The Spectacular of Vernacular
Ackland Art Museum
Through March 18

Critic and theorist Maurice Blanchot wrote the following about the everyday in 1969, saying that it is “what is most difficult to discover.” This elusive quality about the things and places that we see and experience every day extends to the vernacular. Definitions of vernacular emphasize local dialects and regional architectural traditions.

The Ackland Art Museum’s current exhibition, The Spectacular of Vernacular, expands upon this term to include art that also encompasses local traditions and characteristics particular to specific places, taking special interest in the vernacular from the perspective of our current virtual lives and our experience of the world through screens.

The Spectacular of Vernacular presents works by 25 artists that engage the vernacular in either subject matter or choice of medium. While the exhibition rightly makes no attempt to claim the works on view are a comprehensive overview of the vernacular in art, the show covers a 75-year period that, probably not coincidentally, overlaps the eras of radio, television and modern advertising.

The exhibition’s earliest works are Walker Evans’ indelible Depression-era photographs. Evans was assigned to document small-town life for the federal government’s Resettlement Administration (it became the Farm Security Administration, or FSAsee this week’s cover story, “A bracing new vision of America’s Depression years at the Center for Documentary Studies”), and his work repeatedly demonstrates his talent of capturing the important details about a place. In “A Miner’s Home, West Virginia” (1935), Evans focused on the cardboard boxes and advertisements that lined the home’s walls instead of the seated woman along the photograph’s edge. By emphasizing the family’s repurposing of these items as insulation, Evans was able to convey the disparity between the needs conveyed through the advertisements and the family’s basic needs.

Evans’ vast influence extends to William Christenberry, whose “Palmist Building” (1979) is a detailed model of a country store owned by his great uncle in a small Alabama town. Christenberry offers to the viewer the experience Evans might have had walking around this building in search of a suitable composition. This isn’t an invented connection: Evans really did photograph the store. Like Evans, Christenberry includes details such as the posters and advertisements tacked on the building’s walls.

William E. Jones’ short film “Killed” (2009) also takes inspiration from FSA photographs. Instead of using existing prints, Jones located negatives in the agency archives that had, for one reason or another, failed to please Roy Stryker, the head of the FSA’s information division. Rather than simply shelving the negatives, Stryker defaced these public records with a hole punch; Jones makes the otherwise ignored hole punch, this mark of rejection, the focus of his film. He digitized these images, editing them into a video that shows them so quickly that the hole punch grows in size as the pictures whirl by, almost consuming the photographs before decreasing again. Toward the end, the more irregularly placed punches jump playfully across the screen.

Shannon Ebner demonstrates the ability of photographs to increase perception, and “Blank Field” (2009) is the most extraordinary of her large black-and-white photographs. This work’s subject is a board with holes and tiny metal rods, and Ebner shows us how much there is to see in this purportedly blank field. In “Landscape Incarceration” (2003) and “Ampersand” (2009), the reverse orientation of cutouts of the letters and punctuation mentioned in the works’ titles emphasize the supports propping them up, and in the process, draw attention to the dirt in the foreground instead of the mountain ranges and shrubbery in the background.

William Eggleston’s four photographs place us in unusual vantage points. Eggleston’s achievement resonates in both the color photographs (a rusted Cadillac in an overgrown landscape, a giant decaying billboard of a steak) and the black-and-white ones (a low view across a paved road to a gas station, the view a child might have of a seat on a stool at a diner).

Vernacular architecture inspires the works by Chris Larson and Mike Kelley. Larson, with his transfixing video “Deep North” (2008), takes the viewer on a tour through an ice-covered shotgun house. A machine at the center of the ice-covered interior, powered by three women, makes additional cylinders of ice for unknown reasons. The video’s sounds captivate us as these mundane yet mysterious actions unfold. While Kelley’s “Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid, No. 4: Stevenson Junior High and Satellites” (2002) refers to his school days, the choice not to show one of his other works that more directly draws upon the vernacular (such as his plush animal assemblages) is puzzling. The exhibition catalog emphasizes a quote by Kelley, “The mass culture of today is the folk art of tomorrow,” a statement that feels unrelated to the work on view.

