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Copacetic Curating

A landmark exhibition for MAD, Craft Front & Center  has made an indelible impact on its curators.

While typically museum exhibitions are years-long projects, the organization of the Museum's permanent collection exhibition, Craft Front & Center (on view May 22, 2021–February 13, 2022), had to be completed in a matter of months. Conceived in response to the most unusual and intense circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition needed to come together as soon as possible to help remedy the disruptions, postponements, cancellations, adjustments—and then readjustments—made to MAD’s exhibition schedule due to the shutdown.

It was an all-hands-on-deck moment for the entire curatorial team, who quickly decided to "divide and conquer,” setting out to review the unique and wide-ranging group of around 3,000 collection objects. Curators focused on their own area of expertise and research as opposed to any one artistic movement or master narrative of craft. From this approach, themes emerged that supported an open-ended intepretation of craft's past and pesent as a vital and very compelling art form—but one always in flux. From initial impressions to lasting emotions, the curators tell all to curatorial assistant Alida Jekabson.

Alida Jekabson (curatorial assistant): Now that Craft Front & Center is open to the public, what is an individual inspiration or takeaway from this extensive exhibition?

Elissa Auther (chief curator): MAD has a stunning collection of early fiber works from the 1960s. These works are by a group of artists who set out to deflate the hierarchy between art and craft and make a place for themselves, expanding our definition of art and what people can understand as aesthetic. I see their legacy in the contemporary works on view and that's really important because it's taken quite some time. But the art world has caught up with them finally and that's very gratifying.

Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy (assistant curator):  It was great to get to do the "What Can You Do with Clay?" section exploring Funk ceramics because I'm really interested in how ceramics are used as a form of protest, or how humor can be a form of protest. I've already sort of tackled these ideas in contemporary ceramics, so it was exciting to have this opportunity to show the historic work that started it all and think more about connecting past with present.

Samantha De Tillio (collections curator): My biggest inspiration is always learning about the people behind the art works. The art works are incredible, they’re beautiful, and they inspire so much curiosity, but I really love learning about the people and their stories. Specifically, how they live their lives and what their curiosities are and how they bring their craft into their life and their lifestyles. I'm really interested in how these creative people are choosing to express themselves not only through their work, but through the ways that they live.

Christian Larsen (Windgate research curator): The biggest inspiration for me was working collaboratively with all of you. I feel like the diversity of our voices and our interests in the collection really is expressed in what visitors see when they come to the galleries. There is—I almost want to call it a rambunctious mix of things—there's a lot of objects that are unruly and I think that has to do with our personalities and this mix of everything that we brought to exhibition. So, for me that was the biggest inspiration, and of course learning about artists I've never seen before and never heard of before, those kinds of discoveries that crop up in the course of research is really wonderful and that's why we do this work.

Barbara Paris Gifford (associate curator): For me, what's interesting about this exhibition is we started out thinking about these sections as vignettes, and therefore we thought of each of them sort of separately. But there's all of these resonances between each of the sections and you really see that once everything is in one room. The exhibition is a laboratory—you bring all these different objects in and it's like wow, there are relationships here that we could study for future exhibitions. Even though these objects have been in our collection obviously for very long time, the different ways in which you organize them really bring you new insights that you can kind of live off for a while. To me, that's what's been really rejuvenating, and just simply seeing things that have been in storage for a while, to have the chance to bring them out to the gallery is inspiring, to see these things with fresh eyes or maybe for the first time.

AJ: In thinking about the exhibition as a laboratory, what were some unexpected connections between artists and/or objects in Craft Front & Center that you are excited to explore further in the future?

AVL: My colleague Samantha de Tillio discovered that glass artist Marvin Lipofsky (the subject of the “What Can You Do with Glass?” section) was rejected from the 1967 Funk exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum. That exhibition marks a very important moment for the “What Can You Do with Clay?” section. Looking at Lipofsky’s work I think he is so funky! He would have been an obvious fit in my opinion, and I was so shocked to find that out. Despite my very specific focus on the ceramics from that exhibition, I’m super curious to know who else got rejected? And while probably impossible to know now, why? It just goes to show how subjective curating can be and how a curatorial decision can have very significant and lasting effects.

SD: I think it would be fun to locate Lipofsky in the greater Bay Area and alongside artists who were working in that area outside of glass. He was really influenced by a wide variety of artists and mediums, yet he is still often contextualized primarily within the glass world. Thinking about him in the context of Funk or Pop art would be interesting. Maybe Angelik will do that in her future project!

I was also excited by some of the aesthetic and visual connections like Betty Woodman and Katherine Westphal. Those two pieces sing for me. They remind me of the power of color!

BPG: I continue to be inspired by cross-media similarities in our collection. The visual resonances between the Sanai Hattori kimono and the Betty Woodman napkin holder, for example, as well as between the Sanford Biggers piece, with its translucent clouds and electric thunder bolts, and the glass of Marvin Lipofsky or the wonderful ceramic piece by Arlene Shechet, are sublime. These connections would not be revealed without a deep dive into the collection, and often narrative cohesions surface that are worthy of future exploration. Also, thinking through the identity [“In the Formation of Identity”] platform in Craft Front & Center, there are certainly a number of possibilities there — an exhibition on the topic as exemplified by craft in MAD’s collection would be powerful. There is a unique credibility to using the pieces from Objects: USA as foundational objects in our shows — this is something only MAD can do given the number of pieces in our collection from that important historical exhibition.

