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The current controversy over art’s funding, precipitated by the apparently politically-motivated firing of Utah Division of Arts and Museums director Lynnette Hiskey, exposes two fundamentally different ideals of how art should operate in modern society. To be fair, it’s not that the Tea Party-types don’t like art; they just think it should pay for itself. This classic, 19th-century view makes good sense today, at least as far as certain artists and galleries are concerned. Their market is thriving, with private collectors paying record amounts for works and artists that never will be so valuable again. But on the other hand, for the arts administrators, those who together with Hiskey shoulder the responsibility to curate and care for the entirely of the state’s invaluable art heritage, that narrow vision speaks from ignorance of the total picture. As they understand only too well, there are art forms and activities that would not survive without public patronage, and as the show under scrutiny here demonstrates, these arguably comprise the most important art of our day. Those who agree have found allies in a third party, consisting largely of artists who feel their livelihood threatened by reduction or elimination of the grants they depend on. Into this critical dispute, UMOCA, one among the many ever-evolving facilities Arts and Museums has helped support on behalf of citizens of Utah over the decades, has ventured with an exhibit that crystallizes how, at least since the 1980s, public funding has stepped in where free market capitalism has inadequately supported the most original and essential arts.
Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler met in the Heartland, at the Kansas City Art Institute, in 1977. Both were art students, and the time and place were to have a powerful influence in shaping the work they made together over the next 18 years, turning their backs on then-prevalent schools of art that were abstract not only in formal terms, but in their disconnection from ordinary lives and common experience. Instead of vaguely universal expressions of contemporary spiritual and philosophical issues that sat on pedestals, they developed a way of working that utilized everyday materials, transformed through equally mundane means into accessible social commentaries that sat out in the open. Rather than plop down an alien construction on a site, they liked to modify what they found into witty and evocative statements that celebrated Americana, even as they questioned what Americans know and think about their birthright. Since Ericson’s premature death in 1995, Mel Ziegler has continued the work they started. It’s no exaggeration to say that Grandma’s Cupboard, which will remain up until December 18th, constitutes an essential ingredient in the education not only of every artist, but of every American.
Grandma’s Cupboard is entered by descending the stairs near the entrance. This arrangement gave curator Rebecca Maksym opportunity to show one cerebrally playful work in a particularly satisfying way. “From the Making of Mount Rushmore” consists of four stones taken from the great rubble pile still visible at the base of the monument, each stone representing the head its removal helped configure. Placing them high in the stairwell enables viewers to see them first just above eye level, as the actual heads appear from a distance, then on coming closer see them loom above, each mounted to mimic the position of one portrait, while all four together complete the composition. Here the artists invoke, if with wry satire, the notion that artworks possess an aura that comes from their having been in the presence of their creators. All the same, the audience comes closer to these relics, making them more real, than they would to the finished sculpture.
One work that demonstrates clearly how far Ericson and Ziegler departed from traditional notions of art is “Feed and Seed (Gelsinger Farm, Buckwheat).” Here they collaborated directly with farmers, paying them 10 percent of the cost of their seed, in exchange for receiving the empty seed bags. Mounted like conventional artworks, the bags were offered for sale in galleries, drawing a connection between the entrepreneurial demands of farming and art making, but with the proviso that when they sold, the farmers would receive the 90 percent balance on their crop cost. This collaboration beyond the studio walls made public a hitherto covert connection, like that from artist to gallery to collector, but running in the opposite direction, from artists back to their sources. Other works employed similar methods to further establish this primal connection. For “Flag Exchange,” Ziegler seeks out in-service U.S. flags that are tattered from use, and offers to exchange them for new ones. While some owners decline the offer, others agree gratefully and recount having felt anxious over the propriety of flying a flag in a condition that could be seen as disrespectful. Displayed together in a gallery, these symbols of nationalism convey rarely seen insights into the complexity of patriotism as a blanket sentiment. In projects not mentioned at UMOCA, the wood needed to build a house was covered with texts and displayed, then donated for the construction of affordable housing. It’s important to understand this was not meant simply as charity. Rather, the existence of a building infused invisibly with printed text should be seen as a real, existing work of art viewers can see only by stretching their minds beyond the obvious.
Virtually every work here makes similarly playful use of the viewer’s mental faculties, in particular imagination. Two that mirror each other across a gallery focus on air and water. In the title installation, “Grandma’s Cupboard,” air collected at various sites in Washington, D.C., is held in jars salvaged from an old house in South Dakota, the geographic center of the United States. Sandblasted on each jar is the name of the building or monument where its contents were collected. Perhaps inspired by the protean artist Marcel Duchamp, who in 1919 sealed 50 cubic centimeters of Paris air in a vial as a gift, this ensemble shows how something invisible, but alleged to be present within a fragile glass envelope can wield an extraordinary power to transport the mind to remote times and places. Facing the cupboard, a plain black shelf holds 11 jars of water, one each collected from the Potomac River above and below Washington, while the nine between were taken from the nine sinks in the public restrooms of the Supreme Court building, which, of course, also houses nine justices. Sandblasted into each is a map of the route the water followed to its collection site. If the monumental effigies and stories revered by a population are so powerful, shouldn’t care be taken to see they tell the truth? The sources of both drinking water and justice can—and should—benefit from the same transparency.
