Response: Messages & Magic

Messages & Magic: 100 Years of Collage and Assemblage in American Art

John Michael Kohler Arts Center
October 2008

Messages & Magic is on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI. This was my first visit to the Kohler, and I was more than impressed with the building, the exhibits, and the level of professionalism of the space. The artists chosen for Messages & Magic and the quality of the artwork displayed surpassed my expectations by far.

From the time that you are walking up to the main entrance, the Kohler stands out as a high-end contemporary art center. The main desk has an impressive, huge banner with a Henry Darger image on it; the banner also had arrows pointing to indicate the location of the different exhibitions, making the space easy to navigate. Also at the front desk were many different postcards and pamphlets for Messages & Magic and other surrounding area exhibitions, institutions, and events.

Walking from the front desk to the Messages & Magic exhibition, if you are not paying attention you might end up in an adjoining hallway and a different exhibition, which is what I did. Because of this, I came into the exhibition not from the main entrance, but from a side doorway. The disadvantage being that I didn’t see the main sign or any of the various pamphlets corresponding with the show until after I had walked through the entire exhibit.

Messages & Magic is structured so that you get the most out of the exhibition if you are walking in a certain direction starting with the main entrance. There are five categories or themes explained on large wall labels, flowing in order from one room to the next. This arrangement was okay, but it would work better if there were only one entrance/exit to the show, rather than several different entrances/exits. When you come in from a side entrance, it is similar to arriving at a lecture late—you are slightly lost for a minute. One option might be to have the exhibition ephemera and/or the main sign and wall text near every entrance, or at least in every room of the exhibition. One could also increase the boldness of the signs directing visitors to the main entrance of the exhibition, and make the signs more prominent, moving people in the correct direction.

The curatorial premise of the show is quite ambitious, I thought, especially as I read from the Kohler newsletter that the show “is an unprecedented exhibition that traces American popular culture through a century of collage and assemblage.” Works by well-known artists such as Ray Johnson (including an explanation of Mail Art); Peter Sarkisian (a mixed media/video work on a car door); Ray Yoshida, an icon of the Chicago art scene; Lenore Tawney, a very influential textile/collage artist & sculptor; Henry Darger; and many more interesting and established artists proved that the organizers were very successful in selecting important artists that fit with the premise of the exhibition.

Messages & Magic is broken up into five categories, Memories, Messages, Modernism, Mixing It Up, & Magic. It is interesting that the organizers edited the show title to include only Messages & Magic. The artwork for the Memories section is based on “memory vessels” (the practice of embedding small everyday objects into the surface of an object), “scrap art”, and the collecting of mementos (stemming from England’s Victorian age). An example of this type of work is Jacob Baker’s Dream House, an assemblage the artist created for his own yard, shaped like a small house, embedded with many colorful, miscellaneous objects. This was a very interesting and powerful piece.

The Messages section is based on the French term bricolage, which has come to include any work of art, regardless of media, that was made from a wide range of available things. This type of artist would be more open to a wide range of possibilities rather than working in simply one direction. The exhibition brochure explains this well: “Long before conceptual artists made collage their favorite domain, bricoleurs from many walks of life had gleaned that they could employ familiar fragments from the shared world as a bridge to common ground. Trained and self-taught, mainstream and isolate artists alike came to utilize familiar imagery as a touchstone between artist and audience.” One of the oldest artworks in the exhibition is by the bricoleur Charles A. A. Dellschau, who used newspaper clippings of airplanes in his intriguing paintings.

In the Modernism section, we come to “collage”, a term which was first used to describe when Picasso and Braque began to paste fragments of commercially printed material into their artwork. In this exhibition, we are shown works by Joseph Cornell, an American artist that responded to the European collage method. Cornell, who has been called “the Poet of the Scrapheap” created boxed assemblages and two-dimensional collages created from found objects and images.

As we come to the Mixing It Up section, we are also moving forward in time to the 1960s and 1970s, and many new and different explorations in art. During this time, collage came to be viewed as an alternative, and even subversive, form of expression. Artists like Jess, Bruce Connor, and Ray Johnson are included in this context. The wall texts in relation to this time period are a little dry, for example: “Ray Johnson employed the U.S. Postal Service as part of a multi-artist exchange.” I think this could have been explained in a more interesting way. However, that is just a small detail and in the greater scheme of things, this section of the exhibition was the most appealing to me because of the quality and originality of the artwork on display.

The last section is Magic. Here the curators have focused on new media with the advent of the digital age. Displayed here are works by artists with different viewpoints—those that are holding onto strong beliefs in the power of plain materials and the handmade, such as Tre Arenz and Amie McNeel—and artists such as Peter Sarksian and Jonathan Schipper, who use hi-tech methods and materials in their artwork. Even the word Magic has interesting connotations in this context, enveloping not only this particular section of the show but also the entire exhibition, best explained by the show brochure, “From scrapbooks and memory jugs to modern and contemporary art, artists have long understood that when bits and pieces of our shared visual culture are recombined and pieced together—something magical occurs.” I found that statement to be a concise closing remark for the show.

