The Art of Arrangement

From curators and interior designers to photographers and stylists, and even you and me; we have all arranged objects in an aesthetic manner; whether it be paintings, furniture, or family photos on the refrigerator. Sometimes arrangements are purely for visual pleasure such as the mixing and matching of pillows on a sofa; we find complementary connections in the color, pattern, texture, size, and shape of objects and place them together based on our aesthetic preferences. However, particularly in the fine art world, arrangement can go beyond the decorative and into the realm of conceptual.

Three artists Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, and Judy Pfaff, renowned for their artwork involving the act of arrangement, will participate in a group show The Order of Things at the Barnes Foundation, this May, that will both celebrate and critique the philosophy surrounding assemblage, arrangement, and collecting within the institution of the museum.

The Barnes, to no surprise, is a perfect host for such an exhibition. Established in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes; the collection, a mix of modern and old master paintings, furniture, metalwork, and ceramics, was uniquely arranged according to color, shape and size, disregarding the museum standards of chronology or art history. The result of this freedom of arrangement? A beautifully quirky museum.

Like the installations artists featured in The Order of Things, Mr. Barnes saw connections between objects in his collection and created a dialogue between objects that would not traditionally be displayed together; in a sense creating a “new” work of art. Though it is certainly refreshing to see art and objects arranged so liberally, others find issue with the fact that with Mr. Barnes’ dying wish – to never rearrange the collection, arguing that these works will never have an opportunity to be part of a “new” discussion. This concept, of a stagnant or “dead” collection is the inspiration behind Mark Dion’s installation for the show.

Dion’s choice of butterfly nets, botanical trimmers, microscopes and other gadgets of scientific specimen gathering and storage in his installation are no coincidence. Though the arrangement mimics Barnes’, the underlying message, however is a critique on collecting. Dion pointedly explains the concept behind his piece.

“In natural history, collecting is a destructive act because it literally kills things, Once Barnes collected his works and froze them in a very particular context, the art is not allowed any other kinds of discussions.”

Dion is famous for displaying objects of historical “insignificance” within the museum. Utilizing historical display methods such as the cabinet of curiosities and apothecary jars. Like Mr. Barnes, Dion neglects scientific or historical classification and focuses visual cues such as color and form to dictate the arrangement of objects.

The next artist featured in the show, Fred Wilson, is certainly no stranger when it comes to working with objects within the confines of a museum. In fact in 1992, he reexamined,  rearranged, and reinterpreted objects in the Maryland Historical Society’s collection in his groundbreaking and controversial exhibit, Mining the Museum, which highlighted the history of slavery in America.

In the same vein, as Mining the Museum, Wilson will create “ready-made ensembles,” from a mix of objects found in the Barnes’ storage as well as everyday items from the offices in Merion. Though we can’t quite imagine what Wilson will make out of these objects, we do know that Wilson’s installations will certainly investigate and critique the power of presentation within the museum. Raising questions such as: “What meanings do displays create?,” “Are hierarchies, biases or value systems implied?,” and “How can/does a curator shape an interpretation of historical truth?”

Questions of permanence or finding “truth” within the museum may not be the conceptual driving force of the third artist in the exhibit, Judy Pfaff. However, her ability to seamlessly blend disparate objects and materials such as steel, fiberglass, and plaster as well as salvaged signage and natural elements such as tree roots, is completely “Barnesian.” Like Mr. Barnes’ eclectic display of impressionist paintings, metalwork, and furniture, Pfaff liberally creates dynamic and aesthetically beautiful spaces, void of reason or expectation. Her work, an explosion of visual energy, is a union of sculpture, painting, and architecture which sways between two and three dimensional space. For the Barnes, Pfaff will create a site-specific installation that will an unexpected, floor to ceiling fusion of architectural plans, crafts, furniture, and natural materials.

The aesthetic mixing, matching, rearranging, and reinvention of objects serves the visual cue that ties these three artists together in this exhibition; but it is each artists underlying fascination with human perception that makes The Order of Things far more interesting. The Order of Things will go beyond aesthetics and challenge visitors to explore the concept, philosophies, and history of museum practice. From curatorial strategies such as wall texts, labels, and pairing of objects to spatial awareness and architectural flow, everything is yours to question, critique, and ponder.

Curated by Martha Lucy, Assistant Professor, Drexel University; and Consulting Curator, Barnes Foundation, The Order of Things will run from May 16 – August 3, 2015. For tickets and more information click here.


2 comments on “The Art of Arrangement

  1. I think the idea of a museum as a coming together of ‘heritage objects’ can be looked at in a different way – as a space for creating heritage concepts.

    • Thank you for your comment! It is an interesting idea, I can definitely see that. In particular, Fred Wilson’s work speaks directly to cultural heritage. Today we react to his pairing of slave shackles and fine silver tea service, not because we have experienced the horrors of slavery ourselves, but our attitude, morals, and beliefs toward it have been ingrained or handed down to us through our predecessors. Our cultural heritage makes us who we are today, it’s the tangible legacy (books, objects, monuments, landscape etc) of past and present generations, left to inform the future.

      Driving force behind all definitions of Cultural Heritage is:
      it is a human creation intended to inform (John Feather, 2006).

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