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Kathleen Goncharov, curator for public art at MIT's List Visual Arts Center , recently took an exerciser's-eye view of "Games of Chance and Skill," the 80-foot-long, light-drenched multimedia installation in the new Al and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center.
Goncharov, 50, describes herself as "harboring a private passion for 15th-century Italian painting." But she acted the 21st-century good sport as she leaned over the control panel of a treadmill to get a view of New York artist Matthew Ritchie's sprawling, intricate universe of shapes, color, weird symbols and physics equations.
Funded through MIT's Percent-for-Art Program, "Games of Chance and Skill" was created specifically for the Zesiger corridor.
Goncharov liked what she saw: swimmers gliding back and forth and, way down at the far end of the turquoise Olympic-class pool, a view of another world.
"It livens everything up! It's a mini Infinite Corridor - quite literally, since it is Ritchie's personal cosmos - and it's a message from the artist to young scientists that there are different ways to think about things. It's a challenge, too: is the artist's theory any less accurate than a scientist's?" said Goncharov, who came to MIT in 2001.
Not that Ritchie offers anything so comforting as a theory in "Games." Instead, his work is designed to map the way information arranges itself into myth, narrative and symbol over time. "I'm trying to describe the universe as if it could be seen and understood by one person in a moment of perfect and impossible lucidity," Ritchie says.
"Games" is composed of three discrete elements: a wall relief made of interlocking pieces of painted aluminum, a line drawing with symbols and equations covering windows looking onto the pool, and a painted "light box" in the hallway ceiling between the mural and the drawing.
The view from the treadmill includes just the mural and window-drawing elements. Goncharov read these with delight, pointing out how characters from "The Gamblers" (a story by Ritchie) appear, clash and are subsumed into the swirling whole.
"There's Bubba in yellow, one-eyed Stanley in white, and the elemental energy force in the green tornado. The swimmer is that big, forceful blue-gray mass - a very powerful symbol for people using this building," Goncharov said.
Later, standing beneath the light box element of "Games," Goncharov drew on her own scholarship and personal passion to place "Games" in an art-historical context.
"The 15th century brought new uses of light and shadow and space. Ritchie's work comes out of minimalism. But it has a warmth about human experience; it has roots in a Renaissance tradition about thought processes," she said.
Goncharov, a Detroit native, was curator of the University Art Collection at the New School in New York City (1987-2000) and has worked on arts programming for Italian National Television since 1999.
She recently was designated by the U.S. State Department to serve as the commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, which opens on June 14 and extends through next November.
Goncharov has curated exhibitions at the Seventh Triennale in New Delhi, India (1991), and in Central and Latin America (1987-93) for Arts America.
She received the B.A. in 1974 and the M.A. in 1975 in fine art from Central Michigan University and the M.M.P. degree in museum practice from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1979.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 20, 2002.