ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: At Emory, Andrew Scott Ross’ very private take on ancient Greece and Rome

Review: At Emory, Andrew Scott Ross’ very private take on ancient Greece and Rome

Andrew Scott Ross: "Tilden and the Theban Hero"
Andrew Scott Ross’ “Tilden and the Theban Hero”

Andrew Scott Ross’ installation “Tilden and the Theban Hero,” at Emory University’s Visual Arts Gallery through December 14, is a meditation on museum dioramas that turns, wittingly or not, into a revealing display of the limitations of visual storytelling.

There seems to be a great deal of reflection these days on representation in museum displays — one example being Lina Tharsing’s Mark-Tansey-like paintings of the construction of natural history dioramas, recently shown at {Poem 88}. Ross intends his work to be a contribution to that overall body of critique.

The artist presents about half a dozen scenes in individual arrangements of small black-paper silhouette cutout figures, engaged in warfare or other less identifiable activities; these low pedestals are set on a large platform among an impressively complex array of cut-paper ocean waves, counterpointed with full-scale replicas of Greco-Roman portrait heads on bigger pedestals. Larger paper cutouts hang above the platform in a complicated mobile (or stabile, since they don’t move with air currents).

The heads of the emperor and the goddess (not many of us, me included, could say for certain whether they are Augustus and Aphrodite or Caligula and Artemis, and that uncertainty is to the point) establish the theme of classical antiquity. A little further examination of the dioramas reveals tiny cutout photographs of Greek vase fragments, more Greco-Roman statues, and Greek coins (below) — the photo-reproduced coins are shown actual size, being rolled around like gigantic disks by tiny black-paper human figures.

Andrew Scott Ross’ installation “Tilden and the Theban Hero"

The gallery statement tells us that this installation stems from a Carlos Museum vase painting depicting the myth of Artemis and Aktaion, and this information allows us to spot the major characters from that story, in one of the larger stabiles. The huntress goddess appears next to an antler-crowned Aktaion (or Actaeon in the Roman version of the myth) and a pack of hounds, and this is enough to remind us of how the unfortunate hunter who glimpsed the virgin goddess bathing naked was punished by being turned into a stag, which in turn was torn apart by his hunting dogs.

It reminds us of that, however, if and only if we have enough classical literacy to recognize the components of the scene and remember the general story, just as we might remember what portrait heads of a Roman emperor and a Greek goddess look like. Anyone who is sufficiently committed to find the Visual Arts Building on the Emory campus is likely to have at least that quantity of literary and art-history smarts.

The remainder of the installation is likely to leave us at sea, if you’ll pardon the bad pun on the ubiquitous ocean waves. This is largely because Ross is usually not portraying scenes from ancient mythology per se, but scenes from his self-invented museum of human history.

The artist has previously presented a version of the evolution of human society that involves posing small paper cutouts based on poses he himself strikes in his studio. One way or another, the spear throwers and coin rollers are all Andrew Scott Ross.

The stories being told are also all his. Despite the visual overlay of Greek antiquity, the dioramas are loose retellings of parts of his grandfather’s memoirs that struck him as being parallel to the Greek myths.

This means there is no way for us to understand what’s going on, even if we chanced to hear his artist’s talk explaining the evolution of his imaginary alternative museum. The imagery is as opaque as in those parts of classical Greek and Roman art for which we have no accompanying stories from Greek and Roman literature. For that matter, there are a surprising number of cases where scholars disagree about which myth is being depicted in this or that piece of ancient art. It’s like the comic strips of today in which the jokes don’t make sense unless we remember a fair number of previous stories and understand the visual attributes of the characters and their quirks and foibles.

Andrew Scott Ross’ installation “Tilden and the Theban Hero"

The ancient Greek audience had those kinds of memories about the objects and images Ross is using; we don’t. Likewise, we don’t share his memories of his grandfather’s memoirs; his mythology is as individualistic as William Blake’s, only Blake’s pictures of self-invented mythology came with poetic explanations, and Ross’ dioramas don’t.

So there’s no need to feel guilty if “Tilden and the Theban Hero” seems to be a puzzle without a solution. It isn’t that you don’t get it; it’s that nobody except Ross can possibly get it.

Nevertheless, it looks wonderful and is a stunning visual experience whether we understand it or not. It also might make us think about the nature of storytelling, and especially what it takes to have stories make sense to anyone besides the person who tells them.

Ross’ intuitively blurry approach to the ancient Greeks and their art might also get us thinking about the nature of our relationship to ancient Greece and Rome in the 21st century. The versions of Greek and Roman antiquity that were once taught to schoolchildren were mostly formed by the writings of thinkers who shaped ancient history to fit the needs of 19th-century Germany and England. Recent decades’ reaction against this brand of “the classical inheritance” has kept historians’ revised versions of the Greek and Roman stories from becoming general knowledge; what does show up in contemporary popular culture is frequently a bizarre type of superhero story that has even less contact with historical reality than the Victorian era’s edifying moral tales.

Anything that restores strangeness to the stories of ancient Greece and Rome, stories that we only think we understand, is probably a good thing. And Ross’ installation certainly does that.

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