Meat and Candy

Meat and Candy

The polymer art internet world has been abuzz since last weekend’s events at Racine Art Museum.  The blogs are filled with fabulous “eye-candy” from the Terra Nova exhibition, of the attendees and the gorgeous setting. For me, one of the truly historic aspects of the weekend was the breadth and depth of discussions at the Symposium. As part of our mission, Polymer Art Archive wants to share some of the “meat” of that event.In next week’s PAA post look for Rachel Carren’s summary of the panel discussions.  Video of the panels will also appear shortly on RAM’s site.  In the meantime, here’s Woody Rudin’s take on the events of last weekend:

Woody Rudin writes:

As the events surrounding the opening of the Racine Art Museum’s new exhibition, Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads, played out last weekend, a line from the old comic George Burns kept playing through my head: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family —- in another city.”

Had Burns been able to join the rest of us in Racine for this historic event, I’m sure he would have been smiling at the ironic twist away from his original joke. The Polymer family’s national gathering in this welcoming Wisconsin city had all the attributes the comic held up as ideal; tight embraces and truly felt kisses coming from those who have been honestly missed, broad smiles and generous kvelling over the achievements of others, the continuous gurgle of eager conversation that did not ebb during four full days of activity both at RAM and at the Wingspread conference center. (For those to whom Yiddish is a foreign tongue, the word “kvell” means to gush with immense pride and pleasure over the accomplishments of others, to grin with uncontainable delight when a friend or family member accomplishes something beyond all expectations.)

And those accomplishments were on full and glorious display at the Friday night opening of the first major museum exhibition to feature polymer based art. At the entrance of the show, a dazzling wall installation of over eighty fanciful, imaginative floral and anthropomorphic figures by Jeffrey Lloyd Dever titled “Edensong Revisited- Buzz, Skitter and Crawl.” With eyes popped open after viewing that piece and showcases filled with Jeff’s other creations, visitors then were led into discrete gallery spaces filled with a collection of works from seven other identified “Boundary Breakers” in polymer art history:  Cynthia Toops, Tory Hughes, Kathleen Dustin, Steven Ford and David Forlano, Bonnie Bishoff and J. M. Syron, Pier Voulkos and Elise Winters.  Each of these artists is represented by numerous works, some from within the RAM collection and others on loan. The exhibition concludes with the works of twenty-one other polymer artists included in the “collection project.”

To pay full respect to each of them, let me now call the Roll of Honor in the order they are represented in the checklist that accompanies the exhibition: Barbara Sperling, Debra DeWolff, Maggie Maggio, Wendy Wallin Malinow, Lindly Haunani, Melanie West, Rachel Carren, Judy Kuskin, Dan Cormier, Carol Simmons, Lori Feiss, Ronnie Kirsch, Carl Hornberger, Sarah Shriver, Linda Pedersen, Laura Liska, Gwen Gibson, Nan Roche, Sandra McCaw, Linda Goff and Amy Zinman. That hard-cover volume, Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads, by Rachel Carren, Bruce Pepich and Lena Vigna, is available for purchase through the RAM gift shop.  Included you will find, in addition to all the extraordinary photography done by Penina Meisels,  an historical essay, an interview with Elise Winters, a conversation on the state of polymer art between museum director, Bruce Pepich and curator Lena Vigna, sections devoted to each of the boundary breakers, and a concluding section devoted to the “collection project” artists mentioned above.  Credit the elegant presentation and layout to Dever Designs, work done by Jeff and his design team.

Because museums, like libraries, are places of quietude if not hushed reverence, the commentary I heard most often repeated during the opening night came in single words or in quick phrases —– “Wow! WOW!!….How cool…..Gorgeous……Un(bleep)ing believable.”

Following Friday’s festivities, the extended Polymer family moved en masse to the beautiful Johnson Foundation Wingspread campus for a weekend symposium that brought together artists, museum board members, collectors, and curators. In the midst of a center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, we gawked at the architecture and took advantage of the kind of hospitality and service normally found at royal banquets; endless rounds of food and dessert delicacies, bottomless bottles of lovely wines, hospitality refrigerators stocked full with Dove ice cream bars and other sinful treats. I’m not sure how many non-indulgers there were amongst us; all I can give testimony to is that the belt on my trousers lost a notch as my stomach expanded.

But let’s get back to the serious stuff. Presiding over each of the symposium sessions, the incomparable Executive Director of RAM, Bruce Pepich, aided by his Curator of Exhibitions, Lena Vigna. For two solid days, Bruce and Lena led each person in our conference room through a journey that combined deep thought, raucous laughter, audience participation and emotional bonding. Each of the “boundary breakers” was included on the stage as part of a discussion panel.

Let me share with you some of Bruce’s most trenchant comments. We’re all familiar with the Declaration of Independence and its alluring call to practice the “pursuit of happiness,” which we engaged in full heartedly at Wingspread. Bruce issued a bold call from the stage that I think of now as a communal Declaration of Interdependence. Here’s what he said; “We’re all interconnected now; the museum, the artists and my own professional career. When one of us succeeds, we all benefit.” It was clearly, again in Bruce’s words, “a Kumbaya moment.”

He spoke to us about the idea that with this exhibition at RAM, artistic history was being made, that the word “polymer” has now gained a new level of artistic integrity. “A sea change has occurred because the art has come not just to us, but to other major museums as well.”

Although Bruce provided dozens of spontaneous laugh lines during the hours of discussion we avidly sat through and participated in, the most exuberant guffaws were produced by Cynthia Toops. We were discussing the deadly serious issue of environmental “sustainability,” how artists can contribute to minimizing carbon footprints and environmental healing. That’s when Cynthia raised her hand in the audience and in her most gentle voice proclaimed, “My contribution is that I work very small.” The house literally roared, everyone fully aware of Cynthia’s micro-mosaic masterpieces.

On Sunday, attendees left with the feeling that this was a momentous moment that marked the end of one stage of polymer history and the beginning of the next. We wish all of you could have been there. For those of you who couldn’t attend, there will be audio and video recordings available at a later date. Keep your eye on the Polymer Art Archive for those announcements. And for those who want immediate gratification in print, remember that you can order a copy of the book, Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads, immediately. The pleasure was ours, and will be yours as you flip through each glorious page.

Photo: Mark Wollman, Racine Art Museum

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.