The Unknown Artist, a group exhibition curated by Lucy Cotter at PNCA’s Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, is an investigation of the value of art and its intricate relationship to authorship and visibility. Cotter brings together ceramics and textiles from the collection of the CCAC (formerly held by the now shuttered Museum of Contemporary Craft) along with work by contemporary artists from Portland and around the globe. The show reveals new patterns of meaning and deep connections between seemingly disparate practices.
The Unknown Artist might sound like a straightforward attempt to elevate traditional crafts by anonymous makers to the rarefied level of “fine art,” where objects and their makers are imbued with conceptual and monetary weight by institutions and markets. But Cotter’s message is not one of simple reversal or assimilation. The Unknown Artist reflects her in-depth research into the objects on view and the institutional and cultural contexts within which they and their makers exist. Her practice as an artist and curator is informed by her academic experience (Cotter has a PhD in Cultural Analysis and has written a book titled Reclaiming Artistic Research), which is evident in the show at every level. From the conceptual works rich with art historical references and process-driven methods to the thorough, professional booklet accompanying the exhibition, The Unknown Artist is highly intellectual and complex.
But this sort of rigor has a tender underbelly, the curiosity and compassion that inspires such inquiries. In a conversation I had with Cotter at the gallery in advance of the show’s opening, her enthusiasm for the works and her interpretations of their interconnected significance was obvious. The show’s title is adapted from Yanagi Soetsu’s book The Unknown Craftsman, a series of essays written from the 1920s to the 1950s, which posited the value of traditional Japanese craft during a time of rapid industrialization and sparked a folk art revival movement called mingei. Cotter told me that Yanagi’s work, along with the ceramic practices of his contemporaries Hamada Shoji and Bernard Leach, sparked ideas about how our collective culture values making and craftsmanship, and what it really means for an artist to, as she puts it, “think through making.”
Cotter’s curatorial process began with a group of objects that echo the aesthetic values of mingei, which she found amongst CCAC’s vast collection of over 1,300 objects. These include a dark, angular piece built of stacked forms that evoke a humanoid figure in the Constructivist style; pots that resemble work from the British and American ceramics revival of the 1950s, which was heavily influenced by Japanese concepts like wabi sabi; and a curious form, dated 1954, that reminded me of the Egyptian goddess Hathor but were more likely a sort of abstract formal gesture of the era. Nearby are a bolt of tweedy moss-green wool and a bold striped tapestry, a Nigerian basket, and a South American ceramic figurine. All of these works are attributed to “Artist Unknown” in the show booklet. Some of the names were once known, but were lost over the years; some were never recorded in the first place. The standouts of this group were the wool fabric, its fine multicolored weave draped casually against a wall in serpentine ripples, and a top-heavy vase with tiny, charming handles that resembled ears.
There is an obvious connection between these works, situated on pedestals in the main area of the gallery, and the works by Hungarian artist, Zsolt Asztalos situated just inside the gallery entrance. Untitled (from Unknown Artists III, 2014-2019) appears to be a pile of old European paintings, leaned up against a wall (and each other) haphazardly, draped with sheets of brown craft paper and accessorized with a few planks of cheap plywood sitting on the floor beside them. This tableau is partly an illusion — the stacks of paintings are photo prints on several large boards or canvases, but the paper and plywood are real.
The paintings featured in Azstalos’ work are the kind of generic 18th and 19th century portraits and landscapes that will be familiar to anyone who has visited a Western art museum, easily identified by period hair and clothing styles, romanticized European topography, and elaborate gilded frames. But they are also by unknown artists; the originals sit in institutions gathering dust, forgotten and ignored. Another work by Asztalos from the same series lurks at the back of the gallery, a utility shelf scattered with bubble-wrapped paintings, extension cords, framing hardware, and soiled white conservator gloves. For such hoary subject matter, these works struck me as particularly poignant. They remind the viewer of the labor and love that went into works that are now deemed unimportant within the grand story of art history, and so remain unknown and unseen.
European art history reappears in Aram Lee’s A Dissonance of Landscapes (2019). This video performance shows a group of people traveling by boat through the canals of Amsterdam carrying “export winter landscape paintings” from the city’s Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum), which contains the spoils of the Netherlands’ colonial exploits and touts itself as “a journey through a mysterious, exotic territory.” The paintings were made by Cantonese artists in the 19th century to satisfy a European market, based on imported Dutch prints and drawings. Lee, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, puts a literal spotlight on the uneasy occupants of this contemporary vessel, whose antique cargo falls into some undefinable category between “art object” and, well, just an object. Similarly, their video journey never brings them to a destination, looping endlessly through the darkened city environs to a soundtrack of gurgling water.
