February 24, 2011

College Art Association Annual Conference in New York: A Report from HCCC Curatorial Fellow, Anna Walker (Part I)

I didn’t know what to expect as a first-time attendee at the College Art Association’s (CAA) Annual Conference in New York City, February 9 - 12, 2011. I have always been familiar with CAA as a tool for educators and students, but I was excited to attend the panel discussions surrounding craft and curatorial topics.

I arrived on Thursday and began the day in the session, The Art of Pranks, with chair Beauvais Lyons, University of Tennessee.  Lyons began the session flipping through slides of pranks by artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons.  Humor is at the core of Prank, particularly how it is used to engage with political discourse. With such an engaging topic, I was glad many of the papers took a more lighthearted approach in presentation format. For example, self-proclaimed “artivist,” Clark Stoeckley, presented his talk in the guise of “Officer Stoeckley of the NYPD.”  Stoeckley provided an overview of pranks by graffiti and performance artists that were both playful and illustrative of political resistance.  This made me curious about which craft artists have engaged with prank theory through their work. Surely, Wendell Castle’s 1978 piece, Coat Rack with Trench Coat, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, would be considered prankster?  (Although, made of wood, it mimics a coat in the style of trompe l’oeil.) Another example of prankish craft is the recent exhibit from the Wood Turning Center, Challenge VII: DysFUNctional, which features objects that subvert function and are made with the kind of humor and whimsy frequently found at the core of Prank.

Wendell Castle (American, b. 1932.) Coat Rack with Trench Coat. 1978.
Honduran mahogany.The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston;
Gift of Roy M. Huffington, Inc. and anonymous donors, 1984.299.
Art Copyright Wendell Castle Inc.

Following this session, I attended Narcissism, a topic organized by the Queer Caucus for Art: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus for Art, Artists, and Historians.  With a strong schedule of presenters, I would need to devote multiple posts to each presentation. I thought the strongest presentations were It’s all about ME, Not You: The Art of Greer Lankton, by Jonathan Weinberg, independent artist and scholar, and Shame-Flushed Flaming:  Narcissism and the Queer Potentials of Photography, presented by Jill Casid, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Overall, I am most interested in applying queer theory and the topics discussed to practices surrounding craft. Fiber artists, Lacey Jane Roberts, Josh Faught and Aaron McIntosh are just a few artists that come to mind who are dealing with issues surrounding queer identity and hetero-norms of society and craft.

Looking ahead, Friday promised another full day of sessions, with many surrounding craft specifically. In the morning, Betty Crouther, University of Mississippi, and Crystal Hui-Shu Yang, University of North Dakota, chaired and presented papers in Cultural Diversity and Human Creativity:  The Continuation of Traditional Craftsmanship.  Presenter Joshua Almond, of Rollins College, discussed the simplistic approach of the art-versus-craft debate in his presentation, Liberal Arts Colleges as Stewards of Traditional Craftsmanship. He referenced Glenn Adamson’s new book, Thinking through Craft, and his discussion of craft as a process. Almond explained how the interdisciplinary model of liberal arts schools is similar to the model with which we should discuss craft—a dialogue that is not solely about material exploration. Following this talk was the much anticipated session, Where Is Tradition in American Studio Craft?, chaired by Katie Lee, Assistant Director of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design.  The three presentations in this session were topical and gave constructive criticism to the notions behind the loaded word, tradition.  Audio recordings and PDF documents of this session can be found on the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design’s website.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, tradition is cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions. When examining the relationship of craft to society, the presenters agreed that, while craft references traditions of the past, it is a nimble and responsive medium that engages with current society on a variety of levels.

Lin Yillin (Chinese, b. 1964) Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road. 1995.
Still image from single channel video, sound, 36 minutes, 45 seconds.
Asia Society, New York: Promised Gift of Harold and Ruth Newman.
With this in mind, I found the presentations of Elisabeth Agro, Curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Tom Loeser, Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, highly engaging and relevant.  Agro articulated the need to shift the rhetoric of tradition to that of heritage. She used the material history of porcelain and cleverly highlighted how objects created today reference those from the past. Contemporary works are not made in a traditional style, but instead honor certain stylistic or material references from the past, the heritage of the material. Loeser presented artists and works that re-contextualize traditions of the past, placing craft into a successful relationship with art and design. One such example was Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road, a performance piece by Chinese artist, Lin Yillin, in which he continually rebuilds a concrete wall, while crossing a pedestrian crosswalk during traffic. Loeser mentions how this work displays the radical act of a mundane action, the traditions of wall building and even labor practices. Following this panel, Namita Gupta Wiggers, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, was the discussant and led the beginnings of what could have been a provocative discussion had our session time not lapsed.

