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Making It in America

10/11/2013

Eastman Johnson’s unfinished Sugaring Off (c 1861-66, oil on canvas, 134 x 245.1 cm) provides a window into the artist’s process.

Making It in America, an exhibition opening at the RISD Museum today, presents more than 100 works from the permanent collection in a new light, with an emphasis on the craftsmanship and making central to RISD’s own creative culture. The double entendre in the title refers to both the process that went into creating the painting, sculpture and decorative arts in the exhibition and the people who were financially successful enough to own and invest in it. Overall, by focusing on selected work created between the early 1700s and the early 1900s, the show sheds light on the role artists and designers played in shaping the American identity.

“Rather than presenting a full retrospective, we chose to tell a great story – a RISD story,” notes Elizabeth Williams, co-curator of the exhibition. The recently hired curator of Decorative Arts and Design partnered with longtime Curator of Painting and Sculpture Maureen O’Brien to conceive of unconventional groupings of objects selected to help tell that story.

In a desire to create historically accurate backdrops that really make the art “sing,” Williams and O’Brien collaborated with Thomas Jayne, a decorator, decorative arts historian and author of the book The Finest Rooms in America. The exhibition designer used his finely trained eye to incorporate historic – and often unexpected – patterns and colors into the otherwise spare Chace Center gallery spaces. Using specially made reproductions of early American wallpaper, he creates interesting backdrops that reveal the evolution of color and pattern in American design and effectively enhance the artwork without overwhelming it.

Among the many wonderful works of Gorham silver – a hallmark of the Museum’s decorative arts collection – included in the show is an over-the-top ice bowl featuring such wintry design details as a sledding scene, polar bears and caribou. The finely wrought piece is shown juxtaposed with paintings and other work inspired by mid-19th-century exploration of the Americas and the Alaska Purchase in 1867.

To further emphasize the show’s connection with contemporary makers, O’Brien and Williams solicited commentary from RISD students, faculty and alumni to complement their more formal curatorial notes. For example Painting Professor Dennis Congdon 75 PT provides a maker’s perspective on the 1860s study Sugaring Off by Eastman Johnson. The unfinished painting shows a group of post-Civil War villagers gathering to make maple syrup in Maine. “He first blocked out the scene in oil, then used the margins to try out ways to best shape his caricatures,” notes Congdon. “These sketches were for his eyes only and would have been covered by layers of glaze and scumble as the process went forward.”

Professor John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID, head of the Furniture Design department, provided context for an incredible oak Arts and Crafts chest designed by Sydney Richmond Burleigh (founder of the Providence Art Club) and carved by Julia Lippitt Mauran. “This piece demonstrates the permeability of the boundaries of art, design and craft,” says Dunnigan. “It is a collaboration – in the [nonhierarchical] spirit of the Art Workers’ Guild – with the painter, Burleigh, designing the piece, Mauran carving the panels and the woodworkers at Potter & Company building it. This is a good example of how furniture can express profound ideas . . . while giving us a place to put our stuff.”

Indeed, many of the pieces included in Making It in America were designed for practical purposes. As Williams notes, the ornate 18th-century John Goddard desk and bookcase that opens the show – temporarily on loan from the Museum’s Pendleton House and shown fully open for this exhibition – served as the central hub of the household at the time and would be the place “where the computer would go” in a contemporary home.

The Museum plans a host of related educational programming and events to help viewers fully appreciate the many nuances of Making It in America, a major exhibition that continues through February 9, 2014.

Simone Solondz

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tags: RISD Museum

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A figure modeling class from 1916.