I happened upon the installation-in-process of the group show Not Flat and recognized the signs of a successful installation experience. Installing a show with fellow artists can be a wonderful way to learn valuable skills and create community at the same time. If the artists don’t kill each other during the process, they’ll usually come out deeply bonded.
3 sculptors (Barbara Berk, Mike Kesselman, and Winnie van der Rijn) joined sculptor and layout leader BJ Stevenson in puzzling out the physical logistics of placing art for the Not Flat show, an exhibition presented by eleven members of the Peninsula Sculptors’ Guild. Members Patricia Keefe and Ruth Waters dropped by to give amiable support while gallery manager and lighting tech John Csongradi joined the group with his own style of impish humor.
The best layout/installation collaborations usually involve experienced leaders talking out loud during their thinking processes. This engenders a relaxed environment for the crew, who can better sense when it is ok to speak up about their own questions and ideas without sounding like they are competing with the person in charge. For crew members who are new to this type of work, this verbal outpouring of strategy is great hands-on instruction.
Always looking for subject matter to write about in this blog, I decided to stay and observe the Not Flat crew during the couple of hours it would take to do the installation. It wasn’t long before I was feeling the energetic endorphins rise in the room even though I wasn’t doing any of the mental/physical work myself. Below I’ve encapsulated a few examples of the delightful repartee of the group, and my thoughts taken from the experience.
Most important in successful collaboration is that all parties be respected for their jobs and capabilities. Muscle and brain have high value, but attitude is the glue. In this case, to set the initial atmosphere, the crew instinctively complimented the leader… and she graciously accepted while brushing it aside… and then gave her own compliment back. This exchange created a sense of respectful balance:
Mike Kesselman (when not knowing if he had moved a pedestaled piece into the right spot) asked, “What do you think, BJ. You’re the boss!” All eyes looked at BJ. She rolled her eyes comically for effect, and then nodded: “That looks good, Mike.”
Getting to know the work while it is being handled can be another uplifting experience, with the crew expressing their enthusiastic insights aloud:
While placing Kim McCool Nelson’s The Emperor’s Old Clothes in a corner that set off its complexities of design, it was noted that the mixed media structure “communicated” well with neighboring sculptures. “I love the way the curve of this piece complements the curve in that one,” and “Look at the great silhouette here.” On sizing up a shorter sculpture, “Look at the interesting texture. We have to make sure that part shows.” In reference to Patricia Keefe’s The Mask, “Look at the way the bronze form is folded, and how the light and shadows play with the transparent support. It’s an interesting effect next to the hardness of the metal.” And “Ahh, Nancy finished it ...and added dots!” This last comment referenced Nancy Wood’s piece Relax and her difficulty in finding the time to complete the work due to a health issue with a family member. The crew paused a moment in spontaneous acknowledgement of Nancy’s difficulties… and then moved on back to work.
Co-creating can occur when working with the shadows that are thrown by the different artworks:
While one crew member moved Paul Rubas’ mixed media piece Yellow Series II closer to the wall another crew member burst out with an excited, “Ooo…I like the shadows!”
Questions and answers readily given and received increase communal trust:
BJ stood eyeing her own feather rock carving Tootsee and the surrounding space, “I want to turn it around.” Mike asked, “Do you want to turn the pedestal or the piece?” “Both.” Workers then swooped in to nudge… nudge… nudge the pedestal around and into place, and BJ stood back to look. “Better.”
Sometimes it helps to have all crew members contribute their points of view on a complex piece’s placement. This can increase personal senses of accomplishment and therefore group joie de vivre:
Everyone chipped in on the discussion of where to place Mike Kesselman’s Perplexed, eventually coming to a pleasing consensus involving both abstract and figurative perspectives.
Distracted creative thinking often leads to a sharing of tools and jokes:
For installing the heavy Ruth Waters mahogany carving Seascape 2 onto the wall, the group chose to use screws instead of the normal framers hooks and nails. John: “The problem is that these are metal studs. If we hit a stud, we’re screwed.” The chatter continued with, “What am I looking for…? Ah, my tape measure.” “Well, you’re not sitting on it.” “Measure five times, cut once.” “Measure twice -- screw once.” “Some people do it that way.”
Marking the walls to place the hanging systems always leads to a certain trickster behavior:
“Do you see my polka dot?” “Here! I kept my eye on it so it didn’t move.”
The fragility of the art is first priority and jokes relieve the stress of handling the works:
While cutting off the extra string that holds up Patty Jones’ The Women’s Movement (a wire sculpture of female figures that must be suspended from the ceiling), Barbara snipped and then asked, “Is that ok?” BJ’s response: “It’s moving.” Berk: “It’s the wind.”
Almost every show installation involves arguing with the physical space:
“I wish this light switch wasn’t here.” “Let’s take it down.”
Taking a break during the work in progress can lead to new insights:
When the crew scurried out of the gallery on a task, BJ remained behind and sighed, “…breathing space…,” then took in the gallery’s present condition without the hindrance of 3 extra bodies crowding views of the sculptures.
One is often reminded that style in art is a matter of personal taste:
In reference to a piece of art a visitor opines, “The bow is too much.” The artist, with a piercing look: “No, it’s not.”
Discussing the logistics of hanging art can reveal stories about the process of their creation:
Mike asked, in reference to Winnie van der Rijn’s Girl Box #1, “How does she hang?” Winnie: “She has hooks through her ears and on top of her head.” Personally, this struck me as sounding macabre until I looked at the piece and took in its message. Mike: “Are these words on the doll taken from children’s stories?” Winnie: “Eli and I looked up all of the twisted things the Disney princesses say… Early indoctrination.” Mike: “Sugar and spice?” Winnie: “That’s supposedly what little girls are made of.”
Generally speaking, the view from the gallery door is the prime angle to work from. First impressions are important. The most important piece is the one that the eye sees first and this is usually on an opposing wall. Next in relevancy is the overall sense of the room as the visitor’s eye travels around. Third in importance is the first (and often last) piece of art that the viewer walks past:
There was a lot of discussion on the exact placement of the entrance sculpture, a ceramics piece Graffi-Tea by Dylan Jones: “We don’t want to trip over it.” “…But we do want to look down and inside.” Nudge... nudge. “Ahhh, that balances the space and compliments the colors on the background sculptures.” “And the Berk stainless steel and bronze wire sculpture looks nicely airy behind it, counterbalancing the weight of the clay.”
The final look around the gallery should give off a feeling of cohesiveness and relaxation, with no one piece of art lording over another, each sculpture leading the eye inward and then on to its surrounding partners:
BJ: “I think it’s looking pretty good. What do you think, people?”
BJ: “Toot, toot, Tootsee, good-bye.”
This column is dedicated to the memory of my first installation teacher, Arabella Decker, and the group where-in I was taught, Women’s Caucus for Art.
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"PMA Heartbeat" contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PMA as a whole.