Q & A with Nora Atkinson, Curator of “Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard” – Part II

Posted February 10, 2011 in Blog

Nora Atkinson, Curator at Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, curated the current major exhibition, Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. She was kind enough to answer some questions over email about the show. This is the second part of the interview we published last week; to read Part I, click here.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part I: #16 Italian Shoes. Plaster, gold and acrylic. 9” x 16” x 25”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

HCCC: Many of the works, especially those in Part I, were made prior to the housing market collapse and bank closings in 2008. With the current state of our global economy, this exhibit is timely in exploring issues of commodity and value. Were you planning this exhibit prior to these events, or was it important to stage the exhibit now because of the events? How do you see the work relating to our contemporary culture of corporate greed and excess?

NA: Recent events were definitely a consideration in planning the exhibition. My first conversations with Lisa about showing the work came just after the collapse, and the work struck a cord, not only in its thematic content as an exploration of value, but as a genuine record of the events as they happened—from the impetus for the work, the artist’s search for a house and struggle with the cost of living versus the cost of gold and of making, to the collapse and subsequent rise of gold’s price, which she recorded in her works, even as it became more and more expensive to purchase the material. Although in some ways the timing of the series and exhibition were coincidental, The Gold Standard really goes back to the core of what it means to be valuable–which is something we all can relate to and have probably thought very much about in these times. Although we likely would have done the show regardless of the crash, it gave it a certain urgency and potency.

The exhibition is a consideration of the almost random association of importance and value we assign—be it through the our ability to buy shares in the stock market or symbols of status—in our society, and Lisa’s comparisons run from the obvious to the subtle. I love the inclusion of her favorite, and very expensive, Italian leather shoes, which by their unpretentious appearance beg the question: What is the value of a good pair of walking shoes? Why shouldn’t it be the same as Christian Louboutins or Manholo Blahniks? And almost every object in the exhibition carries with it that kind of question, from the absurdity of a Tiffany ring that is prized so highly as to outweigh its own materials, to the comparative worthlessness of a vacuum cleaner or a sink, with both its utility and art-symbolic Duchampian value. Through her cold meticulous calculations, Lisa brings out the irrationality in measuring these objects and ideas by the same system, and the objects are so ubiquitous and charged, enhanced by their almost monumental appearance in plaster and gold, as to take on a moralistic dimension.

What the work really gets across is the multifaceted nature of value, and how skewed it can become in contemporary capitalist society, where markets are run and value is assigned more by desire and perception than by need. There are many metaphors in the exhibition that speak to our cultural values–the value of an honest day’s work, of history and provenance, of sentimentality, of knowledge–and Lisa plays these values back and forth. The painting she casts, for instance, in Part I, is a garage-sale amateur painting, but it is up to us to decide if it seems to be paired with the proper ratio of gold. It looks like something we might value, but we can’t quite tell. And the real question is what is the value of art? And can anyone really tell? Who makes that decision? That same question is echoed in Part III, and all of the parts play off each other. It’s this kind of questioning–breaking down and building up the concept of value, so that we divorce status symbols, intrinsic and cultural value, and importantly, perceived worth, from each other and analyze them each separately–which really speaks to the nature of the cult of the dollar, and our current financial crisis.

HCCC: While addressing issues of commodity, the exhibit also comments on institutional authority, such as the power museums have in displaying objects and placing value on certain items over others. What is the responsibility of the institutions displaying historic and art objects in relation to the value of those same items?

NA: Everyone who works in the museum field understands, at least to some degree, the influence we have over the worlds of both academia and the market, and the responsibility that comes with it. Museums vary wildly in their size and scope–from tiny cabinets of curiosity, to authoritative institutions–and within that range, there are varying levels of authoritative voice, but the concept is nearly always there. Museums, by and large, are educational institutions and collectors of our shared history, so the expectation follows that the information they convey, in so far as it can be, should be well researched, truthful, and more or less unbiased. It is what places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology play upon, and also what Lisa, not without some humor, places a critical—or at least questioning—eye upon in her work.

As Lisa points out, there is certain sentimental quality and fond appeal to the kind of strange small museums that spring up out of the passion of an earnest or idiosyncratic collector, and we know better than to take the information we find there for granted, but it is harder to call into question the elegant laser-cut labels of a respected institution like the Met or the Smithsonian. More than just that, the choice of which pieces to exalt—through accession and display—as part of our history, the authenticity of artifacts, their provenance, and speculation about their use and meaning, are all vital to our cultural patrimony, and for the most part dictated by such institutions. To say that these museums play an important role in both the cultural and monetary value of objects would be understating the case, and the institution’s responsibility here, as the guardian of that trust, is to always maintain the highest ethical and intellectual standards in making decisions about the objects it houses and the information it conveys. Losing that trust is not only a loss to the credibility of the institution, but can be tantamount to losing a part of our cultural history.

Of course, there are many types of museums, each of which deals with this issue in different ways, but despite these technical differences, almost invariably, the museum is a safeguard of our collective material history, and artifacts in museum collections are the records we rely upon, so the responsibility remains the same. Given all of that, the notion is particularly interesting in the field of contemporary art, where a historic precedent isn’t so much present, and the choice to show (or not) an artist in a major institution can make or break a career. In the case of a contemporary art institution, museum professionals actually affect and, to a large degree, effectively write the history of art for the future by assigning the value of present day artworks.

Exhibition Information

  • Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard
    On view at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
    4848 Main Street. Houston, Texas 77002
    January 22 – May 28
  • To view images of the Opening Reception and Lisa Gralnick’s Gallery Talk, visit our Facebook Page
  • To read Part I of our interview with Nora Atkinson, click here