Jesse Sadia, Cataloging Associate for Auction Sales Catalogs, established the staff exhibition program at The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library in 1999 as a means for artists on staff to get to know one another and to create a display of works that their colleagues could enjoy. The first exhibition, Small Works, occupied two bookshelves. It invited artists in the Library to create pieces no larger than 2 x 2 inches. The next year the exhibition was expanded to include all employees of the Frick and became part of the institution’s annual Staff Education Day activities. Twelve years later the program is still going strong.
Sadia commented that the exhibition has developed into a “tool for good morale” among the staff. Participating artists display works tied to a theme selected by Sadia each year. Past exhibitions include Passion Fashion Pfashion, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, and 75 Bottles of Weird on the Wall. Sadia revels in choosing an appropriate and entertaining theme for the annual event.
The 2011 Frick staff exhibition continued the tradition of being an art exhibition created by the staff for the staff. However, some of the works were just too amazing to keep to ourselves! Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonder) focused on the idea of presenting the modern-day cabinet of curiosities. Traditionally, these spaces were filled with objects such as natural history specimens, religious relics, artworks, and antiquities. Linked to the display of the objects in this setting is an unspoken narrative about collecting and those who collect. How did the staff at the Frick reenvision the wonder-room? Sadia took some time out of his busy cataloging schedule to interview a few of the artists who participated in Wunderkammer about their works.
DEAN SMITH LORENZO DE LOS ANGELES
Stack Reconfiguration Manager, Library Conservation Senior Page/Technician, Public Services
Memento Mori, 2011
Digital audio, bubble wrap
Photo credit: Luciano Johnson
JS: After twelve years of organizing the staff art exhibition here at the Frick Art Reference Library, I finally witnessed a collaborative work of two staff members, and it’s about time this happened! How did this collaborative work come about?
LDLA: Dean proposed this collaboration to me during the first week of July, although it had been something that he had thought about for some time. He asked if I could construct a skull, relatively human size, made of bubble wrap, which would contain speakers broadcasting manipulated sounds of bubble wrap bursting. I was very excited by this concept and enthusiastically got to work immediately constructing the skull, while Dean focused on creating the sound elements.
DS: I have long been interested in exploring this kind of thing—objects emitting sound elements and odd juxtapositions of forms and materials (like sharp tools made from velvet flocking or bones made from bubble wrap). So, the basic idea had been in my mind for a while. The idea of a skull that “talks” using the sound of a manipulated sample of popping bubble wrap came fairly easily. I knew I could never pull off the sculptural elements, though, so I asked Lorenzo if he’d be willing to collaborate. The broader tableau emerged from our early conversations and took shape over the next couple of weeks.
JS: The visual elements in this piece—the skull, the bones, the glistening quality of the bubble materials—kind of remind me of the Chauvet Caves in southern France. Now, I know you recently saw Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Were you influenced by this film or by the cave itself while making the sculptures?
LDLA: No, I was not consciously inspired by that film. I had not worked with bubble wrap before as a sculpture medium. I had to try to solve some of the technical or construction aspects first. I was going to make a wire armature but instead, after some experimentation, used spliced pieces of a plastic beverage bottle for the internal support. Layers of wrap were applied on top of that and were held together with packing tape. I laughed and thought of Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull sculpture, once it began to take shape. Perhaps this could evolve as a commentary on the preciousness and high value of that work, but I never ended up discussing this with Dean. We already had a lot of work to do. Once the skull was finished and we discussed the final display, Dean felt that the addition of leg or arm bones would create a more interesting tableau. I agreed and he offered to make them.
Curatorial Assistant, Curatorial
The Face-Off, 2011
Pastel on paper, 12 x 16 inches
Photo credit: Luciano Johnson
JS: When I initially looked at your pastel drawing upon delivery, I thought, “This could have an interesting narrative.” If I may be so bold to ask, Katie, did something significant or outrageous happen last Christmas that made you paint this subject?
KS: I wish the story behind my drawing was as compelling as the one you’ve imagined! It all started by trying to think of something that would fit the “cabinet of curiosities” theme of this year’s staff show. At the Art Students League, I take a figure drawing course on Tuesday nights and have generated a fair amount of work from that, but I didn’t feel as though I had anything that was quite suitable. So, I started rummaging around my apartment for unusual items that might work in a still life, and I remembered the little Virgin Mary made out of soap that sits on the corner of my desk. She was a gift from my roommate, who was doing dissertation research in Mexico City last year. Apparently, there was a knickknack shop that sold mini-“sculptures” in every possible shape imaginable, all made of soap. Although the Virgin seemed unusual enough by herself, I then remembered that I had a mini-Nutcracker, also a little gag gift from a friend, which I received just before we went to see Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut at BAM last December. This ballet is a send-up of the traditional Nutcracker, and it practically had me rolling in the aisles. Anyway, I thought the Nutcracker, as a kind of hallmark of the garish, overcommercialized side of Christmas, facing off against the serene, pure-white Virgin would make a funny contrast. So, in a more direct answer to your question, maybe the humor of the performance I saw last holiday season did somehow sneak in a subconscious way into my drawing, which is, of course, meant to be lighthearted.
