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.
Greg G. Weber, “With help from DWR surfaces, Conn. museum tests ‘the edge.’,” DWR Blog, August 2018
An expansive new art exhibit in Connecticut is exploring the way objects are displayed on surfaces throughout our homes and our relationship to them. The exhibit, The Domestic Plane: New Perspectives on Tabletop Art Objects, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, is presented in five separate “chapters,” each with its own curator and one employing a plethora of furnishings from Design Within Reach as props. Featuring art objects from the 20th and 21st centuries, the exhibit presents an experience that could be likened to theater, as “viewers encounter objects that interact with each other, their audience and their setting, forging relationships to be examined and meanings to be discovered in their adventurous methods of display.” More than 70 artists are represented in the show, which runs through January 13.
The largest of the chapters, Objects Like Us, represents more than 50 artists and explores the “relational behavior of intimately scaled objects that personify or embody a human condition or attribute that transmits a performative potentiality, aura or beingness.” Artist and curator David Adamo laid out white chalk in a herringbone pattern to suggest antique parquet. With foot traffic, the chalk will crack and crumble to reveal pathways of interaction from exhibit visitors.
Another chapter, On Edge, considers the table as a territory with the inherent boundary of its “edge” and its relationship with gravity. Using DWR dining tables and a bench, coffee table, desk and dresser, sculpture is placed in positions that test the surface edges, where safety and danger coexist.
Three other chapters complete the exhibition. Kitchen Arrangement, a commissioned installation, provides an immersive exploration of the “home’s primal epicenter: a social space essential to living and an area full of relational potentiality.” Almost Everything on the Table, with more than 30 objects, is largely interactive and invites exploration of metaphysical questions. And finally, with 20 or so objects laid out on a single table, Handheld invites the examination of the relationship between hand and eye.
Founded by Larry Aldrich in 1964, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is one of the few independent, non-collecting contemporary art museums in the United States and the only museum in Connecticut devoted to contemporary art.
Pieces from DWR were used exclusively in On Edge. They include the Celine Desk, Cross Extension Table, CTW1 Rectangular Coffee Table, Dulwich Extension Table, Gather Table, Kayu Teak Dining Table and Nelson Thin Edge Double Dresser.
Jonathan Goodman, “Analia Segal: Contra la pared,” The Brooklyn Rail, September 2018
Analia Segal is a New York-based artist, but before she arrived in the States nearly twenty years ago, her life in Argentina was under the cloud of the Argentinian dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla, who took power when Segal was only seven years old. It was a time of extraordinary violence, and although the artist suffered no direct harm herself, she was marked by the general sense of disorder and genuine mayhem taking place. This deep sense of unease surfaces in, Analia Segal: contra la pared, which in Spanish means “against the wall” or “cornered.” The show is composed of abstract geometric patterns covering the entry doors. Inside there are three videos on three of the walls, as well as a relief sculpture of white chipboard volumes, meant to be seen as books, and a work consisting of strings of yarn descending toward a circular rug. These discrete pieces function as a totality, making the entire installation feel like a singular work of three-dimensional art.
Segal’s work picks up on the technical advances achieved in New York in environmental art and in the fierce emphasis on political awareness, and also the idea of a home—a safe personal environment—beyond the violence of the moment. Segal’s work does not begin and end with personal feeling alone. Rather than focus on things being done to people, the artist abstracts the experience of her youth, investing her videos with word play that create a soundtrack to abstract images from the Internet that reference wallpaper, drapes, doors, and other indoor objects.
Collectively titled Inland, the videos communicate disorder and distress through simple repetition of words from language tutorials in which the listener is enjoined to repeat the phrase that is spoken. The very act of doing so is an example of someone following a command—an interaction that could easily be read as the use of authority, as simple as the act of verbal repetition might be. The use of words amplifies the power and pathos of Segal’s installation, which leaves an aura of mistrust, even suspicion in the viewer’s mind.
