model of smaller class size, and more one-on-one teaching,” says Oatman of the work’s microcosmic reiteration of its context. “But you also realize that teachers are in a position of incredible power, and that’s something that I think has to be looked at critically. So the piece is really a love letter to all of my teachers—and also a little bit of hate mail too, I suppose, on some level.”

Oatman’s interdisciplinary, kleptomaniacally inclusive oeuvre—his fascination/apprehension with the reliability or stability of information—evolved over years as a natural confluence of his expanding intellectual interests, but his present work is a far cry from his early intentions. The 36-year-old Vermont native attended the Rhode Island School of Design with the plan of becoming a professional artist, but even there he found himself swayed and engaged by new information, novel approaches and perspectives that were new to him.

“I went to college to become a graphic artist, and really became interested in painting after taking a great combined literature and history—well, art history—course,” Oatman recalls, detailing a formative academic experience, the effects of which can easily be read into IDOL’s freewheeling mash of disparate fields and forgotten or abandoned scholarly theories. “We were reading the great works of literature while we were looking at artworks that were produced contemporaneously. It was a course that was only offered for one year, then it was canceled for some reason. I thought it was incredible.”

This experience not only motivated Oatman to embrace painting, but also sparked his enduring interest in history as source material for ideas and artworks.

Oatman got his BFA in painting from RISD, did some teaching in the art department there and later at Harvard, and eventually made his way to the Capital Region to pursue his MFA, again in painting. After graduating from the University at Albany in 1992, Oatman began teaching at the University of Vermont (“commuting 300 miles a week for six years,” he remembers wearily) and “making installations in earnest.”

“I think I’ve made what I would consider 19 major installations between 1992 and 2000,” Oatman says. “So it’s about two a year. When I say major, I don’t mean in the sense of notoriety, but more in time commitment and scale.”

The major physical scale of Oatman’s room-filling works is obvious, and the time commitment—Oatman categorizes IDOL, which was completed in about four months after its conception, as “quick”—is significant as well. Modesty aside, however, the notoriety of Oatman’s works is also considerable. His work Long Shadows: Henry Perkins and the Eugenics Survey of Vermont (Vermont Pure), displayed as part of the Massachusetts’ Museum of Contemporary Art’s Unnatural Science exhibit, dealt with the provocative and discredited science of eugenics, which sought to identify and eradicate weaknesses in the gene pool, and was a much-discussed feature of that show. Local curators, including Ian Berry of the forward-looking Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, confidently identify Oatman as one of the region’s best and most innovative artists. So, why, one wonders, is this formally trained and lauded fine artist with Ivy League teaching credits and a long list of awards, currently teaching in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s architecture department?

John Whipple

Oatman fields the question easily: “I guess maybe it’s not so surprising that I find myself teaching in an architecture department, because I find myself operating in a zone which is somewhere between being an artist and being a detective and being a kind of self-taught scientist or historian.”

Though he claims to prioritize the narrative function of art, and says that architecture often eschews narrative for more “non-hierarchical systems . . . letting the viewer or the user determine use and occupancy,” Oatman finds his place at RPI both challenging—“I’m learning a lot about this other way of ordering space,” he says appreciatively—and comfortable.

“I have a lot of notational systems about how I’m collecting evidence, who I’m speaking to, how I evolve a project out of series of drawings, sometimes model-making or video studies. So there’s a lot of the stuff behind what you’re seeing now that never makes it to the viewer that is shared territory with architecture,” Oatman says.

“Often in architecture that stuff is revealed in a way,” he continues, “through materiality, through what architects would call programming, the way a space evolves out of a program of set uses—instead of, later, just filling it. I have program too, but it’s just a little more slippery.”

More slippery, perhaps, because fundamental to Oatman’s approach is the notion that an artwork unfolds as it develops, revealing itself not only to the viewer but to the artist, almost informing the artist as to his own program.

“For me, that’s embedded in all the works—my encounter with discovery,” he says.

It isn’t, however, merely hermetic and self-referential navel-gazing. Oatman expresses as a conscious element of his work—an extension of his prioritization of narrative—a desire to communicate, albeit, often, only allusively and ambiguously.

“I think a lot about the viewer,” he admits. “I don’t think I cater to the viewer, where I’m trying to please the viewer necessarily, but I think that ends up happening. I think if I’m happy, the viewer usually ends up finding something to engage with. If I’m doing my job well, they’re going to stay in here and engage for a while. And, similarly, in architecture, if all those programmatic elements have been considered, then you’re going to have a space which is highly flexible yet can become highly focused when needed.”

By way of example, Oatman gestures toward IDOL, to the dunce cap (the once-common emblem of academic underachievement), which I had assumed was intended as a playful jab at any who sat to receive the statue’s scholarship—a crack at gullibility, perhaps, a willingness to be led. I was wrong.

“I didn’t know anything about the dunce cap until I began working on this piece, and I began to research it,” Oatman says. “The dunce cap was the invention of John Duns Scotis, a theologian whose theory was that knowledge entered the brain from the ether in a conical formation. So the dunce cap wasn’t to punish people who were stupid, it was to help people who weren’t doing as well to focus the intellectual stimulus as it entered the brain. It was like an ear trumpet for the mind.

“Most people don’t know that, though,” Oatman allows. “I recognize that it’s going to hover out there making the viewer the dunce, but I’m in exactly the same position when I begin the work and start finding this stuff. I know nothing about what I’m looking at.”

The installations allow Oatman to position these multivalent objects in curious, provocative relations—to arrange, as he says, “hundreds of little still-life moments”—pregnant with allegorical or symbolic potential. Some of it is intended, some of it fortuitous, and all of it a lot of fun.

“I’m sort of playing with the laws of gravity—of seriousness—here,” Oatman smiles. “What I’m trying to do is to set up as many specific relationships that for me have meaning or humor, so it’s possible that someone will discover that, trip over that. And probably, quite unintentionally, I have created some juxtapositions that have layers of meaning I don’t even know about.”

Leaving the museum after talking with Oatman, I bound past Bourgeois’ ever-vigilant granite orbs, without a second thought. “I know you,” I think. “I’m prepared for you this time.” I hurtle down the concrete steps, into the small courtyard between the museum and Williams’ sports building. Gathered around a small stylized table—a marble square balanced on its face on a spherical base—are four slatted wooden benches. One bench rests upside down, undamaged, as if gently placed that way. I pause, and look back up at the stone benches on the level above. For a moment, before ducking into the coffee shop, I wonder if they’re looking back at me, gauging my reaction.

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