Manager Digital and Reprographics, Library Conservation
Compendiums of Gentlemanliness, 2009-ongoing
Pen and ink drawings, digital prints, Dimensions variable
Photo credit: Donald David
Assistant Graphic Designer/Digital Specialist, Library Conservation
Sophisticated Meat Machine, 2011
Print, digital, video 8 1/2 x 11 inches
Photo credit: Luciano Johnson
JS: Both of your works are doing something similar even though they are so very different from each other. Funny thing is I can’t quite put my finger on it yet. Would you care to elaborate?
DD and GK: (silence).
JS: Okay, so much for prodding. Your pieces in the show are both interactive. Donald, you invite the viewer to leaf through three small pamphlets, which turn out to be “A series of instructions for the menseful, lepid, and well-rounded individual,” while you, George, via three different QR codes, beckon the viewer to witness three subjects on the Web as they perform specific tasks. Can you talk about the affinity you have for doing interactive work?
DD: Similarities. Both pieces involve working with another person, i.e., I worked with a writer, George worked with offbeat individuals. Both works incorporate typography and design elements based on graphic art. Both pieces have an element of humor and satire. Both works are “portable.” My pamphlets can be carried in your back pocket. George’s work can be viewed on smartphones.
JS: Hmmm, any comments George?
GK: Oh yeah, and both pieces involve Donald! Just because you have to hit a button doesn’t necessarily make it interactive. All good work should be interactive.
Assistant Conservator, Library Conservation
Historia Nationalis, 2011
Mixed media, 13 x 14 x 5 inches
Photo credit: Luciano Johnson
JS: An artist/mentor (who is no longer with us) once said to me, “As an artist, you have to surround yourself with things that you like.” Lo and behold, much later in life, another artist friend of mine cautioned me and said, “If you can’t wear it or eat it, don’t buy it.” Might you have any personal “words of wisdom” related to these that you may be able to add to my list?
MM: I don’t know really. I am torn. Part of me would love to be a minimalist, but I love all of my things, and I suppose I am inspired by them. I decided long ago not to acquire things that have no functional use. I’ve just expanded what I interpret functional to mean.
JS: You are full of surprises, Melanie. Last year, you chose to show a hefty chain made from your collection of bottle caps. This year, the antithesis, a structurally sound, carefully arranged precious book of natural “curiosities.” How do you even begin working?
MM: I just start collecting, and as the collection of "stuff" grows, I try to think of how I can use it. With the box of plant items, it started with the original box from a doctor’s satchel, which I found at a flea market. I often buy things simply to fix them, and this box was in pieces, moldy, missing some of the vials, the lining pulled out, the cover cloth peeling off, and the handle destroyed by red rot. I fixed it and then thought of what those vials might contain.
JS: What happens, then, when you have an initial idea for a specific flea market find, you start working on it, and before you know it, the idea just doesn’t work. Do you put it away, or do you leave it hanging around in your studio?
MM: I don’t usually start with an idea. I start with the object and live with it and let it evolve over time. Sometimes a lot of time passes before I do anything with an object. There are a lot of potential art pieces evolving at any given time in my space.
How to Be Happy Though Travelling, India, 2010–11 Primeval Life in Sri Lanka, 2010
Pen and colored pencils on paper 7 3/4 x 12 inches
Photo credit: Luciano Johnson
JS: Every year, I always look forward to your art entry for the staff art exhibition because from the time that you started sharing your journals with us I’ve found them to be humorously and deliciously informative. Which comes first in your process, the sketched vignettes or the lunch and/or dinner menus that you record each day?
EM: I usually do the drawing the next morning or afternoon. Then, Richard appends the menus. We have to keep it going daily or else we forget.
JS: Oh, I didn’t know that Richard was a part of this practice, another collaborative work. I like it even better. When did it become an intrinsic part of your daily activity, and for curiosity’s sake, could you see some of the rendered images materializing into actual paintings, which in the end would require a whole different sense of artistic commitment
EM: We started this about thirty years ago, concentrating after a few years on travel alone. We make a major trip once or twice a year. It never occurred to me to develop them beyond what they are.
JS: Thirty years?!? Forget about paintings. You have enough material for a book! These journals should be published, an autobiography, perhaps, or a recipe book! Have you ever prepared something at home that’s based on a special meal from one of your trips? I heard you’re a very good cook.
EM: Many people have urged me to publish, but none of them were publishers. I don’t recall cooking anything inspired by something encountered on a trip. Sometimes the food notations are strongly negative.
JS: Regardless, I feel rather fortunate to be able to have your work in the staff exhibition, Edgar. I am fond of its simplicity and directness. No pretentions whatsoever. As far as the publishing is concerned, I’d like to think it will happen sooner than you imagine, and with regards to the cooking, it’s unfortunate for me because I was just about ready to invite myself for dinner. Any parting thoughts?
EM: Each year I look forward to the staff art exhibition and enjoy having colleagues at the Library who are so talented in such a variety of ways. Thanks for all your help in shepherding us around.
Jesse Sadia, Cataloging Associate for Auction Sales Catalogs, and Suz Massen, Chief of Public Services