Aleph II (2018) consists of a round rug whose circumference includes thick lozenge-shaped forms in red. Lines of black yarn rise up in columnar fashion to the ceiling. There is no overt political content, but the catalogue essay by artist Richard Klein (currently interim director of the gallery) intimates the black-and-red rug as violent, pushing into the space above it with the black lines of yarn. Like the injunctions we hear in all three videos, we also experience the violence in this very interesting work of art as implied—but inevitably hovering in near distance. Klein invokes the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, an Argentinian native, as a precedent to Segal’s work in its elegant, implied distress, in which passionate invasiveness stands for what it is as a simple visual. Like the gallery walls, Aleph II makes use of red, black, and white abstract patterns, whose colors themselves seem menacing enough but which do not directly, or in realist form, convey violence.
Before becoming an artist, Segal studied industrial design, and one of the considerable strengths of her installation is its creative sense of placement—Aleph II is placed where it is to encourage her audience to move through and around the exhibition, supporting the view that the entire installation is a sculpture. Indeed, Segal is extremely aware of the audience’s movement across the room. Aleph II helps make the total environment cohere in a manner that affects us first as a visual statement and then, over time, as a political treatise despite its essential abstraction. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the personal hovers over the show like a low cloud—Segal invests her work with the emotion that comes from her difficult childhood. The feeling of oppression is primarily achieved by the addition of sound; the seemingly benign quality of the repeated commands turns dark over time.
Perhaps the most striking work is the wall sculpture Blind Volumes (2017 – 18). Consisting of white chipboard against an otherwise unadorned red wall, many of the individual pieces—which stick out roughly six inches from the wall and look rather like patterns meant to convey literary content—are deformed. They display extrusions or small but sharp changes. Classically modernist in its overall gestalt, Blind Volumes also repudiates the high, clean lines of modern sculpture by deforming many of the individual elements that the work is made up of. Segal is paying homage to a childhood past that has stayed with her, but her visual presentation is remarkable for its terse schematics. Her art lasts as remembered patterns informed by the memory of a dysfunctional, bloodily vindictive state.
This does not mean we must read everything as a symbol of a troubled younger life. The tension between art and social commentary in this environment is extreme, and it makes the work(s) memorable. Segal’s art poses questions more than it answers them, and this is how it should be; as a piece that indirectly reminds us of early life events that, in the artist’s case, are publicly—not privately—originated, contra la pared demonstrates that memory can seep from one milieu to another—even if we do not want this to happen.
Alix Browne, “T Introduces: Jessi Reaves,” T Magazine, Aug. 31, 2018
Looking at art can be tiring business, and resting spots in museums tend to be rare, crowded and generally uninviting. But at last year’s Whitney Biennial, where visitors of course knew not to touch the art, they came to an awkward consensus regarding the work of Jessi Reaves: They sat on it. In their defense, the New York artist makes sculptures with reassuring references to everyday chairs, tables and lamps — though rather than broadcast their functionality, her pieces challenge us to question the very concept of furniture. One of the pieces on view, “Basket Chair With Brown Pillow,” resembles a head-on collision between the 19th-century German cabinetmaker Michael Thonet’s classic bentwood Chair No. 14 and the sort of metal butterfly one finds in college dorms. “I didn’t anticipate the sheer number of people and the damage they could do,” says Reaves. “But you can’t create a nuanced instruction for interaction — it can’t be, Sit gently. It’s either all on or all off.”
The 31-year-old Reaves, who studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, arrived at these more workaday forms when she started taking freelance jobs as an upholsterer after graduating. “It was amazing because I had all of these materials accumulating around me, and I liked the sensation of peeling things back and getting familiar with pieces in their unfinished state,” she says. She embarked on a series of chair sculptures, dressing a Thonet chair in a diaphanous pink slipcover so that it appeared to be wearing lingerie and covering a cheap plastic chair in jacket fleece in an approximation (or abomination) of an expensive Scandinavian model she’d seen at high-end furniture stores. “In design, there is a lot of theft of ideas, even as people aspire to make something new and iconic,” she says, adding, “which strikes me as really funny and bro-y.”
Reaves isn’t striving for the glory of invention but for nuanced riffs that play with ideas of both usefulness and beauty. Aesthetically, her pieces — erotically misshapen, with more than the edges left raw — have as much in common with the paintings of Jenny Saville than anything produced by Charles and Ray Eames. Earlier this year, she was selected for the Carnegie International, opening on Oct. 13 in Pittsburgh, where she’ll show curvaceous multimedia “recliners,” as well as a baroque chaos of plywood, caning and even a purse that, for lack of a better word, could be described as a shelf. There, her work will literally occupy the no man’s land between art and design, in a space bridging Carnegie Museum’s Hall of Architecture and its main galleries that was originally constructed to house the last office of Frank Lloyd Wright.
