Revisiting “The Plains of Mars” Exhibition with Dr. James Clifton

The premier of Shmucker Art Gallery’s two new exhibitions at the beginning of September continue to reel in visitors each and every day! Since their opening reception, the Gallery has hosted a variety of events and lectures to introduce the faces behind both displays. This past week the Gallery was honored to welcome Dr. James Clifton, Director of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Head Curator of this collection. Visitors, professors, and students were invited to the Gallery for a meet-and-greet over cookies and coffee to discuss the prints displayed in “The Plains of Mars” exhibition. After, Dr. Clifton gave a lecture in the Lyceum on the prints and his experience curating them.


Dr. James Clifton, Courtesy of

            I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Clifton and ask about his experience curating and exhibiting these pieces in Houston, Texas. He explained to me that sometimes his selection process is based purely on what is most appealing to his eye, which, despite what the professional world might advertise, is sometimes the best way to decide what to exhibit. He described a piece that is a part of the collection in Houston that depicts Venus displayed in the foreground of the composition, reclined, and Mars gazing at her from the background. His reason for choosing such a piece? It looked beautiful.

            I later asked Dr. Clifton is there were any challenges or complications in curating the exhibit in Houston since creating a display is no small task. Fortunately, his only concern was the lighting and its effect on the pieces. The flooring in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Clifton explained, was predominantly white with black flecks scattered throughout. This actually made the lighting on each print appear brighter since the prints themselves are in gray scale. Despite the lighting, however, Clifton explained that the curating process runs smoothly as the work is divided according to specialization.

            In a previous article, I had mentioned that student-curators Bailey Harper and Melissa Casale hoped the takeaway from the exhibit would be that war is “human” and “timeless”. Dr. Clifton, on the other hand, explained that any depiction of warfare––be it photography, prints, or paintings––serves as a mediate between the audience and war itself. In his eyes, civilians unscathed in wartimes could often feel a sense of comfort as these representations of war put a distance between them and action. He mentioned that this effect is similar to that of video-games. Depictions of war function as public information, propaganda, personal memory, etc. But above all, in the perspective of Dr. Clifton, they give a sense of protection to the public.

            There is still time to stop into the Gallery and see these prints for themselves! For those who know Gettysburg’s renowned Professor Carmichael, he will be giving a gallery talk at noon on October 25th, in the Gallery. Be sure to stop by as it is the last Gallery-hosted event of the semester!

This article was written by Contributor Carolyn Hauk ’20

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