Essays

Shown in order of their appearance in the catalogue:

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At Your Service by Lisa Gralnik

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

-Bob Dylan

One cannot resist being intrigued by an exhibition titled At Your Service and to mine the title beyond the reference to table service in search of its broader socio-political implications. The word service is both complex and oddly ambiguous, indicating a practice that is ripe with expectation, implied sacrifice and altruism, action, social convention and class struggle. As a noun and a verb whose use is always an embodiment of both, its meaning is tainted by century and place, circumstance and opportunity, entitlement and disenfranchisement.  Rare are words that are so utterly dependent on context. For those of us in academia who have been eternally plagued by the triadic demands of research, teaching and service, we are forever asking the question–what exactly is service?

The etymological roots of the word are dubious at best, from its apparent earliest usage in the twelfth century referring to public religious worship, to the fifteenth century as a reference to slavery (servitude), to its modern incarnation as the ethical dowry on which humanitarianism and subsequent social progress is built.   In between, we find a host of other meanings, from one’s contribution as a member of the military, to its use in the legal profession (you’ve been served!).  Our mechanic services our car by changing the oil and then billing us for it, and our smiling waitperson serves us in hope of a generous tip. Tennis begins with service, and our judges serve on the bench. The term service industries seems to have sprung up sometime around the Second World War, along with the irony of a career in politics as that of selfless public service.  Charitable acts have long been considered service to one’s community, and we routinely tout the merits of providing excellent service to our customers, employers, patients or clients. The contemporary art world, laments critic Dave Hickey, is all about servicing a clientele.  Service, it seems, has become the post-modern euphemism of the day that encompasses all that is good, or at least politically correct, in the world.

In Great Britain and the colonies, to be “in service” referred to the great chasm of the class system that allowed for a privileged aristocracy to employ a whole host of  butlers, housemaids, cooks, and drivers to service them. Americans, fascinated by this alien phenomenon of neatly defined cross-class relationships and genteel estate life, adore the British dramas that depict these divided households—Upstairs,/Downstairs, Gosford Park, and the newly addictive PBS series Downton Abbey.  We, most of us anyway, live somewhere in between these extremes, owning our own houses and free to come and go as we choose with no curfews and few rules, but without the noblesse oblige of true wealth, power, and breeding. Somehow, these delectable period dramas, soaked in antiquated notions of duty, loyalty and protocol, seem to make us feel better about our own chaotic but unencumbered modern lives.  For us, service is a choice and not a mandate, and most of us leave Downton Abbey preferring it that way.

Service as a term for the furniture of the table—plates, bowls, teapots, drinking vessels, platters, forks and knives—seems to have come into use in the early sixteenth century and remained in our lexicon for the five centuries since. As a ubiquitous accoutrement of daily domestic life, table service can be accurately situated in the realm of the everyday. However, exceptional tableware in fine porcelain, glass, silver and gilt has long been considered one of the most important components of the history of the decorative arts and includes both ornately decorated but genuinely functional examples and those particularly splendid objects produced solely for ceremonial, commemorative, and presentational purposes. For the affluent classes, fine tableware has always served a dual role as functional lifestyle necessity and symbol of good taste, sophistication, and, often, the grave formality of the occasion expressed through an elaborate tableau.  Edith Wharton, in The Age of Innocence, her brilliant tour de force of the Gilded Age in New York, describes a dinner given in honor of the newly arrived social outcast Madame Olenska, meant to symbolize her acceptance into the tribe of the privileged classes, subtly cutting through the façade to expose a glint of the ruse of it all:

The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasise the importance of the occasion. The du Lac Sèvres and the Trevenna George II plate were out; so was the van der Luyden “Lowestoft” (East India Company) and the Dagonet Crown Derby. Mrs. van der Luyden looked more than ever like a Cabanel, and Mrs. Archer, in her grandmother’s seed-pearls and emeralds, reminded her son of an Isabey miniature. All the ladies had on their handsomest jewels, but it was characteristic of the house and the occasion that these were mostly in rather heavy old-fashioned settings; and old Miss Lanning, who had been persuaded to come, actually wore her mother’s cameos and a Spanish blonde shawl.   The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at the dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared with hers. It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.