But while her body of work is sweepingly subversive, Reaves remains fascinated by the materiality and perceived purpose behind each piece. On the day I visit her studio, in the basement of a former carriage house in Chelsea, she shows me a large electric fan that she’s working on for her friends Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, fashion designers whose own Whitney installation is now on display. “I love the fan because, unlike a chair, you don’t have to use it to activate it. It just acts on you,” she says. Still, she’s built a decorative wire cage and placed it atop a pedestal of scrap wicker, giving it, in effect, a special chair of its own. — ALIX BROWNE
Joel Lang, “Extensive Aldrich exhibit explores tabletop art objects,” Connecticut Post, June 2018
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.
Françoise Mouly, “The Profound Mundanity of Richard McGuire’s ‘My Things,’” The New Yorker, May 18,
Richard McGuire is an American artist whose work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and at the Morgan Library & Museum. He’s also an illustrator, children’s-book author, toy designer, and founding member of the post-punk band Liquid Liquid, for which he plays bass. It would be fair to call his work multidisciplinary.
But McGuire’s most recent project, “My Things,” a depiction of the innumerable small objects he interacts with in a single day, still feels like a departure. “Here,” his award-winning graphic novel from 2014, was awash in color, and its images evinced a deft, relaxed sense of space. “My Things,” meanwhile, employs a tight grid of black-and-white panels. What remains consistent are McGuire’s powers of attention: in the ten pages of “My Things,” above, McGuire studies the minutiae of touch, gesture, and interaction, his eye keenly attuned to the way objects shape and scaffold our lives. That theme is of a piece with McGuire’s “The Way There and Back,” an installation on view, this month, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum; the exhibit will feature more than a hundred objects, each an “abstracted sculptural evocation of a shoe.”
Annie Godfrey Larmon, “Analia Segal: Contra La Pared,” Artforum, May 2018
Ever since Charlotte Perkins Gilman set her protagonist against the walls of the room that provoked her hysteria in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), we’ve been reckoning with the Janus face of domestic design. Haven or prison, the interior is fodder for Argentine artist Analia Segal, who remembers her childhood home in Buenos Aires as decorated with the paranoia of living under a military dictatorship. The title of her exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum—which will feature an installation comprising works in sculpture, furniture, and textiles alongside the animated video trilogy Inland, 2012–18—translates to “against the wall” or “cornered.” Indeed, these works are suggestive of the ways in which space can invite or alienate. Segal turns to the substrates of such projection—carpets, tiles, wallpaper, and window blinds—to subtly intervene in architectural space and in the viewer’s perception of it.
Commentary by Ryan Scails and Tessa Rosenstein; Series edited by Paul VanDeCarr
I grew up in this area, in Bethel, Connecticut, and I’ve always felt fortunate to have the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum nearby. In high school, I took a docent program at the museum through my art class, and then I worked at an art camp here between semesters at school in New York. At school, I started out studying industrial design, but that wasn’t a good fit for me.
I took a break and came back to Connecticut and learned metalworking from a welder here, then I finished school majoring in sculpture and drawing. I returned to Connecticut, and now, for the past couple of years, I’ve worked for the Aldrich-first as an installer on a couple of shows, and then, after doing some traveling, as an attendant.
I love the standard of art shown here, and I’m friends with the staff. The Aldrich is part of a local circuit for contemporary art; people who know of Dia:Beacon or the Katonah Museum of Art also know of the Aldrich. The museum is artist-centered, and artist-centered institutions shouldn’t be only in New York or Boston or other big cities.
I like stuff, though I don’t accrue a lot of it. When I look at art now, I’m looking at the formal and physical aspects of things- texture and weight and craft and how things are installed. The physical can convey the artist’s idea, and it can also fabricate an idea in the mind of a viewer. The tactile quality of artwork is one of the most universal topics I discuss with visitors, in that it is relatable to people of all backgrounds.
