Nov 9, 2011

REVIEW | The Spectacular of Vernacular | Darsie Alexander | D.A.P. | 2011

Lari Pittman, "Untitled #30 (A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation)," 1994. Acrylic, enamel, and glitter on two wood panels. 83 x 160 in.

The Spectacular of Vernacular exhibition originally shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is accompanied with a 128-page exhibition catalogue that goes further than just a curator essay; it encompasses a great deal of information to help the reader understand the importance of vernacular forms in contemporary arts.  The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, first opening in January of 2011, was published in March of the same year. The catalogue to The Spectacular of Vernacular, put together by the Walker Art Center and organized by Chief Curator Darsie Alexander, goes into great detail of the study of vernacular art forms influencing contemporary arts and showcases each art piece exhibited in installation resulting in a contemporary arts book that can stand alone.

The Foreword was written by the Executive Director for the Walker Art Center, Olga Viso, who explains that the exhibition is about exploring the interest of vernacular forms in contemporary arts and introduces some major themes:

The Spectacular of Vernacular is the first exhibition to consider how and why many artists continue to vigorously assert a dialogue with specific customs and traditions as embodies in the notion of the North American Vernacular, drawing inspiration from objects associated with informal, often personal modes of creativity.

The next section in the catalogue contains curator Darsie Alexander’s explanation of what exactly vernacular means using examples with accompanying photographs getting her point across. She details how the different definitions for what vernacular means changes with time and she carefully explains that while vernacular can be related to nostalgia, the works exhibited in The Spectacular of Vernacular are of this generation and organized by vernacular related to location, habits or rituals, and/or homemade creativity. Because she narrowed down vernacular as a term and gave specific definitions and examples, the reader is more prepared to grasp how vernacular affected the specific pieces in the next section of the featured artist.

Installation view of The Spectacular of Vernacular at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2011.

In a central section, the catalogue includes all 27 artists and their work exhibited in the show with brief excerpts from each artist explaining what was inspiring their work. It is important that the catalogue be formatted this way because it helps the reader to understand the different vernacular forms in contemporary arts by using these artists’ work as examples and references. In this section especially, the catalogue is so exceedingly informative that instead of the exhibition being merely accompanied by a catalogue, it is as if the catalogue uses the exhibits as support. The front cover of the catalogue is "Untitled #30 (A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation)" by Lari Pittman, which, in his explanation, deals with the issue of time and capitalism representing the vernacular of American lifestyle. This work is an appropriate choice for the front cover of the exhibition catalogue because it is more relatable to the mass population of America than other pieces, like the work of Aaron Spangler, which contains pieces that reflect his own personal vernacular experiences.
Aaron Spangler, "I Owe My Soul to the Company Store," 2009-2010. Carved and painted basswood, graphite on welded steel base.

The Spectacular of the Vernacular catalogue rigorously explains the idea of vernacular art and how it has influenced contemporary arts then and now. The catalogue makes a point of showing how the art world celebrates and shows its interest in vernacular studies by including two excerpts in the back of the book, “Vernacular” from Discovering the Vernacular Landscape by John Brinckerhoff Jackson and “You’re Not Nowhere! Visualizing the Heartland Vernacular” by Andy Sturdevant, as well as an annotated reading list for further related information. This catalogue is great even without going to visit the exhibition. It is well thought out and extremely informative about not only key issues and themes contemporary art, but also in vernacular studies. 

-Melissa Weatherall


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