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Backup of photo from NYT art review by Ken Johnson, March 30, 2006.
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Tex.
A Model of "Camouflaged History."

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: April 23, 2006
Latest Update: April 23, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Ericson and Ziegler's
[Engaged] Art at M.I.T.
By Ken Johnson
SOURCE: New York Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: Original URL, consulted: April 24, 2006.

March 30, 2006
Art Review
Ericson and Ziegler's Interventionist [Engaged] Art at M.I.T.

Highlights added by jeanne.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 25 A favorite fantasy of the art vanguard is the idea of intervention: the artist introduces something into the cultural mainstream that may or may not be recognized as art, but causes those who see it to reconsider and, ideally, to change their relationship to conventional values.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler were influential collaborators in social interventionist art, beginning officially as a team in 1985 and continuing until Ms. Ericson died of brain cancer in 1995. Their career is the subject of an illuminating time capsule of an exhibition now at the M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center here. "America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler" was organized by Bill Arning, a curator at the List, and Ian Berry, a curator at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, where the exhibition opened last fall.

Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler, who were students at the Kansas City Art Institute in the mid-1970's and attended the California Institute of Arts in the early 80's, did not usually make objects for display in museums and galleries. They preferred nonpermanent projects in settings away from art institutions. The ones involving private homeowners are especially amusing. Once they paid a homeowner to allow them to remove all the doors in a house and stack them in the living room. Another agreed to mow only half of his lawn and groom half of his large yard for a period of time, to the consternation of his neighbors.

Dada may be what started this sort of thing, but Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler were not absurdist pranksters. (At CalArts their mentors were Michael Asher, John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler, conceptualists known for their wit but not for extravagantly provocative gestures.) Their major projects involved extensive research into the history and current affairs of particular places, and the goal was to raise the social and political consciousnesses of the local residents.

In the exhibition at M.I.T., a house model painted in a colorful camouflage pattern represents a project executed in 1991 as part of an arts festival in Charleston, S.C. Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler asked an elderly man and his daughter who lived just outside an officially designated historic district to let them paint their house in camouflage, using colors approved by the city's historic preservation review board. The commercially produced paints had names like Moorish Maroon Red and Confederate Uniform Gray, and the project, pointedly titled "Camouflaged History," became a lesson about history and economic, social and racial divisions.

While working on "Camouflaged History," Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler kept local residents informed about what they were doing and why in a series of community meetings. In an interview in this show's catalog, Mr. Ziegler recalls that after the festival, the immediate neighbors favored keeping the new color scheme. But residents in the nearby historic district objected, calling it an eyesore. Perhaps they also disliked its implicit exposure of differences in wealth and privilege between neighboring communities.

Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler did not refuse to work in museums. In 1990, while engaged in a project for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they discovered that its curators favored different shades of white for the exhibition walls. So they created an arrangement of bottles containing those shades, each etched with the name used by the museum's painting crew: "Rubin White," "Riva White," "McShine White." The current show extends that idea by painting different walls in the gallery with the curators' favorite whites, and identifying them with discreet signs. One thought this prompts is about how power can be both all-pervasive and subtle to the point of invisibility.

Among the more tangible works on view is an antique wooden Dutch cupboard that displays a full set of fine, gold-trimmed white china, produced in 1993 for an international art exhibition in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Look closely and you discover that the dishes have printed on them in fine script the names of more than 800 types of products made by Akzo Chemicals, a company based in Arnhem (now Akzo Nobel). They include sealants, acne control medication, poultry antigens and impregnating products. This creates a nice tension between refined traditionalism and a vaguely frightening industrialism.

Backup of photo from NYT art review by Ken Johnson, March 30, 2006.
Mel Zieger, Austin, Tex.

"The dishes in this Dutch cupboard have the names of products made by Akzo Chemicals."

The problem with presenting art of this sort in a gallery is that almost nothing is clear without a good deal of explanation. But if you read all the labels or better yet, the excellent catalog you get a clear picture of an enterprise marked by intelligence, earnestness, diligence and optimistic pragmatism. Whether Ms. Ericson and Mr. Ziegler managed to change much in the real world, they remain inspirational role models for the wonkier conceptualists and social workers in today's art world.

"America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler" is on view through April 9 at the M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center, Wiesner Building, 20 Ames Street, Cambridge, Mass.; (617) 253-4680.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Discussion Questions

  1. What refrence was jeanne alluding to when she added the alternative wording "Engaged" to Ericson and Ziegler's "Interventionist" Art?

    In 2005, a wonderful version of California history came out with the title the Art of Engagement. The history reviews art throughout our early and more recent history that challenges the directions, culture, and values that were shaping that history. In 19th Century French Literature, Paul Verlaine spoke of the poet as the appropriate pilot of the ship of state, at least as I recall.

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