What I like most about the choice of works in Messages & Magic is the variety. According to the exhibition brochure, “Here, barriers of genre and training are set aside to offer an overarching view of the ways in which American popular culture has fostered a mode of artistic expression that knows no boundaries.” The curators brought collage and assemblage from the beginning through to present day, including some artists that wouldn’t necessarily call themselves “artists”. An example of this is the button suit by Ruby Ann Kittner, accompanied by photographs of her husband wearing it and herself with extra buttons. The wall labels did a great job of telling the story and explaining the context of the post-depression era piece, along with how the work fit in with the context of the exhibition. The curators further succeeded by continuing the time line through to the present, emphasizing how the collage and assemblage mediums have changed in the 21st Century. The best example of this aspect in the show is 215 Points of View by Jonathan Schipper. This piece is a large, free-standing sphere of 215 monitors and 215 cameras. Each camera is opposite to its monitor, so you can never see yourself—you see the opposite side of the sphere. As Johnathan states, the sphere is a “reflection of media’s attempt to remain revealing as it grows in power and becomes increasingly omni present”. I found this to be very interesting and a powerful aspect of the show. This was also my six year old son’s favorite piece.

Messages & Magic is a show that both children and adults can enjoy. One way that the art center focused on involving children was by providing a Family Guide for the exhibition. This guide included facts about the show, explained in terms that kids can understand (such as simplified descriptions of the terms Collage and Assemblage). It also included suggestions for fun activities, a space on the back of the pamphlet to be creative and create your own collage, and an invitation to visit the Kohler’s ARTery, an open studio space for the public.

Other information available for Messages & Magic included a two-page plain paper handout, simple yet effective, that outline the five categories and major wall texts of the exhibition. What I found most helpful about this pamphlet was that after the exhibition, anything that I wasn’t clear on or had forgot about I could easily find the answer to. There is also a full color brochure for the show which very briefly describes the exhibition, as well as outlines seven additional exhibitions currently on display at the art center. In the Kohler newsletter, there was a very nice synopsis of the exhibition on the second page, including the names of all participating artists and a description of the show.

The wall texts and labels for the show are well written—with enough detail to educate but not so much as to overwhelm. The wall labels, texts, and signs are also very well installed and look extremely professional. I did, however, find a few minor punctuation mistakes, and there are a couple “facts” about art history that I would argue with, such as that Ray Johnson is the “originator” of Mail Art. Also, there are at least two labels on pedestals that are placed far too low, causing me to have to stoop down to read, which wasn’t very pleasant and I ended up not reading the entire label. In another area of the art center, there were two labels that were obviously mixed up and the gallery guards were discussing how that wasn’t the first time that has happened. Even though that mix up wasn’t part of Messages & Magic, it still effects how viewers perceive the institution and therefore does effect every exhibition in the building and the Kohler itself.

The organizers of Messages & Magic did a great job in protecting the artwork to make sure that nobody could lean on, sit near, or in other ways disturb the artworks. Many of the works on pedestals were enclosed in Plexiglas. The gallery guards were always present, and they were friendly as well, talking with visitors and suggesting other areas of the art center to go and see. There were several signs reminding parents to watch their children and to make sure they don’t touch anything. The signs were a little obvious, but understandable.

The main downfall of Messages & Magic is the lighting, which I found to be mediocre. It lacked consistency. In some areas it was great, in other areas it was okay, and in a few areas it was poor. The areas of poor lighting included a room where neutral-toned, low-key collages were being displayed in very low, almost non-existent light. The collages have a lot of detailed imagery that was nearly impossible to see because of the lighting. Upon examining the lights, I found there were no lights anywhere near the pictures. The only light these particular collages are getting is diffused light from the lighting of other artworks. I can understand that the curator may be trying to keep the lights low for conservation purposes, but I’ve been in museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago where they didn’t require this low of lighting. Luckily, there were only a few areas of very poor lighting, and most of the show had good enough light to see the artworks, although I think they could have done better throughout the entire exhibition by making the light consistent and slightly brighter overall.

Messages & Magic is a very interesting exhibition and a successful show. The Kohler impressed me and I will definitely be back to view future shows. In my case, Messages & Magic and the Kohler did exactly what good exhibitions and arts organizations are supposed to do—reach out to a visitor and create an experience that is interesting, educational, fulfilling, and memorable—getting that visitor to come back again.

Another aim of arts organizations is to motivate a visitor to become a member and support the institution financially. I was more than willing to become a member of the Kohler after this experience, so the organizers and curators of Messages & Magic succeeded in this aspect as well. Additionally, I was impressed that there is no admission charge, only a suggested donation box (without high pressure to donate unlike some other art institutions). Free admission may encourage participation in people who might not normally visit an art center, or those who love art but have limited funds. Messages & Magic has the potential to succeed in inspiring people to visit, support the Kohler, and to make art a more integral part of their lives—even to become a collage or assemblage artist themselves.

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