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Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) stands in the middle of a bustling downtown. Sleek modern buildings, with brightly colored banner and advertising plumage, are interspersed with turn-of-the-century architectural gems and shops selling old-fashioned hats and bags of nuts. The juxtapositions provide a perfect backdrop to CAC’s new exhibition, curated by Justine Ludwig, that playfully blends the city’s artistic traditions and creative future.
Warmly named and brightly colored, The Living Room brings together Cincinnati-based artists in one long rectangular gallery to experiment with ideas of spatial environment and human interaction. The Living Room bursts with revitalizing color, particularly after walking through the drab gloom of Ludwig’s other current exhibition, Patti Smith: The Coral Sea. The latter, dedicated to Smith’s friend Robert Mapplethorpe, features washed out grey hospital cots and black and white photographs that scream, “I’m deep!” in a sincerely heartfelt and serious exhibition, but one whose installation format seems a bit stale by comparison.
More dynamically unexpected, The Living Room is, according to the art center’s own statement, “only considered complete when visitors occupy it.” While occupied space may be the obvious overarching theme—driven home by a makeshift Styrofoam couch you can sit on, a tree house for climbing, and a series of public programs planned for the space—there is something else going on that I find perfectly suited to Cincinnati itself. A sustained conversation is taking place between the Victorian and contemporary eras, bridging the outer limits of the “modern and contemporary” curatorial moniker that rarely meet.
Upon first entering the space, you come upon a low flight of stairs and a two-wall digital video display in the large empty corner. Paul Coors’s Unidentified Man or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Y’All (2013) includes video, small fliers, and a roving white spotlight—all reflections of his larger musical, visual, and collaborative works at the Ice Cream Factory where he lives in Cincinnati. The spotlight circles the floor, hypnotically seeking out a visitor and generously privileging them for just being there. The video presents five themed segments, each announced by scrolling titles and accompanied by a pop song that he has “chopped & screwed”. A slowed segment of a Silversun Pickups’ video drawls wonderfully and a boldly patterned background of “ICF” logos with ironic hipsters goofing in front makes you smile. In the section called “If You’ll Be My Bodyguard” the camera follows the artist along Cincinnati streets from the CAC to his various former residences (including his parents house), as viewers hear Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” The piece is a visual collage that you can enter and leave at any time. It adds informal entertainment to the room, updating the Victorian-era animation of both victrola music and magic lantern illuminated wall projection.
The over-the-top decorative porcelain fireplace set against loud screen-printed wallpaper acts as the real aesthetic heart of the gallery space. The installation’s aesthetic qualities come from the much-maligned Victorian era’s drive to boldly mix patterns, crowd picture hangings on top of large-printed wallpaper, and litter mantelpieces with decorative bric-a-brac. A carved wooden bear rug faces the hearth like an undulating topographic map, filling the void between the viewer seated on the couch and the tall porcelain piece confronting them.
Three artists, Terence Hammonds, Guy Michael Davis, and Katie Parker, collaborated at the famous Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati to create the colorful installation. Hammonds, a printmaker, has been working in-house at Rookwood for a few years now. Davis and Parker spent many happy Fridays over the last year working with Hammonds to make patterned tiles, while re-appropriating Rookwood’s archive of sculptural forms and molds for other new production designs.
Nothing says turn-of-the-century Cincinnati like Rookwood. Because of its experimentation with subject themes and glaze recipes, the firm won numerous prizes, including a Grand Prix at the 1900 Paris Exposition, and helped define American architectural and decorative pottery during its Gilded Age heyday. Rookwood tiles surround fireplaces throughout Cincinnati’s historic homes, and decorate local Art Deco-era monuments such as Carew Tower, Dixie Terminal building, and Union Terminal.
The firm’s long history has left fingerprints all over The Living Room’s contemporary art piece. The fire surround’s orange and white-patterned tiles feature a ghostly black and white portrait image in their centers. While I am dying to know the identity each of these men and women, I can only glean eighteenth-century wigs, 1900s Gibson Girl hairstyles, and possibly even 1960s eyeglasses. Part of me hopes they portray scientists involved in the secret chemistry of porcelain, because we have forgotten that breaking that scientific code was once the international equivalent of the Space Race. Regardless, the faded faces haunt the sitting area like puffs of smoke.
Pink and white-patterned tiles decorate the fireplace’s pillar legs, punctuated by white molded flowers below and animal heads with flower-covered eyes above. Porcelain chains lead from their beastly mouths to golden bears seated, captive, on either side of the fireplace’s hearth. The animal motif extends to the decorative tile “painting” above the mantel, a painted porcelain bestiary of wild and domestic animals. Lions fight, pigeons swoop and peck, leopards run, dogs leap, Rookwood vases topple and break in the mêlée, even a broken beer bottle lays visible on the ground. A round, geodesic dome-roofed home with multi-colored triangles for shingles, seems to be the human epicenter of these animals’ strange relations.
