The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is dedicated to fostering the work of innovative artists whose interpretations of the world around us serve as a platform to encourage creative thinking.
Meredith Mendelsohn, “And the Blue Ribbon Goes to…Anissa Mack,” The New York Times, October 20, 2017
RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — The state fair, that familiar ritual of the late summer and early fall, looms large in the catalog of what makes America American: agrarian industriousness meeting the tame vices of the midway.
For Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote the songbook of old-fashioned American values (with a wink), it’s a place, as portrayed in their 1945 musical ‘‘State Fair,’’ where housewives derive their self-worth from prizewinning mincemeat, and restless young farm folk seek romance with worldly strangers. Writing in National Geographic, Garrison Keillor, the keen-eyed observer of heartland behavior, praises the state fair for giving us the permission to forget our buttoned-up lives for a day and “plunge into the pool of self-indulgence.”
For the Brooklyn-based, Connecticut-raised artist Anissa Mack, state fair rituals are not just a seasonal recurrence, but the engine driving a continuing body of work. Around two dozen of her newest collagelike objects and sculptures inspired by a lifetime of fair-going are on view in “Junk Kaleidoscope,” a solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum here, through April 22.
“Some families have Easter or Christmas. We had the state fair,” Ms. Mack recalled recently, reflecting on a childhood spent around the fairgrounds in Durham, Conn. “My grandmother was a pickle judge, my aunts always entered jams and jellies, my mom would make a quilt or needlepoint or enter vegetables or flowers, and my dad always did something — photography or horticulture, usually, sometimes baking.”
Ms. Mack, 47, who now lives and works out of a historical rowhouse in Bushwick, had her own role to play in the family holiday — aside from taking a gamble at carnival games and sampling deep fried you-name-its: Every year she’d compete in the Durham Fair’s craft competition.
“I know every artist says this, but I was always making stuff as a kid,” she said. “Plus, you could win a few bucks of prize money and you’d get into the fair for free.” The ritual would begin each August with daily trips to the mailbox to check for the Durham Fair’s entry booklet, which contained the long list of craft categories that would guide Ms. Mack’s plan of attack. (Soap carving and pumpkin decoration were among her favorites.)
That annual tradition has evolved through many twists and turns into “Junk Kaleidoscope,” a phrase that Amy Smith-Stewart, the Aldrich’s curator, likes to think of as “a ruptured view of the world through everyday cultural artifacts,” she said recently while installing the show.
Hung in frames, displayed on shelves, or arranged in domestic-scaled installations, Ms. Mack’s new work quietly exudes the motley variety of a craft show crossed with a fair exhibition hall in its mix of stained glass, gilding, silk flowers, neon lights and lots of denim. There are references to early sideshow banners, commemorative wreaths, needlepoint samplers, teen longing, and American heartthrobs.
“I’m interested in my body of work looking like the things that came out of the fair, not in their craftiness, but in their diversity,” said Ms. Mack, who cites as inspirations Ree Morton (1936-1977), Rosemarie Trockel and Robert Gober, artists known for their idiosyncratic use of various materials.
She returns to the Durham Fair almost every year and took road trips to visit state fairs through the Southeast and the northern Midwest. “Fairs are great sources for images,” she said, while assuring me that she is not obsessed. What she does obsess over, she explained, is “their collections of things, the categorization, their repetitive nature.” Fittingly, a large poster-size list hangs at the entrance to the main gallery at the Aldrich, enumerating 73 categories.
The evolution of the kind of official list that Ms. Mack would eagerly pore over as a kid, the show at the Aldrich mixes existing competition categories, like “#14 Wood, three-dimensional construction” with more ambiguous entries, like “#38 My heart wants more” and “#55 After the fact.”
The list is also a link to the exhibition’s pivotal origins, Ms. Mack’s epic project, “The Fair” (staged in 1996 and 2006). Fresh out of the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where she earned her M.F.A. in sculpture, Ms. Mack decided to enter all 73 craft categories in the Durham Fair. It was an act of near-manic D.I.Y. industriousness, done in the name of art rather than heartlandish moral rectitude. She taught herself leather tooling, screen-printing and chair caning, and won dozens of ribbons.
“Art gave me this framework to put around the fair, this permission to allow myself to allocate an insane amount of time to making crafts — all summer, every day, two crafts a day, while working a full-time temp job,” she recalled. Real Art Ways, a nonprofit art space in Hartford, showed the items — adorned with their ribbons. The following year, Postmasters Gallery in New York showed the project.
In 2006, Ms. Mack was at it again, entering all 69 craft categories of the Durham Fair. “That second time it was more about using repetition, remaking, and memorialization to think about how I was processing these familiar images and experiences,” she said. Ten years later, she was planning “Junk Kaleidoscope,” fleshing out her interest in commemoration. “All the work in the show came from either a memory I have or an image I saw, maybe a very specific object I walked by,” she explained. “But they’re not exact reproductions, they’re combinations of a few things.”
