Controversy Reigns!

This from the Somerville Museum’s Director of Exhibitions, in response to the recent Globe review. Could be an upcoming letter to the editor….

Cate McQuaid,

Thanks for your article on the Carolyn Wirth “Small Obsession” exhibition at the Somerville Museum. We at the Somerville Museum are so happy and grateful to have caught your attention, and I’m sure that more visitors for the exhibition will materialize as a result of the light that you have shown on this wonderful show.

The division between the work by artists and the collector-oriented work that you mention in your article is also an issue that came roaring to our attention as I helped guest curator Carolyn Wirth in planning and installing the exhibition in the museum. Once the exhibit was up on the walls, that break between the two kinds of work in the show stood out for me as the problem that most needed to be solved, and also as the most resistant to resolution without dramatically altering the final content of the exhibition assembled by our curator. After consultation with Carolyn Wirth, our solution was to add more information on the history of the Ginny Doll and its place in American popular culture, accentuating rather than diminishing the tension that you felt when you viewed the exhibit for yourself.

I have to admit that I am very sympathetic to the reading of the exhibition as spelled out in your article –what antique doll collector is going to also want to see Sinclair’s creepy insects, and what hip, urban artist hell bent on creeping us out with visceral, horror-show imagery is going to care about the sleepy historical, social, and cultural issues raised by the Ginny Doll? As a visual artist whose very cultural existence at times seems to hinge on maintaining and pointing out to others the difference between the “art experience” and “art history” I am exceptionally well versed in the two categories and the either/or nature of their mutual incompatibility .

On the other hand, after years of managing the exhibition program at the Somerville Museum, I have come to understand that the audience that we address is unlike that of a larger museum or a private art gallery, and the expectations placed upon the Somerville Museum are different. In assessing how the presentation of the two incompatible parts of the “Small Obsession” exhibition will impact that audience, I take into account how this kind of thing has gone over in past Somerville Museum exhibitions like “Lifting the Veil” and “Lost Theatres of Somerville” where historical narratives and contemporary art were intertwined. My view, in the final analysis, is that the either/or must yield to the both/and. Anyway, attempting and failing to combine the two kinds of exhibition material is so much more thrilling than not trying at all –the drama and brinksmanship of these weird, quirky presentations at the Somerville Museum are, truly, what have kept my interest in exhibition design alive for the past twenty years; the kinds of museum exhibitions that I see elsewhere (the voice in the back of your head should be saying: “Dale Chihuly”) are so predictable and dull.

I began my career as an exhibition professional installing blue chip art exhibitions at the List Art Center at MIT and at the ICA on Boylston Street in the late 1980s, but I never felt like an exhibition artist until I arrived at the Somerville Museum. The precedents for Somerville Museum exhibitions are not museum and gallery art exhibits, and they should not be compared to them. Somerville Museum exhibits are more like the exhibitions of the 1950s presented at the ICA in London by members of the Independent Group: Alison and Peter Smithson, Nigel Henderson, Richard Hamilton, John McCale and Eduardo Paolozzi. Like their exhibitions “Parallel of Life and Art,” “Growth and Form,” “This is Tomorrow,” and “Man, Machine and Motion,” the idea of Somerville Museum exhibitions is both something that you could not have expected and something that gently challenges your ordinary notions of what art is. By putting on the table a smorgasbord that appeals to an array of tastes (pop, art, history, social culture) and by engaging the spectator in the confused/confusing state of the jumble of historical and creative, as the “Small Obsession” exhibition does, it’s my hope that the Somerville Museum succeeds in eliciting an active response from the spectator as no ordinary museum exhibition can. I call this kind of exhibition design the “multiple points of entry” technique. There’s something for everyone and each viewer, essentially, must construct his or her own exhibition experience from the many possibilities present. Your own response to the “Small Obsession” exhibition is one defensible position, but others will come to see only one or the other of the two sides of the exhibition and simply ignore the rest –an equally rewarding response, and still others will be inspired explore heretofore unanticipated ways to encompass the incompatible dualities of the art and the collectible presented in the exhibit.

I don’t disagree with your assessment of the “Small Obsession” exhibition, but a) don’t think for a moment that the jarring nature of the exhibition wasn’t intentional (!) and b) there is much more at stake here. You’ve heard the phrase “state secrets.” At the Somerville Museum we’re dealing in “art secrets.” Don’t tell anyone; everyone thinks the Somerville Museum is just a history museum, we’ve lulled them into submission, and the shock might wear off. “Hello, Lissitzky? Are you there?”

Thanks again!

Michael O’Connell
Director of Exhibitions
Somerville Museum

Globe review!

Take a look at the June 2nd review in the Boston Globe!

Small Obsession reviewed in Somerville News!

Follow the link!

See photos from the show and May 22nd opening!

Check out Phill Apley’s photos of the opening, including artists’ images and photos of the work!

Opening Reception May 22, 4-6pm

Visit the Somerville Museum on Sunday, May 22nd for an opening reception and artists’ talks. Stroll the galleries from 4-6pm, meet the artists, and enjoy refreshments. This event is free and open to the public.

The Artists and Their Work

Joan Baldwin’s paintings reveal the secret lives of furniture and, in her most recent work, the subject is doll furniture. The tiny chairs and bathroom fixtures are at Cape Cod in the summertime, nestling in gorgeously painted foliage, sat upon by finches, eddying in a tiny tidepool in the company of small shells.

