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Christina Warzecha The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University Quarantine CRew Project 2020

Panoramic image of MFA installation Crease, 2016, earthenware fired in reduction and oxidation
For years I’ve thought about the linkages between my professional work in museums and my studio practice. I wanted to use this opportunity to expound on the crossover that occurs when I work within an art institution or in my studio.

Contemporary craft media is central to my professional interests and artistic work. The history and role of craft expressed through mechanisms of exhibition display is a framework that informs my studio practice. I strive to create fluid compositions that investigate space, explore form through material plasticity, and create a balance between organization and intuition.

As a museum professional and visual artist, I enjoy processes that allow me to be simultaneously creative and analytical. I have been fortunate to work in museums around the country. Art handling at the Block Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) enables me to apply my detail-oriented sensibility within museological contexts. One of my roles at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) was to write label text for newly acquired contemporary objects, connecting them to the KMAC’s rich collection of folk art. This experience provided an opportunity for me to think about how material histories are indexed within didactics. Performing collection inventory and object research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) allowed me to track the lineage of objects, consider how objects are cared for, and track the temporal changes that objects endure within archival contexts. Curating exhibitions at the Rockford University Art Gallery gave me the freedom to explore the intimate way that artists navigate exhibition spaces while building solo exhibitions. Each of these opportunities inform how I think about histories of art and craft, along with how objects are handled physically or conceptually in museological contexts.

Crease before installation, during installation, and installed

OBJECT LABELS

Object labels are often overlooked by museum visitors. The information that object labels provide functions as a source of material study for my practice. I take pride in my ability to guess an artistic medium before reading the label. When examining new objects that I am enamored with, I also take a picture of the object label. Documenting object labels alongside objects they describe allows me to credit the artist and to recall what I learned about the material histories of the object.

The following is the label copy that accompanies my work, Because you left pants on my doorstep. They are all personal items or belonged to people close to me, nestled in ceramic forms made from clay that I dug at artist residencies.

Image: Detail of Because you left pants on my doorstep, 2018 · sleeve of childhood smock · skirt cast off by a former friend · jeans worn during psych unit stay · bandana obtained along religious youth pilgrimage · necktie from clown costume · remaining lingerie from a past relationship · underwear stained during menstruation · pajamas worn thin · shirt shared by infant sisters · pocket of WWII vet’s jacket · Halloween costume worn when drugged without consent · t-shirt from a friend with benefits · burlap trail that guided imaginary travels · dish towel from a Polish kitchen · satin earned by a graduate · pocket holding an old carpenter’s toothpick · canvas screen printed by an artist · nightgown featured in games of dress-up · shirt worn during a serious allergic reaction · pants left on my doorstep

Because you left pants on my doorstep is a piece that began as an investigation of the lives of materials. Clay is a laborious medium. With process-based media, the journey to a finished product is often more rewarding than the product itself. Materials live a life before they become art objects and another life after they are absorbed into art contexts.

COLLECTION STORAGE

Collections are curated. They tell the story that collectors or institutions want to tell. It might not be the whole story. My website is also curated. It tells the story I want to tell and presents the work I am proud of rather than the mistakes that I hide.

Although I recognize that choosing to perform labor is a privilege, the labor of repetitive making feels like freedom to me. The visceral physicality of clay challenges me to be messy, improvise, and let go of the paralyzing expectations that I put on myself. When creating, collecting, and amassing the ceramic objects that will become large installations, I do not always have a composition in mind. The resulting mass leads to an idiosyncratic organizational structure as a way to organize my collection. This mode of working is evident in my piece titled, A Spatial Conversation.

Image on left: Detail of A Spatial Conversation, 2014, Earthenware and low fire glaze, 117 x 117 x 4.5in

Clay sketches accumulate in my studio. Sometimes they turn into something, like squeeze, unearth. More often, they sit in a box that I glance at a few times a year. As a collection, they are invaluable to me. They are my practice, my mistakes, my mark-making. They are my references, my resources, my institution.

Image on right: squeeze, unearth; 2018; stoneware and low fire glaze; 48 x 84 x 3in

ACCESSIBILITY

The haptic and visual accessibility of art informs my studio practice. The standardized removal of touch within institutions creates a boundary between art objects and viewers. Although fragility is a practical concern, I prefer to connect with viewers by providing a multi-sensorial exploration of ceramic objects. Through touch, viewers are invited to actively explore material nuances and the textures of a given form. Unlike drawings and paintings, the oils from the touch of human hands will not damage a ceramic surface. If anything, more value and comprehension comes from handling a ceramic object.

In the work, Please Touch, I encourage an intimate experience with materials by allowing the audience to become dynamic participants in the process. Touch mimics the unpredictability inherent in the clay process by allowing for the constant evolution of design and release of control. Those who engage are invited to manipulate the design within given parameters that address issues of accessibility within ocularcentric art contexts.

Image: Detail of Please Touch, 2016, stoneware and porcelain, 96 x 192 x 6in

THE EXHIBITION

When visiting a museum or gallery, I tend to be more curious about how an object is installed, rather than the object itself. Because of this curiosity, and my experience as an art handler, I am often able to foresee issues that may arise during the installation process. While building work in the studio, I keep a theoretical exhibition space in my mind. Creating non-traditional ceramic work means that my serial objects will not operate according to traditional parameters of utility or display. Methods of installation are considered with each new piece. Within exhibition contexts, clay is transformed from material to medium and no longer subject to the confines of a utilitarian purpose.

Even with experience, unpredictable incidents often occur when working with clay. Its character can change during processes of forming and firing. I encourage these instances, as they expose the nature of the material. Whether I choose to accept or abandon the traditional history of clay varies with each installation. Repetition is a part of histories of production pottery and mechanized slip casting. In contrast, I use repetition to create a suite of fallible handmade objects that work in tandem to create a cohesive composition. Clay has the ability to create vast intimacy; not only through the space it encompasses, but with the weight, gravity, and profundity of its presence.

DOCUMENTATION

Ceramics and photography have the ability to stop time. They emphasize negative space, outlines, a lack that is filled with possibility. They capture the silence and weight of a material. Some of my recent work lives purely in digital form. I compose wet clay forms and document the compositions (pictured above and below).

Photography serves a valuable purpose within my practice, as vital as a kiln, by allowing me to test the limits of clay and explore its transformative possibilities. Through documentation, I am able to prioritize experimentation over completion by showing clay in its raw, wet state. To me, the most alluring and sensual part of the clay medium is its process, not a vitrified ceramic object.

Images from Working in the Wild series, 2018, stoneware and local Pennsylvania clay

Museum and gallery employment is essential to my artistic practice. Experiencing how others handle the complexity of art installation is just as inspiring to me as visiting an exhibition of an artist I admire. I have a rare and valuable view of the backside of famous works of art, a perspective that illuminates trials and errors. There is camaraderie between art handlers and artists. Many artists experience fruitless moments in the studio, and in those moments art handling gives me the creative restoration that I need. Like clay, my relationship with making is malleable.