Dario Robleto and Faith Ringgold explore traditional craft practices with conceptual overlays. In “Demonstrations of Sailor’s Valentines” (2009), Robleto skillfully uses cut paper, shells, wax and text to create an altar-like memorial to this bygone craft, valentines sent between sailors and their wives (and widows). In “Change 2: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt” (1988), Ringgold adds photographs and text to bright quilt blocks. Expanding upon the communicative nature of quilts, she includes a series of songs about her attempts to lose weight. A painted self-portrait in the center allows Ringgold to achieve the weight loss not yet realized in the photographs.

Jeffrey Vallance and Lorna Simpson expand upon the evocative power of objects. Vallance elevates objects from a range of everyday actions to icon status in his reliquary-like sculptures. Simpson’s interest in a photograph she found for sale on eBay of an anonymous 1950s Los Angeles woman led her to collect 250 images of her. Simpson’s “LA ’57–NY ’09” (2009) and “1957–2009 Interior #1” (2009) present some of these found images alongside photographs staged by Simpson that mimic the poses of the originals. By imitating a woman from the 1950s who was imagining herself as a celebrity, Simpson ups the ante of Cindy Sherman’s 1977–80 portraits of herself as characters from nonexistent movies.

Lari Pittman and Jack Pierson explore the everyday experience of signage. Pittman’s “A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #30” (1994) provides a cacophony of phrases and symbols, reproducing the sensory overload of urban advertising. As the wall text suggests, it presents a view of the “new vernacular,” chaotic environments that emphasize materialism and consumption, suggested here through credit card logos, demanding text and fashion trends. This 1994 painting today reminds us of the ways we were being bombarded with messages in this pre-Internet period and our anxiety about it then. A similar aesthetic is at work in the simple yet resonant “Beauty” (1995) by Pierson, created out of red letters from various commercial signs. Hanging over the museum’s information desk, it encourages us to look for beauty there, a gesture that could be perceived as ironic, or if overlooked, reminds us how little we notice about our environments.

Childhood memories and experiences are also embodied in the glittering, crystal-covered deer head and pile of antlers by Mark Swanson and the head created out of tapestries by Louise Bourgeois that, while perfectly proportionate, evokes the folk tradition of a shrunken apple head doll. Marina Abramovic’s Balkan Erotic Epic draws upon ancient pagan rituals, and Kara Walker layers signature silhouettes, and her own stories, on top of enlarged illustrations from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.

Butt Johnson’s ballpoint pen ink drawings of montages of wallpaper motifs, Laura Owens’ awkwardly painted still life of flowers with buttons glued on, and the paintings Jim Shaw commissioned by beginner artists that illustrate Shaw’s created history of the cult of Oism add little to the exhibition’s exploration of the vernacular. All touch on aspects of the theme but do little to change our perceptions of these things in our lives. Including works by other artists such as Zoe Strauss, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Kilgallen or Julia Fish, would have resonated more deeply. The circular flow of the Ackland’s front galleries would serve this exhibition, organized by the Walker Art Center, of Minneapolis, better if all of the galleries were devoted to it. With one room containing African sculpture and another Asian art, no matter which way visitors choose to navigate the galleries, they are left to seek out the last gallery or miss it entirely.

That these are real objects to walk around, look at from different distances and see in their different sizes and at higher resolutions than screens can produce reminds us that much of what ends up on the Internet must be first found in the world. These works resonate most when they intersect with our own lives and allow us to perceive the distinguishing characteristics of our own environments and things we see. From hole punches to quilts and diner stools to signs, our future encounters with everyday objects may result in closer scrutiny, in search of ways that such things are spectacular.