There are several wreath motifs in the show, including “Conn Con,” from 2017, a large ring of straw festooned with ornamental corn. It’s the kind of regional homage that one might find at the fair, but also an allusion to the false impression of household bliss that the mastery of the “domestic arts” might imply. “How you decorate your house, your curb appeal — it was all very important where I grew up,” said Ms. Mack, who now has work in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Seattle Art Museum, among others.
Ms. Smith-Stewart, who came across the artist’s work in a group show at MoMA PS1 in 2002, while working as an assistant curator, said: “Anissa is interested in the storytelling power of objects, and many of the works have a narrative that can be pieced together differently depending on the audience.”
Ms. Mack’s list is a gathering of ideas that have been percolating in her psyche over the years. “#45 Amy, Amy, anyone,” for instance, refers to the artist’s childhood fascination with Amy Carter. “I was so curious about her,” said Ms. Mack, who still has the straight red hair, sprinkling of freckles and gently angular features she shared back then with America’s First Kid. “She was my ageish, but a little older. And she sort of looked like me.”
Ms. Mack hasn’t tackled the subject of Amy Carter quite yet, but that doesn’t matter. The list, for her, is a live document for future work. It can be a catalyst (or excuse) to make something new, or a way of understanding something she’s already made.
Everything in the show refers to something on the list, she explained, but some might match three, “and some categories, like Americana, might cover everything.” “Everyone’s favorite angel, 2017,” for instance, a pencil sketch of Farrah Fawcett drawn on a canvas that the artist has molded to look like white denim, could be “#20 Best of the best,” “#33 I never thought she’d take his last name,” “ or “#60 Locations, actors, obstacles.”
“Wreath,” from 2017, is a good example of how Ms. Mack might bundle together different impressions into a cohesive work. It revolves around a story she read in the paper last year about a terminally ill 14-year-old British girl whose last wish was to be cryogenically frozen. The artist printed the condensed tale, word by word, on the surface of around 300 resin-cast rings (tiny wreaths, if you will), and then arranged them among dozens of inexpensive vintage rings in a rectangular grid of foam slots, the kind of display she frequently sees at fairs and flea markets.
The work shows how nuanced Ms. Mack’s state fair resonances can be. “The girl’s story reminded me of the midway,” she said. “It’s this place of incredible hope, where you might win this huge stuffed thing, but you also kind of know you’re going to lose.”
A white neon sign casting cold light in a dark side gallery transports viewers to the midway’s fleeting alley of rickety rides and ringtoss stands. It reads “FACTS FAKES FREAKS.” Ms. Mack didn’t have political intentions when she made the sign last year — the wording came from an old sideshow banner she had seen. But the relevance today doesn’t escape her.
“The emotions generated in the space of the midway are things that really play out in other parts of American culture,” she said. “The pride of winning something for someone else, the showing off, the hucksterism.” It’s all right there.
A version of this article appears in print on October 22, 2017, on Page AR14 of the New York edition with the headline: And the Blue Ribbon Goes to ….
The Modern Art Notes Podcast – No. 278: Kay Rosen, Edme Bouchardon – by Tyler Green
Episode No. 278 of The Modern Art Notes Podcast features artist Kay Rosen and curator Anne-Lise Desmas.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum opens “Kay Rosen: H Is for House,” this weekend. Rosen’s first solo museum exhibition in the northeast in almost 20 years, it is curated by the Aldrich’s Richard Klein. The exhibition will be on view through September 4.
Rosen’s text-based works, presented as wall-drawings, paintings and works on paper, use language, words, humor and two-dimensional forms to explore ideas, histories and contemporary life. Rosen’s work is in the collection . Her museum exhibitions and installations have included projects at the Aspen (Colo.) Art Museum, the University Art Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, The Drawing Center, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Otis College of Art and Design, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the MCA Chicago and more.
On the second segment, J. Paul Getty Museum curator Anne-Lise Desmas discusses “Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment.” The exhibition examines the sculpture and drawings of Edme Bouchardon, who worked as the Royal Artist during the eighteenth-century reign of Louis XV. The exhibition, which Desmas co-curated with Edouard Kopp, is on view through April 2. Its excellent exhibition catalogue was published by the Getty. Amazon offers it for $80.
“Modern Painters: “Suzanne McClelland paints with data” - by Juliet Helmke
“I have found myself in triangles most of my life, so I’m kind of digging in to find out what they’re about,” says Suzanne McClelland, somewhat elliptically discussing her 25-year career retrospective, on view at Connecticut’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum through September 4. One of the few, never-before-exhibited works, which was still being fabricated when I visited her studio in November, is a hanging glass work spelling out the phrase “third party,” the associations of which have goaded the artist throughout this quarter-century. It’s a reference, McClelland explains, “not just to the phrase’s political meaning, but also to what happens in a triangular conversation as opposed to a binary one. I’m thinking about the witness; the listener; the reader; the third wheel, even.” While she may work in solitude, the artist always has a multi-sided relationship in mind: “There’s the author that made the thing, and then there’s the thing itself, and then there’s the viewer.”