Lin Yillin (Chinese, b. 1964) Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road. 1995.
Single channel video, sound, 36 minutes, 45 seconds.
Asia Society, New York: Promised Gift of Harold and Ruth Newman.

Anna Walker
Curatorial Fellow
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

Anna Walker continues with her report, reviewing the final day of presentations and her conclusions from the conference in Part II.

Nurturing “Commonplace” Objects

Ceramic artist Ryan Takaba’s works are currently on display in the Artist Hall exhibit, Commonplace: Objects by Barbara Smith and Ryan Takaba. His “Mums and Water” series is a collection of organic and delicate porcelain bud vases that mount to the wall, holding green mum flowers. To sustain these simple flowers, each vase must be carefully filled with water several times a week, as it holds only a small amount. The vases are linked by the stems of the plants, which serve as carriers for tiny drops of water to flow to another vase, creating a unique and visually interesting watering system.

Ryan Takaba, On to Heaviness.
Porcelain, mums, water, steel pins. 2010
Photo by: Mark Menjivar.

Takaba is interested in the delicate nature of these objects and their use in a common process of watering plants. His work allows the viewer to contemplate this somewhat mundane activity and also serves as a reminder of those moments in our daily lives that are so often deemed unimportant or overlooked because they are simple.

Ryan Takaba, Detail: On to Heaviness.
Porcelain, mums, water, steel pins. 2010
Photo by: Mark Menjivar.

So, while the works are on view, HCCC staff will be watering the mums on a regular basis—observing and documenting what happens during the process and any changes that may occur. Because this simple act is an integral part of Takaba’s concept, we are helping to complete his idea.

--Ashley Powell, HCCC Curatorial Assistant.

Ryan Takaba piece, photo by Ashley Powell using the Hipstamatic iPhone application.
Ryan Takaba's “Mums and Water” series updates:
  • Friday, February 11, 2011 @ 2:30 PM: 3 - 4 drops of water added to vases
  • Wednesday, February 16, 2011 @ 4:00 PM: 6 drops of water added to vases
  • Tuesday, February 22, 2011 @ 2:30 PM:  6 - 8 drops of water added to vases
  • Thursday, February 24, 2011 @ 2:43 PM:  Mums replaced and vases re-filled
  • Tuesday, March, 1 2011 @ 4:40 PM: Mums watered, 6 drops each
  • Tuesday, March, 8 2011: Mums watered @ 5:00 PM
  • Friday, March, 18 2011: Mums replaced and watered
  • Wednesday, March, 23 2011: Mums watered @ 2:43 PM
  • Friday, March, 25 2011: Mums watered @ 3:00 PM
  • Wednesday, March, 30 2011: Mums watered @ 3:00 PM

February 10, 2011

Q & A with Nora Atkinson, Curator of "Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard" – Part II

Nora Atkinson, Curator at Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, curated the current major exhibition, Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. She was kind enough to answer some questions over email about the show. This is the second part of the interview we published last week; to read Part I, click here.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part I: #16 Italian Shoes.
Plaster, gold and acrylic. 9” x 16” x 25”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

Many of the works, especially those in Part I, were made prior to the housing market collapse and bank closings in 2008. With the current state of our global economy, this exhibit is timely in exploring issues of commodity and value. Were you planning this exhibit prior to these events, or was it important to stage the exhibit now because of the events? How do you see the work relating to our contemporary culture of corporate greed and excess?

NA: Recent events were definitely a consideration in planning the exhibition. My first conversations with Lisa about showing the work came just after the collapse, and the work struck a cord, not only in its thematic content as an exploration of value, but as a genuine record of the events as they happened—from the impetus for the work, the artist’s search for a house and struggle with the cost of living versus the cost of gold and of making, to the collapse and subsequent rise of gold’s price, which she recorded in her works, even as it became more and more expensive to purchase the material. Although in some ways the timing of the series and exhibition were coincidental, The Gold Standard really goes back to the core of what it means to be valuable–which is something we all can relate to and have probably thought very much about in these times. Although we likely would have done the show regardless of the crash, it gave it a certain urgency and potency.

