What is it with that mannequin? Seriously. Love it or hate it, it’s there, in a case, blocking our view of the artwork. Well, a painting. One painting. On a wall with 18 other paintings. But why is it there? Why is it blocking the art?
Good questions, and questions we’ve heard more than once since opening the Art of the West installation in the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art. There are any number of answers. To get to them I’d like to first ask, why does it bother us so? Maybe because it’s unexpected to find artworks in such close proximity to one another. An interesting thought considering this is fairly standard practice in the non-art installations throughout our (and many history based) museum. Perhaps we’re so conditioned to the ideal of “disinterested contemplation” (Kant’s words, not mine) that we’re unsure how to react when what has become a standardized institutional style is challenged. I think, though, that we’ve challenged that idea throughout these galleries. Turn any corner and we see baskets next to paintings, photographs next to quilts, and a Tiffany serving bowl next to two Buffalo chairs and a bear claw necklace. These objects are talking to us in a slightly different manner than we are accustomed to from art installations. And perhaps that is the point.
Don’t get me wrong. The choice to position this dress here did not come easy. There were multiple discussions before arriving at this location. We tested a variety of installations in multiple models before making this decision. Many questions were posed, challenged, and debated. What will be our visitor’s reactions? What story are we trying to tell? What happens if we put it over here or over there? There are any number of choices we could have made, but in the end this just made sense. Why? Because we tell stories a bit differently at the Autry. Within any of our installations, we try to engage our visitors, question what we know, and test our assumptions. To have those ideas not translate into our installations would be to fail at achieving these goals.
Sure, it’s an unusual placement. It’s not what we expect to find in art galleries. It’s a bit different. What I choose to see is the object, a 19th century reception dress, in conversation with a field of paintings. The presentation is not static, with the dress neither in side profile nor straight ahead. Instead, the mannequin is turned as though participating in the installation. I imagine myself standing next to the wearer at a gallery opening. Perhaps we are conversing at a dinner party, looking through a window onto the landscape beyond. It’s possible. It’s what I chose to see. It is this conversation I find exciting. However, it could just be she is standing in our way, blocking our view, like the annoying person sitting in front of us at a baseball game blocking our view of first base.