Staring at the motley fireplace a deeper insight emerges. There is an organic modularity to each tile’s glazed decorative pattern, as well as the pattern of inlaid triangles on the hearth that might bend into the domed roof pictured above. Modules are just pixels, pixels become digital films, like Paul Coors’s, with music videos. The potentially infinite expanse of pattern continues with Terence Hammonds’s flowered fabric wallpaper in deep indigo blue ink. Lighter sky blue images of aggressively male music performers get swallowed up in the center of giant William Morris-inspired blossoms like man-eating Venus flytraps. The Victorian era’s dark side, including occultist themes, Art Nouveau snakes and bats, and now punk performers, complicates a too-easily ascribed decorative and cultural innocence.
If the exhibition is about space, and it is about the Victorian and Contemporary eras, then the title Living Room is an interesting one. The exhibition could, and perhaps should, have been called Parlor, because the central seating era mimics the central hearth of this particular, now obsolescent, room. Parlors were special spaces reserved for adult conversation and “public” interactions, including weddings and funerals, within the private home. Their doors were kept closed and children shooed away on a daily basis. This was the highest tier of a home’s social interaction and its careful display of artworks and decorative objects was a form of exhibition. Today we might say its social mores have been relegated to museums’ own code of public conduct. However, curator Justine Ludwig has called this exhibition The Living Room after the informal, everyday family room that survived the Victorian era. The exhibition’s collaborative artists have dutifully redefined the gallery by making it a “livable” space for visitors of all ages to relax, explore, sit, and be entertained, even as its central installation resembles a formal parlor.
At the far end of the gallery, by contrast, you step “outside” and into a tree house by local design firm Such + Such (who also made the wooden “bearskin” rug). Their tree house is a beautifully succinct statement on nature vs. culture, inside vs. outside, and yesterday vs. today. Colored paper airplanes litter the tops of canvas sails that create soft shadows on the ground and add the suggestion of tree cover or impromptu safe haven. The tree house smells of freshly cut wood, which is the only really natural thing about this Astroturf-for-grass and concrete-pillar-for-tree arrangement. The slatted wood creates a striped pattern that lets you be inside and outside at once. On the first step, a carpet with gray-toned triangles visually links the tree house to the fireplace hearth. Climbing the flight of steps to the top, you pass a cluttered hanging of natural history images on the gallery wall—an image of a shark’s gaping mouth, dried and pressed flowers, drawings of a tiger and a butterfly, a photograph of an armadillo drinking from a fast food cup. The identification and classification of species informs the Victorian stairwell aesthetic and reminds us that this is how the Nineteenth Century understood and explained the world, fueling scientific discovery, museum creation, and the evils of colonization.
If there is a weak part of the entire gallery, it might be the organically-shaped wooden table area by Such + Such that fills the space between the tree house and the fireplace. It is set low and married to tree stump seats topped by colorful patterned cushions. A bleached white lighting system of neon bulbs, polar bear heads, and cut flower swags hangs overhead. This area reminds me of everything I currently dislike about museums—the McDonald’s playland-ification of gallery spaces. I know that museums have to hook new generations of future patrons to secure their funding, much like cigarette companies did with advertising aimed at teenagers, but do we really have to create a craft area with blocks in every room of paintings?
For example, I cannot visit the Columbus Museum of Art’s painting galleries without having toddlers drill tabletops with wooden blocks in a rhythmic pounding that sets my contemplative teeth on edge. (Yes, I know they just won an award for such “innovative visitor engagement,” but I prefer my George Bellows without children bellowing.) So perhaps the sight of a “let’s make crafts from paper” area just annoys me a little, despite its being in a new collaborative context. In general, I like the idea of continuing the colorful pattern-production from wall, to paper, to migrating paper airplanes stuck on roofs that are so reminiscent of childhood. These are also much quieter than wooden blocks.
This returns us to the original premise of the exhibition, namely the occupation of the space by visitors. I liked the visual remnants of past visitors, but during my visit the space was occupied by just me, my friend, and one other adult guest, and call me old-fashioned but I liked it that way. Unlike the other three sections of the exhibition, I found that, despite its own loud appearance, the “parlor” area demanded formality as I sat and enjoyed contemplating its generous interlacing of designs, and the sound of Coors’s video projections filled the space. There are tensions that fail to resolve in this exhibition, but perhaps that is the interesting crackle of its dueling ideas and distant eras.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.