Saturday, June 6, 2009

REVIEW: Artists Reflect on the Historical Collection of the Sullivan Museum

by Cully Renwick

Preserved artifacts give us a glimpse of people in other circumstances. In that glimpse we can see ourselves as well. By inviting eighteen artists to make modern art pieces referencing museum artifacts, the Sullivan Museum at Norwich University in Northfield has opened the window a little wider.

Each artist's work is displayed adjacent to the artifact to which it is related. M. Angelo Arnold’s Home Front references a nurse’s starched white hat. The gurney-like sculpture he built and fitted with stiff white canvas has the aspect of a lawn chair, not flat but in a shape that might hold a convalescent on the hospital grounds. But there’s something odd about how this construction is supported: behind and under the white canvas is a support made of crutch pieces, to which are attached two wheels, mounted at right angles to each other. Turning in circles is the best that could be expected of this contraption. The white lounge-chair aspect speaks of convalescence, but it will never function properly. According to Angelo, “My concept derives from a dreamscape of encompassing ideals of Norwich University, Nurse Hat and the Vietnam War.”

Riki Moss gives a surprising and poetic reading to a soldier’s steamer trunk, entitled Gone. The steamer trunk and the empty tree trunk face each other over a small gap between the bases on which the rest.

Janet Van Fleet’s waltz with the folkloric “short snorter” asked the art community to Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is by writing on paper currency and, of course she involved the greatest possible number of people in the fun. The long strip of bills is suspended, hanging from the rafters, and it is more than a little bit difficult to see what is written on the bills at the top.

Marc Awodey uses a set of drafting tools as a bridge to a poignant story, World Trade Center – 1963, told in two letters, one from him, one from his dad. Marc’s father at age 29 was one of the twelve architects who designed the World Trade Center with Minoru Yamasaki. The design and destruction, he says, “became the bookends of my father’s career”. I’ll remember Marc’s piece a long time.

With our typewriters who art in heaven Alex Bottinelli makes you catch your breath at the pure Oriental beauty of her triptych, as stylish as the old Smith & Corona typewriter that she salutes. Arthur Shaller found a perfect artifact: the leather-encased unidentified apparatus (inscribed in French) he chooses to render as Handheld Oracular Device. It’s even more preposterous and more unexplained than the original. One my favorite pieces was Romy Schroeder’s Shuck & Jive, 2009 in which she cuts the mammy bench down to size and gives it good African knotting!

In speaking with the rather wonderful Museum Director who designed this project, Marilyn Solvay, I learned that the Sullivan is not a military museum, that she and her staff hire on in independent non-military status, and that the Sullivan has exhibits all the time that have nothing to do with the military, such as the Inuit art exhibit that just preceded this one. She also mentioned that about half of the students were not ROTC these days. Nonetheless, it’s relevant to this show that the artifacts were military-related and on military turf, and interesting that, quite logically, eleven (plus or minus) of the eighteen pieces expressed some degree of political tension, nine on the topics of war and the military, one speaking to civil liberties, and one to the artist’s personal preoccupation of questioning technology.

The level of art was occasionally wonderful. The staging of artifact and art together was thought provoking. I would like to have seen more attention given to the artists’ texts. For instance, Riki Moss’ poetically rendered text for her piece let us see the line of thinking from artifact to paper tree stump and to share what she saw in the combination; it was an important part of the viewing experience. In the end, what I enjoyed and admired most was the inventiveness and thought that it takes to wrangle abstract concepts from artifacts and, on top of that, to make art of it. I liked looking through that window and thinking about what I saw there.