Betty Hanssen has been creating lampwork glass beads for a decade or more. Many of her beads portray miniature worlds, like these three sea beads. Each one is less than three inches tall and reproduces a slice of marine ecosystem, with sand, waves, and surprising sea creatures living in a kind of personal ocean.

Ilisha Helfman makes elaborate, die-cut folding environments, including functioning dollhouses made of paper complete with pop-up furniture and accessories. Her love of pattern, color, and intensely detailed miniature worlds grew from a girlhood devotion to making miniature lamps, rugs, and even miniature weaving and embroidery for a dollhouse. Helfman’s commercial design clients include television networks and art book publishers, and she is the author of books and articles on jazz knitting.

Photographer Susan Huszar has recently begun building dollhouses and miniature environments in 1:12 scale. The show features “Listen to Your Heart”, a 12” high tent, containing a single ear, which reclines on a rhinestone studded chaise. Her miniature environments are both surreal and poignant, and often involve the viewer directly in activating the tiny sculptures.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson has created a 6-foot-tall multimedia shrine “4 Little Girls 16th St Baptist Church.” The reference, of course, is to the 1963 arson of a Birmingham, Ala., church which helped galvanize the civil rights movement. A small wooden model with cutaway walls represents the church. It is photomontaged inside and out with images of hardship reaching back into the days of slavery. In one corner, each girl’s face is pasted onto an ancient Egyptian coffin. This structure sits atop a column draped in heavily patterned fabric scales and cowrie shells. This piece is both a memorial and a reminder that, ultimately, beauty can be used as a weapon against ugliness.

Donna Rhae Marder weaves tiny, complex architecture from materials like telephone wire, candy wrappers, and old phone books. Marder’s work is minutely detailed, using the repetitive processes of women’s home handicraft (quilting, folding, stitching, tying). “Rapunzel’s Tower” literally bristles with allusion, in a space where there is no distinction between physical and imaginary worlds. Marder’s houses are representative of people in many ways. The two small houses pictured here, each on its own island, conjure up a couple who live not quite together, yet not exactly in isolation.

Boston sculptor Karen Meninno concocts tiny fimo “confections,” neither candy nor architecture, but a bit of both. Karen lays out a conglomeration of miniatures that form a small and intensely colorful landscape, even a tiny nation.

Marielle Sinclair’s minute, highly detailed sculptures are abject, even nightmarish visions in cloth, wax and metal. Two-headed rabbits, sentient arachnids, and skeletal puppets, crafted in wire, beads, and fur, exude a dark, yet charming, inner life.

Sharon Pierce’s peepshow boxes offer a disturbing glance into miniature interiors filled with ambiguity. Although not dollhouses in any traditional sense, her dollhouse-scale environments nonetheless mirror the voyeuristic experience of looking into a tiny, domestic world–but one fraught with anxiety, or even menace.

Photographer Alison Power has a wicked sense of humor, and in “My Barbie/My Self” she imagines what her old Barbie does when no one else is home. Smoking, drinking, gorging on potato chips…Barbie gives up fashion and goes over to the dark side.

Built, wired and decorated by Salem artist Sharon Shea, “Salem Witch House” is both an affectionate tribute to the kitschy, witch-theme-park aspects of life in Salem, Massachusetts, and a true Halloween house, where unexpected things happen. Though at first glance it looks like an ordinary toy—and is the closest thing to a traditional dollhouse in the show—the artist has included details from her own life.

Filmmaker Jeff Sais and Bryan Papciak of the collective HandcrankedFilm in Waltham built a pie-shaped dollhouse set for their animation, “Monkey Train.” Sais has also built intricate environments for Sesame Street’s “Grandma Cookie Monster” and “Grandma Big Bird,” riotous apartments where everything is either egg-shaped, or lumpy and cookie-like. Shown is a witch puppet, star of Jeff’s student stop-motion film, “A Look Through the Keyhole.”

Maria Sanchez Kouassi’s doll-size women exist to serve, in an abjectly literal fashion. Their heads are hollowed out to form spoons or bowls, bodies serving as handles. Sanchez’s tiny women have subsumed themselves to their domestic function and become serving implements. However, Sanchez rescues them by glazing them with gorgeous surfaces: gold and silver, textures like granite or marble, which smolder like ancient stones.

Baltimore-area artist Lynn Thomas has created a miniature home of the imagination, in which Andre Breton and Mother Ann Lee write their spiritual treatises. Poised at writing tables, pencils in hand, the founders of Surrealism and the Shakers each pursue a world-changing vision.

Carolyn Wirth and documentary filmmaker Alice Apley collaborated on the video, “The Meditation Room,” an animation using dollhouse furniture. The protagonist of the film–a ticking clock–marks the passage of time as the tiny room is carefully arranged, and then dissolves.

Sculptor Joyce Audy Zarins normally welds large-scale metal sculptures that relate to trees. This small house, made of bark and maple keys, is titled “Sustainability.” Joyce literally gives wings and a launchpad to her tiny cabin, a repository for her hopes for a better environmental future.

Painter Diana Zipeto has contributed a life-size portrait of “Ginny”, the 8-inch girl doll designed by Somerville native Virginia Graves, the inspiration for this show. This well-loved Ginny represents a doll dynasty that has touched 4 generations of the Zipeto family, all enthusiastic Ginny owners.

This show was sponsored in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency of the Massachusetts Cultural Council,

Small Obsession at SoMu, spring 2011

Small Obsession is a show of sculpture, painting, film, and mixed media work in dollhouse scale, coming in spring 2011 to the Somerville Museum!

For a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have with objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.
–Walter Benjamin, “Illuminations”