Leonard Cassuto, Ph.D., has long held a fascination with the early American captivity narrative.
A few years ago, the professor of American literature designed a course around captivity literature that included a poem about the Greek myth of Persephone, the maiden abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.
While Cassuto was teaching the course he met visual artist Anne Sherwood Pundyk, who was working with the very same theme. He invited the artist to his class for an interdisciplinary discussion.
The result of that serendipitous encounter, “The Art of Captivity, Part One,” ran earlier this semester at the Center Gallery on the Lincoln Center campus. It marked Cassuto’s first experience as a curator.
From Kara Walker’s suggestive silhouettes of slaves, to a triptych depicting the maxim, “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil,” by artist Karen Yama, the exhibit held up a prism to the idea of captivity. Is it physical restraint? Or a mental prison? Who is really the captor? The captive?
The pieces in the gallery, said Cassuto, offered a visual transformation of the concepts presented in his course.
“I designed the course by putting together work arcing from very literal forms of captivity—such as the Holocaust and American slavery—to more figurative versions, such as feeling captive in one’s office cubicle,” Cassuto said.
“I don’t in any way seek to downplay the importance of life- and soul-threatening captivity such as slavery, but part of what excited me about this project is the possibility of placing horrors like that into a continuum that leads back into the lives that most people lead, to show that captivity is a theme that pervades our existence.”
In a panel discussion on Oct. 5, the artists and others discussed the experiences in their lives that inspired their own creative processes. According to Sherwood Pundyk, her 2009 watercolor “Moon Water” relates to the physical, emotional and social struggle of being trapped in a body battling breast and lung cancer.
“I didn’t have a subject in mind when I started painting,” Sherwood Pundyk said. “But I realized after the fact that my experience of having an illness—one you may not be able to fix, to get back to where you were (health-wise)—became a part of the work I was doing.”
According to cartoonist Paul Karasik, the notion of captivity was the furthest thing from his mind when he created a narrative comic strip memoir, documenting his deep embarrassment at having to take his mentally challenged, autistic brother to a Three Stooges movie when he was a teenager. It wasn’t until Karasik visited Cassuto’s class that his motivations for drawing the strip became clear to him, he said.
“Here I was in this captivity show, still wondering what my art was doing on the wall,” Karasik said. “So I asked the students why my work [related]to captivity and one of them said to me, ‘You are the captive.’
“My character thinks of his brother as being captive to a disability, but actually my character is the one at a disadvantage, because he has created a defense mechanism that does not allow his brother to thrive,” he said. “So he’s the disabled one.”
Both Karasik and Sherwood Pundyk see binaries associated with captivity, especially in the relationship between captivity and its inverse, freedom.
“Captivity defines freedom, and vice versa,” Sherwood Pundyk said. “If you understand your captivity and give into it and feel it to its fullest, in a sense, that can be your route to freedom.”
“It was a critical point as an adolescent to accept my role—not as my brother’s keeper—but as my brother’s brother,” recalled Karasik. “It’s like I had been given a key to my own little mental prison, and I am released.”
Also featured in “The Art of Captivity, Part One” were works by Fernando Molero, Peter Scott, and Alyssa Pheobus. “The Art of Captivity, Part Two” will run until Dec. 3 at the Susan Eley Fine Art Gallery at 46 W. 90th St.