Montclair Art Museum Opens The Spectacular of Vernacular

The Montclair Art Museum presents The Spectacular of Vernacular. On View October 7, 2011–January 1, 2012.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Steak Billboard) Memphis, TN, 1973. Dye transfer print. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim & Reid, New York.

The Spectacular of Vernacular is an exhibition that focuses on the role of vernacular forms in the work of 25 contemporary artists who utilize craft, folklore, and roadside kitsch to explore culturally specific iconography in the context of an increasingly global world of art. The exhibition, on view through January 1, 2012, will look closely at this particular brand of culture known as the vernacular, a term used to describe amateur or regional forms of expression that tend to be more homegrown than high-end. From dime-store plaques and snapshot photography to the objects attending folk rituals, these items often possess a warm familiarity. Yet for the artists who take them on as subjects, these humble forms can become nuanced and loaded symbols, offering clues about who we are and where we live.

Inspired by artist Mike Kelley’s observation that “the mass art of today is the folk art of tomorrow,” the exhibition examines the role of vernacular forms in more than two dozen works that run the aesthetic gamut: the hand-crafted work of Aaron Spangler juxtaposes with Lari Pittman’s carnivalesque day-glo paintings; Marc Swanson’s glittering trophy heads with Rachel Harrison’s urban relics. Also on view are photographs from Walker Evans, William Eggleston, and Shannon Ebner, who revel in the signage and other elements of roadside culture.

Focusing on pieces made since the 1970s, the exhibition shows how the vernacular, in its very ubiquity—its integration into home life, social rituals, and sense of place—is an ongoing fascination for artists. With artworks that draw from such diverse sources as billboards and handmade domestic items, it’s suggestive of a long, meandering road trip through the emblems and eyesores of everyday culture, replete with tourist destinations and outmoded hotels.

Every locale has its own singular brand of vernacular—discernible in the ways people dress, decorate their homes (especially around the holidays), and self-identify with behaviors seen as typical of the area. A number of artists here consider those aspects of local culture, probing the markers of place and region. Some hint at the sprawl of the Western strip, filled with commercial billboards, signs, and shopping malls. Several come from the Midwest and respond to its conditions in their work—its landscape, structures, and weather; others look to the South for inspiration, while still others examine the Northeast’s industrial landscape

The culture of today provides a vast source material of readily accessible and mass- produced goods, which is in direct contrast with the tangible, locatable reality addressed by the artists in The Spectacular of Vernacular. In a world that is increasingly networked, with influences flowing in from an endless stream of sites and sources, the issue of what remains particularized, even regionalized, is an open question—and one among many that artists engaging the vernacular seek to address.

The exhibition is accompanied by a concise, illustrated catalogue. The show premiered at the Walker Art Center, where it ran from January 29 through May 8, 2011. It is organized at MAM by Alexandra Schwartz, curator of contemporary art.

The Montclair Art Museum, a notable, community-based institution with an international reputation, boasts a renowned collection of American and Native American art that uniquely highlights art making in the United States over the last three hundred years. The collection includes more than 15,000 objects: paintings, prints, original works on paper, photographs, and sculpture by American artists from the 18th century to the present, as well as traditional and contemporary Native American art and artifacts representing the cultural developments of peoples from all of the major American Indian regions. The Museum’s education programs serve a wide public and bring artists, performers, and scholars to the Museum on a regular basis. MAM’s Yard School of Art is the leading regional art school, offering a multitude of comprehensive courses for children, teens, adults, seniors, and professional artists.

Montclair Art Museum 3 South Mountain Avenue Montclair, NJ 07042 (973) 746-5555

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