A Dissonance of Landscapes is an example of how the artists in the exhibition engage with identity in political context. Cotter explains that they “bring up painful questions and expose art as part of the colonial project.” Contemporary colonization is also addressed in Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Mirror Shields project (2016). Luger designed the titular shields for protesters at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, and created a publicly accessible video tutorial showing how to make the shields from cheap, everyday materials. The shields, based on similar items used in Ukrainian demonstrations, force riot police to confront their own menacing reflections, providing a sort of psychological offensive as well as a physical defense. Within the white cube of the gallery, video of the shields at the Standing Rock demonstrations and examples of the DIY masonite constructions encourage the viewer to think about the conditions and contexts of their own identity. Though Luger provides the concept and instructions for his project, the execution is left to the dozens of unnamed makers who created their own shields. In this way, Luger’s role as artist and author is complicated, and connects his work with Yanagi’s ideas of mingei in The Unknown Craftsman.
Reflective materials reappear in Mami Takahashi’s Seeing You/Seeing Me series (2014), photographs that depict the artist posing in nondescript locations around Portland covered with silver Mylar-like material from head to knee. This gesture is the artist’s metaphorical way of “refus(ing) to represent a culture” and also a visual allusion to the imbalance between the monetary value of art and the cultural devaluing of the artist.
Ideas about artistic identity and value are handled with less clarity by London based artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, in their video and drawings for a project titled 75 Watt. The collaborative duo set out to design an object whose manufacture would induce specific movements in the factory workers who assembled it, but the resulting “dance” shown in their video is obviously choreographed to provide an entertaining spectacle for the audience as opposed to their purported concern for workers’ physical experience. As a former assembly-line worker myself, I found the piece to be trivializing, as well as an insufficient challenge to the economic structures the artists claim to critique. But perhaps that is partly a result of the work’s age — made in 2013, 75 Watt addresses a political world that seems quaint compared to our current reality.
The show opened this month at a singularly strange moment for the arts and for the world at large, but one that resonates with Cotter’s curatorial message in a way that makes the show feel almost urgent. The current threat of pandemic has already had staggering effects on the art world (to say nothing of the world at large), resulting in the closure of galleries, museums, and other institutions across the country. Artists find themselves in a more precarious position than ever before. As freelance gigs dry up and shows are cancelled, artists are left with even less of a safety net given our country’s habitual lack of investment in the arts. Of course, The Unknown Artist has been affected as well: Cotter’s planned schedule of artist workshops and performances have been cancelled and the CCAC is now officially closed to the public.
Cotter, who grew up in Ireland and studied at the University of Amsterdam, had similar existential insecurities in mind when she began putting the show together. In her curator’s statement, she says that working with the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which was absorbed by PNCA’s CCAC after the institution closed in 2016, raised “questions about sustainability, the vulnerability of art and the reimagining of possible futures.” Cotter didn’t live in Portland when the MoCC closed (she moved here around two years ago), so she was not witness to the frustration and drama that accompanied it. For those who remember that institution’s demise, this exhibition’s failure to address that painful process might be disappointing. But Cotter is not unaware of the general instability of the arts here and around the world. When I spoke with her during the show’s installation, she observed that Europe’s traditionally well-funded arts infrastructures were beginning to break apart, increasingly resembling the impoverished state of the arts in the US, as European political opinions shift toward the right.
Cotter remains optimistic: “We have to see that this is also a moment for possibility… When resources dry up you have to decide what is important…I’m very interested in art’s place in the world and where it intersects with other discourses, particularly politics.” Through art and craft practices “you can challenge frameworks of knowledge in a way other (disciplines) can’t.” She sees this potential for art to act as a unique “seedbed for critical thinking” as part of the reason art is integral to society. She also recognizes that the sustainability of the art world is an increasingly important subject. “Making sustainable exhibitions means finding new ways of thinking,” whether that means regional specificity or working within existing collections as she has done with this exhibition.
New ways of thinking are the order of the day, in art and in every other aspect of human life. The Unknown Artist doesn’t posit a grand vision of a sustainable art world, but it offers points of departure for honest conversation about the role of the artist in confusing times. The works gathered here proclaim the importance of recognizing and respecting one other as individuals who are stumbling in and out of our various and overlapping identities as artists, curators, collectors, and spectators.
The unfortunate irony of The Unknown Artist is the possibility that the exhibition itself may be permanently inaccessible to viewers. CCAC and PNCA are now closed to the public as a precaution against COVID-19 outbreaks, and for the time being, the works can be seen only through the institution’s Instagram account. In this respect, the show offers the chance for another important dialogue: how do the arts proceed in this time of social distancing and imminent economic disaster? How do we look at art now, and how does a “virtual” art exhibition change viewers’ experience? Will artists find increased exposure through such platforms or will their work get lost in the overcrowded visual environment of the internet? The Unknown Artist engages with questions of sustainability and visibility in the art world of a few weeks ago. How do its observations apply to the art world at this new moment of catastrophic crisis?