Friday, January 27, 2017

Esprit Decor

We arrived at the Walker Art Institute for a gathering of the Artists' Lab. As we entered through a passageway from the garage, I stopped in confusion, startled by the changed space which still had an odd sense of familiarity.  It was not unlike visiting a home I once lived in under new ownership. As I surveyed the newly renovated space, I first noticed a new restaurant to my left with a wall filled with colorful small images. Through the darkened glass front I saw activity and heard the low buzz of people visiting over drinks.  A small shop was in the entry to the right and I fought the urge to check it out as it called out to me with its eclectic curated goods. In the front of the space, the image on a large screen moved fluidly, dissolving from one colorful image into the next. Before it was a seating area that evoked grey cushioned stones. The interior was new and I examined it with interest, yet the bones of the old Walker remained, an odd juxtaposition of past and present. Mentally I placed Frank Geary’s large glass fish in its one-time location thirty years earlier, anchoring past to present.

We were here to view a show titled Question the Wall Itself (see handout). What does that mean I wondered? It is hard to think of walls these days without politics attached. The show includes work by 23 artists with a focus on how walls define space and what we put within our space, an exercise the Walker no doubt went through in their redesign. The artists bring an international perspective, representing Europe, the Middle East, South America and the US. Fortunately for us we had Walker Educator Ilene Krug Mojsilov to guide us through what would have been a bewildering exhibition without some context.

The focus was on what Belgian artist and poet, Marcel Broodthaers, termed esprit décor, a play on words as the focus was in fact décor and its significance.  The number of artists was overwhelming so it was useful to break them down into clusters.  We broke into three groups and were each assigned four artists to consider. My group examined the work of Theaster Gates, Akraam Zaatari, Park MacArthur and Lucy MacKenzie. We were asked to consider what issues (religious, geo, sociopolitical) were addressed in their work. What were the similarities or differences in how they presented and investigated content? What does the viewer need to bring to the experience? 

We began our exploration with Theaster Gates, an activist artist who creates conceptual art and is also a potter. Gates makes something out of nothing. When he sees buildings being demolished he rescues fragments and preserves them as art. A crumpled poster of Martin Luther King was locked behind glass in a case that likely once contained a bulletin board in a school. His focus is on salvaging fragments of history. Two slabs of stone, much like crypt covers, lay on the ground. One was engraved with House Nation, the other with Founders. Sharon Zweigbaum offered some context when she advised us that House Nation refers to house music within the African American community. We considered whether Founders related to Gates’ focus on found art.  

We moved into an adjoining room where we found the work of Akraam Zaatari, two corner walls filled with images of prisoners and their postcards to friends and family from the Israeli prisons where they were held.  An English translation accompanied them.  Zaatari calls his practice field work.  Some found the postcards disturbing as several of them implied a focus on martyrdom.  "One person's Lebanese freedom fighter is another person's terrorist," commented one within our group. Zaatari's piece is titled All is well on the border. Untold.  

As we rounded the corner we found metal poles draped with worn pajamas. At first I responded to the comfort of the fabric, then we learned that their creator, Park MacArthur, spends much of her time in a wheelchair. Surrounding the clothing were several bumpers affixed to the wall.  We talked of how much of her life was spent in squeezing into a wheelchair, clothing, spaces.  The intimacy of the clothing invited us into her experience and the work spoke to the challenges of both architecture and being confined to a wheelchair and dependent on others.

We moved into another room where we found the work of Lucy MacKenzie which filled the central part of the room. The piece was based on the Loos House and mimicked the layout with partial walls all covered in trompe l’oeil to reflect green marble. The space supported gender behavior where the lady of the house was in an elevated room from which she monitored the needs of those in the room below.

The work that we viewed addressed specific spaces through the lens of history, politics, disability and gender. Each artist had a viewpoint that was expressed through their work. Many were researchers and gathered  elements from culture within their artwork. An overriding theme seemed to be limitations, those of lost history, a jail cell, physical limitations and gender limitations. We agreed that we need to bring an open mind, open eyes and curiosity as well as seeking explanation and context to fully appreciate this work.

Now that leaves nineteen artists and I am not going to attempt to address them all, but I wanted to make mention of some that I found particularly engaging. I found the work of Walid Raad interesting on a visual level, but was also intrigued by his underlying thoughts.

His work consisted of multiple wall segments within a museum setting as he addresses the expansion of museums in the Arab world. There is no artwork on the walls, but a carved shape that outlined their frame. The suggestion of a parquet floor is at the foot of the wall. It was suggested that this might have added significance since prayer is done on the floor. Raad noted that there were no shadows in the museums he observed so he lights his walls so shadows become part of the exhibition. The title of the piece is Letters to the Reader and many of the carved forms resemble letters. His work brought to mind that of Lucio Fontana who created art by slashing his canvases. 

Many of the works that we viewed made use of mirrors to bring us into the space, Jannette Laverriere did a homage to Gustav Courbet, suggesting his piece Origin of the World with a mirrored sliver.

Nick Mauss uses mirrors as the backdrop for his work that echoes the work of Florine Stettheimer.

As we concluded Robyn left us with the question...What do our walls and decor say about us? As I reflected on that question, I considered the fact that I have always been drawn to  sight lines and light. It is a constant choice between inviting in the outside and walls for artwork, balancing interiors and exteriors. I love to be able to sit in one room and view another room's contents. I also enjoy the interaction between artwork and objects. I like to think of them having a conversation. Artwork needs to engage not only with the viewer, but also with its surroundings. Seemingly my choice of artwork and objects advocates for interaction and dialogue. What does yours advocate for?

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