The exhibition is a consideration of the almost random association of importance and value we assign—be it through the stock market or symbols of status—in our society, and Lisa’s comparisons run from the obvious to the subtle. I love the inclusion of her favorite, and very expensive, Italian leather shoes, which by their unpretentious appearance beg the question: What is the value of a good pair of walking shoes? Why shouldn’t it be the same as Christian Louboutins or Manholo Blahniks? And almost every object in the exhibition carries with it that kind of question, from the absurdity of a Tiffany ring that is prized so highly as to outweigh its own materials, to the comparative worthlessness of a vacuum cleaner or a sink, with both its utility and art-symbolic Duchampian value. Through her cold meticulous calculations, Lisa brings out the irrationality in measuring these objects and ideas by the same system, and the objects are so ubiquitous and charged, enhanced by their almost monumental appearance in plaster and gold, as to take on a moralistic dimension.

What the work really gets across is the multifaceted nature of value, and how skewed it can become in contemporary capitalist society, where markets are run and value is assigned more by desire and perception than by need. There are many metaphors in the exhibition that speak to our cultural values--the value of an honest day's work, of history and provenance, of sentimentality, of knowledge--and Lisa plays these values back and forth. The painting she casts, for instance, in Part I, is a garage-sale amateur painting, but it is up to us to decide if it seems to be paired with the proper ratio of gold. It looks like something we might value, but we can't quite tell. And the real question is what is the value of art? And can anyone really tell? Who makes that decision? That same question is echoed in Part III, and all of the parts play off each other. It’s this kind of questioning--breaking down and building up the concept of value, so that we divorce status symbols, intrinsic and cultural value, and importantly, perceived worth, from each other and analyze them each separately--which really speaks to the nature of the cult of the dollar, and our current financial crisis.

HCCC: While addressing issues of commodity, the exhibit also comments on institutional authority, such as the power museums have in displaying objects and placing value on certain items over others. What is the responsibility of the institutions displaying historic and art objects in relation to the value of those same items?

NA: Everyone who works in the museum field understands, at least to some degree, the influence we have over the worlds of both academia and the market, and the responsibility that comes with it. Museums vary wildly in their size and scope--from tiny cabinets of curiosity, to authoritative institutions--and within that range, there are varying levels of authoritative voice, but the concept is nearly always there. Museums, by and large, are educational institutions and collectors of our shared history, so the expectation follows that the information they convey, in so far as it can be, should be well researched, truthful, and more or less unbiased. It is what places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology play upon, and also what Lisa, not without some humor, places a critical—or at least questioning—eye upon in her work.

As Lisa points out, there is certain sentimental quality and fond appeal to the kind of strange small museums that spring up out of the passion of an earnest or idiosyncratic collector, and we know better than to take the information we find there for granted, but it is harder to call into question the elegant laser-cut labels of a respected institution like the Met or the Smithsonian. More than just that, the choice of which pieces to exalt—through accession and display—as part of our history, the authenticity of artifacts, their provenance, and speculation about their use and meaning, are all vital to our cultural patrimony, and for the most part dictated by such institutions. To say that these museums play an important role in both the cultural and monetary value of objects would be understating the case, and the institution’s responsibility here, as the guardian of that trust, is to always maintain the highest ethical and intellectual standards in making decisions about the objects it houses and the information it conveys. Losing that trust is not only a loss to the credibility of the institution, but can be tantamount to losing a part of our cultural history.

Of course, there are many types of museums, each of which deals with this issue in different ways, but despite these technical differences, almost invariably, the museum is a safeguard of our collective material history, and artifacts in museum collections are the records we rely upon, so the responsibility remains the same. Given all of that, the notion is particularly interesting in the field of contemporary art, where a historic precedent isn’t so much present, and the choice to show (or not) an artist in a major institution can make or break a career. In the case of a contemporary art institution, museum professionals actually affect and, to a large degree, effectively write the history of art for the future by assigning the value of present day artworks.

Exhibition Information

  • Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard
    On view at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
    4848 Main Street. Houston, Texas 77002
    January 22 - May 28

  • To view images of the Opening Reception and
    Lisa Gralnick's Gallery Talk, visit our Facebook Page

  • To read Part I of our interview with Nora Atkinson, click here

February 3, 2011

Q & A with Nora Atkinson, Curator of "Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard" – Part I

Nora Atkinson, Curator at Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, curated the current major exhibition, Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. She was kind enough to answer some questions over email about the show.