CL: Curators are tirelessly trying to connect dots, visually rhyme, find conceptual and aesthetic affinities. It’s exhausting. Just when I thought we had thought through all the ways the collection could be read as female (domesticity, types of labor, materials and processes like fiber and weaving, gendered iconography of the feminine, etc), my own platform ,“In the Home," clicked in a way I didn’t expect. All the objects selected were various shades of motherhood and the maternal, the home as a nurturing and nourishing environment. From the breast milk flows in Tanya’s wall hanging to the padded cushions and motherly embrace of Juliana’s chair, the soft edges of Maloof’s rocking cradle nursery, and the uterine forms of the Natzler’s ceramics. It all clicked.

AJ: Was there an artist or work included on an earlier version of the exhibition checklist that you are hoping to revisit or learn more about?

AVL: On an early version of the checklist, I had included a piece by Fred Bauer. It’s a super odd piece of which I still don’t know much about. My research into the artist yielded very little information about him and not many works are in existence because he retired from artmaking relatively early in his life and went on to become a farmer. Ultimately, the piece didn’t fit that well in the space and I focused on works that we could share concrete information about.

BPG: Yes! We have an amazing Claire Zeisler, Red Wednesday, in our collection that I know visitors would love!  Someday!!

CL: I’m looking forward to showing Nadia Taquary’s “Oriki” series in the second iteration of the “What Can You Do With a Thread?” section —such a fresh example of Afro diaspora weaving and identity. I was disappointed the Pedro Friedeberg Butterfly Chair couldn’t be shown due to the cost of conservation. And finally, I can’t wait to see the public’s jaw drop when they see Amarinho’s Texeira’s jellyfish-like sculpture—it’s a perfect contemporary rhyme to Kay Sekimachi’s work.

EA: I'm eager to return to Arturo Sandoval's stupendous work, Ground Zero #10: Target Babylon. I had never seen the work in person, and now I had an excuse to take it out of storage for consideration for the exhibition checklist. I discovered two things that were not obvious to me based on the object record in our database. First, that the piece is monumental in scale, which precluded its inclusion in Craft Front & Center, and second—given its size—it was far more exquisite than could be captured in a photograph. The piece is made of woven celluloid film, includes transfer photographs, and is sewn together in some areas with bright yellow ric rac. Who would have guessed from the thumbnail in the database?! The piece needs its own environment with ample breathing space, and there is a plan to install it alone outside the theatre at MAD, where it will sing.

SD: The exciting thing about Craft Front & Center is that the exhibition will continue to evolve! From the second rotation forthcoming in October 2021 to the long-term, rotating iteration of the show that will open in 2023, there will be even more opportunities to explore the permanent collection. Something I’ve been very interested in, is the way artists expand their practices to encompass their lives, particularly as it relates to the 1) “simple life” or getting “back-to-the-land” and 2) artist colonies and communities both casual and defined. Artists in MAD’s collection who are relevant to this idea include Dorian Zachai, Karen Karnes, J.B. Blunk, Marguerite Friedländer-Wildenhain, among others.

AJ: Lastly, after planning the exhibition in the digital space what were some of your reactions or surprises in response to finally seeing the works in our physical galleries?

AVL: SCALE! Despite having dimensions for artworks, the scale of the sculptures doesn’t really click for me until I see it in person, within the context of the gallery and relative to other pieces and physical human bodies. The flattened out digital sketch becomes three-dimensional, and it is an entirely different experience. Some of the ceramics in the show are massive and I don’t think we often see such large-scale ceramics. The piece titled Alice House by Robert Arneson in the collection has not been shown since around 2012 so many of us on the team have never seen it in person because we were not at MAD at the time. It’s exciting to see how far the medium can be pushed.

BPG: It’s always a good idea when planning a show to visit the space it will be in often, so you do not lose a sense of dimensionality. I visited the Museum several times during the pandemic and was lucky enough to go to storage to see the objects before they were brought to the Museum for display, so really no surprises there. However, it’s always exciting to see the objects in the space when they arrive — you forget just how stunning they are. There is nothing like seeing them in person. Our galleries are small and like all museums, we have a lot of regulations. I wish we could show more pieces comfortably at one time. But this exhibition brings together over 60 objects in the gallery and I think they look just beautiful together! I am very happy with the result.

SD: I don’t know if there were surprises per se, but it’s always incredible to see all the works come together in the gallery after interacting with them as digital images for so long. No matter how thoughtfully we arrange the works to encourage dialog and conversation between them, there are always new connections that form once I see the works installed in the Museum. These connections come through to me in exactly the way I hope they do for the visitor. Even though the project originated in the curatorial mind and we’ve already done this work, even if somewhat subconsciously, the experience of it all unfolding in front of my eyes still holds a type of transformational magic for me. I think it’s an openness to the curious and to the surprising as you phrased it in your question.

CL: I didn’t realize Viola Frey’s ceramic woman is so tall!  She’s an absolute Amazon of an object! Ditto the Arneson’s Alice House on steroids! Some real shocking scale going on.

SD: Oh, I just thought of one! The James Tanner platter/glass form really surprised me when I saw it. It’s so subtle that it hardly translates into photographs, but the glass is so beautiful! Also, Alice House by Arneson for its sheer scale. That must be the group pick for most surprising!

AJ: I agree. Thank you all!

Craft Front & Center is on view at MAD through February 12, 2022. In October 2021, a new round of textiles and other works from MAD’s collection will be installed in the galleries to continue the exploration of the relevance of craft across art and culture.

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