While many of Ericson and Ziegler’s projects over the years produced unique works—a house painted in a camouflage pattern, utilizing all the colors authorized for use in an historical district, or an urban renewal plan handwritten along a shattered stretch of sidewalk—those collected in this retrospective, which have been exhibited in various forms over the last decade, each consist of material collected, then displayed in a way calculated to evoke curiosity and appreciation. In “Rock Hard Individualism,” stones of a certain size that resemble human faces are arranged into a map of the continental United States. In “To Carry a Big Stick,” bits of wood appropriate for playing fetch with Ziegler’s dog, Sister, have been arranged in ammunition boxes lined with red cloth, the boxes stacked in front of a wall on which the sticks are hung. The methods of display say something about the collection and the time and place that produced it. The sticks, for instance, celebrate the manifold diversity nature is capable of producing from a single, simple source, but also recall the poetic image of human bodies “stacked like cord wood” at the scenes of so many atrocities, while the ammo boxes make the connection in turn to industrial weapons production. These collections don’t just illustrate a point on paper; they also communicate visually, their striking, memorable aesthetics frequently returning to the point of origin: to nature, its vastness and creative power too often lost on modern life.
If this sounds grim, it shouldn’t. Like the accompanying mental image of a man throwing a stick for his dog, Ericson and Ziegler’s works have their origins in play and the pursuit of delight. “Hold Your Breath” memorializes eight sites in Texas associated with violent death, yet presents them in an atmosphere suited to a carnival sideshow. Here air, gathered at the actual sites, fills colorful balloons twisted into intricate and amusing hats, such as might be acquired from a clown at a fair. The context mimics the abuses committed by those who demand and pay lip service to the sacrifices of others, often in ceremonies that give way to holidays. Knowing how air slowly escapes through a balloon provides a metaphor for the difficulty of permanently capturing history in a single point of view, or limiting truly commonplace events to one place.
Whimsical balloons bring attention to the range of industrial skills gathered within Grandma’s Cupboard. The stenciled cocoa mats making up ”Hollow Oak Our Palace Is,” while designed by Ericson and Ziegler, are commercially fabricated on a continuing basis. For “Walls Have Tongues,” a series on historical color schemes transposed at the artists’ direction from museums to gallery walls, the artists send color chips to the gallery that they must match and apply themselves. The historical sources are then identified using sandblasted glass labels. In the most poignant moment in the exhibition, the ‘Dianna Drawings,’ two dozen sketches of future projects made after Kate Ericson became too sick to carry out the work, are presented as they were made, hand-drawn by the husband and wife on napkins in their local diner, Dianna’s Place: an ornamental fountain would feed its practical cousin; red, white, and blue T-shirts collected from workers would be placed in jars by color, then arranged on shelves so the wall would approximate the Stars and Stripes; air filters used in the American History Museum would hang on the wall like abstract paintings; and to celebrate the way Levittown seeded a nation-wide transformation in working-class housing, weed seeds collected at the original site would be distributed to suburbs across the country.
It should become evident at some point, while touring this huge body of consistently original work, that Ericson and Ziegler then, and Ziegler today are mocking something. Yet if they mock what are taken for American values, it’s because those values are misguided conclusions that camouflage what’s really going on, and misrepresent a simplistic version of a complicated reality, one promoted by those with something to gain: almost certainly something to steal. If Grandma’s Cupboard argues for anything, it promotes skepticism, which is different from the cynicism generated by its targets, which has become an ineradicable part of how a nation sees itself. What the artists extol, what their works demonstrate, then, is a liberated and liberating view: one that unlocks the rigid connection between the raw material of historical events and what popular thought—or rather, thoughtlessness—makes of it. In place of learned distortion, they argue for a creative response. “National Park Drawings,” perhaps the most conventional artworks here, borrow the iconic presentation of America’s scenic wonders, as have been shown in promotional posters ever since Albert Bierstadt painted Yosemite for the railroad barons, with captions just off enough to suggest that, after all, geographic wonders are not a patriotic accomplishment. They, too, are given facts, and it is what citizens and their governments make of them that reflects credit or censure. The same value system that led a powerful minority to cut funding for the arts also has set them on a course to dismantle the National Parks and turn them over to strip mining and development. So Grandma’s Cupboard comes at a crucial historical moment, and reminds us that some things, including some art, are too important to leave either to exploitation by the self-interested, or simply to chance.
This article appeared in the September 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.