McClelland is best known for large- scale, data-dense paintings that mingle abstract gestures with a thicket of numbers and text. She began her undergraduate studies in photography at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, but revolted early on against any gurative impulses and from the realism of photography, feeling that they were too instructive—a way of exerting undue control by telling too much. With abstraction, she could put her viewers to work. “You don’t know where to enter the painting,” she says. “You have to gure that out for yourself, how to move around inside of it—this is what the reading experience is; it’s what seeing is.”
A typical McClelland painting is a puzzle, loaded with politically tinged facts and gures that have been obscured or abstracted into sweeping brushstrokes and fragments of legible text or imagery: a salary gure, a dollar sign, the vague outline of the Florida Panhandle. A 2014 work whose title references Chelsea Manning (who was convicted in 2013 for disclosing classi ed military documents to WikiLeaks) appears to be little more than a storm of slashing red and black lines. The blind contour drawings (a staple exercise of any art school, where the artist constructs a line drawing without being able to see her own marks) that she’s been making of the United States contain a smattering of numbers strewn across the canvas or board on which she works, representing the number of hate crimes recorded in each state, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another body of work is devoted to the highest-earning rappers (Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, and Birdman, among them). The ongoing series “Call with Information,” exhibited at Team Gallery (which has represented McClelland since 2012), reference individuals on the U.S. Domestic Terrorist list. Those paintings contain the government identi cation number assigned to each of these now 14 suspects (McClelland has been working to update the series as more names have been added) and little other contextual information; but they each have companion pieces, of sorts, in accompanying collage-style works on paper, which include wanted posters or fragmented newspaper clippings. An in-progress series uses Google satellite images of evangelical pastors’ homes as its source material.
A vast amount of quasi-compulsive research informs her practice. 2013’s “Ideal Proportions” series takes its numerical gures from the physical measurements of body builders. (Each of these paintings has a small amount of its research material pasted to its back—Internet print-outs, Xeroxes from newspapers—a way of “ ling” this corresponding information once a work is nished). “I really have a problem,” she jokes, pointing to a stack of papers spread across her work table. “I have these for every painting. And piles and piles of all these pictures. The Internet didn’t make it any better—it’s all too easy.”
In the Brooklyn brownstone that serves as both her workspace and the home she shares with her husband, a sound engineer, and teenage son, McClelland is rarely focused on one series, or even one medium at a time. Instead, she prefers to cycle from the bright, sun-lit studio that occupies much of the rst oor to a room upstairs better suited to making works on paper, organizing images and text, or pursuing any of the various other projects stoked by an idea that’s come up in the course of her constant research (for instance, Mergers and Acquisitions, a 2012 calendar made in collaboration with abstract painter Hayal Pozanti, which amalgamated images of billionaires, high-pro le businessmen, and religious leaders, with a smattering of arbitrary historical dates littering the calendar boxes of each month). Yet even when she may be paused in her work, she hasn’t exactly stopped strategizing and plotting a painting’s next move. “As you go further into the painting, your options simultaneously narrow and expand,” she says. “It’s a really particular way of thinking that I nd most challenging. I repeat a number of forms, but I also need to feel as though I’m kind of inventing the wheel each time.”
The artist’s early work was decidedly more text-driven, with phrases like my pleasure or told you so oating across a composition, or paint occasionally applied atop collaged pieces of newsprint. She likens her painterly gestures to writing, albeit of a more physical variety. That sort of mark making invariably leads to a comparison with the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. McClelland recalls that, after her rst few exhibitions, many viewers and critics blithely noted that her paintings looked like they were “made by a man.” But contrary to the narrative surrounding Ab-Ex, McClelland credits her gestural style to research and observation, rather than any ego-driven desire to “establish a presence of myself, to put an imprint of myself on the surface.” And while text is pared-back or less at the forefront in much of her recent work, the way she thinks about her role is still as that of someone relaying information, “connecting thought to touch; feeling to something visual.” The viewer is her reader.
A recent residency at Brooklyn’s Urban Glass studio has involved a different kind of reinvention, exploring a medium that she isn’t quite comfortable with yet. For a developing series, she is sandblasting silhouetted images she has sourced of people running onto 99 oblong glass rectangles she plans to display in a long line, leaning on a thin shelf at eye level. She hopes that these serial representations of a simple activity will spur varying responses and projections: In these images (as in life) how does one’s interpretation change, for instance, depending on the age, race, or gender of the runner in question?
It can be easy to look at McClelland’s oeuvre and conclude that the artist’s motivations are entirely political, but that is not her strict intention. Rather, she’s more like a consummate aneur—collecting facts, histories, rst-hand experiences, and stories, with simple but vigilant astuteness. To her, it’s a very active position. “My work is always about observing and responding,” she says, “and that is inherently a social act.” But by communicating in abstract terms she’s found a way of making viewers use their own capabilities to interpret, translate—and perhaps research—further. Always mindful of that invisible person in the conversation between herself and her work, she’s determined the third party plays an active part. As in the facts that seem to be missing from a story or the unknown context surrounding a brie y glimpsed scene, it’s in what McClelland doesn’t tell her viewers that piques curiosity, setting the mind to exercise.
Juliet Helmke, “Suzanne McClelland paints with data,” Modern Painters March/April, pp. 46-53.