HCCC: The general public may not be familiar with how an exhibition is conceived and organized. Can you explain why you approached Lisa Gralnick, what first drew you to her work and, inevitably, how the exhibition came together?

NA: My first encounter with this body of work was at the SOFA Chicago Convention in 2008. I was transfixed by the piece, Chastity Belt Necklace—first by the object: the beauty of the delicate gold links in harsh contrast with the menace of the hair and barbs, then by its anachronistic caption.  It was among a few pieces from the series that Lisa was showing at the fair, and it pulled me into her booth to investigate further and talk with her about her work.  She was giving a lecture the following morning, so our Artistic Director/Chief Curator, Stefano Catalani, and I took the opportunity to listen to her speak, and it was just after the lecture that we began discussions about the show. 

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part III: Victorian Chastity Belt Necklace.
Recycle gold, hair.23” x 2” x 1”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

It was a very serendipitous meeting, since it seemed like the ideal moment for an exhibition of Lisa’s work.  A well-known jeweler with an impressive body of prior work, she was reaching the end of a monumental conceptual project that had spanned seven years and gone beyond the usual bounds of jewelry to explore something completely unique.  She had always hoped that the pieces would be shown all together. 

We discussed the prospect of the exhibition with Lisa on the spot, and then concreted the plan for the exhibition over the next several months, flying her out for an interview and site visit, locating and arranging the shipment of the pieces, and working on the catalogue with a talented team, which included writers Tacey Rosolowski and Michael J. McClure, and a wonderful photographer, Jim Escalante, who photographed the works for long hours, even as the last few were being completed.  Although Lisa’s prior work is worthy of a mid-career survey, it was a conscious choice to show this body of work as a single, separate exhibition on its own.  The recession had just begun to hit, and I felt that although the artist has dealt with many of the same issues throughout her work, this series, which is at its heart a meditation on value, deserved to take center stage and felt too important and relevant to current events in its own right to be placed in a larger historical context. 

HCCC: This exhibition is framed in three parts.  Obviously, this is partly chronological, but it is also grouped by theme.  Why is it important that the artist is exhibiting this show in three parts?  Why not three different exhibitions?

NA: The question is a good one.  As you can imagine, in working on the same project over the course of seven years, Lisa has displayed parts of the series alone along the way. The simple answer to this question would be that the work was always conceived of by the artist as a single series, to be shown together, but more than that, I think the works are individually stronger for their connection. 

In Part III, for example, the pieces themselves are opulent and full of individual societal commentary, but they don’t go conceptually as far without thinking of them and questioning them in the terms of value that Part I sets up as a framework, or the context of gold as simultaneously being immutable and ever changing—able to maintain its brilliance through the ages and retain the knowledge of human history, while at the same time able to erase the past and leave no trace of its previous incarnations—as set up through Part II.  Similarly, the labels, which are laser inscribed in Part I and gradually slide to typewriter in Part II, and to handwriting in Part III, are a good example of the kind of subtle manipulations Lisa makes over the entire body of work that would be lost without the whole.  Without other labels to compare these to, they seem less deliberate, but this intentional juxtaposition, or others, like the use of vitrines—sparingly in Part I, not at all in Part II, but present in Part III—add a rich subtext to the work.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part I: #11 Tiffany Ring.
Gold and acrylic. 2” x 40” x 16”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

And not only does Lisa use these devices differently, but she addresses many of the same subjects from different angles, as she has often done in her oeuvre, and her larger meditations are always present, even in her very specific investigations.  The huge tiffany ring she presents us in Part I is interesting when played off of The Jeweler’s Revenge in Part III, where the form of the ring appears again, and countless such comparisons arise within the work. 

Although the title of the series refers to The Gold Standard, the exploration is about much more than this face value:  Lisa not only calls into question the essential and assigned qualities of gold (the express purpose of the work), but also all aspects of what we, as a society, place value upon, and how that value is derived. Any single part of the series would be an incomplete mediation on this subject.

Exhibition Information

  • Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard
    On view at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
    4848 Main Street. Houston, Texas 77002
    January 22 - May 28

  • To view images of the Opening Reception and
    Lisa Gralnick's Gallery Talk, visit our Facebook Page

  • To read Part II of our interview with Nora Atkinson, click here.