My association with Main Street Arts begins with the show, Sacred Curiosities, running October 13–November 17 at the Clifton Springs, NY gallery. Though the title sounds a bit awkward and mysterious, it is actually quite on the mark.
Since time began some humans have had deep feelings for certain objects, shapes, colors, and “special” things either natural or man made. Archeologists delight in finding certain very special objects among the utilitarian tools of the ancients. There is a longstanding delight in the “cabinet of curiosities” known all over Europe for hundreds of years. Religions literally worship relics, remnants, and anything touched by a deity or saint. And let’s not forget the artifact crowded shelves of any room used by Dr. Sigmund Freud.
For at least a couple of centuries, and expanding rapidly in the very modern age, artists have become great purveyors of objects. From 18th century tromp l’oeil to portraits posed with special toys and accessories, to 20th century Pop Art, collage, found art, and all manner of objects used in and as art (THE urinal!), artists most certainly have found “things” sacred or curious. It is entirely possible today to assemble a massive and fine quality (not to mention important and delightful) collection of art with signage, common objects, dolls, flags, toys, etc as the media and/or the theme. We are so in tune with messages and possessing “things” that the public can now relate to any bits of typography, campaign buttons, newspaper, and ephemera that artists employ.
Artists have learned a myriad of ways to work with objects and milk them for all aspects of value, curiosity, form, patina, and most importantly, symbolism. Not only have artists used existing objects and materials, they have learned to make objects or images that mimic, mock, or play off of special objects. One can now collect genuine outsider art or one can purchase what looks like outsider art from many contemporary artists. It is certainly obvious that one function of art is to MAKE us consider an object as sacred or curious by the mere fact of presenting it as art—forcing the viewer to try and see these aspects when they are presented in gallery or studio venues, framed or mounted to push the notion.
A good question to ponder is how or when an object becomes art, or at least when it gains sacred or curious force. Let’s use an object I have a lot of connections with. There are people who collect and value baseballs with team, player, or game associations. These items can be worth many thousands as the fame and rarity of the autograph rise. As art or objects for the sophisticated, they are lacking almost all value. Some people collect such spheres for the age, style, and patina they demonstrate. Now we are crossing from “baseball” collector value to historic and aesthetic value. The right bunch of these aged brown balls can certainly be an artistic and curious matter.
I have collected and used many baseballs in my art because they have great age, color, and patina. Going even further, I collect a type of baseball that has very special meaning. If any object can be curious and sacred to me, these are the ones. I refer to the electrical or friction tape wrapped balls, mostly from the Great Depression. They are all creative in origin, delightful to look at, and though some might pay highly for them, they are usually found for under a dollar at flea markets and garage sales. However, they go way beyond the value of most ephemera when you consider what I call “emotional content”. This quality exists only in some special objects. It is distinct from great beauty, form, patina. It is similar to the feelings evoked by any toy or doll showing great wear, but with these baseballs it goes even further. Each tape wrapped ball was a desperate move by one child or a group to renew a valuable thing as it decayed. They saved the all important sphere by finding tape, working out how to wrap it (my collection has many styles of this “make do” effort), and only then can play resume. Each one is a monument to poverty, creativity, childhood, and cooperation. With slight effort, one can see them as curious, emotional, and for some, sacred.
Certain “found” or at least “unaltered” objects also fuel the debate about artistic validity. I have worked for years promoting found items and it was often done with a degree of shame. The questions always arose—”I did not MAKE this, so how can I be an artist or take credit for it?”…”How can I join a show of highly talented art makers when I do not have those skills myself?”. How can I defend elevating simple findings to the status of art—curious or sacred—without offering a rationale for my lack of skilled artistic efforts? Do I have to put others down to justify myself? In the war between makers and finders there is the battle of genuine vs. made up, unique vs. copied from others, exploring our material culture vs. the studio hermit. The answer lies in the process and sincerity of the person as well as the simple result. Does the “product” come from serious efforts to bring forth a worthy work? Is the talent (for finding or making) put to good use? Are the pieces found or made excellent in design, form, color, and do they produce enjoyment, thought, debate? All of these are valid on both sides.
Looking at results—the “it is what it is”—is surely an OK way to pass judgment in most cases. If you see it as art, if it evokes feelings about it’s beauty, thoughts about it’s challenges, then it passes muster. Where things get really confusing is when found or existing things are manipulated to make an art object. In other words, what do we value in between a found scrap metal sculpture and a fine oil painting? In this gap we find the too clever, the welded old tools, the patina of found wood, the assemblages, and the old doll head novelties, and so on. Once again, I am shamed to be among the group that employs old things to create evocative art. Partly because I am way better than some of the horrors I see, partly because I am not nearly as good as some that I envy. And the answer lies in a certain generosity of spirit. Unless done with savage insincerity (“I crank out this crap just to make money”), all of it is creative, all of it has some audience, all of it teaches us to compare and contrast to find the best we like. “Sacred Curiosities”—anything that intrigues us, creates feelings of awe, evokes the dark and light of cultures, and impresses us as special objects–is all to the good, worth making, worth looking at, worth living with.
Four of Richard Rockford’s found object pieces are included in “Sacred Curiosities” at Main Street Arts. The exhibition runs through November 17, 2017.