There’s a show up now called Your Turn, which is what Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, the two artists who created it, call performance architecture. It’s a two-sided wall that has rungs to climb on and a compost toilet and a bed and a comfy chair and a little kitchenette and some other amenities, each of which slides back and forth to one side of the wall or the other. The two artists lived on opposite sides of the wall for 10 days, and only one of them could use each item at a time. After the first 10-day stay, they came back for a shorter stint, and since then there have been videos projected in the gallery showing them living on the wall.
Schweder and Shelley are enthusiastic and childlike in their pursuit-it feels like something you would’ve wanted to do as a kid . The whole structure has bright, youthful colors, and it looks like those weird ‘90s game shows on Nickelodeon that I used to watch. I’ve been thinking about that with my own work, drawing with the delight that I had as a kid. I can’t remember an age when I didn’t have a pen or a pencil in my hand.
It’s different seeing the artwork while working at the museum, as opposed to visiting. As an attendant, I spend more time with the art, for one thing, and I hear more conversations about it-and I often take part in them. Kids and adults all have a strong reaction to this piece. A lot of them are just amazed. They ask questions about the logistics, like “Do they cook?” or “Who empties the toilet?” and they wonder out loud about whether they could manage it themselves. Aldrich is in Ridgefield, which has some big, lavish homes, so the questions that this piece pose are about how can you make do with less, and how you cooperate in a domestic setting. Some visitors say they just couldn’t do it.
Me, I would love to live on the sculpture. I love the challenge of living that way. I don’t mind putting myself under duress. The piece has more amenities than the trailer I lived in at Joshua Tree when I was hosting a residency program.
This installation is at once lighthearted and thought-provoking. The discussion that art can lead people to is what it’s all about.
I’m from this area originally, and I was aware of the museum as a teenager, though I didn’t visit until I went to college nearby. I just got a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in contemporary art history. I started the job of museum attendant in May 2017. I guard the art, give information, and help interpret the work for visitors.
One piece on display now at the Aldrich that I’ve really liked is a still from Rapture, a 1999 video installation by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. It’s in the group exhibition Shared Space: A New Era, and it’s competing with lots of colorful, large-scale pieces in the show. Right across from it is a photograph by Massimo Vitali, LA dancer’s forum #1262, and elsewhere there’s a large Walter Niedermayr diptych of a mountain, called Kitzsteinhorn V, which a lot of people are drawn to, I think because it looks like a typical landscape painting until you get closer and realize it’s a photograph. Like Kitzsteinhorn V, the Neshat piece doesn’t immediately give itself away: It’s in black and white and it’s small, so it requires more intimacy. You have to step in close to interact with it.
While other artworks in the exhibition don’t show people at all or catch their subjects unaware, in this piece, the women pictured engage directly with the camera. You’re immediately confronted by their stern gazes. The piece depicts a group of 50 or more women arranged in a triangle out in the desert, all wearing black chadors. I love that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface: You have to wonder who these women are, why they’re kneeling in the desert, what happens before or after this particular moment in the video. The women have poetry written in Farsi on their hands, which the artist uses to imply an internalized voice or dialogue. I love this, because the exact text is not accessible to those of us who don’t understand Farsi. It reinforces restrained silence.
For me, this is an image of solidarity, solemn and ceremonial. The women are banding together to highlight what Neshat identified in an interview with Scott MacDonald as a shared Middle Eastern experience. I’m drawn to this piece because I find the subjects’ direct eye contact very engaging and very personal–it activates the piece for me in a way that’s distinct from the other photographs in the show. While my background is not at all similar to Neshat’s–she and I are so different, in age, nationality, perspective–this piece deeply resonates with me because, like reading a good book, it temporarily takes me out of myself and presents me with a perspective that in some ways varies widely from my own.
Contemporary art can sometimes be a bit off-putting and difficult to understand, but the Aldrich makes it accessible–the museum wants people to get involved and ask questions. I get excited about talking with people about the art.
In larger museums, I often feel dwarfed by the space and have to move with the flow of the crowds. Here you can explore. I’m able to study artworks at more length, and pieces that don’t necessarily strike me or please me right off I have time to learn more about. Sometimes working here feels like I’m doing another graduate-school dissertation!
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.