By: Barbara Wiedemann
On August 7, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received two works by groundbreaking French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) two weeks before just over 5,000 first-year and transfer students were welcomed to campus to begin class.
Crouching Spider (2003) is on loan from the collection of The Easton Foundation, a nonprofit organization which Bourgeois established long before she died in New York City, her home for over 70 years. The artist’s looming yet delicate spider — made with over 4,000 pounds of bronze and stainless steel — is a powerful presence amongst the trees in front of New West building, its eight legs stretching delicately across 30′ of grassy space. Last seen in Copenhagen and Shanghai, the sculpture is well-positioned to greet anyone walking or driving by on Cameron Avenue.
“It’s weird. It’s fantastic. It’s wonderful and disconcerting at the same time,” Cary Levine, an associate professor of contemporary art, told the Daily Tar Heel. His hope is that encountering art up-close and in such an accessible space will provoke inquiry and exploration.
Those digging deeper may learn that Bourgeois’ work was often highly autobiographical. She sometimes spoke of her spider sculptures as maternal and protective forces, the spinning spider an ode to her mother, a weaver who repaired tapestries during the artist’s childhood in France. Through art, Bourgeois wrestled with her own emotions, memories and unconscious in a way that can call out a visceral response in the viewer.
Eye Benches I (1996–97), a pair of black granite sculptures smooth and inviting to the touch, have eye-shaped forms that also function as benches. In front of Phillips Hall within shouting distance of Crouching Spider, the pair is on loan from the Louise Bourgeois Trust. The surreal eyes look back at passers-by on Cameron Avenue.
Bourgeois said of the benches: “There is a pleasure in sitting outside and watching people walk by. You look at them, and sometimes they look back at you. These encounters and perceptions interest me. In this sense, the Eye Benches relate to the story of the voyeur.”
While Crouching Spider is off limits to the touch, passers-by are encouraged to sit on the Eye Benches I and spend time contemplating the intentions of an influential artist whose vulnerability and ability to plumb psychological depths, it could be argued, was her strength.
Visiting the benches on campus, the Ackland Art Museum’s Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs, observed “Like scattered, massively heavy fragments of some sleek modern Sphinx, these eyes rise from the earth, fixing the world with a disconcerting stare. You — soft, fragile and finite — can sit on the bench and look in one direction, while the hard, eternal eyes gaze implacably elsewhere. Comfort and discomfort, simultaneously.”
The Bourgeois loans came to Carolina in part due to the generous support and leadership of alumnus James Keith (JK) Brown, current chair of the Carolina Arts Leadership Council and former chair of the Ackland Art Museum national Advisory Board.