Presentation tableware has always managed to both bridge and define the gap between social classes. Art museums are filled with magnificent ceremonial platters and serving utensils, ornate silver punch bowls and grandiose soup tureens, elegant Biedermeier traveling “picnic “sets and delicate gilded tea sets for Chinese emperors. From the red and black terra sigillata earthenware of the ancient Greeks to the grisaille enameled tazzas of the early Renaissance to the ornate polychrome porcelain ware of the European Baroque era, table service has played a starring role in the canon of art history.  At the same time, ceramic companies have for two hundred years traded in more mundane commemorative ware meant for the more modest traveler and souvenir collector– plates and coffee mugs, spoons and platters, drinking glasses and salt and pepper shakers- and emblazoned them with images and dates of historical sites and events, political and religious figures, sporting events and flower shows, county fairs and Worlds Fairs, and business logos. Ceramic decals have allowed for a proliferation of these propagandistic wares, the sentimental accumulation of populist consumer folk life, and they move effortlessly through the conduit of material culture from gift shop to flea market to landfill detritus.  As evidential markers, along with the more recent instant cameras and silkscreened T-shirts, they are bittersweet reminders of a culture that trades in memory as commodified experience.

At Your Service brings together six contemporary artists who all utilize ceramic tableware and effectively explore the notion of service in broader social contexts. An unusually cohesive exhibition thanks to the curatorial acumen of two of the participants, Amelia Toelke and Niki Johnson, it allows for deep thinking and discourse between objects in ways that more diversified exhibitions do not. Acknowledging an interest in ornamentation and the history of the decorative arts, the six challenge and honor social convention in provocative ways. What they serve up is a curious collection of hybridized objects that both connect to the past and effectively deconstruct it. Function is not particularly relevant in this show, but tableware as a familiar tropological indicator of our humanity is, and the artists service our quest to understand the present through a re-evaluation of the cherished remnants of the past.

Three of the artists make or employ commemorative style plates on which imagery, both historical and nostalgic, is appropriated, altered, re-interpreted and/or re-contextualized. In the case of Garth Johnson, the inspiration comes from a series of Currier and Ives commemorative plates that idealized American westward expansion, but his handpainted plates pointedly take issue with the 19th century romanticism of these icons of American vernacular. For instance, the text accompanying the richly rendered idyllic middle class house reads, “Suburbia is where they cut down the trees and name the streets after them. “  Niki Johnson, on the other hand, alters actual vintage commemorative plates that depict modest community churches across America, choosing to erase the buildings from their surrounding landscape. Carefully sandblasting the churches out of the images until all that remains is a mere phantom, her work evokes loss and displacement, both physical and spiritual. Grouped together in a circle, suggesting one large plate as tribute to the popular hobby of collecting these commemorative plates, she adds the delightfully appropriate title God and Country.

Commemoration also plays a part in the work of Molly Hatch, whose Sphinx is a large installation of plates that, in essence, honors an historic work of art at the same time that it translates the eighteenth century Dutch engraving by artist Isaac de Moucheron into a collection of  appealing decorative objects.  Referencing the popular practice of hanging decorative groupings of plates in domestic settings (Niki Johnson and Amelia Toelke also make this reference in  their  plate installations), she blurs the line between high art and low. Her skillful rendering of the details of the engraving, coupled with the unsettling optical illusion of seeing the whole engraving when viewed from afar, re-situates the work from the museum wall to the household dining room. Painting becomes craft object and craft object becomes painting.

Both Amelia Toelke and Gesine Hackenberg appropriate ready made plates in their work to very differing effects. Hackenberg, a German artist living in Amsterdam who is trained as a goldsmith, uses neat round disks, plugs one might call them, drilled from decorative regional earthenware plates and then linked together like a strand of pearls, turning them into jewelry that is displayed as if emerging from the plates that are now riddled with holes. These necklaces both renew and reconstruct function and ornamentation into a newly democratized format, making precious that which was otherwise everyday and placing the everyday into that which is expectedly precious. Amelia Toelke, on the other hand, attempts to capture the ephemerality of light and shadow in her provocative work. Cutting ordinary dinner plates into sections and sheathing them with gold leaf, she assembles an illusionistic mosaic depicting light through a window reflecting plates on a wall.  Tradition and history become a fleeting moment, a mere poetic shadow on the cave wall, as the prosaic is magically transformed into the phenomenologically illuminated.

Finally, Sue Johnson (yes, the last of three Johnsons in a six person show—what are the odds?) is the only artist whose work references the gastronomic and epicurean practices associated with dinnerware. Her monochrome black glazed Palissy-like Incredible Edibles employ the vocabulary of elegant dinnerware with the spectacle of unvarnished depictions of the foods we eat, making commentary on consumption and the way the natural world has been forced to service humanity. Somber plates, TV dinner trays, and assorted crockery serving whole non-slaughtered animals, like so many children’s toys, function as eerie funerary totems that both disturb and incite reflection and shame. And yet, like all works in this show,  there is a stunning and seductive “objectness”  to them that reaffirms my faith in the irreplaceable power of well handled materiality.

This small but potent exhibition speaks through a language of familiar forms that have been miraculously infused with new meaning, and as such, the faded becomes lucid again. In my book, that’s service.

