The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is describing its new show, supertitled “The Domestic Plane,” as a “meta-group exhibition in five chapters.”
“Mega” would work just as well though, because “The Domestic Plane” is very, very big. It occupies all the Aldrich’s galleries but one and represents the work of 80 artists. “Five chapters” refers to the separate exhibits that make up larger “Domestic Plane.”
“It is a record. It’s encyclopedic,” says Richard Klein, the Aldrich’s exhibition director. “This is the greatest number of individual works and artists that we’ve ever shown simultaneously.”
Their common theme, very freely interpreted, is the household as a place for art. Just one exhibit, “Objects Like Us,” displays sculptures done over six decades by more than 50 artists.
Arranged on shelves along three walls of a second-floor gallery, many seem comic, almost imitations of collector’s kitsch. Two examples are a red-building brick sprouting human ears (from 1968 by Robert Arneson) and a pair of ladies panties crafted from clay (from 2017 by Sally Saul). Florally decorated, cream-colored and sheet-cake thick, they look edible.
As a collection, though, “Objects Like Us” is hardly all fun and games. The title can ask how much we are like the shelved objects. In fact, viewers can see themselves and much of the gallery reflected in the raised-mirrored lid of a jewelry case encrusted with brass pins (from 1973 by Lucas Samaras).
The exhibit declares its conceptual seriousness underfoot. The gallery flooring is made of thousands of pieces of ordinary blackboard chalk laid out in a herringbone pattern. It is an installation by the Berlin-based sculptor, David Adamo, who doubled as guest curator, collaborating with the Aldrich’s own Amy Smith-Stewart.
One of Adamo’s ideas is that as the chalk disintegrates it will show the pattern of human traffic. Still pristine on opening day, the floor almost lost a couple of pieces to a child, who saw the chalk as chalk and bent to collect some. A parent stopped the theft.
How Adamo or the Aldrich would have reacted to the child’s alteration could be the subject of a lecture. Museum postings say the “The Domestic Plane” can be likened to a theater experience and is interactive. That promise is fulfilled in another second-floor gallery by an exhibit that is a collaboration between Dakin Hart, the senior curator at the Noguchi Museum in Queens; and Tucker Nichols, a California-based artist who often works with found objects.
Titled “Almost Everything on the Table,” their subject matter is nothing less than the laws of physics and the universe as they might be investigated at home. One of several intentionally interactive elements is an overhead projector re-labeled a “Starfield Simulator.” It comes without instructions, but daring gallery visitors discover that colored plastic cutouts provided in a tray can be used to project sky after sky on a gallery wall.
Nearby is a large, shallow basin filled with water and scores of floating bottle caps. Children know to spin the basin, forcing the bottle caps to the center. A gallery guide identifies it as a “big gyre.” Surrounded by children, it looks like fun. But an impression lingers from the bottle caps. In many colors and sizes, they appear used, as if collected as litter. Could they also be an environmental alert to the giant gyres of discarded plastic polluting the oceans?
Altogether, 38 separate pieces are in “Almost Everything on the Table.” Not all are meant to be manipulated, but so many are constructed from scavenged balls and rings that the general feeling is one of playfulness.
A posted statement by Dakin Hart explains the amateur scientific spirit informing the exhibit. “Cobbled together at the speed of thought, these models and experiments … have enabled us to engage in the sublimest foolishness,” he writes.
He issues a wonderful alliterative challenge: “Consider the cosmic comedy of the constellations.” He regrets to answer that they exist as “narcissistic delusion,” forms visible only from Earth.
In contrast, a third exhibit titled “Handheld” explicitly invokes the rule “look but don’t touch.” Yet its 20 familiar objects are arranged on a single tabletop, almost like place settings, and beg to be picked up. All hand-crafted, they are also the most plainly beautiful pieces in the entire exhibit.
At the head of the table is a Chinese-style teapot, by Ron Nagle, that is such a lustrous deep blue that it appears covered in soft fabric. In fact, it is glazed earthenware.
At the other end, a fine linen table napkin, by Anne Wilson, appears to have cigarette burns outlined in orange. A closer look reveals the burn marks are stitched and the ragged rim of the hole is sewn with human hair.
Nearby are two cups that don’t appear to deserve a place at the table. One looks to be a Styrofoam coffee cup and the other the cheapest kind of plastic party cup. It has a wine stain at the bottom. But both cups, by Christopher Taylor, are blown-glass trompe l’oeil pieces.
Elizabeth Essner, the guest curator from Brooklyn, writes that the crafted pieces are a reminder of the primal importance of the human hand as both an instrument of creation and of touch at a time when the cellphone has become the most common handheld device and the swipe a kind of sterile touch.
There is less profusion in the other two “Domestic Plane” chapters because their pieces on are a larger scale. One, “On Edge,” is a collection of modernist tables that themselves are works of art. Each supports a single sculpture, some balanced precariously on the table edge.
“Kitchen Arrangement” is a site-specific installation by Jessi Reaves. It is a sculptural interpretation of furnishings that might be found in any kitchen. All are twisted, a couple almost beyond recognition. Her “Pearly Slobber Shelf” is a catch-all cupboard that appears to be sticking out a porcelain tongue.
Like other artists in the exhibit, Reaves’ name might be unknown to the general public, but is recognized in the art world. She is one of the artists represented in last year’s Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial exhibit.
Klein says “The Domestic Plane” was conceived partly as a response to “gigantism” in art; art too big to fit in any house. The bigness of the Aldrich exhibit is measured in its abundance and also its ambition.
Among the many events associated with the exhibit will be the fall publication of a 260-page book. The exhibit runs until Jan. 13.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.