- Whales in Cincinnati
Far inland, near the banks of the Ohio River, swam whales upon whales last summer. Portly and lithe, monumental and mist-shrouded, ominous and gentle, anthropomorphized and ecologized, they floated and dove through two Cincinnati art galleries. From April 22 to August 14, 2016, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, showcased the drawings of Robert Del Tredici and Matt Kish in “Chasing the Whale and Other Endless Pursuits,” co-curated by CAC Curator Steven Matijcio and Northern Kentucky Regents Professor of English Robert K. Wallace. A few streets over, from April 23 to June 11, the Marta Hewett Gallery in the Pendleton Arts Center ran “Adrift in the Wonder World: Women Make Meaning of Moby-Dick,” the first-ever exhibition of Moby-Dick art created entirely by women, co-curated by Marta Hewett and Wallace. A good deal of the credit for conceptualizing both shows goes to Wallace, a leading authority on Melville and the visual arts and author of Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992), Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick (2001), and Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century (2013). Wallace was instrumental in uniting Del Tredici and Kish for the CAC show, and the Marta Hewett Gallery exhibition included work by several former students who had taken his innovative “Melville and the Arts” course, which he describes in an essay for Robert C. Evans’s recent edited volume on Moby-Dick (reviewed in Leviathan 17.3).
Together these two exhibitions may constitute the most abundant and stylistically diverse visual response to Melville’s novel to appear outside the Elizabeth Schultz Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The CAC displayed more than 250 distinctive artworks by Kish and Del Tredici, and the Marta Hewett Gallery featured a dozen Moby-Dick-inspired pieces by nine artists working in a variety of media, from ceramic to fabric to video. If the collective visual extravaganza bore witness to many familiar themes—Ahab’s anger, Ishmael’s spiritual quest, the violence of whaling, and the mystery of the ocean—it also demonstrated that the esteemed tradition of Moby-Dick art-making is thriving and evolving into the twenty-first century, as new artists bring their distinctive sensibilities and lines of sight to Melville’s endlessly generative story.
The Del Tredici-Kish show at the Contemporary Arts Center brought together two of the best-known Moby-Dick artists working today, both [End Page 122] illustrators with a debt to cartooning. Del Tredici, the elder by a few decades, has exhibited his drawings and photographs internationally and taught art and film in Montreal for several decades. Much of his photography has focused on documenting the nuclear industrial complex; see The People of Three Mile Island (1980) and At Work in the Fields of the Bomb (1987). In the stories of the men who created the bomb, he has found eerie parallels with Moby-Dick, most evident at the CAC in the series “Nuclear Moby-Dick Photos,” a relabeling of his photographs of nuclear bomb factories and the men behind them with Moby-Dick-inspired titles. This unusual pairing comes into focus when one learns that he first read Moby-Dick in that fabled land of free spirits and political protest, Berkeley in the 1960s, when he was in his early twenties. Having just left seminary and abandoned a long-held sense of priestly vocation, he began a graduate program in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and, while working as a teaching assistant, read and taught Moby-Dick for the first time. In Ishmael he discovered a kindred soul, an irreverent and expansive spiritual quester who defied the beliefs and practices of conventional Christianity: a seeker, not a finder yet. Now, like an old salt who has circumnavigated the globe more times than he can tell, he has journeyed with the crew of the Pequod for half a century.
Sensitivity to questions of meaning defines Del Tredici’s illustrations of the novel. Upon entering the CAC gallery, one saw first “Berkeley Moby-Dick Prints,” two dozen of Del Tredici’s earliest pen-and-ink illustrations of the...