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Serve Me! (or Black and Blue China) by Garth Johnson

“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”  —Oscar Wilde

At Your Service is a cheerful-sounding title, punning on the functionality of dinnerware while bringing to mind animated teapots and singing dishes in a Disneyesque musical number. The word service has a noble ring to it, denoting sacrifice for a higher purpose. For the purposes of this essay, there is a darker, kinkier subset of meanings to the word that are, frankly, much more interesting to explore.

The plate exists for a simple reason—to serve. Since a certain pop bondage thriller seems to be lodged in the national consciousness right now, it’s a fun thought experiment to think of the plate in BDSM terms. The plate is a classic “bottom,” covering the submissive portion of the BDSM equation. Plates range from utilitarian to wildly imaginative, but their unequal power relationship to food should always be considered.

A walk down the aisle of a restaurant supply shop is a revealing exercise. Consider the evolution of the modern plate—it must serve as a palette for “deconstructed” food, which is artfully arranged in piles, fans or towers in the center. Like foot binding in China or corset wearing in the West, plates have altered their very bodies in nonfunctional ways to accommodate the vagaries of fashion. Plate rims have grown to grotesque sizes to accommodate the dusting of spices and splatters and smears of sauce that make up the compositions of ambitious chefs.

Plates are fragile. They’re practically begging for rough treatment. They get thrown during arguments, but also smashed during celebrations. Restaurants garner health citations from inspectors when they serve food on chipped or crazed plates. I live in the far north of California, home not only to giant red- woods, but also to rabid antique collectors and violent earthquakes. When an earthquake strikes, hoards of mosaic artists descend on the antique stores to add some classy shards to their stashes.

It is difficult to pinpoint the identity of a plate. Formally, they have a hard time making up their mind whether they exist in two or three dimensions. Their flat surfaces make them an excellent repository for decoration. Furthermore, there are plates that submit to the dominant role of their decoration, but others that powerfully assert their identity as objects.

The decorative history of the plate also complicates the relationship to the plate with domesticity and function. Counterintuitively, decorative plates actually played a part in the centrality of the dinner plate to our modern dining experience. During the Italian Renaissance, painters succeeded in elevating the tin-glazed charger to the same level as paintings or sculptures. It can be argued that the development of these decorative plates actually led to the development of modern dinnerware, as powerful Italian families began to commission table settings with individual plates and silverware.

With the invention of transferware, English manufacturers were able to mass produce images on plates, making them affordable for the public- at-large. Soon thereafter, many transferware plates lost their vestigial function and entered the realm of the souvenir, where they have remained ever since. This conflicted relationship with function was brought full circle in 1895 when Danish porcelain manufacturer Bing & Grøndahl decided to create a limited production run of a Christmas plate called Behind the Frozen Window. This was the patient zero of collector’s plates.

With this new wrinkle, plates became slaves of the market—commodities to be bought and sold. Each collector plate is created in a limited edition. Originally, the number of plates was limited, but most plates on the market today are made with a limited number of firing days, allowing manufacturers to pump out hundreds of thousands of “limited” plates if they desire. Plate collectors even formed the Bradford Exchange, a sort of miniature stock market that tracks the value of plates by manufacturers like Knowles and the Franklin Mint.

Like any commodity, the plate market has been subject to bubbles… and busts. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought a proliferation of plate manufacturers, and hopeful plate owners snapped up any- thing that had Scarlett and Rhett, Elvis or Holly Hobbie slapped on them. Prices soared, and inevitably, plummeted to sub-Beanie Baby levels. Countless depleted college funds now sit abandoned in attics and thrift stores. Hope springs eternal, though— Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton have breathed new life into the genre.

That’s not to say that plates are always submissive and don’t take pleasure in pushing back. From time to time, plates have gotten a charge from taking on the dominant role. After the Russian revolution in 1917, resources for artists were scarce. What they did have were warehouses full of perfect porcelain plates produced for the tsars. Between 1917 and 1927, Soviet artists cranked out hand-painted propaganda plates with various messages on them, including one of the most poignant, which is decorated with images of ration cards and points back to function by declaring “He Who Does Not Work Does Not Eat.” Ironically, these plates now sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.

In a world (or at least a country) filled with fast food in disposable containers, the existence of functional plates could be seen as transgressive—a link to the slow food movement and a threat to the status quo. Like Oscar Wilde, every artist in At Your Service has their own fraught relationship with the plate. Some play master in the relationship, manipulating them for their formal qualities, and others assume a more subservient role, wallowing in the alternating layers of beauty, service and debasement.

Some artists choose the plate as their medium precisely because they relish the challenge of “rescuing” them from their status as souvenirs or kitsch objects. One thing is certain. A plate can never be a simple tabula rasa. In general, plates are designed to hold food, but the modern plate is a site of conflict— a container for a host of contradictions and meanings. It is up to the viewer to formulate their own opinions about their own relationship with the plate.

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