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art review: Colorful America Presented in List Gallery

Talk by Artist Mel Ziegler Illuminates Themes of Exhibit

By Natania Antler

America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Retrospective Exhibition at List Visual Arts Center

Feb. 9 to April 9, 2006

Trekking out in the cold to E15 to hear a talk by an artist was the last thing I felt like doing as Friday evening rolled around. Even so, I got myself to the Bartos Theater and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Mel Ziegler’s talk was interesting enough to hold my attention, so much so that I was disappointed when it ended. Ziegler spoke about his twenty year collaboration with Kate Ericson, which tragically ended when she died of cancer in 1995. The fruits of this collaboration are now on display in the List Visual Arts Center Gallery. In his talk, Ziegler illuminated the themes, justification, and thought processes behind much of their work.

My favorite piece Ziegler described was “If You Would See The Monument Look Around.” Ziegler and Ericson borrowed many gardening tools from the staff that maintains Central Park, painted the handles bronze, printed postcards with an image of the tools artistically arranged, and distributed the postcards around Central Park. In doing this, the artists avoided imposing on the park with a showy bronze statue, but instead drew attention to the park itself and the people who maintain it.

In contrast, a work called “Loaded Text,” done in 1989, was less subtle and raised the ire of many residents of Durham, NC, where the piece was displayed. It featured the “two artists handcopying the 65-page text of a downtown-revitalization plan for Durham, N.C., onto one of the city’s badly cracked sidewalks,” according to the List Web site. Ziegler said that the pair learned their lesson and later held public meetings whenever they planned to do something that would affect a community.

“Camouflaged History,” done in 1991, is another of my favorites. The artists painted a camouflage pattern onto a house in a historic district of Charleston, with each color from the approved palette under preservation laws. One can see a model on display at the exhibit, where the names of the colors on the house are listed, including the best of all, “Huguenot Mustard!”

The day after the talk, I went to see the exhibit. Across from the main gallery is a room with two screens displaying slideshows of the artists’ work: most of these pieces were temporary large-scale works, many in the public realm. One should spend some time in this room to get a feel for what these artists cared about before entering the main exhibition area, three well-organized rooms where one can see the work up close.

One such piece, “Statue of Liberty” (1988) consisted of several clear jars of paint, with the name of each color sandblasted on the front of the jar. The jars were then arranged vertically, each color corresponding to the various colors on the Statue of Liberty. I found it to be a nice contrast to some of their other works that play with the traditional ideas of monuments and color palettes.

The exhibit also included some sketches done on napkins of works that were never realized because of Ericson’s death. My favorite of these, which depicted a whimsical house with water spurting out the top (“house fountain”), brought a touch of sadness because it reminded that the collaboration is no more.

As a layman in world of art, I found that Ziegler’s talk really helped me to understand what was happening in some of the pieces. It is possible to appreciate the art on its own terms without the context that he gave in the talk, but it helped me to have someone point out important themes of their work. I recommend reading up on the pair before going to the exhibit — or at the very least reading the placards and other printed explanations to get a context for this fascinating, but at times obscure, art. Ziegler’s next talk will be on Feb. 25.