College students agree: There is no better way to start the year than with a sobering dose of challenging, genre-clashing art. Well then, the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and Fine Art Collection has you covered. Beginning Sept. 24, the Nelson will simultaneously be hosting two different collections, African-American Quilts and Merch Art. The following is a brief preview of the exhibit.
This exhibition features quilts that come from the private collections of Sandra McPherson, a former English professor at UC Davis, and Avis Robinson of Washington D.C. Both will be present for the reception Oct. 1.
“The African-American contribution to American culture has been crucial, even definitive, in music and dance, and increasingly vital in literature and theater, but not as well appreciated is the Black contribution to the visual arts,” said Renny Pritikin, director of the Nelson Gallery and co-curator of the exhibit. “And among the visual art mediums, quilting has been largely ignored.“
Pritikin said the fact that the quilts are a folk art and convey the image of an “old lady hobby,” quilting “has been perceived as a craft, rather than a form of high art.“
“These quilts are made with incredible skill and visual sophistication,” Pritikin said. “We’re trying to challenge the notion of what is appropriate for art museums.”
In an e-mail interview, featured collector Sandra McPherson said preserving and displaying the quilts is crucial, not only for historic reasons, but for artistic purposes. The quilts are part of a lineage that has been unrecognized and unappreciated, dating back to the times of slavery.
“African aesthetics follow their own direction, asymmetry, mixed patterns, surprising juxtaposition of color,” McPherson said. “Somehow, [there is] a sense that God is making them! It is dynamic art. [There is] nothing like it.“
On the other end of the spectrum – but without leaving the room – stands the Merch Art exhibition.
The exhibit is the brain child of Lawrence Banka and Judith Gordon, two San Francisco art collectors who through “bottom-feeding” have amassed a unique collection of what they deem artist ephemera – merchandise made by artists “either from altruism to support art museums, or speculative investments to diversify their income sources.“
Banka and Gordon eschew the traditional path of art collecting – fig leafs, suits, monocles, auctions – for a more “everyman” affordable approach, scouring museum gift shops, searching Craigslist and eBay ads for postcards, ties, Rubik’s cubes and golf balls; anything else that a celebrated artist may have hand-made or signed.
The roster of featured artists is a who’s-who of some of the highest-fetching names in the art world: Picasso, Calder, Ed Ruscha, Kiki Smith, Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Barbra Kruger, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and Louise Bourgeois, among many others.
In their essay, Masterpieces and Merchandising, Gordon and Banka illuminate the reasoning behind their collection. “Despite the famous names, the exhibition is meant to be ironic and fun, to reveal an amusing side to the art market, while simultaneously giving viewers a glimpse into issues concerning supposed high and low art,” the essay reads.
And while the exhibit is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up on traditional art collecting, it also comments on the role of both the modern artist and consumer, Pritikin said. “The irony of it is that because of the democratization of the art world, these iconic names have gotten caught up in this underworld of merchandising.“
For Pritikin, the juxtaposition of these two radically different collections – Merch Art and African-American Quilts – was more coincidental than intentional.
“The only tying thread is that both exhibits come from private collections; they are completely unrelated. It felt a little awkward having the extremely sincere stand beside the extremely ironic,” Pritikin said. “We anticipate assumptions, confusion, misreading, but that’s the way things are.”
The Nelson Gallery is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m., and on Fridays by appointment only. The Nelson is located in room 124 of the art building. An opening reception will be held Oct. 1, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit nelsongallery.ucdavis.edu.
BORIS FREYMAN can be reached at email@example.com.